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Jeff the Baptist, vol. 1, #1

Ho Ho Hum

renardk7.jpg (18953 bytes)If I hear one more sermon about the commercialization of Christmas, Iíll puke. What is it with these church-going types, anyway?

Oh, you know what I mean. The standard drill that graces the suburban altars and downtown streetcorners of America this month. The pious, Bill Keane-ish, finger wagging that goes on. The typical sermonizing that decries the emptiness of gift-buying, the satanic charade of Santa (hey, they both wear Red, donít they?), and the need to resist all those subliminal messages that big bad corporate Nordstromís and Macyís is sending our way. How good it would all be if we could just put the Christ back into ChristmasÖ

But then, I guess Iíve had a beef with this holiest of holy holidays since junior high and the Xmas wreath sale. I was going, I still donít know why, to this Lutheran church and trying to get involved in the youth group. It was a good group. It was just your typical, small-town northern Wisconsin, Lutheran church youth group. You know the kind that Iím talking about. It was the kind that, surrounded by a world sorely in need of social justice, puts on a carwash fundraiser. You know. The kind that makes a deal with itself: weíll just pretend that nothing is really happening out there, watch our safe Ron Howard movies (hey, I do love his work, but the point stands), listen to our safe Amy Grant songs and everything in this world will turn out all right. I digress.

Anyway, one year at Christmas, in typical fashion, we had a Christmas wreath sale. I remember getting really jazzed up about it. I was always borderline heretic in the group. And if youíve been out there in the hinterland for a while, on the edge of society, you know what I mean. It is lonely. There is no better word for it. Lonely. So, I thought, hereís my chance. A chance to do what everybody else is doing. I can sell things pretty well when I put my mind to it. Well, I put my nose to the yuletide grindstone this time and sold lots of wreaths. I was pretty pleased with myself. Mainstream! What a feeling! So, feeling mighty proud, I gathered all my earnings, stuffed them in an envelope, scribbled "Xmas Wreath Sale" on the outside and fairly skipped all the way to church to turn my manna in.

Mr. Smith was at a table near the entrance taking everyoneís envelopes and writing down what they had brought in. I could hardly wait. I was so proud of myself for doing something normal. I was so expectant. I suppose I fairly expected Mr. Smith to stand up and give me a big hug, with everyone applauding and chorus upon chorus of cherubim regaling us with triumphant melodies of my success.

My turn in line came. I turned with a hesitant look to face him. He looked at me with a big friendly smile full of pleasant warmth. Then, he saw my envelope. Suddenly, his eyes squinted angrily. His nose reared up in a snarl. His cheeks turned red as he snatched my envelope out of my hands. Wielding a pen like a sword, he sanctimoniously scratched out the "X" in "Xmas" and wrote "Christ" above it. "Itís his day, isnít it?" he challenged.

So here we are. Just a few days from Christmas, rushing around, telling ourselves that we are definitely not going to go over-budget this year and doing it anyway, stressing over whether little brother is going to like that book Iím giving him, and having the same support-group conversations with our friends about our families that we always have at this time of year. And along come these sermons, accompanied, no less, with pious finger-pointing: If we could only just put the Christ back in Christmas, everything would be all right.

All right, letís say thatís a given, just for argumentís sake. Then what? I mean, really: then what? Please enlighten me, because Iím honestly stumped. Iíve heard that idea so many times, it almost sounds like a clichť. What does someone mean when they say we should put the Christ back into Christmas?

Oooops, now weíve made it complicated. Cardinal sin. If weíre going to shout something at the top of our lungs from a streetcorner, weíd better keep it simple. Complicate it and who knows what could happen?

But now Iím game. Letís put the Christ back into Christmas and see what we can come up with. Well, seeing as how he preached a vision in which we share our worldly goods (remember the old loaves and fish story?), I guess that means that we should start by inviting every unfortunate person that we know to our Christmas dinner (within reason). What, you mean, company? Outsiders? Welfare bums? They might not be clean. Worse yet, they might not agree with us on the impeachment! Might not even pray to the same Jesus that we do! HmmmmÖ.. that might be interesting.

Then, of course, there is that whole business of turning the other cheek. Well, I guess that, at the least, weíd have to stop bombing Iraq and central Europe. Then, we might even go further and try not getting back at that colleague who just did us in with his last email at work. Not retaliate? Why, they might think that we are wimps! They might take advantage of us! Saddam might sending terrorists over here like in that Tom Clancy novel. You have to protect yourself! Anybody who says to turn the other cheek must be living in a dream world. AhhhÖ.. Exactly the point. Maybe it isnít a dream after all. Maybe itís a reality that we just havenít gotten around to yet. Remember, I didnít start this game. If we really want to put Christ back into Christmas, I donít think that we can go half way. Last I checked, the Christ was not a Whitmanís Sampler, in which we can just take the chocolates we like and leave the rest for our family.

This is getting tough. All right, Iím just going to choose one more. Thereís that whole business of loving thy neighbor as thyself. Oh boy! You mean, no more pounding on the gays and lesbians in our country? No more blaming somebody elseís lifestyle for all the worldís wrongs? Now I have to love that jerk windbag in the cubicle next to me? Thatís too much!

Maybe this isnít such good idea after all. Maybe we should just call Christmas off. Itís hard enough as it is. Well, we know we canít do that. So what do we do with this holiday?

Maybe itís enough to love your neighbor, whether or not you choose to bandy the word "Christ" about. (After all, Iím sure the Christ knows that "he" exists. He doesnít need us to testify to that effect.) Maybe itís enough, in this increasingly frenetic society, to take a quiet few moments with some friends and family and walk through that commercialized downtown area and admire all those shallow Christmas trees in those superficial and tawdry department stores and listen to some shivering musicians in a brass band peal out a wonderfully secularized Winter Wonderland. Maybe itís enough to warm up some good old unholy eggnog and share it with some loved ones and dream about a world where the the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. Hey, itís okay to dream. Isaiah did it. So, did John Lennon.

My point is, I think, that just faithfully repeating the word CHRISTmas until you are mesmerized doesnít do anything for this world. Whatís more, designing mind-numbing proof tests about mangers in Bethlehem just makes it worse. Weíve been trying it for a couple thousand years and, here we are, stuck with the same old war, famine, hunger, and disease. Indeed, this century seems bent on proving itself to be one of the worst of all time. Weíre still sticking it to ourselves, making each other suffer. Perhaps itís time we tried something different.

Perhaps we should spend less energy rejecting this world and all its commercialized bows, ribbons, and Squeeze Me Elmos, and redirect it into embracing one another. Love your neighbor as yourself. It doesnít matter who said it. What matters is that it has been said. Take a second, if you can (and if youíre like me, youíre having a hard time finding a quiet one these days), and think about what that idea really means, what it really takes to make it happen. It seems to me that loving your neighbor, all by itself, is hard enough. Maybe this Christmas, itís enough if we simply try.

- Jeff the Baptist

 

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