I’m not advocating a complete doing away with our family traditions. They are what they are, and we, as a society, are programmed to behave a certain way and accomplish certain things during this time. But there really should be some concerted effort to stop the hurrying, halt the preparations, for just an hour or two, and spend that time with God. Doesn’t have to be at midnight; you could do it at midday. But all of this rushing and spending and cooking and driving and weave tightening—that’s about you. Maybe you could tithe back just a fraction of all of that to Him whose birth this season allegedly celebrates.
I've still got the myrrh and frankincense in my hair.
The Bishop and the rector orbited the sanctuary swinging the
thurible, filling the hall with a fragrant smoke while the most
beautiful voices I’ve ever heard in Colorado Springs filled the
night with praise. The Catholic Church uses incense in
accordance with prophecy of Malachias, the fragrant smoke
symbolizing our prayers rising to Heaven and purifying what it
touches (And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may
offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. —Malachi 3:
3). The incense is kept in a covered, often boat-shaped
liturgical vessel called, unsurprisingly, a “boat,” which
symbolizes the barque of Peter. The boat, made of bronze or
brass and often silver or gold-plated, comes with a spoon for
scattering the incense in the bowl-shaped matching burner,
called a “thurible” or “censer.” The thurible holds burning
charcoal (or wood) to ignite the incense and hangs on chains so
that it may be swung by the priest when censing things (or
people) and so it may be easily carried by the thurifer — the
"Altar server” who assists the priest by carrying the incense. I
am not a Catholic, but Midnight Mass was a tradition introduced
to me some thirteen years ago. It’s a wonderful tradition, one
I’ve been lobbying unsuccessfully for our Baptist culture to
adopt. Black America, still very much entrenched on a Christmas
day tradition (as opposed to a Christmas eve tradition) is, by
and large, exhausted come Christmas morning, having spent the
preceding days in a mad rush of shopping and cooking and gift
wrapping as part of our annual effort to maintain the Santa
Claus myth for our children.
In contrast, a great many white Christians have a Christmas eve tradition. The big family meal is Christmas eve, not Christmas day. Friends gather, presents are exchanged, a meal is shared, and, come 10 o’clock or so, it’s time to head to church. The service begins with an hour-long liturgical music prelude, with horns and strings and choirs and soloists, and concludes with a full mass at midnight. These folks usher in Christmas day by taking communion and warmly greeting one another. It’s a wonderful, wonderful tradition, an event I usually cannot black folks to attend. Exhausted and immersed in baking and wrapping and hair relaxers, most black church folk simply think I’m crazy for going to church at midnight on Christmas Eve. They’re probably right. It’s simply more evidence of the widening divide between myself and the black church; between what we confess as believers and what we practice as church folk.
During this annual ritual observance, I’d rather invest my time and energy in things that edify and please God than in things that make my family happy. There’s nothing wrong with making your family happy, but we shouldn’t be spending all of our time, all of our money, all of our energy pleasing people. We should be pleasing God. Spending an hour with God—regardless of the church denomination—certainly pleases Him more than your cornbread and hair rollers. Spending hour after hour wrapping presents your kids will shred the moment they awake perhaps pleases you, but God gets absolutely no glory from it. Most kids will never stop, not even for a moment, to thank God for the new bike. You’ll be lucky if they thank you for the new bike.
By noon, bellies are full and the kids are down the block comparing the spoils of their yearly haul. Many of us are passed out on the couch, the football game blaring on in the background, while mother, exhausted, chats idly on the phone, comparing this year’s travails with some sympathetic sister on the other end.
All of which rather misses the point.
No Vacancy: But you can sleep in the garage.
I got thrown out of five hotels.
I arrived here, in May of 1995, on my first visit to Colorado
Springs, without a hotel reservation, despite having been warned
by my friend Willie that Colorado Springs was notoriously short
on hotel rooms. In those days, there wasn’t a whole lot of
choices so far as hotels ran, but I found the notion that
there’s be no room for me a bit ridiculous. I mean, come on,
Colorado Springs is a city, albeit a small one. Surely there’d
be a room here.
Well, Colorado Springs is also a tourist town. And I was
arriving in May, during various commencements (the United States
Air Force Academy for one), and there was some huge cowboy
convention at the Rodeo Hall of Fame. The fact was, most every
halfway decent hotel in the city was, in fact, booked solid. I
managed to get a room here for a day or two, but I’d have to
leave because the hotel was sold out for the coming weekend.
So, I stayed here a few days and there a few days, moving from
hotel to hotel because availability was so limited. I didn’t end
up sleeping in my rental car or driving to Denver (which was
another possibility), but I was the Vagabond Tourist, wishing,
most every day, that I’d listened to advice and had made
Of course, Mary and Joseph couldn’t make reservations, at least not the way we think of them. These were very young people—Joseph a young man in his early twenties and Mary most likely just a girl of fourteen or fifteen. They clearly weren’t rich. Maybe they had a donkey, but they were far from royalty of any sort. They had no political connections, no local contacts to help them and they had no apparent influence on anyone around them. They were just two more in a sea of faces swelling Bethlehem at the time of the census. The city was more or less in chaos, overflowing with crowds. It was all very political, I’d imagine, with concessions being made to the fat cats and dignitaries at the expense of kids like Joseph and Mary, who were not children of princes or kings, who wore no fancy robes, had no signet ring. They were merely faces in the crowd.
What strikes me as significant about this is how God allowed His Son to be born into abject poverty. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Joseph and Mary were poor, but on this day, on the day of Christ’s birth, they were the very poorest of the poor: the Biblical equivalent of sleeping in your car. They were overlooked and passed by, no one concerned about their welfare. No one feeding them or housing them. The kindest gesture offered them was a squatter’s spot in a smelly barn.
Is it possible God allowed this to underscore the universal nature of His divine gift to us? Is it possible God’s message to us, in celebration and remembrance of the birth of His Son, is that Christ came into the world with absolutely nothing, born to parents who could give Him absolutely nothing. That our focus should be on Christ and not so much on gifts and hoopla?
Changing The Program
I’m not advocating a complete doing away with our family traditions. They are what they are, and we, as a society, are programmed to behave a certain way and accomplish certain things during this time. But there really should be some concerted effort to stop the hurrying, halt the preparations, for just an hour or two, and spend that time with God. Doesn’t have to be at midnight; you could do it at mid-day. But all of this rushing and spending and cooking and driving and weave tightening—that’s about you. Maybe you could tithe back just a fraction of all of that to Him whose birth this season allegedly celebrates.
Christopher J. Priest
25 December 2005
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