Sunday, December 23, 2012

You might assume that I, a Christian minister, grew up celebrating Christmas in traditional ways, with solemnity and religiosity aplenty. I did attend my share of Christmas Eve services with my church-going family. But our family Christmas celebrations have, over the years, included zanier moments, like the annual visit from the Christmas Chipmunk.

You’ve not heard of the Christmas Chipmunk? Then I’ll begin with the origins of this mythical character.

While I was in my late teens, my father drove home from work one evening wearing a chipmunk costume. He’d found the full body costume, like the ones Disney World characters walk around in, which someone discarded at his office. My father decided it would be funny to arrive home incognito. He knocked on the front door just to see what kind of reaction he’d get. Since I answered the door, he received a loud reaction. Though chipmunks are the most adorable of all rodents, the seven-foot variety lose some of their charm when they surprise you at the front door. After the giant chipmunk calmed me down, the rest of the family thought it would be fun to take turns donning the costume. Someone ran to get a camera. Soon we were all excitedly trying on the chipmunk costume and posing for the camera—realizing only after a whole roll of film was wasted that all the pictures of the chipmunk looked exactly alike regardless of who was inside the costume. This delay of insight should give you a clue about our limited capacity for maintaining holiday decorum.

Years later, again on a whim, my father rediscovered the chipmunk costume on the Christmas Eve when his then only grandchildren, my daughter and my sister’s son, were two years old and visiting with their parents for the holiday. Following some grandfatherly impulse to entertain, my father secretly costumed himself, went outside, and then knocked on the front door. My mother, the only other person in on the scheme, answered the door and in her grandmotherliest tone announced, “Oh, goodness, it’s the Christmas Chipmunk!” She ushered in the visitor, who spoke not a word but waved and smiled his painted-on smile.

“Georgia. Alex. Here’s the Christmas Chipmunk!” their grandmother introduced, as if we’d been expecting him. “Would you like to come give him a sweet hug? He’s come to see if you’re getting ready for bed so that Santa can come.”

In an instant, the other adults understood the mythology being constructed. This Christmas Chipmunk was to Santa what John the Baptist was to Jesus: a forerunner, a harbinger of the real deal. We caught on to the plot and chimed in with things like, “Thanks for coming to see us, Mr. Chipmunk! You can tell Santa that we’re going to bed now. See you next year!” Although the chipmunk did not exclaim, as he waddled out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” he did wave, and Georgia and Alex, stunned, waved back.

The chipmunk would visit each Christmas Eve at bedtime for the next ten years. And as my sister and her husband and then my brother and his wife added more children to the extended family, the Chipmunk’s Christmas Eve audience increased. Every Christmas Eve the Chipmunk helped our children prepare for Santa’s visit. And the Chipmunk ritual continued until the costume finally wore out. And by then the children were past the age of credulity.

But for a few years there, we allowed our children to live in a bizarre subculture that may have scarred them for life. For you see, my daughter and her cousins assumed that, like Santa, the Christmas Chipmunk, whose story we embellished a bit more each year, was part of everyone’s Christmas. We parents of these deluded children discovered later that Georgia and cousins would talk with their little friends about Santa’s helper, the Christmas Chipmunk—and these little friends would then look askance at the tales of his annual visitations. Kindergartners in Nashville, Montgomery, and Tampa then brought tales home to their parents of a deviant celebration of Christmas.

We also exposed our daughter and nephews and niece to other counter-cultural traditions. Before our family’s annual Christmas Eve reading of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, my sister and I staged the family nativity drama. When the children were babies, we’d dress them up in ridiculous costumes and pose them for a live nativity scene. As they grew older, we’d teach them songs, creatively choreographed, to perform in my parents’ family room. We’d get our pets in the act, too, putting antlers on our dogs when we needed reindeer or draping a dog in a nubby white bath mat when we needed a sheep. As the children grew even older, they began to produce the pageants themselves, complete with misspelled playbills and homemade costumes. Georgia one year performed her Christmas piano recital piece, “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” as cousin Alex manipulated his family’s puppy, dressed in a tiny tutu, into a lovely ballet of that Christmas standard. Once my nephew Patrick, at about age 6, delivered a spot-on Elvis impersonation while singing “Blue Christmas.” And my sister and I can still be persuaded to sing in annoying falsetto our impersonation of Alvin and the Chipmunk’s “Christmas, Christmas Time is Here” after which my father annually pronounces with heavy sarcasm, “Makes you proud.” Incidentally, as far as we know, Alvin is unrelated to the Christmas Chipmunk.

