Old Jesus probably would've puked
Those are Holden Caulfield’s words, not mine, from J.D. Salinger’s book The Catcher in the Rye.
He finds himself at Radio City Music hall for their Christmas festival. I’m excerpting the whole Passage of Interest:
I came in when the goddam stage show was on. The Rockettes were kicking their heads off, the way they do when they’re all in a line with their arms around each other’s waist. The audience applauded like mad, and some guy behind me kept saying to this wife, “You know what that is? That’s precision.” He killed me. Then after the Rockettes, a guy came out in a tuxedo and roller skates on, and started skating under a bunch of little tables, and telling jokes while he did it. He was a very good skater and all but I couldn’t enjoy it much because I kept picturing him practicing to be a guy that roller-skates on the stage. It seemed so stupid. I guess that I just wasn’t’ in the right mood. Then, after him, they had this Christmas thing they have at Radio City every year. All these angels start coming out of the boxes and everywhere guys carrying crucifixes and stuff all over the place, and the whole bunch of them—thousands of them—singing “Come All Ye Faithful!” like mad. Big deal. It’s supposed to be religious as hell, I know, and very pretty and all, but I can’t see anything religious or pretty, for God’s sake, about a bunch of actors carrying crucifixes all over the stage. When they were all finished and started going out of the boxes again you could tell they could hardly wait to get a cigarette or something. I saw it with old Sally Hayes the year before, and she kept saying how beautiful it was, the costumes and all. I said old Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it—all those fancy costumes and all. Sally said I was a sacrilegious atheist. I probably am. The thing Jesus really would’ve liked would be the guy that plays the kettle drums in the orchestra. I’ve watched that guy sine I was about eight years old. My brother Allie and I, if we were with our parents and all, we used to move our seats and go way down so we could watch him. He’s the best drummer I ever saw. He only gets a chance to bang them a couple of times during a whole piece, but he never looks bored when he isn’t doing it. The when he does bang them, he does it so niche and sweet, with this nervous expression on his face. One time when we went to Washington with my father, Allie sent him a postcard, but I’ll bet he never got it. We weren’t too sure how to address it.
I confess: when I have listened to arguments about how high communion cups have been filled, or complaints about who borrowed the church coffee pot without following proper protocol, I have often thought, “Did Jesus really die for this?”
That’s not nearly as colorful as, “Old Jesus probably would’ve puked.”
I strolled downtown last week, Christmas shopping. I was in a bit of a sad spirit, I admit. I was alone, and the combination of Christmas glitz and glam, Dean Martin, Mannheim Steamroller, and potential presents audibly crying out, “Buy me me me me me” just about took me down.
And good old Holden came to my mind.
In the face of all that, well, Christmas, missing only angels popping out of boxes, I felt just like Holden at Radio City Music Hall: a sacrilegious atheist.
It’s an interesting term. One could argue that it’s hard to be religious, let alone sacrilegious, if you don’t believe in religion.
The word ‘sacrilegious’ actually has nothing to do with religion, but has to do with temple robbery, with stealing something that is sacred.
It’s even more interesting since I am hearing an awful lot this year about people purportedly trying to steal the sacredness of Christmas.
For example: the indignant astonishment at people who “take the X out of Christmas….” excepting that X is the ancient Greek symbol for Christ. Just like the old Prego commercials, “It’s in there!”
More perplexing for me, though, is the trouble caused by the phrase, “Happy Holidays” over against “Merry Christmas.”
I’m seeing complaints about it everywhere: in the media, on Facebook, overheard in conversations.
I know and I appreciate that folks who believe strongly about this term are staking a claim that they believe is about protecting and honoring their faith.
But I am doing my best to wrap my mind around the question, “Why this claim?” and I’m having a tough time of it.
For starters, it’s not Christmas.
Even today, December 19th.
We’re still in Advent.
At the very least, one could argue that it’s a sign of faith to not wish people Merry Christmas…at least not yet.
On top of all that, I’m left to wonder, what is gained in foisting a Merry Christmas, even once it really is Christmas, on a Jew, say, not to mention a sacrilegious atheist, anyway?
How would we Christians feel if some Jew lobbed a “Happy Hanukkah” our way, and added a spurious glance which clearly questioned our American credentials and faithfulness to God if we said, “Happy Holidays” to them back?
Why is this an issue?
And so I think again of Holden, and wonder if Jesus is puking.
