In our hyper-programmed culture of productivity and accomplishment, it can be a relief to reach the Christmas season: those precious few days when there is finally a cultural pressure to just be nice. Time for Christmas, time for Love.
But we also receive very specific messages what that Love should look like. These messages are everywhere, but most powerfully in the inescapable holiday soundtrack that somehow penetrates every public and private event.
In church, it’s often said that faith is defined by music: our truest beliefs are not from the Bible but from the songs we sing each week, whether it’s lofty hymns battling the organ or the not-so-affectionately titled genre of “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs. There’s nowhere in American culture that music more deeply shapes us than at Christmas. Our experience and expectations of the holiday is based on the songs we’ve committed to play in public spaces, whether out of cultural consensus or media manipulation.
The radio-dominating carols of snow and good cheer shape our subconscious holiday landscape, with their parties and presents and mistletoe and food and family and friends. These songs point us toward an elusive sense of comfort and love, but it’s a love wrapped up in a prescribed set of practices, ie., walking in a winter wonderland, getting the turkey and the mistletoe, letting it snow, and rockin’ around the Christmas tree.
The musical consensus tells us Christmas is about more than presents and lights. But only to the degree that the #1 Billboard Holiday song by Mariah Carey tells it: we believe we can transcend the materialism of the season and access the true spirit of Christmas only by attaching ourselves to a romantic partner. “All I want for Christmas is You.” True Christmas is about falling in love, because the only thing worse than being in an unhappy relationship at Christmas is to be single at Christmas, as if singleness is evidence of unloveability.
Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit was almost titled, “All I Want for Christmas is to Stake my Self-Worth on Someone Else in order to Cover my Crippling Fear of Unloveability.”
The classic (can we say classic about 1994 yet?) gives voice to one of the deepest American anxieties. If we make the leap to eschew materialism in favor of love, but can’t even master the connection of romantic love, it must mean we are not be loveable.
At Christmas, as at Valentine’s Day, we perform acts of conspicuous love without these displays, we would be unworthy of love.
To hear the Christmas songs tell it, Loving means giving as much of yourself away as you can—to buy presents; to send cards; to attend obligatory gatherings in an endless blur of warm and mildly intoxicating beverages; to socialize in specific and highly programmed ways; to make the season as perfect, as the song says, “as a picture print by Currier and Ives.” But somehow that Currier and Ives print becomes a month lived in a frenzied generosity and accommodation and giving more love than you receive until it all culminates in a sugary crash and a coma of introversion. The American Christmas is about giving away love, even when you have no more love to give. It’s the idea if you don’t give it away, you’ll never be worthy of receiving it.
Christmas can bring out crippling feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy as we race to give away “enough” love to become worthy of receiving it.
From this perspective, Jesus becomes a magic “Love Your Neighbor” card that gives you the energy to give away more love. But the real mystery and challenge of God Incarnate is that your own flesh is worthy of love. In that small baby in the manager, you face the reality that you—you, with your flaws and shame—are deeply loveable.
The Birth of Jesus is the antithesis of the Christmas carols’ message. It’s realizing that love doesn’t keep a scorecard, that no amount of presents or cards will make you more or less deserving. Christmas is about an encounter with a God who challenges you to say, “I am loved.”
This is exactly what the Virgin Mary does, in spite of theological attempts to reduce her to a humble saint who has somehow transcended the need for self-love. In carrying God inside of herself, she names her own self-worth and identifies herself as not only someone who gives love, but someone who receives love.
“Annunciation,” by El Greco; or, “The Terrifying Possibility of Self-Love.”
Immediately after the angel announces her pregnancy, in Luke 1:39, “Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country.” She learns she is pregnant and… She’s out. She’s on the road to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Bible says nothing about talking to her parents or consulting with Joseph, she just packs her bags and walks across Roman-occupied Judea by herself. Mary meets the angel and she realizes, “God has a plan for me and I have to get my s*** together.”
And so she creates more space to be herself. As she contemplates engagement, pregnancy, and marriage, as she comes into adulthood with the massive task of forming her own family unit, and as she thinks of how she wants to create a family where she gives love but also receives love, she takes time to be a single woman. She puts her obligations to others on pause in order to reflect on her own patterns of loving.
And she’s gone for 3 months. That’s one-third of her pregnancy devoted to reflecting on love with a trusted woman friend.
Her visit is about adult women making space together to be adult women. Mary and Elizabeth spend three months together. Of course, Elizabeth’s husband is around, Zechariah, but Zechariah got into an argument with an angel and the angel struck him mute. So while Zechariah is around, these three month aren’t about him. It’s truly just a time for the women be together understanding themselves and their capacities to love. To love a child, but also to love themselves.
When Mary arrives, Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!” (This is the part where John the Baptist leaps in her womb, but let’s de-center the male experience and look at the women beyond their fetus-carrying capacity.)
And Mary responds,
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.” (Luke 1:46-49)
Mary responds to Elizabeth’s blessing by blessing herself. Elizabeth says, “You’re so great!” And Mary replies, “Yes, I am great! And God loves me that way.”
Her song is full of my’s and me’s. It’s about her as an individual. Maybe coming from someone else’s mouth, it would sound self-centered, but here, it is Mary’s understanding that as a woman, she is deeply loved and worthy of all the love she has received.
Only from that place of belovedness does she launch into this vision of dismantling the political system and creating a more equitable world, the lowly lifted up and the powerful pulled down from their thrones, which is what the Magnificat is so well-known for.
Christmas is a season of love and loving. But it’s also a season of belovedness.
Among the pressure of cultural Christmas to perform acts of other-centered love, there is also space and theological precedent to shower yourself in love. To bask in the love of God.
Because you are loved and you are worthy of love. When God takes on flesh and walks among us, God gifts us the stunning truth that we are worthy of love.
This post was adapted from a sermon given Dec. 23, 2018.