Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on December 22.]

I used to like sentimental-type movies (think Lifetime Channel, tug-on-your-heartstrings, push-your-emotional buttons-type things). Or it would be songs like Randy Stonehill’s “Christmas at Denny’s.” At some point I got tired of having my feelings manipulated and I wanted something real. If that’s your thing, fine by me. I’m not judging. (Well, maybe a little, now and then.)

Christmas is almost the worst time for sentimentality—or best, depending on your view. Who doesn’t have at least one memory from some Christmas past that inspires some sort of nostalgia? Nostalgia has its place. At its best, it’s related to C.S. Lewis’ conception of joy, for which he was always searching. Surprised by Joy resonates because it’s an experience true to life. And Christmas is connected to an almost universal experience (although, I suppose Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews would quibble with that point). Otherwise, why would nearly every musician and band—Christian or not—produce some kind of Christmas album? Why do debates about Christmas movies rage every year? Why are there a billion movies about some sort of Christmas magic? Something clearly appeals about “this time of year.”

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“The Flight Into Egypt” III

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Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes–
Some have got broken–and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week–
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted–quite unsuccessfully–
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress with joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father:
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

W.H. Auden, For The Time Being (ed. Alan Jacobs), 63-65

“I see a strange and novel mystery”

I see a strange and novel mystery: shepherds sound all around my ears, not piping a barren tune, but singing a heavenly hymn. Angels are singing, archangels are dancing, the cherubim are hymning, the seraphim are glorifying, all are celebrating, since they see God upon the earth, man in Heaven. [I see] the one who is on high lower because of His plan, the one who is below on high because of His love for humanity. Today Bethlehem resembled Heaven: in place of stars it received angels hymning, in place of the sun it contained the righteous One without confining [Him]. And do not ask how: for where God wills it, nature’s order is overcome. For He willed it, He had the power, He came down, He saved – all things follow upon God. Today, He who Is is born, and He who Ιs becomes what He was not. For being God, He becomes human, though He did not cease from being God. For He hasn’t become human by separating from His divinity, nor again has He become God by advancing from a human. But, being Word, because He could not suffer [as Word], He became flesh, His nature remaining unchanged. But when, on the one hand, He was born, Jews denied the strange birth, and Pharisees misinterpreted the divine Books, and scribes spoke what was in opposition to the Law. Herod sought the [child] who was born, not in order to honor Him, but to destroy Him. For today they saw [that] all things [were] opposed [to them]. For the psalmist says, “it was not hidden from their children for another generation.” For kings came, in astonishment at the heavenly King, for He had come upon the earth without angels, without archangels, without thrones, without dominions, without powers, without authorities, but walking a foreign and untrodden path, He came forth from an uncultivated womb, neither leaving His own angels deprived of His authority, nor having ceased from His own divinity in His incarnation with us. But kings came to worship the heavenly King of glory, while soldiers [came] to serve the commander-in-chief of power; women [came to see] the one who was born from a man, in order that He might change the woman’s grief into joy; the virgins [came to see] the child of the virgin, because the Creator of milk and breasts, who makes the fountains of breasts to produce naturally flowing streams, received a child’s nourishment from His virgin mother; the infant [came to see] the one who became an infant in order to furnish praise from the mouths of infants; the children [came to see] the child who produced witnesses because of Herod’s madness; the men [came to see]  the one who was incarnated and healed the woes of slaves; the shepherds [came to see] the good shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep; the priests [came to see] the one who became the high priest in the order of Melchizedek; the slaves [came to see] the one who took the form of a slave in order to honor our slavery with freedom; the fishers [came to see] the one who makes hunters of  people from among fishers; the tax collectors [came to see] the one who appointed an evangelist from among the tax collectors; the prostitutes [came to see] the one who offers His feet to the tears of prostitutes; and, that I may speak but briefly, all sinners came to see the lamb of God who takes upon himself the sin of the world, Magi accompanying, shepherds praising, tax collectors speaking the good news, prostitutes bearing perfume, Samaritans thirsting for the fountain of life, the Canaanite woman with undoubting faith. [St. John Chrysostom, “2nd Homily on the Birthday of Our Savior, Jesus Christ”, transl. Bryson Sewell]

See the rest here.

Merry and Blessed Christ-mass!


Ephraim Syrus on “Holy Adultery”

For Thy sake women sought after men. Tamar desired him that was widowed, and Ruth loved a man that was old, yea, that Rahab, that led men captive, was captivated by Thee.

Tamar went forth, and in the darkness stole the Light, and in uncleanness stole the Holy One, and by uncovering her nakedness she went in and stole Thee, O glorious One, that bringest the pure out of the impure.

Satan saw her and trembled, and hasted to trouble her. He brought the judgment to her mind, and she feared not; stoning and the sword, and she trembled not. He that teacheth adultery hindered adultery, because he was a hinderer of Thee.

