Why are we so captivated by celebrities’ acts of kindness? I have been overly aware, particularly during this past Christmas season, pictures of celebrities offering a day at a soup kitchen, or ballyhooing a good cause, or sharing their talents to benefit a charitable organization. Magazines are filled with pictures and stories of our favorite movie stars or athletes doing good. Alongside the commercials of luxury cars wrapped in big, red bows are segments featuring movie stars or pro-athletes asking us to join them in supporting one cause or another.
Every time I see another ad or commercial I wonder if any of them – or us – is asking how we can impact the systemic reasons why people live in poverty. Why some people are privileged over others? Or what drives us, especially in the United States, to celebrate celebrity rather than do the hard work of changing the systems?
I have also been keenly aware of how the message of this past Christmas season was co-opted by our over-identification with our consumer tendencies. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in a post on Patheos that the platitudes about Christmas include “the F’s–family, food, fellowship, presents we give to ourselves.” She doesn’t deny that those things are part of Christmas, but reminds us that they are not the “essence” of Christmas. “In a strange twist of history” she writes, “St. Nicholas himself has been turned from a gaunt self-sacrificial loving person who served others into jolly old St. Nick…over weight, and the cosmic sugar daddy that fulfills all the dreams of our materialistic little American hearts.”
That message was been particularly disturbing to me this past Christmas. It was amazing to me how mixed the messages are about Jesus and Santa in popular Christmas songs that are played. The same holds true for the images on the majority of the Christmas TV specials. Pictures of Santa bringing smiles to the faces of middle-class, white children while “O Little Town of Bethlehem” plays in the background. No wonder so many of us still think of God as an old man with a white beard who rewards us for being good. And if God is Santa, then is Jesus Santa’s elf who delivers the reward?
Popular Christmas celebrations have come and gone, but in Detroit this summer (and this is one of the major reasons I think our church needs to show up in Detroit) young people will learn about the true meaning of Christmas, which is incarnation, the giving of the self for the sake of the other. How can we celebrate Christmas every day?
Our church needs to show up in Detroit this summer; we need to incarnate the self-giving love of Christ. That is what followers of Jesus do.