A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

The Absurdity of the Christmas Feast

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see          i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look          the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”
– ee cummings

God rest you merry! Gentlemen (and Gentlewomen). We’ve been invited to a feast. Twelve days of rejoicing alongside Mary and Joseph, of beholding with the shepherds, of singing with the Holy Innocents and all the saints, of kneeling with the wise men before the babe who holds the world in His hands.

One moment we were longing and waiting and crying out in the darkness of Advent, and the next moment, the Son of God appears just down the street, just round the corner, in a nearby field. One moment we were in our homes, our jobs, our busy lives, and the next moment we heard an angel say, “Rise up shepherd and follow.” We followed into the small Palestinian village of Bethlehem to behold the “Peace on Earth Good Will to Men.”

Awestruck, we are called to worship and eat, laugh and sing, dance and make merry. Heaven and earth are joined in cosmic celebration of Emmanuel, God with Us, the Hope of Israel.

But all this rejoicing is simply too much for most of us. So we open few presents, sing a few songs and pack up the tree and decorations for next year.

In some ways, the Advent fast is easier to understand than the Christmas feast. During Advent we face the darkness of our world and our soul, but during the Christmas feast we behold the Light of the World in a manger. Crouching in the dark is easier than dancing in the light. We’re simply too weak for sustained happiness.

As Chesterton reminds us, “Happiness is a mystery–generally a momentary mystery–which seldom stops long enough to submit itself to artistic observation, and which, even when it is habitual, has something about it which renders artistic description almost impossible. There are twenty tiny minor poets who can describe fairly impressively an eternity of agony; there are very few even of the eternal poets who can describe ten minutes of satisfaction.”[1]

Happiness is a momentary mystery. 

If that’s true, how can we sustain happiness for twelve days of feasting let alone throughout the joyous season of Epiphany? We are simply too weak and too old for such a task. Once again, I turn to the master. Chesterton writes, “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[2] Sin weakens our capacity for the deep joy of our Heavenly Father. 

True feasting is far harder than true fasting. True feasting enlarges, opening up the depths of wonder within and around us. Sadly, we live in a world that confuses sensuous gluttony for feasting. Our drunken stupor actually deadens the senses and reduces our capacity to know happiness or deep joy. 

One of the weaknesses in some medieval expressions of the Christmas feast was this gluttonous indulgence that led to violence, sexual immorality and damaged souls. Sickened by the deadly extravagances, some U.S. colonies simply outlawed Christmas altogether. 

But you can’t keep a dead man down. Christmas returns in the industrialized world of America and England in a new form, stripped of the twelve days of feasting. This new holiday focused on a day of celebration for family and friends. 

Christmas became and remains sort of a national holiday for the secular religion of our culture. This isn’t a recent change. It actually is part of the reformulation of the modern Christmas that happened in the nineteenth century. Jack Neely recently posted an interesting quote that diminished any spiritual connection with Christmas from the turn of last century, 

“Don’t think that Christmas is not your holiday because your religious beliefs don’t run that way,” ran the cheerful squib in the Republican daily, the Knoxville Journal, in December, 1911. “It’s your holiday, if you want it, and its religious significance is its smallest element.” Reprinted from another paper, it ran without comment.[3]

We inherited a holiday that had lost connection with its roots in fasting and feasting. Most of us grew up by celebrating Christmas all through December and culminating in the big Christmas Day that came too fast and was over too soon. For many people, Christmas could not live up to the promise of restored childhood innocence. 

We attempt to overcome this disappointment, this emptiness by making movie after movie about keeping the spirit of Christmas alive, or by falling into the trap of gluttony and gorging on more and more and more stuff. It Santa doesn’t bring me what I want, I’ll charge it and buy it myself! In the process, we actually deaden our ability to wonder.

