A Response to Kitschmas

Winston Elliott offers counsel on how to transcend the Kitschmas in this brief and helpful blog post:

The Christocentric Life – Beauty 

In this season when the commercial nature of the Christmas season often confronts us with schlock and parodies of real beauty we can focus on the love of Christ as it is expressed in true beauty

Winston Elliott

Christmas is about suffering

When St. Paul was nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage and sat in a Roman prison awaiting word on his fate, he wrote one last letter to a young man whom he had mentored and given authority over the church in Ephesus.

The mother of our Lord, Mary, had only recently ended her own earthly journey in this very city. It would seem that Timothy, St. Paul’s understudy, would have known her well and honored her.

St. Paul was about to die and he knew it. So he wrote to Timothy and it is one of the most intimate epistles in the Bible and from the ancient world.

Here is some of what he said:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God,

who has saved us and called us with a holy calling,

not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,

but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.

For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed,

for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.

Flowing through all these words is the theme of the first verse I quoted: fear leads to an unsound mind. And nothing leads to more fear and therefore unsoundness of mind than the fear of death and its corrollary, the fear of suffering.

I have a hard time believing St. Paul enjoyed suffering. That masochistic mindset is itself an over-reaction to the fear of suffering and death and arises from an infirm mind. But he was certainly no stranger to suffering.

Read I and II Corinthians where he describes his sleepless nights, his hunger, his scourgings, and even his anxieties.

If he had enjoyed all this suffering, it would not have been suffering.

But he endured it – and he endured it with a spirit “of power of love and of a sound mind.” 

How can this be? Verse 12 begins with the words, “For this reason I also suffer these things, nevertheless I am not ashamed.” So maybe we should use the cue “For this reason” and find out what reason he is talking about.

The previous verse tell us that he was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. So perhaps that is why he suffers without shame. It’s his job.

Only, verse 11 is not a complete thought. It begins with the prepositional phrase “To which,” and the second word in that phrase is a pronoun.

As you well know,a pronoun stands in for a noun, so if we are going to understand St. Paul’s strength, we are going to have to go back further and see what the “To which” is to-whiching.

End of verse 10: The gospel.

He was appointed an apostle of the gospel. So what’s the gospel.

Of course, everybody knows the answer to that, so at this point we can stop our exegesis and practice some eisegesis (we can switch from drawing meaning out of the text to reading meaning into it).

But wait. I’m not comfortable doing that, so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to continue to reverse engineer this passage and see what led Paul to mention the gospel.

The previous clause says, “who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Now we’re getting to it!

Now we have something that we’ll have to think about for a long, long time before we can pretend to understand it. It’s a phrase that challenges some of our expectations and assumptions.

Here is St. Paul, in prison, suffering, even dying day by day, having been betrayed and forsaken even by friends, having watched Stephen lose his life (i.e. experience death) and also having known many, many Christians who died, some of whom, I would presume, he himself arrested. Yet here he says “who has abolished death.”

Does he mean anything by this?

Obviously he does, but he doesn’t explain it here. He expects Timothy either to know what he means or to take the trouble to think about it.

Then he goes on to say that whoever abolished death also “brought life and immortality to light.” Now, if he brought life to light, the implication is that previously it was hidden in darkness. Prior to this “who,” people didn’t actually know what life and immortality were. Now, through the gospel, this “who” has brought them to light – has made them, pardon the awkward word, perceivable.

Maybe that gives us a clue about what abolishing death involved. Maybe death was in the dark too. In other words, maybe before “who” came, people didn’t understand either death or life.

Read the Iliad and the Odyssey and you sure get that impression. Achilles was driven by the quest for glory, honor, and immortality. 

But he pursued them like a blind squirrel after a nut. He had power, of a sort, but he lacked love and he certainly did not have a sound mind. I would argue that he was driven by a spirit of fear.

Not Paul. Notice, there is no unease in his letter. There is no hyperness or over-reaction. He doesn’t just say positive things to himself to keep his spirits up. He knows whom he has believed!

And whom he has believed he does not hide from us. The previous clause says this:

But has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ

Our Savior, Jesus Christ. I’d be surprised if you’re surprised here, but don’t let the identification slide past you because it was so obvious. Our savior, Jesus Christ is the one who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.

That’s not really something the importance of which you can minimize.

Many years ago I wrote some truly horrible poems. About 30 or 40 of them. I showed them a few years later to a college professor friend of mine who encouraged me to focus on the sciences.

What came out of our tear stained brawl was that I hadn’t said anything new in my poems. The poems were an exercise in self-indulgence or maybe a little experiment to see if I could use the form, but they didn’t merit being read by anybody else.

 I hadn’t shed any light on the things I was writing about.

A worthy poem is one that reveals truth about something, leads us to better perceive some reality. A good poem will enable us to perceive something good. A great poem will enlighten us to see something great.

