25 December 2007

Kinda Happy, Kinda Sad

Every year it's more or less the same. I feel like such a bi-polar bear on Christmas Day. That's probably an offensive thing to say, for those who really are "bi-polar" (which I don't claim to know anything about), but I have no other way to describe the mixed feelings I always seem to have on the 25th of December.

I love the Feast that is the ChristMass. I revel in the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord, the preaching and administration of the Word-made-Flesh. I could sing the hymns of the ChristMass all day and night, especially the Latin chants and the Lutheran chorales. Even the simpler carols, those that actually sing of Christ, bring joy and gladness to my heart. As much as I love Advent Tide, I honestly and thoroughly delight in the arrival of this high and holy day.

For all of that, there is perhaps no other day of the year when I feel so odd and out of sorts with the rest of the world around me. Not only the secular world with its "happy profaniday" (one can hardly call what the pagan populace observes a "holiday" in any true or proper sense), but sometimes even the celebrations of beloved fellow Christians can leave me feeling like an utter stranger in a strange land.

It's not that I'm angry or upset with anyone; there's been no offense either given or taken. Besides, 'tis the season of charity and forbearance, even where there may at times be some offense. As our dear Lord condescends to love us, in spite of all our many sins and enmity against Him, how shall I not cover my neighbors trespasses against me with love and forgiveness, for Jesus' sake?

No, it isn't anger that besets me on this day, but a profound sadness that descends upon me. In part, I suppose, I am simply spent from all the planning, preparations, and performance of the ChristMass rites and ceremonies. There is a sense of that on Easter Sunday, too, yet not the same burden of melancholy. There are probably lots of reasons for the difference. For one thing, Easter has not been so hijacked by the commercial world around us. More to the point, I can't imagine a Christian who wouldn't make every effort to be in church on Easter Sunday. It is not so with Christmas Day. There is a stereotype of "Christmas and Easter Christians," but, so far as I can tell, it really isn't such a common thing for Christians to be in church on Christmas Day. Two years ago, when Christmas Day occurred on a Sunday, there were any number of churches in our community that actually cancelled their regular services that morning! Prior to my coming to Emmaus, even this pious and faithful congregation did not have a Christmas Day Service; and I spoke with a colleague today whose congregation, similarly, has never yet had a service on this occasion. The rationale has been that "Christmas" is a time for family gatherings.

I'm all in favor of families. I'm something of a family man, myself. I also understand that, for some Christians at least — because of the structures and strictures of society, and due to the fact that many of their relatives may not be Christians — this day may end up being one of the rare opportunities they have to gather with their extended families. In the freedom of the Gospel, and no less in Christian love for the neighbor, I do not begrudge anyone the prerogative to spend the day traveling and visiting. Such personal prerogatives do not really pertain, however, to the Church collectively, nor to the divinely called and ordained servants of the Word. The fact that Christians are individually free to come and go, as they may be so inclined or need to do, surely does not mean that every other member of the Church should be deprived of the opportunity to hear the Gospel and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in celebration of His Nativity. Accordingly, it is not only my own desire, but my obligation as a pastor, to mark this day with the celebration of the Divine Service (and I count that a most blessed privilege).

Actually, the whole world ought to give thanks for pastors and congregations who celebrate the Divine Service on the 25th of December, for it is precisely that (and only that) which makes this day the ChristMass at all. While many Christians routinely go about urging that we "keep Christ in Christmas," there seems to be a rampant nonchalance about keeping the Mass in the ChristMass. As the Word becomes flesh and is born for us today in the Divine Service of the Gospel, which is the preaching of Christ and His Sacrament, there really is no way to "keep Christ," nor the ChristMass, without the Mass.

What makes me so sad, I guess, is that this day really is not so defined by the ChristMass, not for the vast majority of people. Again, I do not begrudge Christians the freedom to make other plans for themselves and their families, as their own vocations and stations in life may suggest, and as the needs of their neighbors may require of them. I do wish there didn't seem to be such a "take it or leave it" attitude about the Divine Service, as though it were incidental to the day. Assuredly, there are many Christians who do recognize the centrality of the Sacrament and its definitive significance to this day; who hunger and thirst for the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. It is all the more sure and certain that the same Christ Jesus has given Himself, not only for the pious and faithful, but also for those who let this day of His birth come and go without a second thought. Thus, I desire to be more charitable and forgiving, merciful and considerate of my neighbor; for I know that I am too impatient and short-tempered with others. Nevertheless, it saddens me that the heart and center of the day — the Holy Communion — is generally not recognized.

Along with this sadness, there is also a frustration that derives from a pressure to compete with the world on its own terms. By the time I have officiated and presided over the several Services of the ChristMass, I have very little left for my own family. On Easter Sunday, this is readily understood and, barring any funerals or the like, there is no expectation that I must proceed to whoop it up and party hardy with my family. Christmas is trickier. My wife and children are patient and long-suffering, but with everyone else in the world rejoicing over gifts and parties and such, it is hard to avoid the feeling that I am dropping the ball and letting them down when I have no energy or enthusiasm for such festivities.