Even in indulgences, the grace of God cannot be thwarted. By celebrating Christmas, singing carols, decorating trees, and telling stories, we edge ever closer to a thin place. We enter into the danger of encountering something much deeper than a secularized festival. We tread on the holy ground of the Christmas Feast. Chesterton writes, “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”[4]

One Christmas in the later 80s, I asked, “Why?” Why do we have a tree? I decided no tree. No pagan festival in our home. Kelly prayed for a tree. Someone showed on our porch with a tree. I thought, “Well if the Lord wants to answer her prayer, I’m not going to stand in the way.” We made homemade decorations. 

I kept asking why. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why do we sing about 12 days of Christmas? As I continued to ask questions, I moved closer to the mystery of happiness and the absurdity of the Christmas Feast. How the could angels sing when wars did not cease? How could this story seem sweet when innocent babes died under Herod’s cruel hand?

The paradox of the Christmas Feast is that it does not deny the presence of pain and sin and struggle in the world. The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is actually part of the feast. And yet, against the backdrop of this pain, the Christmas Feast taps an ancient mystery far more ancient than the utter sinfulness of sin. Reaching all the way back to the earliest moments of Creation, the Christmas Feast celebrates the Lord who beholds His creation and sees that “It is good!”

It Is Good. 

At the heart of all things, we hear the ringing observation of God Himself, “It is good.” The Hebrew word for good is “towb.” This richly textured word means far more than good. Inherent in the word is beauty, kindness, happiness, and more. Our Lord creates a world that is beautiful, full of joy, pleasing to the senses, and truly kind. His creation is not only good but Very Good. 

The Christmas Feast celebrates this good and wondrous world our God created by enjoying it: eating, drinking, laughing, playing, embracing, giving, and worshipping. Our feasting is extravagant but not the empty gluttony that seeks to feed to sin sick soul. It is doxological. Worshipful. Grateful. It holds joy and sorrow together in a dance of sacred awe. 

By juxtaposing the dark yearning of Advent with the bright gaiety of Christmas, the church invites us to worship God in the midst of a world that has been scarred by sin and evil. We do not deny the anguish, but we bring it into perspective by focusing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

As we behold Christ, we behold the Word Made Flesh. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”[5] On Christmas, we celebrate “God with Us” in the midst of His own good and beautiful creation. All things created in and through Him. All things restored in and through Him. Though His world is scarred by sin and evil, He does not abandon it, but redeems it. He defeats evil, and restores it. 

We tune our hearts and minds and bodies to behold the babe, the Lord, the Savior, the King of Kings. We choose to rejoice, to laugh, to sing serious and silly songs, and to sing praises to the One who created this world of wonder. Our praise is prophetic for it points to the ultimate defeat of all evil and the ultimate enthroning of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Even as we choose to delight in the Christmas Feast, we mock the power of death, knowing that death itself will die and every oppressing ruler will fall and fully submit to the good God who created this good and wonderful world. 

It is absurd to rejoice when we are weak and frail and so fully aware of our own sinfulness. And yet we do. We turn from the darkness; we look to the light. In the turning, we open time and space for surprise. Our Lord so often surprises us with a happiness that we cannot grasp, cannot evoke and cannot sustain. And yet, we can delight in it. We can celebrate His faithfulness to immerse us in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 

Let us not abandon the Christmas Feast too soon. 

God rest you merry dear friends!

[1] Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2009-12-15). Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. (350+ Works) Includes The Innocence of Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Napoleon of … What’s Wrong with the World & more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 5712-5714). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.  

[2] Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2009-12-15). Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. (350+ Works) Includes The Innocence of Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Napoleon of … What’s Wrong with the World & more (mobi) (Kindle Location 51605). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

[3] Neely, Jack. “Christmas in the City, 1911.” Metro Pulse, December 21, 2011 <http://www.metropulse.com/news/2011/dec/21/christmas-city-1911/>.

[4] Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (1990). The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume 33, page 478. Ignatius Press, 1990.

[5] John 1:3. English Standard Version (ESV), The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.


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