“All I ever get for Christmas is blue.”
—Over the Rhine
This past year, my dear wife and a number of my friends spent extended time away from social media due to the surplus of vitriol surrounding the election. It simply grew to be too much for some folks. Alas, for business reasons, I could not leave Facebook. I wanted to. I found myself desiring social media abstinence even more leading up to Christmas.
I confess, I abhor the onslaught of all those picture-perfect, iPhone-filtered snapshots of families doing Christmas-y things: sitting down to a feast, having a party, opening gifts, ice skating, decorating trees, decorating houses, decorating pets. You might call me a Scrooge, but I promise, it’s not that. My daughter asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year. Amongst a couple ideas of things I could actually use (a new keyboard rig would be nice, but it’s not going to happen yet), I realized what I really wanted was to be able to spend the time focusing on Christ and his coming. I wanted Advent at the forefront of our thoughts. If we as a family arrived at Christmas Day and found ourselves regretting ill-spent time pondering things other than the miraculous, time-shattering coming of Jesus, then I would be faced only with the relative vapidity of everything without Christ. Gifts, decorations, food—all things pale in light of the mystery of what C. S. Lewis called the One True Myth, the great mystery of Jesus’ coming.
Now, before you flush this little confession from your mind like so much kitsch, hear me out.
The idea of projecting perfection is nothing new. Before Instagram, it came to one’s mailbox in the form of Southern Living and its ilk—catalogues of images illustrating what life “ought” to be. To be honest, I like parts of Southern Living, and most of those posting social media pictures mean well. Many of them are my friends, and I know they celebrated Christ and pondered Advent. However, the scenes proffered in Instagram photos, magazine covers, and the whispers of our personal demons represent a particular kind of snake oil. We find ourselves awash in representations of a Christmas without human weakness. On magazine covers, there are no empty seats at the table where relatives or friends have died of cancer. There are no unresolved arguments arising at family gatherings. There is no squalling baby Jesus, shivering naked in the barn air, his young human skin blotchy with vernix and early jaundice. There are only the suggestions of temporal victory—the well-set table, the beaming and be-sweatered friends and family, the glowing Tannenbaum. In reality, most of us feel like Charlie Brown about the Christmas season to one degree or another. Even after Linus gets up to recite his bit from Luke’s Gospel, the unbearable, holy banality of the Christmas mystery can tempt us to infuse it with some transient plastic glory. We can’t bear to look in the human eyes of God the Son any more than in the deadly-bright eyes of God the Father. We fear a deep draught of the Incarnation. Into this fear wades the liturgical repetition of the Christmas Story to help us remember.
Much of the ministry of the Church is a ministry of reminder. We read the same texts and sing the same songs over and over. We recite the same creeds and the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys and we hum our way through a sleepy rendition of the Doxology. One more time. Just once more. In Deuteronomy, God commands the kings of Israel, as their first task after coronation, to write for themselves, in their own hand, a copy of the Law, which they would then keep for daily reading. Imagine requiring the new president to scratch out a personal copy of the Constitution on January twenty-first, to be used for nightly meditation. I can’t say it’s not a good idea. I know I personally need all the reminder I can get. I often feel little better than a dumb animal (with apologies to all talking Narnian beasts) when it comes to recalling those great truths which define and encompass my existence.
As an example, take a look at the line from the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended into Heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” There is immensurable truth contained within those two sentences. Who ascends into Heaven, especially under his own power (as the tense indicates)? Why ascend into Heaven and not to somewhere else? Who judges the quick and the dead? And why judge them? Why parse them out instead of making a blanket declaration? Why are they both called to account instead of just the dead? By what authority are they judged? All those questions and more find their answers logically contained, at least by allusion, in the creed. Yet I can’t keep it all in my mind at once. I need constant reminders.
This is where cartoonish depictions of Christmas fail us. Besides the cheery blitzkrieg of Instagram photos, our desperate culture often immerses us either in recycled Hallmark films or—as the current trend goes—in the vapid debauchery of films like Office Christmas Party and Bad Santa 2. Both sorts of extremes are caricatures that shy away from the mystery of humanity and divinity meeting in Jesus of Nazareth, and our cultural reluctance to engage is not limited to film. Despite the near ubiquity of the sentiment that Christmas has become too commercial, we seem to gain no noticeable ground in reversing the trend. Unlike the Whos down in Whoville, if we don’t have a Grinch to make our Christmas come “without packages, boxes, or bags,” we would be ill-prepared to join hands and sing for the sheer beauty of the thing.
It doesn’t take much to remind us that what is ineffable and immutable has constant bearing on our everyday lives. Being a musician, it’s often a good blue note or suspended minor second that becomes the vehicle of grace for me. The music broadsides me at just the right time, and I recall the words from Isaiah the prophet: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” It is for this reason that we repeat the words again, every Christmas and Epiphany. Tell the story again to me, that I may hear at last.