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I recently happened on an article entitled, “How popular music secularized Christmas,” or, as I like to call it, “Blame it on Bing.” Quite honestly, I was a little uncomfortable reading this latest entry into the war on Christmas literature, not only because I find the entire conversation upsetting, but because I am personally pretty attached to Bing Crosby at Christmas. Actually, it’s not just at Christmas. And it may be more than an “attachment.” To be honest, my husband has gone so far as to refer to it as an “affliction.”
I admit that he has cause to resent dear old Bing. You see, when my husband and I first moved to California from the east coast it was a major life change for me in a number of ways. It was the first time I had lived away from my family other than college. I had never been any further west than West Virginia. And my ideas about California came strictly from movies and television –so you can imagine how shocked I was at the lack of palm trees and lifeguards when I first visited a Bay Area beach. We didn’t really choose to move here either. My husband was in the military and, although he had requested jobs in places I wanted to live (all on the east coast), he was sent to California. We weren’t married at the time but we agreed that we had been in a long-distance relationship long enough and needed to figure out if we could actually live together prior to getting married, so I promised to go with him. My family actually had bets on how long I’d last– because as a serious homebody who was baptized in the same church as my mother I was probably the worst candidate for a military spouse ever.
But I went. Pioneer woman that I was, I bravely and (I thought) generously demonstrated my commitment to our relationship by leaving all that I knew behind to start a life with Gary. And I cried all the way across the country. It turned out that I wasn’t the brave one; he was – because my primary coping mechanism during the very long drive was to surround myself with things I found comforting – so I rode over three thousand miles in July covered in an ancient comforter and replaying “Bing Crosby’s Classic Christmas shows” over and over and over again. Looking back, I’m probably fortunate that he didn’t tire of me halfway across the country and leave me stranded somewhere in Indiana.
The effect of Bing Crosby on my marriage aside, he apparently had a fairly significant influence on “Christmas season” culture – perhaps even more than Starbuck’s beverage cups. According to the article, the majority of popular music that many of us identify with “the holidays” was written during and after World War Two. Prior to that, the music popularly associated with Christmas was made up of hymns and carols – some of the same ones we [are hearing/will hear] at our Lessons and Carols service today. Songs introduced in the 40s such as “White Christmas,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” were, the author suggests, about “The separation of families during the holidays…[and songs about home and hearth were] emotional touchpoints for a huge percent of the population. .. Instead of songs that celebrated a holy family in Bethlehem, the public craved tunes that reminded them of their own family members who might be in an even worse place than a manger.” In other words, they were about comfort not Christianity. And, according to the article, they were accepted as such. In a country that was then 90 percent Christian, the musical switch away from religious music stirred up virtually no controversy. That’s in direct opposition to the strident protests of the much-smaller percentage of 21st century Christians who see secular “Christmas” music as part of the much-touted war on Christmas.
Or maybe we should call it “the war on comfort” – because for many people, “classic Christmas” music- whether it’s “The First Nowell” or “Jingle Bells” – invokes a sense of nostalgia for what they think of as simpler and more straightforward times. But I think that it’s actually the reverse of comfort that feeds that longing for half-remembered traditions. I think it’s about fear. The primarily Christian American post-World War Two generation easily accepted the secularization of Christmas because they were not afraid of losing their influence and the economic and cultural power that came with it. They were firmly in the majority so they could afford to magnanimously allow “two narratives of holiday festivities—the religious and the secular…in an effort to spread peace on Earth and goodwill to all.” Loving your non-Christian neighbors is pretty easy when they are grateful recipients of your good will.
Which is probably why many 21st century Christians seem to be finding it much harder to love our neighbors. After all, it’s scary to love people that might not love you back. I think that’s why the 20th century Marie-Antoinette-like nonchalance of “Let them have Bing” has morphed into full-on rage directed at anyone who is perceived of as taking the Christ out of Christmas. It is a rage born out of fear that stems from the realization that Christians are no longer the majority in this country -that Christian values aren’t necessarily the same as “American” values – that being a Christian in the United States might not be as comfortable as it used to be.
I think that’s good. Because feeling comfortable is a pretty fine indicator that we are not doing our best to live our lives the way Jesus told us to. Comfortable religion is, after all, exactly what he warned his disciples against. “Stay awake,” he said. “Don’t be complacent.” “Do good when no one is looking.” It’s the same thing Paul was trying to tell his converts in Galatia. When you are immature and don’t know how to make good decisions, you need rules to make sure you do the right thing. That’s why when Paul talks about “the law,” he uses the word “disciplinarian” – “payee-dag-o-gos” in Greek –which is similar to “nanny” or paid caregiver. He’s telling them that the law is an impersonal and distant teacher – as opposed to faith. By faith they will learn in relationship with Jesus instead of under the law – and in that way they will know not only God’s rules, but God himself.
That’s the difference between religious belief that is inflexible and closed to interpretation and faith based on being in communion with the divine. The law is stagnant. God is active. Christ’s love does not stand still – and Christians cannot stand still in the face of wrong – because the light of Christ means something only when we use it to dispel darkness. We must use it as a guide us as we wrestle with the shadows in the world- and we must use it to see things not as we want them to be but as they are. We cannot cling to one unchanging view of God. We have to acknowledge the possibility that there are many ways to know God. We have to admit that our own ability to know God may depend on our willingness to listen to and love those who are different than ourselves. And that is terrifyingly uncomfortable.
But that doesn’t mean that scripture and tradition are unimportant or wrong. They are a crucial part of what it means to be Episcopalian – and they have much comfort to offer us. And for me the words that we heard today from the Gospel of John are the most comforting I know. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it.” We feel the purity and truth of those words – because they are about the very nature of God. Darkness takes many forms: the oppression and poverty of minority people in an occupied land; the misguided rage of those who are powerful and fear losing their authority; our own fear when we are forced to relinquish what is comfortable in order to do what is right. But God is always light. God cannot help but be light. That is what God is.
Take comfort in that – because Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, does not begin in comfort. It begins in anxiety and disappointment and struggle. And it’s no use trying to get to the comfort without going through the labor, because “comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end [but] if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth.” So if the changing world makes you uncomfortable, I’m glad to hear it, because it means you are on a sacred path. It means that you, like God, have raised your spiritual tent in the world of the flesh – in the awkward, unpleasant, besieged, and ultimately transforming reality that is being human. And the very best news is that you are not and never have been alone – because God has sent the true light into the world – a light full of life and grace – a light that is for all people – a light of peace and glory and- yes- of comfort. AMEN.
The Daily Beast (12/22/15), “How popular music secularized Christmas,” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/22/how-popular-music-secularized-christmas.html
C.S. Lewis (2015), Mere Christianity (New York: Harper One).