The church has historically celebrated 12 days of Christmas, beginning with the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25, and lasting until Jan. 5. The very next day is the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Roman Church, the feast days include the Feast of St. Stephen, of St. John the Apostle, of the Holy Innocents and more.
But consider what has happened in modern times. The celebration of Christmas has been turned upside down and backwards. In the past, Christmas Day began a 12-day period of feasting, celebration and worship. Now, Christmas day is the final and, perhaps, only day of celebration. By Dec. 26, the wrapping paper is discarded, the unwanted presents returned, and people are back to haunting online and brick-and-mortar stores for bargains. In other words, they’re back to life as usual.
The Christmas celebration ends too soon, but it also begins to soon - just after Halloween. Christmas’ center of gravity has moved from worship to spending, with the result that people worry more and celebrate less. The big questions revolving around Christmas no longer have to do with God but with economic forecasts for the shopping season. Analysts do not know whether the savior’s birth will save us from sin - they may not even care - but they are hopeful it will save us from an economic downturn.
The Advent season traditionally was a time for reading the biblical prophets and waiting for Christ’s return and the fulfillment of God’s promises. It has become a time of reading economic indicators and waiting for the release of seasonal spending numbers. Christmas has been co-opted.
Christmas means one thing to the Commerce Department and something else to God. It has an important place in the plans of both, but for very different reasons. For the Commerce Department, Christmas is a major component in a strategy to achieve economic growth, create jobs, increase federal revenues and protect the nation from recession. For God, Christmas is a major component in righting wrongs, restoring the creational order, fulfilling human potential and establishing the kingdom of God.
Neither God nor the Commerce Department considers Christmas an end in itself. Rather, it is a means to an end. That is why the church celebrates Christmas as one in a series of feast days that extends throughout the year. It is not a stand-alone event. Isolated from its place in God’s larger plan, Christmas shrinks to half its size. It remains a commemoration of something that has happened (which is vitally important), but it ceases to be an anticipation of something yet to come. The loss is catastrophic.
When Christmas is detached from its place in God’s ongoing program to rescue humanity and restore creation and is instead thought of as an isolated historical event, its celebration will inevitably be less exuberant. As an illustration, consider Bastille Day - the French equivalent of our Independence Day - as it was celebrated in the summer of 1944. It was muted, to say the least. To celebrate the birth of the republic was right and good but, in 1944, the French feared they might be witnessing its death.
Compare the commemoration of Bastille Day to the celebration that occurred one month later when the Allies liberated Paris from the Nazis. Bastille Day reminded the French of who they were. The liberation of Paris gave them hope for who they were going to be. One looked to the past, the other to the future.
The celebration of Christmas, when done rightly, possesses both dimensions: the memory of a glorious past and the hope of a joyful future. It is this second dimension that is largely missing from contemporary celebrations of Christmas. The theologically sensitive among us rightly insist that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but this has not been enough to move the needle from the past to the future.
We have largely (and unwisely) abandoned the church’s historic practice of linking the advents - Christ’s first and second coming. We need to learn to do this again, in fresh and stimulating ways, never forgetting that we celebrate the past in the midst of the present struggle and in the hope of final victory.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.