In America, a common quip around the holidays is, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The assumption is that the primary focus of the [Christian] holiday should be belief, not consumerism. Though a bright one-liner, like other Chrisitan-isms, it falls flat and without meaning to most ears. It actually contains a lot of meaning, but none of the intended. Something about it does not sit right with me. It seethes with judgement, not love. It covers the sense of pride that some Christians carry with them – the holier than thou pride that is ancient as story itself. Jesus is, of course, the narrative at the core of Christmas celebration, but people created alternative figures to bear the message of love: Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman, to name only a few. Jesus is absolutely central to Christmas, but the church’s inability to fully bear the message of hope and love is rooted in human pride. It is an unsuccessful attempt at fooling the masses into believing that truth is found only within their walls.
I suppose the answer can be found in the reasons society celebrates Christmas: religious tradition and memory, fellowship, celebration, hope, and the joy found in giving and receiving. The secular version of the Christmas celebration does not bear the sole blame for distraction away from the Birth narrative. The church – in its broad, multilayered form (evangelical to main line to orthodox) – also took its focus off the “reason for the [life] season.” Instead of guiding, the church establishes leadership and barricades personal worship, setting up requirements and neglecting the very real mystical experiences people have. Now, it is imperative that I qualify this statement by noting that certainly not all churches and church leaders do this. In fact, I know several who deeply desire to reveal this truth to the people. But church buildings are filled with people who prefer activities, social gatherings, feel-good sermons and scenarios, over an encouragement to discover a private, intimate, and unfettered path to things unseen. Groups form over similar religious aesthetic desires, building denominational worship. Raise your hands like this, some say. Engage in this particular posture, others say. Pray like me, assert those who need validation for their own actions.
Heaven forbid someone (the many, actually) leave church because the answers to their very real desire to experience the mysterious and ethereal – the bigger-than-human God – are denied, shamed, or feared. I worry that some never even get to this point, as their desires for a deeper God experience are ignored. “Fall in line…(any line.)”
Jesus is the reason for the season, but the church as an organization forgot. This idea is not new. Voices have been sounding the alarm for years. Why are churches shrinking? It is not because the congregations do not plan enough activities. It is not because church-goers do not smile enough. It is not even because the wrong music is played on Sunday, the pastor is not engaging, or that the service is held at the wrong time. It is, simply, that the mystical, mysterious, personal Jesus is not welcome. The Jesus who was born by amniotic fluid, grew on breastmilk, enjoyed the dirty skinned knees of boyhood, discovered a supernatural relationship with the God who called him “Son,” who dedicated his adult years to showing people the way to live, died in blood and flesh, but continues to live through us today – this Jesus is deemed too much. This Jesus, who revealed that it requires nothing but the ability to set aside our Self in order to truly love and be with God, is not offering enough creative ideas to get people back into the church.
God works outside of the church when the church no longer watches and waits. God does not need the church. Liturgy, music, and structure does not bring us to God. God is here, already. The barrier is removed, but we must be willing to see that this is the case. We create our own barriers to the mystical God by distrusting the ethereal, but we put trust in organizations run by the people.
There are those who left the church (or never attended), not because the church needs to change it’s club-structure, but because the church organization does not point to the truth. The Holy Spirit moves in anyone and everyone at the appropriate time. When church leadership acknowledges their role as ones who can point to God, not as the door into God, then people will feel the strength and confidence in the divine Relationship that always meant to exist.
Jesus’s birth revealed the hope that this Relationship is possible, and without barrier. Anything that creates obstacle is not worth our time. The spirit and hope of Jesus is found in many different parts of the holiday season, and not always by religious name.
What is the answer? Is this an anti-church stance? Certainly not! The important thing is that Church is recognized as a state of the soul, not a collection of events and a building. God never intended to have church usurp the relationship that existed from the beginning and is beautifully described through metaphor in Genesis. Churches can be partnerships that encourage individuals to deepen this relationship, and church leaders can guide and mentor – but they are never “the way in.”
Nothing is holier than the space an individual carves out in their own life for God – in whatever form it takes. The myriad of personalities that exists among us also lives in God (we are made in God’s image!)
What is this season about? Where is our Hope? It lies in the fact that God desires such closeness with us, that he built up Jesus to show us the way to love and the way to love God. Nothing should keep us from that. Not even holiday catchphrases that scold.