It's not only today, but the whole "season" leading up to this day, that weighs upon me in this fashion. For me it has been Advent Tide, and for the past month I have given myself as completely as I am able to the Word of God and prayer: to the observances of Advent, and to preparations for the Twelve Days of the ChristMass. Consequently, I've not sent out any cards; I only helped to finish up our annual family letter today (despite the fact that LaRena had mostly finished it a month ago). I've had neither time nor other means to do any shopping, and I'm sorry to say that my covetous flesh has a difficult time with the shopping that everyone else appears to be doing. It is a humbling blow to my pride, too, that others are so generous with us, while we are so poorly able to reciprocate in any like manner. I'm very grateful for the gifts that we receive, especially because they enable us to do some things for our children that we would not otherwise be able to do, but I would equally desire to be in a position to give good gifts to our family and friends.

What I do have to give — the Ministry of the Gospel — is warmly received and deeply appreciated by the people of Emmaus, and that should be sufficient for me. My sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment is hardly the point, in any case, and certainly not the most important thing. It is unrealistic, and contrary to the theology of the Cross, to expect the world ever to understand or honor my vocation as a pastor. Yet, even knowing all that, I still leave the church on Christmas Day overwhelmed by sadness that the world pays no attention to the Gospel I administer.

What do I want for Christmas? Chiefly, I want Jesus — who has in fact given Himself to me in the Gospel that was beautifully preached to me this morning, and who fed me with His Body and Blood in the ChristMass at midnight and again today. Along with that, I want everyone else to hear and receive the same Gospel-Word and Sacrament, and thus to have Jesus their Savior. Yes, that is what I want. That would make me happy. But how silly of me to suppose that I want it more than the Lord Himself desires it! What is my sadness to compare with the sorrow of Him who came to His own to save them, and His own did not receive Him? Yet, as many as do receive Him in faith, He gives them the new birth of the sons of God in Christ. Such faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. Therefore, irrespective of the world's apathy or ire, and despite my own frailty and weakness, there is nothing better for me to do than preach and administer the Gospel of the Word-made-Flesh, as I have been called and sent to do. In that Gospel alone is the hope of the nations and the only real cure for my melancholy blues.


Lutheran Lucciola said...

I feel very much like you do today!

Moria said...

This was only a secondary remark in your post, but I don't think we have to place the ChristMass and the activities that you labeled as worldly against each other. The "worldly" activities of gift giving, gathering with family, celebrating in homes and eating with thanksgiving, when done with a pious and faithful heart, go hand in hand with the Mass. They are an outgrowth and expression of the joy we have in Christ's Nativity. Even to shop beforehand or prepare Christmas cards during Advent, when done with the right spirit, are not out of place but preparation for the upcoming season, much as we might prepare in Advent for the Christmas liturgies. I understand and agree with you about neglecting the Divine Service on the Nativity of Our Lord--that is a cause for great sorrow--but it is not the worldly activities that are to blame, but, as always, our sinful hearts that fail to value the gifts of God.

Including these worldly activities in our Christmas activities, I find, grants an even fuller celebration of the holiday, for in doing so we both receive with thanksgiving the Gospel of Christ, and express our love with and for our neighbor.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Perhaps I have given the wrong impression. I don't regard the exchange of gifts, nor family gatherings and other festivities as "worldly." Nor do I have any sense that such things are inherently at odds with the ChristMass. I certainly don't regard it as an either/or. The fact that I do not have the time or energy to engage in such things on Christmas Day, myself, does not mean that I expect anyone else to forgo those opportunities, as they may be able. I regret having given any such impression.

My point, in this respect, was really quite the opposite. I am saddened and chagrined when I hear it argued that the Divine Service must give way for the sake of other activities. It seems to me that such a rationale is where the true ChristMass is placed at odds with anything and everything else. I am quite happy for Christians to enjoy any and all of those things, in faith and with thanskgiving, as you say. All things are given by God to be received with thanks. If I wrote something that sounded as though family gatherings and celebrations were "worldly" in a negative sense, that was not my intention at all, nor my point.

What I do regard as "worldly," and what makes me terribly sad, is the notion that "Christmas" derives from the gatherings and activities of temporal earthly families, and not from the Gospel of the Word-made-Flesh. By the same token, Christians who live by faith in that Gospel are free -- free even to miss the Divine Service on the 25th of December -- and free to celebrate in all sorts of ways with their families and friends.

I did try to suggest and convey that Christian love may in fact lead a pious and faithful Christian to be with family instead of in church on Christmas Day. I meant that quite sincerely and seriously. But, as I also have said, what an individual Christian may do for the sake of love, in the freedom of the Gospel, is quite another matter than for a pastor or congregation to not even hold the Divine Service on Christmas Day. That is not only to miss the point entirely, in my opinion, but to deprive the neighbor of receiving the gifts of Christ in celebration of His birth.

I hope this clarification is helpful, lest I be guilty of burdening consciences with the Law, where I intend only and always to extol the Gospel. My desire and prayer are that all people would live by faith from the gifts of the Gospel, in love for their neighbors in the world. Such faith and love surely do include a place for the joyful and generous exchange of gifts, and for the enjoyment of God's many temporal blessings, as well.