Arguably one of the more important moments in human history is the Incarnation. The coming of God into this broken, shattered world. The love of God transformed into human flesh, in order to know the sorrow of our days, the joys and pains associated with human life, and, in the end, to overcome all that, winning the ultimate victory for all his children.
Of all the facets of this Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas time, one of the most crucial is its timelessness. Christ came at a specific time and place, and yet his life was lived laterally across time; the atoning effect of Emanuel goes back to the first humans, and carries forward to this day. We not only celebrate his coming 2000 years ago, we also celebrate the way he still comes today. We join in with saints of old and, should God tarry, with saints yet to come, all gathering around the stable in the manger to worship in silence and awe that this little one is Divine, has come to face terror and rejection and sorrow and death, all out of love for us. We stand on the hillside with the shepherds, our silent night shattered by the arrival of angels, we travel with the magi across the hills and deserts to find our God and worship him. This story is the story of all Christians throughout history.
Part of its richness is found exactly in this timelessness, the way it has played out across the centuries. Christians in the dark ages, early Christians in Ireland and the European continent coming in from the snow to feast around the board before a roaring fire whilst minstrels retell the story; Christians who first gathered to hear Handel's glorious retelling as "Messiah," Christians who gathered in the new country called America to celebrate the Christ-mass, the worship of Light of Lights come into the darkness. Some of that history has made its way down to us, in the form of ancient text and music ("Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," Dickens "A Christmas Carol," many of the songs we sing and traditions we keep), which adds to the timeless nature of the event. We worship with the words and tunes and stories that have been told by Christians for centuries, for thousands of years.
It seems to me, then, that Christmas is best kept with this timelessness in mind. With this sense of reaching back for the best that has been handed down, and creating timeless additions to carry forth into future generations. The best Christmas music, story, liturgy, art, movie will speak the story in ways that resonate today, while acknowledging the history that has come before, and with the hope that future sons and daughters will find them meaningful and Truth-telling.
Which is exactly why I find my soul disturbed at so much of the Christmas production today. It is all so transitory, so 'in the moment,' so throw-away, so temporal. It rejects the glory of the past and ignores any long-term effect in order to make a sale.
Over the last few years, we've received a number of Christmas gifts that do lean toward the timeless nature of this season. I'm thinking even of "Elf" and "Polar Express," both of which are modern re-tellings of the child-like wonder necessary for belief and joy, both give a nod to our shared history, both have a quality that promises to age well.
And yet, so much of the celebration is NOT that. Too much is "cute" in the moment, but has no lasting power. Too much sells out for cheap humor that mocks the tradition, or attempts to put the tradition into packages that simply will not last. CDs like "WOW Christmas Music 2009!" that will be in the $1.99 rack in two years, that will be listened to for a year or two and then thrown away. Cheap plastic Disney-esque production albums that are all too filled with "today's sound!" (think Jump 5) that nobody will care about in three more years. Cheap plastic lawn ornaments that go up this year but fall apart while stored in the closet over the summer. Movies that use The Story as a marketing gimmick, but really have nothing to do with its soul.
I guess what I'm getting at is this:
When I stand in the music section at Target, considering whether or not to purchase a new Christmas CD (and you know I buy a couple every year), one of the questions I always ask is "will I still want to listen to this 10 years from now? 30 years from now? Will this last, a la Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole? Or will this simply be kitschy in a few years, a la Britney, Christina or the Beach Boys?"
When I stand in the Christmas store looking at decorations and ornaments, I find myself asking "when I'm an old man, will this have meaning, sentimental value, will it still be beautiful? Or will I find myself saying 'what was I thinking?'"
When I go see or purchase a holiday-themed movie, does it have lasting value? Does it carry forth the traditions and history while having a message still for today - even like "It's a Wonderful Life," or "Charlie Brown's Christmas?" Or will it eventually end up in the cheap DVD pile at our church rummage sale in a couple years?
In other words, the things I add to my life as part of the celebration of this day - do they make it eternally richer? Or are they simply glitz and gaudiness that offer a cheap thrill in the moment (think the 10-foot tall Homer Simpson inflatable front-yard thing)? Do they bring a depth that recognizes and honors the season? Or are they shallow trinkets that give the impression of "Christmas," but remain hollow and empty and destined for the trash heap?
Maybe it's because I just turned forty, and I'm looking for things that add meaning and depth to life. And yes, I'll admit it, I have a singular vision for Christmas, and don't have a lot of patience for people who try to tell me otherwise. I'll own up to that.
But in the end, our world has enough of the plastic facade, and desperately needs something with more substance. Perhaps if we, those who know the true story behind it all, we who still live in the hope of the Incarnation - maybe if we began seeking depth and meaning over trite and cheesy, maybe then we'd have something to offer the world now, and the world to come. Maybe if we took Christmas a little more seriously, even in its joy and celebration, we'd really show the world what the "true meaning" of Christmas is all about. Perhaps in our own hearts we would feel more grounded, more at home in this place. Perhaps if we rejected all that tripe that passes for Christmas entertainment, the depth and mystery of Christ's coming would shine through all the brighter into the darkness around us.