The greatest poems will enable us to see the greatest things – the hardest things to see.

The greatest of all poems is “the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ” because it brought to light the greatest of all things: life and immortality.

To grasp what this implies, you need to read back one more verse:

Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed…

Not only did Christ Jesus bring life and immortality to light, but he also, by appearing, revealed God’s “purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus.”

The magic words are “in Christ Jesus.” To St. Paul everything is in Christ Jesus. Nothing outside of Christ Jesus is worth having, but then all things are in Him and all things have been given to those in Him. Especially life and immortality.

Christ is, after all, the resurrection and the life.

But He’s going to change the way you think about life and immortality – and death. Because what Paul is saying implies that we have been thinking about them all wrong until Christ came.

I have to ask: if you are a Christian, do you think differently about life and death than you would if you were not a Christian?

If you are not a Christian, do you feel like you have any comprehension of what life and immortality are?

This is a Christmas post, you see.

A real Christmas post. Kitschless. No sentimentality.

When Jesus lay in the womb of His blessed mother, she became the burning bush that was not consumed. God inhabited her womb. That was how life came to us.

She gave birth to Him in a cave and laid Him in a manger. It was unpleasant, cold at night, shameful.

She suffered so much that Simeon told her that a sword would pierce through her soul.

But she had no spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind.

Christmas has become our national holiday because we can avoid the blood of Easter. It’s sentimentalized because a bloodless baby and a very clean mother are easy to keep out of your heart. kitsch dominates because too few dare raise it even to the level of Camp.

While I have to stop, I have much more to say about this: Christmas is what it is because the American Christian wants his religion without pain.

I can relate to that.

Thanks for reading such a long post. Time to wake up.

A Serious Question About Celebrating Christmas

A few days ago I mildly criticized kitschmas. One of the points I made was that kitsch doesn’t measure up to Camp because Camp tries to be serious while kitsch doesn’t even bother.

Thus, it seems, Camp can give us a strange sort of just pleasure in that we can get the point even while the producer of the Camp doesn’t, while kitsch only gives us pleasure if we are the ones missing the point. Maybe.

So I’ve been thinking a little since then about why Christmas tends toward kitsch.

Let me draw an incident from my life and see if this serves any purpose. The church I attend now celebrates communion on Christmas morning at 9:30, same time as Sunday morning.

No church I attended previously did so; at least, not so far as I recall.

So we weren’t in the habit, as a family, of going to church to celebrate the birth of Christ. We did it at home with cinammon rolls, ostentatiously wrapped gifts, a tree out of Thomas Kincade or Currier and Ives, and all the normal Christmas trappings.

What, Karen asked me, are we going to do this year?  

I found myself immediately confronted with a rather ironic situation. Would we go to church to celebrate communion on Christ-Mass, or would we stay home and celebrate Christ-Mass with our family.

You might ask, is Christmas a family holiday or a Church holiday?

Suddenly I realized that all my life I had been treating Christmas as a semi-secular holiday, personalized, oriented toward the family.

What do you think? Is that appropriate? Do you think that tendency might move us toward kitsch because we want the holiday for our sake, rather than for the sake of the One who dwells in unapproachable light but veiled Himself with flesh and blood?

St. Nicholas of Myra Movie Coming Soon

This one has my attention.

Want to learn some more about the project? Click here.

Christmas & Commercialism

Over the last several years, I have encountered an increasing number of articles and discussions about the “secularization” or “commercialization” of Christmas.  Recently, a local newscast conducted a street poll in which nearly every interviewee agreed that Christmas was “coming earlier and earlier every year.” 

Christmas music starts too soon.  Stores bring out decorations too soon.  People are expected to give too much. 

Far and away, the largest numbers of criticisms (at least the ones I’ve heard) come from within the Christian community.  After all, “Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh (John 1:14), the birth of Jesus our Savior, not about presents and shopping.” 

Well, okay.  There’s truth in that.  Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth, not a celebration of shopping, but I think the criticism may have missed the mark in a significant way. 

The problem with the criticism is that, if carried too far, it actually denies the nature of the Incarnation.  At Christmas, we celebrate God being made man, the Word becoming flesh, the invisible God appearing in the Person of Christ, providing us with the image of the Father.  The love of God, great enough to make us children of God (1st John 3:1), was made known to us in visible form.  He was seen, heard, and touched (1st John 1:1-4).  God lived among us (Matthew 1:23).

Sure, the season is commercialized and watered down by some.  Yes, people seem to ignore Christ while celebrating (unawares) His birth.  But I don’t think that’s the problem.  The truly sad event is when Christians forget that Christmas is a time when love becomes “incarnational,” visible, observable.  Shouldn’t that happen all year?  Yes, but the motivating factor behind it the rest of the year is the Incarnation of Love at Christmas. 

