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It’s worth a smile or two to realize how human it is, right now—a couple new inches of snow on the fields just outside my window, our furnace running us bankrupt, the temps barely enough to move the mercury, darkness running halfway through the morning—it’s worth a smile or two to realize how human it is to put up a live tree in the house, to party, to celebrate, to open one’s arms and heart to the warmth of hope and love amid all the cold darkness all around…In a world of mystery and mysteries, in so many ways I reach, as all of us do, for the Light of the World.

So wrote the venerable Jim Schaap (here on The Twelve) a few years back.

I saved that paragraph because it brought me hope and cheer. It conveyed that irrepressible drive in all of us to seek light in these darkest of days. Jim seemed amused, heartened really, by all the nutty ways we reach for hope in the cold dark. It felt like Jim’s words hallowed our festivities and crazy traditions, gave them a smiling nod of approval, that in their own haphazard way they point us toward The Light of the World.

I hope so. I really do.

Father James Martin, S.J.

Then last week, I came across this from James Martin, a Jesuit priest I often appreciate:

Desire gets a bad rap in the spiritual life, since some people equate it with selfishness. Like “I want a new car or a new computer or new phone.” But our deepest desires are God’s desires dwelling within us: desires for peace, for love, for hope, and, most of all for God. So this Advent, this season of desire, ask God to reveal to you your deepest desires. And ask to come to know the Desire of the Nations, Jesus.

It brought to the fore something I often struggle with, especially around Christmas. Are our desires really from and for God? Or are they frivolous and dangerous diversions? In these shortest days are we reaching for any light we can possibly grab, or in all our goings-on, are we actually reaching for the Light of the World?

I wouldn’t phrase it the way the Heidelberg Catechism does, that I am prone to “hate God and my neighbor,” but I have a pretty stout understanding of sin. That means that our desires our disordered. We seek light in so many improbable and perilous places, rather than the Light of the World.

And that affects the way I have celebrated Christmas. I think it has made me a bit of a killjoy.

I’ve always been critical of most Christmas celebrations. Let’s face it, there is plenty to mock. Consumerism. Parties. Excess. Gluttony. Garish decorations and ugly sweaters. Schmarmy movies and saccharine music. Or even worse, snobby music–highbrow stuff that people fawn over in order to prove themselves cultured.

As you can see, I’m pretty good at taking down Christmas.

Far better to listen peacefully to Sufjan Stevens or my Pandora “Folk-Holidays” station, wearing the burly sweater my wife knit for me from organic wool while enjoying mulled cider from the locally-sourced apples—or maybe some cognac or port. (Sorry, swerving into highbrow there) while working on my hand written Christmas cards.

Many of the things I’m critical of at Christmas on “theological grounds,” just happen to be things I’m not very good at, or very comfortable with. I’m not a savvy shopper. I feel out of place in malls. I can try to present that as a badge of honor, a prophetic stance, but there is also some inadequacy and insecurity at work in me. Similarly, I can snootily spurn the shallowness of Christmas socializing, but I should also probably recognize my own personal shortcomings and awkwardness at those events.

I suppose I’m trying to let people find joy and light where they find it. It isn’t like there is an overabundance. Do I need to be so concerned that they are desiring counterfeit light and hollow joy? Maybe it is just different from my joy. Does my theological reluctance come across as anything more than bah-humbug?

Perhaps there is some measure of true Light, and real joy, and the Desire of the Nations in all of our festivities.

Or, perhaps I am getting soft, negligent, weary, and compromised.

Three funny situations that quickly illustrate the sort of tensions raised by these questions.

1. Are there any anti-Christmas tree holdouts still around? A friend, whose father was a stern Christian Reformed pastor, was not allowed to have a tree as a young child—50+ years ago. The father finally relented when he realized that his wife and children were covering the family piano with so many evergreen boughs and ornaments it resembled a tree.

2. Santa Claus. We were Santa agnostics with our kids. Not making a big deal of it. Not leaving out cookies. But neither did we indoctrinate virulent anti-Santa missionaries to wreak havoc at the elementary school.

3. A pastoral colleague was asked by the Christmas Eve soloist if she could sing Babes in Toyland  in addition to O Holy Night. He said “no.” Would you?

Merry Christmas to all you fine and faithful readers! You are a gift to me.

May your reaching for light bring you the Light of the World.
May your true desire be for the Desire of the Nations.
May your next few days be blessed with the joy of Emmanuel—God with us.

Tidings of comfort and joy to all!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

3 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    You speak for me. And not just because I’m not a savvy shopper!

  • Marjorie VanderWagen says:

    I look forward to Christmas socializing for the reasons that I will meet all sorts of people with whom I would never cross paths.
    At a gathering, I pick out the person standing off to the side, by themselves. Maybe this is the one who needs attention and a bit of God’s love shown to them. Perhaps it is a person, like me, who only knows one or two people at the party. By chatting with them, they are included. Isn’t that what the Good News is about? God wants all to be included.

    Since I am not sure to whom God sent me, I treat everyone as God’s intended.

    As for the shopping, I am with you.

  • John vanstaalduinen says:

    Call me what you want but I vote no on Babes in Toyland!!!!

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