Christmas Clichés & Cozy Christianity
Sometimes, Christmas gets old. In the midst of gift shopping and wrapping, of seeing family, and of cookies and hot chocolate, church services in the month of December occasionally feel like something to get through. The post-Thanksgiving Evangelical American experience seems a lot like this: Christians get together to read the same story and sing the same songs as the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that. It’s what they’ve always done.
A sense of guilt encroaches when I realize that my attitude toward Christmas hymns and the Christmas story has become similar to my reaction to a certain professor’s anecdotes, most of which I’ve heard seven times: inherent boredom and feigned interest. In order to rid myself of this self-reproach, I try hard to enjoy the long prologue to the lighting of the advent candles every week in order to feel better about myself. I ignore the sarcastic comments that appear unbidden in my head: “Does anybody else realize that this Christmas song doesn’t actually say anything definitive?” or “Why on earth do these lyrics describe snow? In the Middle East?” It is no wonder, however, that in America the Christmas story happens upon the same path in a Christian’s mind as a joke that’s been told too many times. For who decided that a joke should be retold because of the mere virtue of the fact that it has been told multiple times in the past? It does indeed follow that the punch line should lose its comical luster.
However, the solution isn’t remixed songs, better decorations, and a new spin on the old story. The solution isn’t catering to our entertainment. It is figuring out why Christmas has become old news to us.
The story of how Jesus came is going to be boring to us if the reason He came is also old news rather than the Good News. Christmas monotony is gospel monotony. Christ’s birth cannot be talked about without speaking of Christ’s death. Yet both, for so many Christians, have become dull and repetitive. Monotony comes when these two messages have no relevance for today and tomorrow. “Jesus died for my sins, so what?” is the question I’ve asked for years—not audibly, of course, or even consciously, but insinuated through my lifeless, vapid approach to Easter and Christmas.
Gospel indifference happens, I’ve discovered, when we have only been acquainted with that message as something that gets our foot in the door. Once you’re saved, you’re often dumped into the Christian fishbowl where your growth is scrutinized and critiqued from all sides and subtle expectations of perfection replace the reality of slow, life-long sanctification. Christ saves, but even if the world seems colorful for a while, the colors fade back into the gray doldrums of actuality. “The gospel” becomes a cliché in Christianity rather than the point of Christianity, and church happens as a way to make ourselves feel better. Tradition, though boring, is comfortable, and that is where we will remain.
Remaining here results in the strictly religious Christianity that so many have seen and disdained. Gospel-less sermons come with application that subtly but tangibly expect that you follow through—and if you’re unable, you’re most likely not trying hard enough. Gospel messages, if extended, are geared specifically toward those who “don’t know Jesus.” You participate in prayer and reading the Word in order to ease your conscience, not to learn more about and be close to its Author. Christmas and Easter get old, and perhaps you wonder, as I have wondered: “Why does it matter?”
Let us take that very question for example. If we are asking why it matters, we are missing something. There has to be something else. Our ungratefulness knows no bounds! None of us are truly thankful, grateful, in awe enough of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We could praise Him our entire lives and it wouldn’t be enough, yet we’ve already passed days, hours, and years doing the very opposite. Our ungratefulness, perhaps we have sensed, is entirely sinful.
You have probably heard that Christ died on the cross for your sins. When He did, experiencing hour after hour of suffering as your sins held him there, He knew that you would not be grateful. He knew that you would look upon His great sacrifice and spit in His face with your apathetic boredom, asking, “Why does this matter?” This lack of gratefulness is more sinful and disgusting than you’ve ever realized. To use Tim Keller’s illustration, when Jesus looked down from the cross, he didn’t think, “I am dying, giving myself up because I know you will be grateful and that you will always appreciate me.” No, in agony, he looked down at you—denying him, abandoning him, and betraying him—and in the greatest act of love in history, he stayed. He still suffered, died, and bled so that when God gazes upon you, He does not see an ungrateful son or daughter that underappreciates His sacrifice. It is the lifeblood of His very sacrifice—the one you are ungrateful for—that covers you so that God instead sees you as having lived as perfectly as Jesus had.
Our Christmases are cliché and our Christianity is cozily shallow because we do not understand or appreciate the gospel. But it is the gospel that changes our under-appreciation. Because of the gospel, nothing hinges on our ability to produce gratefulness or joy at hearing the gospel. We are still as righteous as if we had never ceased praising God after the manner of the four creatures in Revelation 4 who day and night cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is to come!” And this knowledge, brought forth by the very gospel message we’d deemed boring, produces gratefulness and joy. Praise Him!