4 Easy Steps to Kill Christmas - Step One - How to Kill Christmas Limit Love, Minimize Mercy, Grease
Four Easy Steps to Kill Christmas
Step One - Expose Santa for Colluding with Russia
Step Two - Report Rudolph and the Reindeer to PETA
Step Three - Unite the Elf's Union with E.L.M (Elves Lives Matter)
Step Four - Wait for Global Warming to Melt the North Pole
Those are the easy steps to kill Christmas - nothing could be more obvious - right? And of course nothing could be more obvious than the fact that I am being completely and humorously sarcastic! Kinda, well not so much, yes, I am being kinda' sarcastic and not so much humorous. Ok! I was joking.
Here is the point. There are no real easy steps to killing Christmas. The process has neither been simple nor easy - but rather it has been slow, methodical, for some intentional and strategic, and for others just a careless disinterest and dispassionate faith. Nonetheless, we have done it - we killed Christmas! Oh for sure, it is still a national and even somewhat global type holiday - but Christ is gone from Christmas and we all have had a hand in it. Yes, we still have lights, decorations, gifts, candles, mythical Santa, enchanted winter wonderlands, flying (wink, wink) reindeer, glittered angels and frosty snowmen. There are even some manger scenes with shepherds, wisemen, camels, sheep, Mary mother, baby Jesus and Joseph! But those are seasonal props not spiritually significant reminders. Even with all of that we still took Jesus out of Christmas and killed it! In the next four weeks (Advent), I will share not only how we did it, but how in Christ name it will come back to life for those who still believe in Christmas!
Step One - How to Kill Christmas
Limit Love, Minimize Mercy, Grease the Grace
Early Christians appropriated agape, a Greek word for love, as a way of articulating the self-sacrificial love of God for humans. But what is agape love to most humans? The writer of the gospel of Matthew puts agape in words from the mouth of Jesus, when He’s asked what the greatest commandment is:
“Love (agape) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love (agape) your neighbor as yourself.’”
We would have to turn to the gospel of Luke to know who Jesus thinks your neighbor is. He replies to that question with a parable:
A man was beaten by robbers and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest passes him on the other side of the road. A Levite, also, sees the man suffering and passes him by. It’s a Samaritan, a presumed enemy of Jews, an unlikely do-gooder in the social system of ancient Israel, who helps the wounded man—selflessly and lavishly. He bandages his wounds, pours in oil and wine. He carries the man on his own donkey to a nearby inn, takes care of him, and pays for his stay. Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Jesus asks rhetorically. An expert in the law gets it right: “The man who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
But agape is more complicated than having the right answer to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and doing the same is much easier said than done. In reality most in our culture talk a much better game than live it - both secular idealists and Christian believers. The actual biblical process to achieving real agape is deeply founded in another Greek word the early Christians appropriated; elelos (mercy of God). Eleos is the active organic response to agape.
Are you comfortable with the idea, implied in the law pundit’s answer to Jesus’ question, that merely being better off than someone puts you in a position of responsibility to have mercy on them? I hope not - because you can't legislate morality, you can't force love, demand mercy. Jesus did not believe or teach that love or mercy works that way. Love and mercy are matters and conditions of the heart, fruit of the Spirit, born out of our desire to love God and one another through self-less service and generosity.
C.S. Lewis described agape as a selfless and sacrificial love that is committed to the well-being of the other. But are we humans capable of purely selfless love? Isn’t there always something to be gained in our acts of self-sacrifice? Because of Jesus and His love, mercy and self-less sacrifice for each and every human being I believe the answer is yes to both of those questions. If it is not then, we are indeed still killing Christmas.
I wrestle, blunder, and sometimes anxiously, push myself to pour myself and what I have out for others with genuine agape and eleos. Sometimes I catch myself doing it partly out of abstract love, a sense of responsibility, or even compulsive guilt. Even after pastoring for thirty-seven years I still blunder, trying to practice biblical agape and eleos; trying to “help, fix, rescue, saying yes to everyone - only to feel like a failure when I realize so much of the time I didn't really help, didn't fix, didn't rescue or fulfill my yes to anyone. And I realize that in all of that activity of scrambling and offering to do for others that I am really begging: "Please, let me help you." I’m making a needy object of my neighbor, begging him or her to relieve my desperate will to do good. And I see that in reality that I’m the one asking for mercy.
Even as a pastor my practice of passerby, hit and miss-charity is nowhere near the agape or eleos of Jesus. But it gets at a complicated truth best said by Reformation rebel Martin Luther: “We are all beggars.”
And in that context we are all hypocritical at times. I'm certainly not a fan or viewer but I came across a satirical riff by Stephen Colbert in response to political pundit Bernie Goldberg’s 2017 statement “Jesus would probably be a Liberal Democrat." Colbert's responded publicly “If Jesus really is a liberal Democrat, it’s time to get the Christ out of Christmas. If this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
For me, Colbert’ irreverent rant is certainly not an epiphany. Truth is, it is far easier and much more comfortable to use and exploit the poor and needy than it is is to selflessly serve them. Admitting that we just don’t want to sacrifice much to serve others verges on the type of self-examination that happens in the reformation rockstar Martin Luther’s theology of charis (grace):
As humans, we’re not capable of loving our neighbors as ourselves. And our failure to love plagues us with an anxious, guilty conscience that brings us to despair. We realize what we do is never enough to fulfill God’s love command. And this never-enough is a state of existential angst that brings us to grace, in Luther’s trajectory (and in his own experience): We abandon the illusion that we can help ourselves and begin to rely wholly and solely on God.
Now this is a powerful and liberating theological take on grace (charis). But, as a believer in an orthodox view of charis (costly grace), I don’t know if I fully buy Luther’s psychology of grace. To rely wholly and solely on God is the beginning of grace - the finish is to love Him with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. In doing so the charis grace God is honored and valued in what we think, say, and do. Now charis is not cheapened by our apathy, indifference, cynicism, and pride.
Love is not limited - Mercy is not Minimized - Grace is not Greased.
13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, on the Agape love of God and our personal response. Charity "the friendship of man for God", which unites us to God. It is the most excellent of the virtues. Aquinas goes on to say that "the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor, and brings to life again those who are spiritually dead."
I pray that my begging to love my neighbor, to show mercy to the poor in spirit, and extend the same grace extended to me, will bring me closer breathing life back into the Christmas that I have helped kill. I pray for agape love, aided by eleos mercy, made possible by charis grace. Let's love Christmas back to life.