Saturday, December 22, 2012

From Nostalgia to Reality

‘Tis the season to indulge in nostalgia.

The sights and smells of Christmas time evoke memories in all of us of bygone days when life was simpler and sweeter. Movies in our minds project flickering images of our own childhoods, and those of our children, and dispense emotions of excitement and love and peace. It’s a lovely time to remember, to recall how wonderful Christmas used to be for us and our children.

I confess that I enjoy this sort of remembering as much as the next person. Nary a Christmas goes by that I fail to remember happy celebrations of my childhood and youth. Songs sung over the radio today evoke memories of special times and special people long ago. Excitement in the eyes of grandchildren brings back warm thoughts of my own children anticipating Christmas Day.

Yes, I enjoy all this—but up to a point.

A couple of weeks ago I didn’t make it to church, spending the morning at home instead with angry sinuses. So I decided to tour the channels to see if a reasonable TV substitute might be available. I lighted on a broadcast from a large church loaded with Christmas-y decorations. The host was just introducing the guest artist, a Christian pianist who would perform music of the season. The artist played “Jingle Bells.”

It was like watching an automobile accident—it was so terrible, I could not stop looking at it. It was blatant nostalgia, totally devoid of any theology whatsoever. He was a fine pianist and got a swell round of applause, so it would seem that everyone bought the heresy of it.

Unfortunately there’s a lot of that around these days. The problem Christian worship planners have is to stand apart from sheer nostalgia and celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation.

The trouble with nostalgia is that it is not likely to be either complete or accurate recall. It includes only happy times. Our memories of the past are often highly edited and devoid of those things that we choose not to remember. In other words, nostalgia is out of touch with reality.

When we let this culture of sentimentality overtake and overwhelm the worship of God coming in Christ, we delete from the Gospel story all that is undesirable and even evil.

The recent tragic murderous rampage leaving elementary school children and teachers dead is a sobering contradiction of nostalgia. Not only the parents who lost children, and the families and friends of others killed, but all parents and teachers and most everyone everywhere will have a very non-nostalgic recollection of this coming Christmas.

What happened a week ago in Connecticut was beyond a doubt an evil event. Yet in a profound way, it has driven us all to look at Christmas in a more biblical fashion.

The slaughter of the innocents in Sandy Hook Elementary School makes us remember the slaughter of the innocents by Herod in hopes of murdering the presumptive child-king of the Jews. “Wailing and loud lamentation” can be heard from many Rachels today. (Matthew 2:18)

The birth of Jesus took place in a real world, one where violence and death stalked the land. Our celebration of Christ’s birth today happens in a disturbingly similar reality.

Martin Luther said something about the shadow of the cross falling across the baby Jesus in the manger. Christ’s humble birth and his violent death are both part of God’s singular redemptive act.

We do well in our festivities at Christmas to move past the happy memories of yesteryear and celebrate the true joy that comes from recognizing the astounding love of God, a love that was willing to die for each of us and for all people.

Worshipping the Christ Child is just the beginning of following the Crucified and Risen Christ. Christmas is not a time to harken back to an ancient tale of times gone by, but to welcome Christ born again this Christmas in our lives. This is the start of a journey which for many people is a dangerous one. Yet we travel through this world of evil and woe confident of God’s redemptive love, no matter what.

What in your Christmas worship points you beyond nostalgia to reality?

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