Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
-from John 15
Christmas is coming, and you need neither a calendar nor a fattening goose to see it.
You can tell, for instance, by tracking the growing epidemic of houses wrapped in lights. You can witness the inexorable yearly shift from pumpkin-flavored-everything to peppermint-flavored-everything. You can note the uptick in promotional emails filling your inbox.
If you want the most reliable way of predicting the oncoming Yuletide season, aside from the afore-dismissed calendar, here it is: listen for the inevitable whine of people asserting their right – nay, their duty – to keep Christ in Christmas.
Frankly, I’m not sure where these folks think Jesus is going. It’s not like the Word-who-was-present-at-creation is likely to get lost.
That’s not really a fair assessment, though, is it? I may not grasp the belligerence with which people insist that the word Christmas cannot be abbreviated, but the basic sentiment makes sense.
So, we have to be sure to keep Christ in Christmas, because we have to make sure that the focus is on Christ.
Historically, of course, this is nonsense. Xmas does not somehow delete Christ from the story. The X, from the Xmas in question, is a perfectly good stand-in for Christ and has been for centuries. The word Christ, written in Greek, begins with the letter chi– which is written just like our letter x. Which is to say: the X in Xmas means Christ. Always has.
So, for we English-speakers in 2014, it might be clearer to abbreviate Christmas as C-mas, rather than X-mas. Either will fit just as well on our two-line marquee sign. But, we don’t need to worry that either rendition constitutes a denial of Christ.
Let’s take the slogan seriously, though. The underlying impulse isn’t a bad one. Christmas, for Christians, should be about Christ.
So. Keep Christ in Christmas. How should we go about that?
I have a lot of friends who are concerned about the menace of secularism, about living in a society in which Christ is forcibly absent. I can go with them, part way. I get that fear. I am concerned more, though, about a related menace: that of consumerism.
See, back before Columbus Day, people were trying to sell me stuff for Christmas. Maybe they were using Jesus, maybe they were using Santa, maybe they were just using pretty lights and hoping that I wouldn’t ask too many questions.
This is what it means though, in our culture, to celebrate a high holy day: buying stuff.
Even when the ad pitches contain religious iconography, is this not a swing and a miss?
This spending frenzy is not what it means to keep Christ in Christmas.
Last week, Craig and I were in Roanoke, Virginia. We spent some time shopping for Christmas presents. I won’t tell you what we got, because I’ve been posting my sermons on our new website and I don’t want my family to know what I got them for Christmas.
I will tell you, though, that my mother loves Nativity sets. And so – without telling you what we actually found for my mother – Craig and I were, you know, looking around at the prices on various Nativity sets. Like you do, when you’re on vacation.
The price tags for each set were in the most obvious place available. If it was a solid piece, then the price would be on the bottom. If the set included multiple pieces, though, then the price tag would be underneath whichever segment included the baby Jesus. If Mary was holding the baby, then the price tag would be under Mary. If the baby was a standalone piece, inside a manger, then the price tag would be under that.
And it occurred to me, suddenly and rather uncomfortably, that I could literally buy the baby Jesus for my mother without engaging in any sort of Christmas worship.
No amount of purchased baby Jesuses will be enough to keep Christ in Christmas.
So. Solo Christo is a phrase stemming from Reformation-era Protestant theology. Solo Christo means that salvation comes through Christ alone.
It was meant to testify against the Catholic understanding that salvation came through both Christ and the church, in the form of priestly mediators. This may or may not have been a clear articulation of Catholic beliefs at the time- but, it’s not like hundreds of thousands of people died over that question on the European subcontinent, so why worry about it too much?
The idea, I think – solo Christo – is worth hanging onto. Without Emmanuel – Christ among us – we have no life.
This is the sense of the passage that Lee read out of the Gospel of John. Jesus says that he is the vine, and disciples like us are the branches. Jesus is the root, and apart from that, we are like the remains of pruning a bush back. How long does it take for those branches to wither and die?
If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, then we need to begin by acknowledging Christ as our only source of life.
If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, then we do not need to begin by asking overworked cashiers to say “Merry Christmas,” rather than “Happy Holidays.” We do not need to begin by insisting that Jesus is the Reason for the Season. We do not need to begin by demanding that Nativity scenes be purchased to adorn all our civic spaces.
Rather, we need to begin as good Quakers, by examining the state of our own souls.
Where is Christ, in our Christmas?
I like this vine-and-branches analogy because it speaks to me of simplicity. Simplicity, of course, is part and parcel of being a good Quaker, right? We don’t pursue material wealth for its own sake. We don’t have a flashy worship service filled with distracting rituals. We speak plainly. We seek to live quiet lives.
