Symbols of Life

"The dollhouse isn't finished."

That's how the patient responded when I asked him what his biggest concern is right now.  This man, whom I'll call Carl, has a wife and two teenage daughters.  He had just recently discovered that he had malignant tumors spread throughout his chest cavity.  He had been as healthy as a horse his whole life and often joked that the only time he had been in the hospital was when he was born.  His wife described their family to me as "very close," doing a lot of things together.  Carl had been working for a long time on a large dollhouse for one or both of his daughters.  As I visited him in his hospital room and asked him what his biggest concern is, he responded, through sobs, "The dollhouse isn't finished."

His wife all but scolded him for the response.  "Oh Carl, come on."  Carl shakes his head and puts his hand up, saying, "I know, I know...I know it sounds crazy, I know there are more important things, but that's what came to mind."  As Carl's wife continued to make him feel guilty for that response, I tried to explain something to her.

Humans have an incredible need for tangible things that can serve as a symbol for something that is otherwise intangible.  We wear wedding rings.  We freak out when we lose them not because we're unmarried without them but because they are important symbols of a deeper reality.  We keep pictures of friends and family in our home and office.  Not because the pictures make them any more present with us, but because they serve as important reminders of their reality and the relationship.  We decorate at Christmastime and light advent candles.  We wear crosses around our necks.  We build churches and temples.  We put tombstones at burial sites.  We also use symbols in our minds - metaphors - to understand things.  The next time you read your Bible, sing a hymn, or listen to a spoken prayer, pay attention to how many metaphors are used to try to describe or grasp the mystery of God (hand, throne, eye, garden, heart, etc.). The ancient Israelites used an ark to symbolize God's presence with them.  The only problem is when the image or symbol is equated with God or is used as an attempt to domesticate or replace God (as was the problem in Exodus 32:1-8, for example).

Carl was not being materialistic or trivial in his focus on the dollhouse, as his wife clearly assumed.  Rather, the dollhouse for him was a powerful symbol of his relationship with his daughters, and its unfinished status was now a heart-wrenching representation of the prospect of not getting to see them grow up and have grandchildren.  For him, the dollhouse is a symbol of life; a representation of something even more real than the thing itself.

Materialism is rampant in our society, to be sure, and people seem to put things before others.  But the next time you notice yourself or someone else fixated on a certain object or tangible symbol, remember that there may be much to learn by exploring what that thing represents.  It might stand for something...and that something might be very important.


Syncretism and the "War on Christmas"

One of the nasty words in certain Christian circles is syncretism. This basically refers to the merging of outside, non-Christian influences with the worship, mission, and beliefs of the church. This is strictly guarded against, and it is said that syncretizing Christianity with other practices and philosophies is dangerous and dilutes the Christian faith and message. (The whole idea, by the way, is based on the false assumption that there is such a thing as pure, culture-less Christianity; that it is somehow possible to view and practice the Christian faith - or any faith - in a cultural vacuum).

A careful observer, however, will realize that Christmas has gotten a complete pass - a get-out-of-jail-free card - when it comes to syncretism. For almost all Christians, the Christmas holiday has become inextricably intertwined with shopping, gift-giving, decorated houses, candy canes and other treats, and of course, Santa Claus. Oh sure, we still hear the cliche: "Jesus is the reason for the season." But look around your church. Lights, greenery, candles, candy, pageants, and in some churches, even Santa. Now go read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. Notice some things missing?

None of this extra stuff is harmful, of course. But then you hear about this "war on Christmas." It's a term used by some Christians to refer to what they see as an organized effort among the minority of non-religious people to strip the Christian holiday from the public square. Commentators pick up on it every year, tickling the ears of those who don't want to share space with people who are different from them. At some point along the way, political correctness became a mortal sin, and many Christians are all up in arms about the fact that the government, retail stores, and others are trading Christmas in for the neutered term "holidays." "We are being persecuted," they seem to say, "and we are being stripped of our right to celebrate Christmas."

Now, a quick disclaimer. There is such a thing as anti-Christian paranoia that exists out there. There have been some public schools who recognize every holiday BUT Christmas. There are incidents of students being asked to remove religious clothing or jewelry. I've known several teachers who mistakenly believe that they are forbidden from talking to students about religion at all. But these are isolated incidents, and there is nothing audacious about government and retail stores recognizing that Christmas is not the only holiday celebrated in December.

But here's the point I want to make to all my fellow Christians who think there's a "war on Christmas": Are you sure this is Christmas - the Christian holiday - that you're defending here? What is actually happening is that the same Christians who are so against syncretism actually end up defending and fighting for the highest form of it in these culture wars at Christmas time.

Let's start with the most basic part: the time of year. We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born, but his birth was not celebrated in winter until long after his time when it was merged with pagan celebrations associated with the winter solstice. Large feasts and Christmas meals? That didn't become prominent until King Richard II in the 1300s, and even then it was only an indulgence of royalty. Caroling didn't come around that same time either, and when it first started it consisted mostly of lewd dancing. Greenery? That wasn't until the middle ages either. The Puritans of New England were against celebrating Christmas and tried to ban it. No Christmas trees or nativity scenes in America until the Moravians in the 1700s. Many of the symbols and traditions that we associate with Christmas came from Victorian era traditions, and this holiday as it is celebrated in America today did not take on its full and current form until the 1950s.

And yet what does the protest of the "war on Christmas" center around? We're fighting for all these things that have nothing to do with the biblical Christmas story. We hear about retail employees saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." But if we're truly celebrating the birth of Christ, why are we shopping in the first place...unless we're picking up an extra bottle of myrrh? (All the way back in 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote The First Christmas in New England in which a character complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree). We hear about school pageants and parties not honoring Christmas, but if we're doing the birth of Christ without the syncretism, no pageants! We fight to display nativity scenes, and yet every nativity scene on the market is nothing but an inaccurate, Victorian recreation of many semi-related stories (for example, the "wise men" didn't visit that night, and I'm pretty sure Jesus and his family weren't Caucasian). We get mad about "holiday trees," saying they should be called "Christmas trees," as if the name really matters (there's an isolated reference in Jeremiah 10:3-4 in which the prophet criticizes a practice that sounds eerily familiar to Christmas trees...). We Christians, who claim to be bringing the good news of God's love, do little more than draw people's ire with antics such as the song "It's Called Christmas with a Capital C" by Go Fish. It was telling when I read an article in a paper that dealt with supposed discrimination against a certain student for her celebration of Christmas, and the title of the article said, "Ho Ho No: Santa Not Welcome at [such and such] School."

Santa, huh? Darn that religious discrimination.

If syncretism is bad and we want to celebrate Christmas in a biblically-faithful way, what would we be doing?
  • We would be taking a stance of humility, instead of grabbing people by the necks and shouting, "Say Merry Christmas, you infidel!" Jesus always took last place, and it started with his birth. A dirty stable, out of sight and out of mind.
  • We would be praising God and celebrating what we have the humble privilege to be a part of, just as Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79) did.  We would recognize, like Mary did, that the way in which God chose to come to earth signaled a dramatic reversal in which rulers will be brought down and the rich sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53).  Around Jesus, you want to be found last, not first (Luke 13:30) or grabbing for power (Luke 22:25-26).
  • We would be welcoming and inviting towards those among us who are different, despised, or rejected, just as it was the dirty people (shepherds) and the pagan people (Magi) who were first privy to the good news.
I remember one year some talking head on the news said: "I'm all for free speech and free rights, just not on December 25th."  Gee, happy birthday, Jesus.