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Theologian Stanley Hauerwas was once asked what he thought was the greatest threat to American Christianity. His answer was surprising. It wasn’t atheism. It wasn’t radical Islam. It wasn’t civil religion or consumerism. No, Hauerwas stated that what threatens to undo American Christianity is sentimentality.
Sentimentality is a kind of self-indulgent emotionalism. Oscar Wilde wrote that “a sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Rather than actively engaging with the grit and grime of the world, sentimentality longs for a life playing out like a Lifetime movie where events happen in a world illuminated by a soft, flattering light, where no one cusses and where every conflict is neatly resolved. It views the world as a Thomas Kinkade painting. It’s safe for the whole family. It never disrupts, never demands, never makes us question. Sentimentality thrives on comfort and making us feel good.
Far too often, the ache and pain of the Christmas story is co-opted by sentimentality. Family, friends, food, smells, and carols overwhelm our senses and create deep memories. Nostalgia conjures spell-binding emotions. In and of themselves, these feelings and memories are not bad. In fact, it’s their inherent goodness that makes us susceptible to the trap of sentimentality. The complexity of our favorite memories is flattened as we remember only the good. These uncomplicated emotions cause us to brush aside the difficult that often accompany our experiences.
The Christmas story is more than a quiet nativity tableau. The central event of the day, a birth, reminds us that it isn’t a mere gentle moment. There is nothing sentimental about a child being born into the world. Every mother knows, pain accompanies childbirth. New life is born through stretching, tearing, cries, and tears. Joy makes it worthwhile, but that joy comes with a cost. The temptation is always to downplay the cost. So we minimize the pain and talk of how “worthwhile” it was. We ignore the sweat soaked hair, the gritting teeth, the clenched fists as we tell this story. But if we are honest, the joy we laud is only half the story. Why do we pretend the joy was free? Is it because talking of the pain and sweat and blood makes us uncomfortable?
Likewise, treating the incarnation of God as fodder for a Hallmark card deflects from the outright disruption brought about when the Word made flesh invaded our world. Every mountain, the prophets said, will be brought low at the coming of the Messiah. Ask those on top of the mountain — those with power, money, fame, wealth, and every good thing this world has to offer — if they would welcome being brought low and watch the sentimentality fade away. Every valley will be lifted up. Those who only recognize the world through depression, grief, and loss will have their world upended by singing and dancing — which can be equally unsettling. The equality wrought by the justice of God will disorient all, leaving few of us feeling safe.
As a father, there is nothing better than seeing the wonder and joy of Christmas on the faces of my children. Last week, while looking at a picture of the manger scene, my three-year-old said, “I love looking at baby Jesus.” My heart relishes the innocent and simple way my kids embrace Christmas. My heart swoons at their faces and joy. I am not scrooge enough to say that these things are not good and beautiful and right.
And yet, there is within the story of incarnation a tension we must allow ourselves to enter. The wonder of the manger is contrasted with the sin of the world. The fulfillment of the prophecies is good news precisely because the world is filled with bad news. Emotions aren’t bad. Being sentimental isn’t the end of the world. But the sentimentality of the Christmas story tempts us to water down the Gospel. We can forget that the incarnation of God occurs against the backdrop of a ruler who murdered baby boys.
And if the Christmas story loses its grit, so does the call of Jesus. Indulgent emotionalism makes the cross as only for us, never for us to bear. Suffering becomes what Jesus went through so we never have to. The good news of this feel-good, saccharine gospel is only for the life to come, not for this present life; not for those waiting in camps along the southern border, not for those for whom justice has been withheld, not for the quarantined and isolated, the abused and not-believed, the beaten and exhausted.
Advent resists cheap emotionalism by inviting us into the story of salvation. By entering the story — the story that began with Abraham and arcs to the day when every tear will be wiped from every eye — we find our longings for a savior met, our broken hearts comforted, and our wonder at the beauty of this world enhanced. But it’s dangerous. Provoked by the unfiltered story, we will find ourselves present to uncomfortable emotions. We might be awakened to difficult situations — ours and others — and gifted with eyes to see God’s invitation to participate with God in God’s restorative work.
Rather than leaving us feeling sentimental, Advent might disturb us towards a faith that is more honest, more human, and more active. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.