It is hard to believe, but it was against the law to celebrate Christmas in Puritan Massachusetts until 1681. How could our forefathers get it right on so many things and miss this one? How could they cast people who expressed and embodied their joy in festive celebration as being in league with the devil? I think there are many answers to that question but we will deal with only a few. The chief reason is that evangelicals, while giving theological assent to the Incarnation of God, have never really been comfortable with it.
It is no secret that the two high feast days of the Christian year are Christmas and Easter. Both celebrate events of great magnitude. In fact, they are so great that how you view them will determine how you live the human life. For evangelicals, Easter is easier, I think. We take a high view of salvation and the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. It saves our souls; it transports us from death unto life. The Incarnation, however, is much harder because it is, well…too material, too much of the flesh, and we get nervous when we talk about living a life of joy in a material world with bodies that are built for pleasure.
Pleasure seems forever on trial among “spiritual” people. To have fun, celebrate, belly-laugh, and just delight in the simple material pleasures of life is somehow inferior to doing something that only takes the mind. It is as if reason and rationality are the only acceptable ways of grasping God, and anything that smacks of the flesh, when it comes to Christianity, is inferior. Our forebears set the double standard in this. While they would not celebrate Christmas, they did find ways to celebrate almost everything else. After all, our celebration of Thanksgiving is because they didn’t mind holding a grand feast with large quantities of food and ale! But to harness all the physical passion we can muster and pour all that energy into eating, drinking, and celebrating the central fact of the Incarnation—that God took on flesh––is not seen as “spiritual.” Spiritual is for the mind, and the flesh is somehow inferior.
The Incarnation screams that we have this all wrong. In taking on flesh, Jesus tells us one of the most important spiritual truths we can ever grasp: “In Christianity, God works out our salvation, not in spite of, but through real physical means.” As the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware says, “Christians are the true materialists.” The Psalms tell us repeatedly that God delights in the works of creation. Creation brings God pleasure. The Incarnation is an invitation to abandon the stiff upper lip form of rationalism and to joyfully participate in what God has made. The only place I know where real transformation takes place is not in some cold, abstract, reasoned-out theology, but in actively working out what we believe in our daily lives of eating, working, loving, laughing, talking, playing, celebrating, or mourning. The flesh is the window to the soul; it is through the senses we take in life.
I can understand why people can’t quite bust loose over the Incarnation—it is messy. It was much easier in seminary to contemplate the mysteries of theology than it is now to try to live in the realities of my own flesh and that of my family and friends. But on the other hand, it is not near as exciting or delightful. What I mean is this: as I ponder the mystery of the Incarnation and the fact that God would not have taken on flesh and live in this material world if it were inherently sinful, I come to realize that God, in coming, has “hallowed” all flesh and creation. Flesh and creation are the raw material by which I will experience God and his grace and also the place where I will work out my salvation.
I have come to see that I don’t have to feel I am less spiritual when I delight in the sights, sounds, and smells of my home, or the feel of fresh dirt in the yard. These things tend to heal my heart a bit. In fact, looking back, I have come to realize that I can’t separate my parents from the food that they cooked for me over the years. In one sense, it was the smell of food that greeted me when I walked in their house that said, “Welcome, we love you, and we know that you love this gravy, or this German Chocolate Cake, or this barbeque, and it is our joy to serve you.”
Why is it that we should expect in the same season of Advent to waste money and time on food and people, celebrating as if there is no tomorrow, and at the same time serve food to people who are in need? I would argue it is because we have understood the implications of the Incarnation of God. A life of genuine spirituality is one of robust engagement with nature and flesh. Every heresy the church has ever encountered was over trying to separate the two natures of Christ—spirit good, flesh bad. For God’s sake, don’t do that! If you do, you will never connect that all joy is expressed in physical means. Joy, like love, longs to take physical and tangible expression. This is why we give real presents at birthdays and Christmas. This is why we decorate our homes at Christmas. And this is why our worship space at St. Patrick is gilded and decked with beauty during this season of Advent. In a real sense, it is our participation in the joy of heaven. We are seeking to manifest that joy so that our whole being is caught up in awe and wonder.
We don’t fight the consumerism and materialism of this season by running from the physical expressions of joy, but by celebrating with purpose and a renewed generosity that seeks to bring comfort and joy both to those we love and also to those in need. We fight the brokenness of the world not by retreating from the world but by including those who are lonely or in need in the abundance that by God’s grace we know. May we keep the Feast of Christmas!