But fine, if I have to think about Christmas in Advent, let’s roll up our sleeves and peek at Christmas in the texts, with the help of the magazine Sojourners.
Its editor Jim Wallis writes:
What is Christmas? It is the celebration of the Incarnation, God’s becoming flesh — human — and entering into history in the form of a vulnerable baby born to a poor, teenage mother in a dirty animal stall. Simply amazing. That Mary was homeless at the time,a member of a people oppressed by the imperial power of an occupied country whose local political leader, Herod, was so threatened by the baby’s birth that he killed countless children in a vain attempt to destroy the Christ child, all adds compelling historical and political context to the Advent season…
In Jesus Christ, God hits the streets.
It is theologically and spiritually significant that the Incarnation came to our poorest streets. That Jesus was born poor, later announces his mission at Nazareth as “bringing good news to the poor,” and finally tells us that how we treat “the least of these” is his measure of how we treat him and how he will judge us as the Son of God, radically defines the social context and meaning of the Incarnation of God in Christ. And it clearly reveals the real meaning of Christmas.
The other explicit message of the Incarnation is that Jesus the Christ’s arrival will mean “peace on earth, good will toward men.” He is “the mighty God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.” Jesus later calls on his disciples to turn the other cheek, practice humility, walk the extra mile, put away their swords, love their neighbors — and even their enemies — and says that in his kingdom, it is the peacemakers who will be called the children of God. Christ will end our warring ways, bringing reconciliation to God and to one another…
Making sure that shopping malls and stores greet their customers with “Merry Christmas” is entirely irrelevant to the meaning of the Incarnation. In reality it is the consumer frenzy of Christmas shopping that is the real affront and threat to the season. [Old Jesus probably would’ve puked]
Last year, Americans spent $450 billion on Christmas. Clean water for the whole world, including every poor person on the planet, would cost about $20 billion. Let’s just call that what it is: A material blasphemy of the Christmas season. [Old Jesus probably would’ve puked]
Imagine Jesus walking into the mall, seeing the Merry Christmas signs, and expressing his humble thanks for how the pre- and post-Christmas sales are honoring to him. How about credit cards for Christ? [Old Jesus probably would’ve puked]
While we’re at it, here’s another point of clarification: The arrival of the Christ child has nothing to do with trees or what we call them. [Old Jesus probably would’ve puked]
Evergreens and wreaths, holly and ivy, and even mistletoe turn out to be customs borrowed from ancient Roman and Germanic winter solstice celebrations, assimilated and co-opted by the church after Constantine made peace between his empire and the Christians.
Upshot seems to be that Merry Christmas means more than Facebook graphics with snowmen and Christmas trees and happy faces–none of which are Christian symbols, anyway–asking us to repost if we agree that sacrilegious atheists are stealing our sacred holiday.
Instead, Wallis is making that case that Merry Christmas means actively working on behalf of the poor, actively standing up against legislation and legislators which and who harm them, actively working for peace and reconciliation even when searingly painful and apparently hopeless, actively caring for the incarnate world on behalf of the least of these.
Now, so that you don’t think I’m a complete snarky scrooge, there is room for merriment.
I think Holden is right about Jesus getting into the kettle drummer. A syncopated downbeat, contra schmaltz, contra glop, contra bogus litmus tests of committed faith, euphoric in announcing a different and unexpected rhythm, Jesus is into that.
I do believe that God loves the stuff of life: earth, laughter, wine, butter, lovemaking, sunlight, art, babies’ burps, love letters, ocean sounds, flannel sheets, puns, eskimo kisses, hard rolls, potatoes pulled right from the dirt.
God is not opposed to merry Christmases, or any other time of the year, for that matter.
And, for what it’s worth, neither am I.
I am not, despite the last two blogs, a curmudgeon.
So to you Christians, I earnestly wish you a blessed Advent.
When the time is right, I’ll wish you an earnest Merry Christmas, in all senses of the term. I am kicking off the season in Alaska, where I will celebrate with my sister and her family. Our annual Boggle Contests (I will lose) coupled with ample Cosmopolitans, and snow, and moose noses on her windows, and Christmas goose or offerings from the Alaskan waters, and trees be-twinkled with white lights and real candles, and gentle singing of Silent Night in the deep black night of Anchorage, will come together and create long-lasting merriment.
To you others, perhaps especially you sacrilegious atheists, I wish you earnest happy holidays.
I look forward to making the world merrier, and happier, with you all.