There’s a huge difference between love and sentimentality. By no means am I suggesting that love is absent from many of the Christmas traditions that we treasure and remember, but I am suggesting that many of the feelings we identify as love are in reality sentimentality. Sentimentality is not a bad thing by any means; but it’s not the same as love.
Love is a much sturdier word, concept, process. “Love never fails,” says the apostle Paul to a reading/hearing audience who didn’t love him much at all. Sentimentality, however, may well fail.
What if we could not create the Christmas traditions that have been so special to us for years and years? The loss of meaningful, stirring, sweet sentiments would hurt, but it shouldn’t take away the love of Christmas. Love that is genuine remains. So I may not have any longer the beautiful Christmas tree that my mother and sister, for the most part, decorated while Dad repaired or replaced burnt out lights, and I may not have that wild rush to open gifts at a time you only barely could call morning as we practiced gift opening in my family of origin as well as in the family I raised. It was so much fun watching the kids open the gifts chosen just for them and seeing their eyes sparkle with delight. I miss that, but those days are gone unless we re-create them some day when there are grandchildren. Until then, though, I don’t want feel unable to celebrate because my favorite Christmas sentiments are unrepeatable at the moment. There’s still something significant about the whole collection of Christmas events that point to love–real love, lasting love, love unattached to sentimentality.
Let us keep in mind that the way we celebrate Christmas today is a patchwork process spanning many generations and countless adaptations. The way many of us celebrate Christmas in our corner of the world has nothing to do with the way people in other places do their Christmas celebrating. There isn’t a right way and multiple wrong ways to do it unless you completely commercialize Christmas in which case it becomes detrimental to the remembrances of the birth of the one who would grow up to change the world because of his own untiring devotion to live out love in the most complex of situations.
If we want any kind of an authentic Christmas celebration, commercialization has to go, and compassion for strugglers must move to center stage. Acts of compassion are tied to love; buying gifts unneeded by anyone on our list, gifts that may be into the back of a closet in short order is not Christmas, and yet not just any compassion will do. The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, one of the noted pastors of the Riverside Church in New York City and a minister who could be called a “tough love” pastor, said:
To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make her or him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.
Coffin absolutely clarifies the difference, or a difference, between sentimentality and love.
I’m thrilled at the ways this congregation continues to stay focused on helping those in need every way we can. How could I not be thrilled when you go above and beyond to make a practical difference in the lives of people who without you might have no food or clothing or shelter at all? Let me be clear for the sake of you newbies; I didn’t bring that ministry of compassion and concern to Silverside. I found it inextricably entrenched when I arrived.
That said–and we do care about motivation around here, not just end results—we hear what Coffin said to his congregation not terribly far from Hell’s Kitchen; if all we do is feel sorry enough for someone to toss some money in the pot for groceries or gloves without taking plenty of time to understand why she or he is in that position our actions haven’t been loving, but rather sentimental. The needy, grateful people on the receiving end probably don’t give two hoots about our motivation for giving, but we should. Jesus didn’t do all he did for the strugglers in his world simply because he felt sorry for them though, certainly, he was a compassionate person. He envisioned communities in which everyone had her or his basic needs met, no one going without or doing without.
There is little doubt that one branch of the early Jesus Movement, after his Roman execution, set up such communities of sharing where all material goods were held in common by everyone within the communities even if they’d had little or nothing to bring to the establishment of the community—widows and orphans, for example. In these communities, everyone had responsibilities that contributed to the common good so learning skills and taking responsibilities would be a part of the future for them if they hadn’t already embraced those in their pre-communal lives and lost them for the same reasons people lose jobs and homes and investments today.
Teju Cole is a native of Nigeria who came to this country to try to make a greater mark on the writing world, and he has. While he appreciates much about our country, he has not been able to miss the reality of an ever-present racism. He wrote, not with Christmas in mind but for me it applies:
From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED [Technology, Entertainment, and Design—Ideas Worth Sharing] the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex. The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm. This world exists simply to satisfy the needs– including, importantly, the sentimental needs–of white people and Oprah.
When we celebrate Christmas today we should know something of the background of the holiday, and we have to start by pointing out that the earliest followers of Jesus did not celebrate his birth at all. They began by focusing on his death and the life they sensed from him even after he was no longer walking on this earth. In other words, the earliest followers of Jesus were caught up in the fact that physical death, biological death was not the final word for or about him in their experience, and from there they worked backwards over a period of hundreds of years to get to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. There were many reasons some Christians felt the need finally to introduce a celebration of Jesus’ birth into the Christian calendar. It had nothing to do with love, however.
Many pagan traditions were intertwined in the various types of celebrations used supposedly to commemorate the birth of Jesus, such as those brought to Britain by invading Roman soldiers. These included covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that undoubtedly became the paradigm for modern office Christmas parties. The truly hilarious and dearly departed Phyllis Diller said in one of her standup routines: “The thing I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a new job the next day.”
The church attempted to cover up pagan practices and give Christian meaning to those customs that just wouldn’t go away. For example, Christmas carols that had begun as pagan songs for celebrations of midsummer and harvest were taken up by the church so that by the late medieval period the singing of Christmas carols had become a Christian tradition.
Christian groups also attempted to infuse Christian meaning into the use of holly—first, by making it a symbol for whatever had been used to craft the crown of thorns crammed down on Jesus’ head in a ridiculous display leading up to the crucifixion. According to one legend, all holly berries originally were white, but a little orphan boy who was living with shepherds when the angels announced Jesus’ birth wove a crown of holly for the newborn baby’s head. When he presented it, he became ashamed of his gift and started to cry. Miraculously, according to the legend, the baby Jesus reached out and touched the crown. It began to sparkle, and the orphan boy’s tears turned into beautiful red berries.