For holy was the adultery of Tamar, for Thy sake. Thee it was she thirsted after, O pure Fountain. Judah defrauded her of drinking Thee. The thirsty womb stole a dew-draught of Thee from the spring thereof.

She was a widow for Thy sake. Thee did she long for, she hasted and was also an harlot for Thy sake. Thee did she vehemently desire, and was sanctified in that it was Thee she loved.

May Tamar rejoice that her Lord hath come and hath made her name known for the son of her adultery! Surely the name she gave him was calling unto Thee to come to her.

For Thee honorable women shamed themselves, Thou that givest chastity to all! Thee she stole away in the midst of the ways, who pavest the way into the kingdom! Because it was life that she stole, the sword was not able to put her to death. [Hymn VII on the Nativity]


I Love Advent

…but I hate Christmas.  (Listen, if you’re going to be all “I love Christmas!  I love Christmas music!  I love decorations!  I love….,” you can take it elsewhere.  I’m ranting here.)  Actually, I don’t hate Christmas, but I hate everything that goes along with it.  (Yes, “hate” is a strong word; no, I don’t want to tone it down.)  I realize I’m going to personally offend some of you, and impersonally offend others of you.  But what is the internet for, if not to personally offend people I’ve never personally met?  So if you like sappy Christmas movies about how family is the greatest gift, and Christmas muzak that has been recorded so many times that there could be entire radio stations devoted to “O Holy Night” and “Last Christmas,” and if you like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, you may just want to skip this and go back to your regularly scheduled Christmas spirit(s).  (Shut up!  I am telling you how I really feel!)

I hate every single song that has ever been written about Santa Claus.  Sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus; there is only St. Nicholas, who gave Arius the ass-whupping he deserved (“temporal and eternal punishment”).  The only redeeming thing about those songs is this video for the Bob Dylan song “It Must Be Santa.”  I hate most decorations, except real pine trees and garlands.  I hate blow-up Santas and reindeer.  I want to shoot them.

Okay, more soberly: This is not about a “war on Christmas” or whatever nonsense we talk when we get upset about stores stocking stockings on All Hallows’ Eve Eve; I don’t care what the world does.  If Christians are upset about it, don’t buy stuff.  If you don’t like Walmart being open on Thanksgiving, don’t go there.  (Me, I got a nice little Blu-ray player for cheap).  They aren’t going to open if people don’t buy stuff.  Why is it their fault?  “Walmart” is not a Christian.  It is a business.  They make money.  That’s what they do.  If you don’t like them making money, don’t shop there.  (I do think you’ll have a hard time finding a store that doesn’t contribute to some cause or thing you find objectionable.)

And I find it highly ironic that Christians complain about hearing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about taking Nativity scenes out of public places, and then they want their churches decorated for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving.  Spare me your piety.  Either keep Christmas where it belongs, and actually have the “Mass” on “Christ-mass,” or don’t complain about “the holidays.”

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed.  The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment of Advent.  But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent… Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation). [William Stringfellow]

I want Advent.  I want Advent to stay Advent.  Churches don’t want Advent, in spite of protestations to the contrary.  We are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  We want exactly what the world wants: nice feelings and emotional titillation from shiny things.  Let’s not pretend we’re above it all, and then invite it up to the altar.  If we wanted Advent, we wouldn’t “make the church look festive” until the actual festival.  It’s not a coincidence that we don’t fast before the feast anymore.  We want it all now, now, NOW.  What, me wait?  Not when I can buy it all on credit now (and yes, I sometimes buy on credit).

We cannot sustain the emotion we think we want.  I am not against emotion and feelings.  They come along with all great human experiences.  I am against sentimentality.  I hate sentimentality, because it is the attempted manufacture of feelings, when they wouldn’t otherwise come on their own.  Sentimentality is what stores and muzak do.  Churches, qua Christian churches, don’t do sentimentality, because feelings come and go.  Only the Word manet in aeturnam.  Otherwise, when the manufactured feelings go, the thing itself goes (like in this King of the Hill episode [Season 2, Episode 8] where Hank tells Bobby not to get caught up in fads surrounding Jesus, because when the fad goes into the cardboard storage box, Jesus might, too).

And what if you can’t quite muster the feelings, even with all the trappings of the “season”?  What if you’re dying, or depressed, or destitute?  What is left for you then?  You’ll find no place in the modern Christmas conjurings.  But Advent!  Advent seeks out the dying, depressed, destitute and all the rest, and says, “Lift up your heads, your redemption draweth nigh.”  Advent prays the prayer of all of those who have no family with whom to celebrate, no good health, no festive meal, no decorations, no presents, no blow-up Santas and reindeer: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Advent is for those in hospital beds, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.  Advent is not for the self-satisfied, the complacent, the full-up, the always-happy, the Joel Osteen-smilers.  Or, rather, it is for them also: because Advent means death to my ancient Adam.  It means a clear-cutting and carpet-bombing preparation by the Lord’s Messenger for the Lord Himself.  Advent is all about death before life, and it will be meaningless to those who think they are alive and well.