There are times when I do wonder if our silliness is irreligious. At times I wish my family and I would spend as much time reflecting together on the “serious” message of Christmas as we do planning a punch line.

Then again, maybe it’s best that we not strain at tradition, that we not calculate customs, that they evolve from who we are and what we enjoy and need and how we express love in wide-ranging ways to one another over time. Maybe traditions need not be so, well, traditional.

Besides—and I hope I’m not simply justifying my own penchant for silliness—playfulness can be holy and healing. But let me be clear. I’m not recommending humor that is insensitive to others or feeds an attention-starved ego or helps us mask our true self. Jokes can’t produce Advent joy. Good humor can be truly good only when it’s not at someone else’s expense. The deepest joy rarely gets expressed in a belly laugh. Sacred gladness does not gloss over grief or deny depression. Yet there is a holy joyfulness to the life of faith that helps us be authentic and requires us to become vulnerable, and these are important spiritual dispositions.

I believe there is something freeing about being willing to look foolish. Think how spiritually daring it is to cast aside any pretense of dignity when you are with the ones you love. Consider what a gift we give to be extravagantly un-sober in order to prompt a smile. It is profoundly generous and trusting to fling aside one’s pride to delight another. I’m stretching the analogy here, I realize, but isn’t loss of dignity what the Christ-child experienced, being disreputably birthed in a stable among a rude audience of sheep and shepherds, who in effect applauded at his abdication of nobility? Wasn’t it Jesus’s rejection of decorum and tradition that brought him to the manger and then to the cross?

Let us now return to today’s Gospel reading—where the ridiculous prompts the rejoicing. Elizabeth, well past childbearing age, is pregnant with her first son, and that improbable child in her womb improbably leaps with joy as Mary approaches—Mary, the preposterous virgin mother. How wild is that? Maybe this is what Madeleine L’Engle had in mind as she invites the God of Advent to “Come speak in joy untamed and wild.”
Mary responds to her cousin Elizabeth’s exclamation of joy with her own song of joy we now call the Magnificat. What a lot we can learn from Mary’s joyful outburst. First, Mary’s own good fortune is not the chief cause for her happiness. Though she describes herself as blessed, Mary is celebrating good news for her people. Those who’ve been hungry will have good things to eat; those who are lowly will be raised up, and the powerful will be brought low. Mary is ecstatic for the good fortune of others. That capacity to be happy for others is a mark of Gospel joy.

Notice also that Mary’s joy is subversive. Often humor in the Bible, written for people under political oppression, comes from the idea of turning the tables on those in power. Mary is delighted that the unexpected can happen. The God of the Bible does the unexpected and makes the wise look foolish. Mary smiles at the preposterous thought that God has favored her—and her child will save a desperate people.

One writer claims that the Bible is basically a comedy rather a tragedy because comedy works through surprise and ends with celebration. Comedy is hopeful. Mary’s song belongs in a musical comedy, you might argue. Maybe a family Christmas pageant performed by children in bathrobes—and the family dogs in sheep’s clothing—is not so far off the mark.

If you’re able to attend the Christmas Eve service here tomorrow night, you’ll find it a sweet and solemn service. But listen for the note of joy. During the reading of the Christmas story, you might imagine the angels in that celestial pageant singing, with halos slightly askew, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! So have a good laugh! Be not afraid, shepherds. Loosen up! And do not take yourselves too seriously, you stuffy Magi!” Author Annie Dillard, who espouses living exultantly with “unseemly joy,” contends that she has “not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity.” I agree.

Still, I wonder how close hilarity is to heresy.

Well, it’s too late now for my family. You’ll have to find that line for yourselves.

This evening the final Advent candle shines in the name of joy. In my family, joy looks a lot like hilarity. I hope that is close enough.
PRAYER God, help us get good at the spiritual art of joy. For our sake. For the sake of this ol’ world. Amen

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