“There won’t be any Christmas this year.” I imagine we’ve all heard statements to that effect. Maybe we ourselves have said something along those lines. “This year, there’s going to be a lean Christmas!” What would prompt such a statement? How could we possibly prevent, or even hinder, the arrival of Christmas?
Of course, I understand what’s usually meant by that kind of sentiment are financial problems. It’s the feeling that there’s little, if any, money available to be spent on Christmas presents. I have a couple of thoughts about that. First is the notion that gifts that cost plenty of money are always better than ones someone has created, using their God-given imagination. Second is the way we mimic the Grinch, who by stealing presents from Who-ville, thought he actually could stop Christmas from coming.
(But as you know, the Grinch undergoes a change of heart and realizes the error of his ways.)
It’s that mentality which can reject the power of Christmas and turn it into something empty and hollow. It’s that, and the sensory overload (starting well before Thanksgiving, even Halloween) which, among other things, involves Christmas-y music being piped in into all kinds of places.
Here’s an example. Banu and I were at a couple of stores and at a restaurant, and I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!
Okay, I want to change gears for a moment.
In the medieval church, there were seven sins that were called deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath. If you were keeping count, you’ll notice that’s only six. There’s one more, and I think it’s as deadly as any other: sloth. Some people laugh when they hear sloth considered a deadly sin. It’s the fatal flaw of the couch potato!
The well-known preacher Fred Craddock (who died last year) had a compelling definition of this particular deadly sin. Instead of mere laziness, he said it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’… Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’ It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.” I don’t care.
Another name for sloth comes from Latin, acedia. It literally means “lack of care.” (Don’t worry; this talk about sloth has a connection with Christmas!)
Kathleen Norris writes about sloth in Acedia and Me, a book I really like and recommend. And she has her own problem with Christmas. (There’s the connection!) In another place, she talks about the “many defenses [we have] against hearing the Christmas readings and taking them to heart.” She uses images that are very familiar.
For example, look at the Old Testament reading in Isaiah 9. It begins, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (v. 2). And how often have we heard the wonderful language of verse 6? “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
We’re used to hearing these messianic titles, but where do they come from? What is behind all of this? Look at the end of verse 7: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” Zeal! That’s not something we usually associate with Christmas. It sounds a little too extreme, too fanatical.
But then, look at the epistle reading in Titus 2, starting with verse 11: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Okay, that doesn’t seem to be overly intense. Still, as the passage goes along, things start getting a little more fervent. At the end, we read that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are [get ready for it!] zealous for good deeds” (v. 14). Zealous for good deeds. There’s the “z” word again!
This is where we get back to our friend Kathleen’s ambivalence about Christmas, as well as her discussion about the before-mentioned deadly sin.
“I tend to enjoy Advent,” she says, “with all of its mystery and waiting, but find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm when Christmas Eve comes around. I know I’m cheating myself, succumbing to my usual temptation to sloth, which Christian tradition understands as not mere laziness but as the perverse refusal of a possible joy. The ancient monks saw zeal as the virtue opposed to sloth.” Zeal as a remedy for sloth!
I can see myself reflected in her words. Is there something about which I could positively say, “I am zealous!”? What would that look like? And if I have trouble seeing it, could I at least claim to be zealous in wanting to be zealous?
She might have a point when she says “zeal makes us nervous… We prefer the protective detachment of irony or sarcasm, and regard zeal as pathetic if not pathological. When a person exhibits too much passion over anything…we label that person as obsessive or compulsive, and mutter, ‘Get a life.’”
I don’t think very much convincing is needed when I say that even religious zeal can be bad. Zeal can lead one to throw bombs, burn down abortion clinics, and show up at military funerals, claiming that this is God’s vengeance. No, I don’t think we need much convincing when I say religious zeal is probably the worst of all.
The long history of Benedictine spirituality addresses this; it’s well aware of it. Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict distinguishes between the “wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God” and the “good zeal which separates from evil.” We need not fear this kind of zeal. The reason for that is because it’s grounded in love.
According to Joan Chittister, “Good zeal provides the foundation for the spirituality of the long haul. It keeps us going when days are dull and holiness seems to be the stuff of more glamorous lives.” She adds that “sanctity is the stuff of community in Christ and that any other zeal, no matter how dazzling it looks, is false. Completely false.” The glitz and glamour of our Christian cult of personality is shown to be bogus.
Somewhat of a trick is needed to dig through the layers of tradition, both good and bad tradition, which surround Christmas. Too much of how we celebrate Christmas smothers the genuine, good, and life-giving zeal of its promise. Again, there’s the danger of sloth, getting caught up in foolishness, in distraction.
Here’s a final word from Norris on that point: “The zealous love of this God has already appeared among us in the flesh to train us for a new life and teach us how to welcome him when he comes again in glory… If we feel utterly exhausted, drained of all feeling and weary with worldly chores and concerns, so much the better. Our weakness is God’s strength. Our emptiness means that there is room for God after all.”
Making room for God is probably the best definition for zeal, at least, for good zeal. How do we do that? How do we make room for God?
How about thinking of the people on that first Christmas? They quite literally made room for God, even if they didn’t understand who the baby Jesus really was.
In a more meaningful way, they made room in their minds and hearts and souls. They wondered; they asked questions. Joseph wondered, upon discovering Mary’s pregnancy, what he should do. He was granted a divinely-inspired dream to answer his questions.
Of course, Mary, after hearing the news that she was to be a virgin mother, wondered, “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34).
Then there were those shepherds, who received a celestial visitation—a sight that scared the crap out of them. (You do know in the Bible, angels are not cute critters? They are quite terrifying!) After being calmed down, they said, “Let’s go check this out.” They were ready to have their world rocked.
Some time after that, the magi and Herod also were asking about the wonder child, though each with their own agendas. But that’s an Epiphany story, so we won’t deal with that now!
So what kind of zeal makes room for God among us? What kind of sloth, acedia, do we need to reject? St. Paul says God’s grace trains us “to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (v. 12). Those “worldly passions” walk hand in hand with sloth. Worldly, not holy, passions tell us, “Do not be filled with wonder. Do not ask honest and sincere questions. Live in the smug satisfaction that has us saying ‘no’ to love, especially if it comes from unwelcome people.”
Worldly passion has us rejecting the spirit of Christ in each of us. It’s the spirit that is all about forgiveness and acceptance, and yet calls us to keep moving forward. Good zeal drags us out of our proper, private fortresses and flings us into the craziness and zaniness that is the community of faith.
We have twelve days of Christmas, so let me do one better than wishing you, “Merry Christmas!” Have a zealous Christmas!
 in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008)
 Kathleen Norris, “Zealous Hopes,” The Christian Century 122:25 (13 Dec 05), 19.
 Norris, 19.
 Norris, 19.
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 178-179.
 Norris, 19.
[The top image is a cartoon by Ted Rall from December 1997. Clipped from a newspaper, the paper has yellowed with time.]