Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cranky Christians at Christmas

      Well, it’s officially the Christmas Season.  We know that because today is the first Sunday of Advent.  That’s the pastoral answer, anyway.  The real reason we know it’s the Christmas Season is because Thanksgiving is over.  In the United States the Christmas Season officially begins on the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday.  If anyone wants to know what the official religion of America is, this tells you all you need to know.  Anyway, I’m not going to spend my time complaining about the commercialization of Christmas; it is what it is.  The fact is, I like buying Christmas gifts, and I like receiving Christmas gifts.  So there.  You have my blessing to give and receive Christmas gifts.  As if you were waiting for my blessing.  Just don’t do it all on a credit card.  If you haven’t saved throughout the year for Christmas, or don’t have the cash to buy everybody everything that they want, simplify.  Put more thought and less debt into your gifts.  And less guilt.  If your kids or your spouse don’t already know how much you love them, a new iPad isn’t going to solve anything.  No, I’m going to use my time and this space to address a much more serious issue, one that I have felt compelled to address the last few years at the beginning of the Christmas Season.  This is my annual article about Cranky Christians at Christmastime.  I’m not talking about Christians who are sleep-deprived from too many Christmas parties or frustrated by the lines at the mall.  I’m talking about Christians who work themselves up into a spasm of righteous indignation because non-Christians don’t want to celebrate Christmas the way a Christian does.
Last Spring, a couple of weeks before Easter, Pam and I were invited to the home of one of her hospital chaplain colleagues, a Reform Jew, to celebrate Passover.  Julie invited all the resident chaplains and their spouses/guests to Passover.  None of us were Jews; all were Christians.  Three of us were ordained Christian ministers.  We gathered in her living room, and on the coffee table were all the elements of the Passover.  We took turns reading excerpts from the Hagaddah, asking the four questions and listening to the four answers.  We ate two types of bitter herbs (recalling the bitterness of their slavery in Egypt), drank the four glasses of wine at the appropriate times, ate parsley dipped in salt water (signifying the tears of the Hebrew slaves), and ate charoset, a sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt.  Julie explained each element to us—goyim that we were—so that we could fully enjoy the experience.  Afterward we gathered around her dining room table and ate dinner, which consisted of other traditional Jewish foods, including lamb, which Julie cooked herself.  She was our hostess, we were her guests, and we were treated as such.  I was honored to be there.  Julie made me feel special.  It was a wonderful experience.
Here’s what Julie didn’t do: she didn’t expect me to experience Passover as a Jew.  I’m not Jewish, I’m Christian, and it was as a Christian that I experienced Passover.  Julie didn’t chastise me for celebrating Easter but not Passover.  She wasn’t indignant that we Christians had taken her Passover meal, which means so much to her and her people, and changed it into something completely different, using just one of the cups of wine and a small piece of the bread to symbolize the death of our (false) Messiah.  She didn’t use some lame slogan like, “Don’t Take the Pesach out of Passover.”
She opened her home, and made her Christian friends feel special.  More importantly, she opened her life to us and said, “This is who I am, this is what is important to me, and I want to share it with you, my Christian friends.”
We Christians invite the world to celebrate Christmas.  People who aren’t Christians aren’t going to celebrate it like we do.  It’s not going to have the same meaning to them it has to us.  We shouldn’t expect a Jew working the cash register at Bed, Bath and Beyond to say, “Merry Christmas” (the word is, after all, a shortening of “Christ’s Mass”), and we shouldn’t want a Muslim 2nd grader to be forced in a government-run school to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”  And when we get indignant when they don’t, we come off looking really, really bad.
We should treat them as guests.  Literally, we should treat them as guests.  Invite them into our homes and churches, let them see how Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth; invite them to listen as we read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.  We should say to them, “This is who I am, this is what is important to me, and I want to share it with you, my Muslim/Jewish/Atheist/Hindu/Christian-in-name-only friends.”  Instead of treating them as intruders, interlopers, or transgressors, let’s treat them all—and one another too—as special guests to Jesus’s party.
No more Cranky Christians at Christmas.  Please?

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