This is a reprint of my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It may not be the best, but it’s my favorite. Each Advent, I post it and continue to be challenged by the life of St. Francis.
A friend of mine tells a story about walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Here in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place, shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only, inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.
It all begs the question: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?
Before I came to the church where I currently serve, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree. A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was good. It had nothing to do with Jesus. In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.
It was purely secular!
I remember asking my fifth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar. No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing! Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible. That’s true, I suppose. However, I knew that my grandmother as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledge her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught all us kids that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!
And that teaching has been hard to shake!
Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing sexy – no iPods or new cars. I tell myself that I don’t need anything, and don’t want anything and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans. Suddenly things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement. Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately. So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Christmas sales.
Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world and the healing of our broken relationships with each other and our broken relationship with God becomes a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.
Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?
Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously). Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After and illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings. He would go off by himself to pray, wear ragged clothes and give away money from the family business to the poor. As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated! His father took Francis to court and asked that the bishop to force him to give back all the money Francis had given away. Equally irritated, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.
From that point, Francis renounced materialism. Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders. Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property. In short, they had no stuff! For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself, but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things he detested money above all. From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”
Could you imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house?
I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales. Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus? Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.
Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little. Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty. Of course, there are a lot of us that give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.
I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.
I’m talking about the way that many Christians exercise no demonstrative difference in their character than non-Christians. I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves. I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock, looking only to the church for what they can get from them. I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy and whole. We are all so deeply, deeply poor.
And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year. We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven. If we don’t we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.