Avoid the over-commercialization (Example – Your nativity scene probably shouldn’t include Santa bringing a toy bike to the baby Jesus) but don’t swerve into the ditch on the other side of the road either. 

Remember that Christmas is a time to give gifts, make fudge, eat great foods, enjoy great wine, celebrate with family, party with co-workers, eat more great food, watch the same old movies, and enjoy more great wine.  Christmas is a time to enjoy the good gifts of God and to give good gifts in His name. 

We do these things as acts of incarnational love and nothing could be more fitting for the season.  

Some Christmas carols

Here’s a set of articles about the stories behind some Christmas carols. It’s the little things that make it interesting, like that Armenian Charles Wesley wrote “Hark how all the welkin rings” and his rival, Calvinist George Whitefield, changed it to the present version. Each story also has some music to sing along to. No piano? No worries. You’ve got the internet!

 In this same issue is this article about the invention of Christmas as we know it by Charles Dickens.

Choosing Heroes

We Christians have a different way of seeing things, of setting values, and that leads us to honor different heroes than those who see things more conventionally. We value God’s blessed creation, for example, so we honor those who make the great discoveries. But we don’t value it as an arbitrary, pointless thing that simply shows the depth of our brilliance by revealing its secrets to us. We value it as a delightful stewardship, so we honor those who care for it with wisdom and fortitude. We don’t value it merely as a tool by which we can reach our autonomous objectives (the love of money is the root of every sort of evil). We value it as a good in itself, the beauty and integrity of which must be preserved. So we honor those who reveal that beauty to us and call us back to an adoring stewardship not altogether unlike that which a father bears for his daughter.

 Somewhere at the top of our list of values is the long-forgotten human soul, that which we continually request God to save. As a result, we honor those who effectively care for the soul even more than those who care for the body. Apart from our Lord Himself, we honor his virgin mother above all humans. The angel himself declared that all generations would call her blessed, and we are certainly among those generations.

 In Mary we see a model of sexual purity, a virgin, let it never be forgotten. She was chosen precisely (though not only) because she was a virgin. In her virginity she exalts sexual purity to a pinnacle of honor. In her purity she becomes the model for every little girl to imitate and every little boy to honor. She becomes an image, a heroine, who lays the poetic foundation for what is now so crassly called “sex ed.”

Consider, sex cannot be understood apart from its purpose and its purpose cannot be understood apart from its Creator. Sexuality is not shameful; rather, it is good. But it is constrained. It is fulfilled only when it is offered up to God and one’s spouse is a covenental relationship that lifts it from the level of the animal to that of the spirit.

All of us are called to sexual purity. The blessed and sainted virgin, by offering hers up to God, became the mother of God. As we have forgotten her, we have lost ourselves.

And in Mary we see a model of pure motherhood. Our greatest hero is not the acquisitive, the power hungry, or the conqeror. We do not exalt the so-called manly virtues to an unmerited height. Our greatest hero is the one who turned the other cheek and went to His execution as a lamb to the slaughter. Second only to Him in our hearts is the one who was willing to be shamed before men, to risk her marriage and her sacred honor, and to have her heart pierced with a sword for the salvation of sinful men. The highest, most honored human being who is not God is honored by us for being a mother at tremendous cost to herself. She became the mother of sorrows for our sake.

 This is the “slave morality” of Nietszche and his reader, Dewey. This is what the last century has flung into the cesspool and has mocked heartlessly, replacing it with a culture of greed, vindictiveness, and nihilistic education and politics.

My hero was born like a slave. Maybe a little lower. His mother was treated like a slave. Maybe a little lower. They were chased into Egypt. They were dishonored and questioned everywhere they went. But they quietly worked diligently and faithfully. He took on the “lowly” trade of a carpenter, thus sanctifying and blessing the work of our hands. She raised Him, and prayed, and pondered what she heard about Him in her heart, thus sanctifying the most exalted role of motherhood.

As we celebrate the feast of the birth of our Lord over the next few weeks, let us not forget who our heroes are. Let us remember that she who was driven out of the inn and even out of Bethlehem is accustomed to flight. She is not surprised that she has been driven out of our state schools or out of the public places. She is accustomed to flight because of her devotion to her Son. Let us fly with her. Let us worship with her.

 And where she is welcome, let us attend to her. Let us honor her to honor her Son, to whom she continually points. Let us hear her words, when she says, “Do whatever He says.”

Let us present her honorably to our children. Let us not be ashamed to call our daughters to imitate her, which they will be much more likely to do when we honor her. Let us call our sons to honor her, which they will be much more likely to do when we do. And let us remember that, all Hallmark sentimentality aside,  there can be no higher role for a human being than that of mother, the highest qualification for which is a pure heart, soul, and body.

My heroes are a virgin, a mother, a carpenter, and an accused criminal. Those “slaves” who have been exalted above the Cherubim and the Seraphim, the mother in her Son.