Socrates once famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In a similar vein, the unexamined holiday is not worth celebrating. Whenever we do anything on autopilot, it is not surprising that at some point we forget where we are going, or what we were supposed to be doing. And when we are just cruising in a mindless tradition, it is a short time before sin takes over.
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. (Is. 25:6–8)
As the prophet Isaiah prophesies the coming of the new covenant, he does so with the image of a glorious feast. The feast is prepared by the Lord of hosts Himself (v. 6). What kind of feast is it? He prepares a feast of fat things, he prepares a feast of aged wines, of meat full of marrow fat, and then some more aged wines. This is the picture we are given of the gospel—not a glass of room-temperature water and a cracker. Right alongside this feast, in conjunction with it, He will remove the covering that kept us all in darkness for all those centuries. He will take away the veil over the nations (v. 7). The resurrection will come—and we have the down payment of that in the resurrection of Jesus—and death will be swallowed up in victory. The Lord will wipe away every tear, and all things will then be put right (v. 8). As those who have accepted this gospel, we have accepted that all of this has now been established in principle, and as we live it out in true evangelical faith, we proclaim this good news. But there must be continuity between what we are saying and how we are living. And by this, I mean much more than that our words should be true and our behavior good. I mean that our words should sound like good news and our lives should smell like good news.
Celebrate the 'Stuff'
Some of you have heard that the Puritans hated Christmas, that they were the original scrooges and grinches. But this, as is often the case, is grossly unfair to them. One of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, George Gillespie, a staunch opponent of the church year being used to bind the conscience, said this: "The keeping of some festival days is set up instead of the thankful commemoration of God's inestimable benefits, howbeit the festivity of Christmas have hitherto served more to Bachanalian lasciviousness than to the remembrance of the birth of Christ." In other words, a person might object to pepper spraying fellow shoppers on Black Friday without rejecting the blessing of Thanksgiving. He can object to a Mardi Gras orgy without objecting to the celebration of Christ's resurrection. He can turn away from a drunken office party without denying the Incarnation. And there was, for the Puritans, the matter of compulsion also.
Remember the words of C. S. Lewis here:
There is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries.
This period of Advent is one of preparation for Christmas. If we want to celebrate Christmas like Puritans (for that is actually what we are), this means that we should prepare for it in the same way. Look at the whole thing sideways, like Chesterton would. Here are some key principles:
Do not treat this as a time of introspective penitence. To the extent that you must clean up, do it with the attitude of someone showering and changing clothes, getting ready for the best banquet you have ever been to. This does not include three weeks of meditating on how you are not worthy to go to banquets. Of course you are not. Haven't you heard of grace?
Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper. Embedded in many of the common complaints you hear about the holidays (consumerism, shopping, gluttony, etc.) are false assumptions about the point of the celebration. You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through thirty days of Advent Gnosticism.
Where Sin Really Resides
At the same time, remembering your Puritan fathers, you must hate the sin while loving the stuff. Sin not resident in the stuff. Sin is found in the human heart—in the hearts of both true gluttons and true scrooges—both those who drink much wine and those who drink much prune juice. If you are called up to the front of the class, and you get the problem all wrong, it would be bad form to blame the blackboard. That is just where you registered your error. In the same way, we register our sin on the stuff. But—because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness won't imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.
Some may be disturbed by this. It seems a little out of control, as though I am urging you to "go overboard." But of course I am urging you to go overboard. Think about it—when this world was "in sin and error pining," did God give us a teaspoon of grace to make our dungeon a tad more pleasant? No. He went overboard.
Douglas Wilson is pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. This article is excerpted from his book, God Rest Ye Merry: Why Christmas Is the Foundation for Everything (Canon Press).