December 25, 2007

Sentimentality v. Contemplation

In most of my (admittedly few) years as a pastor, Christmas Eve has disappointed me. I wanted to recapture the wonderful experiences I had as a youth. After talking with my father on the telephone last night after the service, I regretted afterward not saying what I really wanted to say: "Thank you for taking me to church as a child on Christmas Eve." I'm not sure who I'd be without that.

That late-night service on Christmas Eve was filled with wonder for me--things not experienced any other time of year: going to church late at night, with the wind snapping against my cheeks, being careful not to slip on the ice on the steps up into church; the church darkened, singing Silent Night in a strange language (Stille nacht, heilige nacht...); melted, dripping wax burning my thumb. As a pastor, I've insisted on singing Silent Night in German, to the chagrin of some and bemusement of others. We turn out the lights and burn candles - but somehow, the experience has never been the same. "What is wrong?" I have always thought; "I must be missing something."

Last night was perhaps the best Christmas Eve ever, thanks to having read The Real Presence of Christmas by Richard John Neuhaus of First Things. He writes, "There is no point in trying to recapitulate Christmas as you knew it when you were, say, seven years old. That way lies sentimentalities unbounded." That is the problem. I had been trying to recapitulate my seven-year old experience as a (now) thirty-seven year old pastor. Fool! "The alternative," Neuhaus says, "is the way of contemplation, of demanding of oneself the disciplined quiet to explore, and be explored by, the astonishment of God become one of us that we may become one with God."

Children should have an almost mystical experience on Christmas Eve, with sensory experiences not common to daily life. As adults, the experience of Christmas also calls for mystical rejoicing, but at something far more profound than a candle or the language of our grandparents. It is just as Neuhaus says, and the incredible wonder of Christmas (which, if we can see it, is in every Mass), is that "God was man in Palestine and lives to-day in Bread and Wine." Any experience we manufacture cannot hold a candle to that.


Past Elder said...

I believe you're right.

I also think a part of it is this -- it would be nice to be a kid again and let someone else be dad, etc. I think about that at the holidays, how different it is for me as a widower dad with two kids than it was growing up, and how different it must be for my kids than it was for me.

But you know what, it really isn't. Frank my older got some wax on his thumb last night, and though Silent Night is all in English by the third verse I was in German anyway. Nor was it the first mass of Christmas either, but a service our youth group does every year, with the Luke narrative front and centre, every year. And we go every year, though our other services are more the regular thing. Not what I would have expected of me at all!

And I'm not German and didn't even grow up Lutheran! Off-putting, as distinct from heterodox, is where you choose to find it, I think. What makes it Christmas is what's in that Luke narrative.

Susan said...

>>and the incredible wonder of Christmas (which, if we can see it, is in every Mass),

Does finding that wonder regularly in every Mass then lessen the wonder of Christmas, the "wonder" that we associate with the one time of year? And when it does, is that a bad thing?

Christopher Esget said...

Susan: Undoubtedly we are to find that wonder all the time; in some ways, every Mass is the Christ-Mass: the Gloria and Nunc Dimittis both point us back to the events surrounding our Lord's birth, and some of the collects do as well (e.g., "We thank You that You sent your only-begotten Son into the flesh..."). But we are prone to forget these things, and other emphases of different parts of the year also come in, so I think we need this festival to inform the rest of the year.

Christopher Esget said...

Past Elder wrote: "What makes it Christmas is what's in that Luke narrative." Exactly. Everything else must be in service to that; and anything that does not serve that should be jettisoned with the fruitcake.

Susan said...

Oh, Pr Esget, I didn't mean to imply that we don't need Christmas just because every Sunday contains so much of the preaching of the incarnation and the blessings of Christmas. (Actually, the more the better!)

I guess I just worry sometimes that I might be ... well ... missing something important at Christmas if I see so much of that Wonder during the rest of the year. (I dunno. Maybe my question isn't even making any sense. That wouldn't be anything new.) I guess maybe I'm wondering whether it's important to have those extra touches (whether candles at church, or the late-night service, or the poinsettias, or the extra choir pieces, or whatever) to help us realize the specialness of the incarnation. If we don't have those things, are we somehow short-changing our children? Because I'm afraid maybe we are.

Christopher Esget said...

Yes, I think they're important, in the same adiaphoristic (is that a word?) way that vestments, chanting, and other such ceremonies and trappings are. Obviously you can observe the days and seasons without them, and if they become overly important in themselves we should set them ablaze. But I suspect that if we don't have our own "trappings," handed down from our fathers, men will invent their own, and pretty soon we'll end up among the schwaermerei. Yikes.

Susan said...

That makes complete sense to me. Thanks for helping me out of my muddle!

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Thanks for this post. I agree 100%. In my seven years of parish ministry in Pittsburgh, I often felt the way you have, trying to feel the magic. I'd chalked it up to growing up, becoming jaded, losing touch with my inner child, yada yada. I like the helpful conversation between sentimentality and contemplation. I'm not opposed to all sentimentality, mind you. It has a place in human experience. Just is not the basis for faith or a true measure of spiritual health as is often assumed.