That’s all well and good. I won’t criticize any of those goals. That’s not really what the testimony of simplicity is about, though.
See: you are offered, in every moment of your life, an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with Christ. You are offered an opportunity, Branches, to drink your life from the only the root that will feed you. You are offered in this second, and the next, and the next, an opportunity to be called a Friend of God.
What could be more important?
So simplicity, in the Quaker sense, is an attempt to push aside anything that would pose a distraction. Simplicity, in its purest form, follows from the realization that the divine mystery wants to talk to you. What could possibly be more important than that?
Which is to say: simplicity is not an end, in and of itself. Simplicity, with regard to this world’s concerns, is about how we throw off everything that hinders us and run with perseverance the race marked out for us, a race that ends at the feet of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Simplicity is not about making more space in our lives, in a subtractive sense. It is about making more space for Jesus.
So. If you want to keep Christ in Christmas – and I do think that this is a worthwhile goal – then something else is going to have to give.
Is it time? I’m not going to out any of you from the pulpit on this, so don’t worry. Let’s say, though, hypothetically speaking, that some of you may have mentioned to me that you wished you had time for a regular spiritual practice of some sort.
Well, this morning, I am your pastoral fairy godmother. Poof! You do, in fact, have time.
I saw a motivational poster, recently, that admonished its readers to remember that each of us had exactly as many hours in the day as Beyonce. That’s a hard pill to swallow, considering Beyonce’s achievements.
It’s true, though, Your day is exactly as long as Beyonce’s. It’s exactly as long as Albert Einstein’s day. Your day is just as long as Bayard Rustin’s, or Dorothy Day’s, or George Fox’s, for that matter.
If you’re wishing with all your heart that you had ten minutes to set aside for a spiritual practice, then…Poof! You do!
You’ll just have to give up ten minutes of something else. That’s the catch. Could you simplify like that? Could you keep Christ in Christmas by giving up ten minutes a day, this month, in order to focus on Christ?
But, maybe time isn’t your issue. Maybe ten minutes a day is no problem for you. Maybe you’re already doing that!
Okay, then let’s talk about talent. Specifically, yours.
What are you good at? What are your gifts?
Musicians, writers, artists, historians, scientists, businessfolk: we are all called to seek first the kingdom of God. Whatever our various crafts may be, we are called to place our skills on the altar before the Lord of Hosts. We are asked to offer that we are, all that we know how to do, as an act of worship to God.
Well… okay… but if you did that 24/7, how would you pay the rent? If you entirely gave up your ability to earn a living, dedicating all the proceeds to God’s work, then how would you live? Maybe that’s absurd.
Let’s go back to that ten minutes per day. What if – just for this month, just as a Christmas thing – you spent ten minutes per day applying your workplace skills and gifts toward the needs of this world.
Maybe you’re an accountant. Maybe you’re a teacher. Maybe you’re a farmer. Could you spend ten minutes a day, from now till the end of the year, bringing your expertise to bear against the needs surrounding your community?
That’s a second way of keeping Christ in Christmas. You can simplify your life, you can set aside ten minutes of your time for a devotional practice, or you could set aside ten minutes of your time to share your expertise for the salvation of the world.
Perhaps, though, neither time nor talent are what you have to offer.
December, I’ve been told, is a poor time for a stewardship sermon. December is a time for sparkly Christmas sermons about babies and angels and whatnot. It’s not a time to talk about wallets.
Maybe that’s true. But, if I’m going to talk about stewardship of time and talent, then it makes sense to also talk about stewardship of treasure.
Some churches talk a lot about tithing, a practice wherein Christians give ten percent of their income to the church. The practice doesn’t have much Biblical merit- the 10% donation requirement only applied to agricultural produce, and it had to be delivered to the Levite priests, none of whom exist today. In the New Testament, Christian worshippers are never asked to deliver a 10% tithe on their income.
We are, however, asked to be generous. Generosity cannot be denied. Can you simplify your budget?
What would it look like, this Christmas, for you to make a little more room in your budget for Christ? Could you give an extra 10%, this month, to the work of God? Could you keep Christ in your Christmas budget by putting your money where that hope is?
I want to be clear, here, that I do not mean this question to shame those for whom “a little more room in the budget” is simply not possible.
But: we thank God for the blessings provided by those who share their time, talent, and treasure. If “treasure” is one of your gifts, then I hope that you will consider sharing it.
Jesus the Christ said I am the vine; you are the branches. If we live in Christ, we will bear fruit beyond imagining. If we do not live in Christ, then we will not live at all.
Consider, Friends: our time, our talent, and our treasure. To keep Christ in Christmas, to celebrate only Christ this season, how shall we give the rest away?