The Search for Meaning
Robyn was angry and confused. She had just discovered that her much beloved roly-poly red robed Santa Claus was a marketing ploy invented in the early 20th century by Coca Cola to encourage consumerism. She was angry because she had been duped by the commercialization of what should be the most meaningful season of the year. She was also confused because she didn’t know how to break the news to her kids that Santa Claus wasn’t real without destroying their faith in her honesty. “I hate Christmas,” she told me. “I eat too much, drink too much and rush from one store to another, afraid that I forgot to buy a gift for someone important. The fact that we are celebrating the birth of Christ hardly even registers on my screen.”
When Christmas is over, how many of us look back on the season with the same sense of betrayal that Robyn experienced? There is no greater contrast between the world’s focus during this season and the Christian meaning of the season. What should be an opportunity to model and teach simplicity and the tenets of our Christian faith to our children and to the world around us has become one of the greatest displays of materialism and the values of the consumer society.
We are all people of habit and routine and need spiritual rituals to provide anchors for our souls. Unfortunately, as evangelicals, we shy away from the very mention of the word because it conjures up images of legalistic practices from the past or of New Age or pagan rituals that we know have nothing to do with our faith. Sadly, when our faith does not provide these rituals the secular culture quickly jumps in with its quasi- spiritual offerings. Massage therapy, aromatherapy, a day at the local health spa and our increasingly secularized and materialistic approach to Christmas all tantalize us with the promise of peace and relief from our stressed out lives. Tragically people of faith are just as likely to be sucked in by these rhythms and ignore the rich traditions that should provide the rituals of their faith.
According to anthropologist Paul Hiebert there are two types of spiritual rituals or routines that we all need in our lives to maintain our spiritual focus and enable us to live at a healthy and balanced pace – restorative rituals and rituals of transformation.
Rituals that restore us
Restorative rituals are those activities we perform on a regular basis to renew our faith in the beliefs that order our lives, and to rebuild the religious community in which these beliefs find expression. Daily prayer times, Sunday church and faith focused celebrations at Christmas, Easter and other important Christian festivals are all restorative rituals that can refocus our priorities on the values of our Christian faith. Not surprisingly the secular culture provides an increasing array of its own rituals that compete with these. Christmas in particular with its hyped up consumerism and partying constantly seeks to impress on us its belief that “Joy to the World” means eating “heavenly chocolates” or setting up a giant inflatable nativity set in our front yard.
My husband Tom and I are “Anglicans come lately.” We did not grow up in with a liturgical tradition, but in the last few years we have embraced the custom of the Advent wreath with great enthusiasm. Each morning during the Advent season we take a few minutes before breakfast to light the appropriate candles and read the scriptures for the day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It is a wonderful way to center our lives on the real celebration – the coming of Emmanuel – God with us, God in us, God for us. We also like to enter into the celebration aspects of the season, however – not trying to out party the partygoers but rather to focus our joy and celebration on the true meaning of the season. Each year we hold an annual Advent party that highlights our anticipation of the return of Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness when all things will be made new.
Rituals that transform us
The second type of practice we need in our lives in order to create healthy spiritual rhythms is what Dr Hiebert calls rituals of transformation. These provide a structure that enables us to grow and bring change into our lives. Hiebert explains that these rituals “cut through the established way of doing things and restore a measure of flexibility and personal intimacy.” Prayer retreats, pilgrimages and mission trips are all transformative rituals that enable us to continue to grow our faith and mature as Christian disciples. Our consumer culture is very intentional about seeking to center our lives around its materialistic values and we need to be just as intentional in our focus on God’s biblical values in order to stand against these pressures.
Tom and I love to go on a prayer retreat during Advent season as a time to reflect on our sense of God’s call on our lives and to evaluate the ways in which we have used our time and resources over the last year. We spend time listening to God and set goals that reflect our sense of Biblical purpose for the following year – not just for our vocation but for every area of life. Then throughout the year we take time on Sunday morning before church to journal and to check up on our progress. Out of our prayer retreats has come a whole new rhythm of life that enables us to pace our activities more in sync with our connection to the life, death and resurrection of Christ rather than to the dictates of the secular culture.
Another possibility is to look for ways to transform the symbols of the consumer culture into expressions of our faith. I suggested to Robyn that instead of focusing on Santa Claus she share with her children the story of St. Nicholas who lived in Turkey in the fourth century and was known for his expressions of love for God and for neighbor. One of the best-known stories involves a poor man who did not have enough money to provide dowries for his three unmarried daughters. As a result they were likely to become prostitutes. Nicholas walked past the house on three successive nights and each time threw in a bag of gold. He became a symbol of anonymous gift giving. As she shared this story, Robyn was able to encourage her kids to focus their gift giving on those who were really in need at this season and in so doing to remember the One who gave us the greatest gift of all – Christ our Savior. The whole family volunteered to serve Christmas dinner at a local homeless shelter and bought a goat for a poor family in Ethiopia. “It was our most satisfying Christmas ever,” she said.
Before the Christmas season gets started you may like to take some time to really prepare this year. Develop some short rituals for you and your family to use throughout the year that enable you to enter into the joy of Christ’s birth and the wonder of God coming into our world to dwell among us without the overwhelming pressures of consumerism.
If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, God has given you the gift of His Holy Spirit who lives within you, to guide you and empower you to follow His ways in your life. Why not take a moment to pray this prayer and yield your life anew to God? He is faithful to keep His promises and desires for you to keep in step with His Spirit.
Dear Father, I need You. I acknowledge that I have sinned against You by directing my own life. I thank You that You have forgiven my sins through Christ’s death on the cross for me. I now invite Christ to again take His place on the throne of my life. Fill me with the Holy Spirit as You commanded me to be filled, and as You promised in Your Word that You would do if I asked in faith. I pray this in the name of Jesus. As an expression of my faith, I thank You for directing my life and for filling me with the Holy Spirit. Amen.