So am I surprised that Advent is all but gone from most churches?  No.  But I suggest that if you keep pushing “Christmas” into Advent (which makes you no different from the stores you like to blame), you will soon not have Christmas either.  Not the real Christmas.  Not Christ in the Mass, because that might offend the people who fill the church to make it “feel like Christmas.”

I know this all sounds harsh, and it probably is, because my misanthropy seems to ramp up this time of year.  I’m tired, and small things set me off.  But I don’t want to hear any more Christians complaining about taking Jesus out of Christmas, when they want to take Advent out of the Church Year.  Do your decorating, etc. in your own house, and leave the Church Year alone. [\rant]

Ah, forget it.  You probably think it’s all an overreaction.  Never mind.  I told you not to read this.


“The awe-inspiring humility of God”

The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but nevertheless our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference.  The true wonder and mystery may leave us unmoved; familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.  We are all aware of the commercialization of Christmas; we can hardly help being involved in the frantic business of buying and sending gifts and cards.  We shall without doubt enjoy the carols, the decorations, the feasting and jollification, the presents, the parties, the dancing and the general atmosphere of goodwill that almost magically permeates the days of Christmas.  But we may not always see clearly that so much decoration and celebration has been heaped upon the festival that the historic fact upon which all the rejoicing is founded has been almost smothered out of existence.

What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance.  For Christians believe that so great is God’s love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man.  Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility.  There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble.  In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman giving birth to her first baby.  I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for a pregnant woman–and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries.  Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture.  [J.B. Phillips, “The Dangers of Advent” (in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, 21-23)]

Poor Atheists

It’s hard for me to take this sort of thing [it’s available for free until Dec. 16] seriously. 

But a number of the atheists who have issues with Christmas said their feelings come in part from years of discrimination.

Larsen, a mechanic, said his ex-wife suggested his atheism was a character flaw in court filings during a contentious divorce with the custody of their children in dispute (he lost custody).

Really?  Discrimination?  All the reporter could find is one instance of something that was said “during a contentious divorce,” and suddenly atheists face discrimination at every turn?  Maybe you could sell that to Richard Dawkins, but you’re going to have to give me something more if you want to play the victim. 

Come to think of it, I don’t like it when Christians play the victim, either.  No one is taking Christ out of Christmas–except maybe Christians.  And who cares if they don’t say “Merry Christmas” at Walmart? (Do we really want capitalism equated with Christmas?  Not that I have anything against capitalism.)  If Christians would actually order their lives and thinking around the Church Year (=the life of Christ), it wouldn’t matter at all what the world does.  Perhaps that is precisely the problem: Christians order their lives around what the world does, so if the world doesn’t recognize Christ (and we should expect them to do so?), that constitutes a serious identity crisis. 

Even as they chafe at the omnipresence of Christmas, many of the atheists here are quick to stress their belief in the pagan roots of a yearly celebration near the winter solstice. Before Christianity and other organized religions, many cultures would mark the point where days started getting longer again with a “festival of light” that included parties, gift exchanges, even placing trees in homes. Some of those rituals were religious, but usually in a polytheistic way.

“What we’re celebrating this year is the promise of the sun returning. That’s S-U-N, not S-O-N,” said Bill Weir, a retired marketing executive from Plymouth.

“Then the Christians stole it,” said Marie Alena Castle, Minneapolis, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights and an atheist activist for two decades. It’s a season of celebration for the Jewish faith as well, with Hanukkah.

How many times does this assertion have to be disproven before people stop believing it?  (Of course, it would be useful to the “pagans” if it were true.)

Read this from Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog from 2006.  The salient point would be this:

William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, gives a different account in his article “Calculating Christmas,” published in the December 2003 Touchstone Magazine. He points out that the ancient Roman religions had no winter solstice festival.

True, the Emperor Aurelian, in the five short years of his reign, tried to start one, “The Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” on Dec. 25, 274. This festival, marking the time of year when the length of daylight began to increase, was designed to breathe new life into a declining paganism. But Aurelian’s new festival was instituted after Christians had already been associating that day with the birth of Christ. According to Mr. Tighe, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun “was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.” Christians were not imitating the pagans. The pagans were imitating the Christians.

But even if we “stole” the pagan festival from them, it would seem that we’ve been pretty successful at keeping it.  It’s like trying to change B.C. and A.D. to CE and BCE.  No matter what the periods are called, they’re still calculated from the ostensible year of Christ’s birth.  The French tried to turn back the clock on the Christian calendar, and they weren’t very succesful.  And even if pagans had some festival of light, it would only show how the prophecies of the Christ infiltrated every country and every religion (just as we see flood stories in every, or nearly every, ancient religion).  

Sorry, pagans.  No matter how much you whine, you can’t have it (back).  Every knee will bow.

And see here about Christmas trees, just for the fun of it.  (All you Christians in the U.S. have the Missouri Synod to thank [or dislike] for Christmas trees in church.)