I believe the earliest evidence we have of scattered Christmas celebrations are in the mid-third century. Christmas celebrations did not gain prominence, and then hardly universal, until the early Middle Ages; however, even then Christmas wasn’t the big deal Easter and Epiphany were. You know what Easter is, but you may not know that the Season of Epiphany is the season of the Magi who finally get to Jesus when he’s about two years old. The season built around their long journey and non-Jewish interest in a little Jewish toddler was groundwork for seeing the work of Jesus as having a universal component. Remember that all of this was reasoned through long after Jesus’ execution. Very little of this was pondered during his life or immediately after his loss of life.
The prominence of a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth increased gradually after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800. By the time of the high Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were prominent in a number of places around the world. There were places, England for one, where Christmas celebrations were opulent and excessive, sounding more like Mardi Gras than what looks and feels like Christmas to us today.
Not everyone was happy about what they saw in celebrations of Jesus’ birth. Many Puritans, for example, blatantly condemned the celebration of Christmas calling it a purely Roman Catholic creation with “trappings of popery” in evidence at every turn. Yet, those who tried to do away with Christmas in England met with fierce opposition. Not so in Scotland where the Parliament abolished possibilities for legally celebrating Christmas in 1640; in the Parliamentary proclamation accompanying this act, the lawmakers claimed that, thanks to them, the church had been purged from observing superstitious days. Not until 1958 was Christmas reinstated as a legal public holiday in Scotland.
In Colonial America, the influential Puritans weren’t shy or quiet in making known their disapproval of Christmas; thus, the celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681 when an English governor made celebrating Christmas legal. Legalities aside, it still was not “fashionable,” we could say, to celebrate Christmas in and around Boston until the mid-1800’s.
There were places where Christmas celebrations were central before Boston came around. Christians in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina made celebrating the birth of Jesus a major part of their respective ways living and worshiping.
Alas, another hard hit for Christmas during and after the Revolutionary War. Those fighting for American independence believed that Christmas was an English custom and, therefore, should be left out of life in America altogether. George Washington spent December 25, 1776, finalizing his plans to attack German mercenaries the next day at what came to be called the Battle of Trenton.
Many of the sentimental traditions meaningful to many of us in our Christmas celebrations were initiated by English writers such as Charles Dickens. There were some Americans, too, who contributed. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said in 1856 that he detected a transition about the celebration of Christmas in New England. His words: “The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.” And in Reading, Pennsylvania, a newspaper reporter wrote in 1861, “Even Presbyterians who have hitherto steadfastly ignored Christmas–threw open their church doors and assembled in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth.”
We have said in these weeks leading up to Christmas that Christmas means joy, and Christmas means gratitude. Today, we say that Christmas means love. Getting back to our beginning point, love is not sentimentality. What is it then? Well, that’s much more of a challenge to say, but we could begin by saying what it’s not.
The opposite of love is not hatred as I heard someone say years ago. The opposite of love is apathy or indifference. Maybe that is just a clever play on words, but it still raises something vitally important. At least hatred is active and can be seen and confronted. Not so with apathy; it’s hard to see and nearly impossible to challenge.
The key character in the Christmas story who demonstrates love is God. God initiates the Christmas story in retrospect because God adopts Jesus as God’s child and then gives him as a gift to the world. Jesus ministers consistently in God’s name and thereby lives out human life as God would’ve lived it out if that were possible. Of course God is not human, but we get a sense of God’s concern from the way Jesus lived—demonstrating real love rather than sentimentality-based compassion.
Some few years we had a series of sermons dealing with how to speak of God, how to think about God, and one of the emphases was the need to move away completely from anthropomorphisms for God. So we really cannot say that God loves since all we know of love is human love, and human love at its best could not measure up to divine love if we could fully grasp it. What we could say with a fair amount of agreement is that God IS love; that’s quite a difference. We still are left even with the inadequacy of human language to be able to define God; still, it would be rather universally affirmed by many who have any sense of God that God is love.
The beautiful song, which the choir has sung, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” has one of those melodies that captures anyone who listens carefully to it. While we understand from the words the message the writer wishes to get across, we must avoid the mistake of assuming that there was no divine love operative in the world until it was revealed through the life and teachings of Jesus. Love has been from the beginning and will be to the end.
What Christmas does not mean and can never mean is that God gave God’s unique child to the world to be slaughtered as the only acceptable sacrifice powerful enough to appease God’s wrath toward humanity caused by human disobedience to God’s expectations of us. It’s a horrible thought, but it comes up every Christmas as well as Easter for that matter. If that’s what Christmas celebrates then, indeed, there should be no Christmas.
God is love, and love is action from a human standpoint; love is action. Yes, we humans have loving feelings toward those who are dear to us–our children, our significant others, our parents, our friends. Those are wonderful feelings, but until we act on them they are mere sentimentality. So children grow up telling their parents of their love for them, and most of the time everyone, including the parents, believe what is being expressed is honest and authentic. But circumstances may change, and just saying, “I love you,” no longer does the trick. There may come times when love must take action. So I see from my pastoral vantage point adult children who in love begin caring for their aging parents and doing tasks for the aging parents that they can no longer do for themselves. Adult children must often make decisions for aging parents that they are no longer able to make for themselves.
In wedding vows we still ask couples most of time, do you promise to love her or him in sickness and health, in poverty and wealth? It’s one thing to say, “I love you,” when all the trappings of a beautiful wedding enhance feelings. It’s quite another to say, “I love you,” to the person to whom you have pledged your undying love who suddenly shows a weakness you didn’t notice at all during the years of dating and maybe even living together.
Sentimentality will not get us through. Love that is love is, again, sturdy and determined. Baby Jesus grew up to put love into practice in the most hopeless of situations. That is what Christmas must be about. Christmas means love.