Last night my family had a picnic around the Christmas tree and enjoyed our favorite silly Christmas album, by John Denver and the Muppets. The album runs the gamut, from almost serious to very silly. (I’m partial to Animal’s background singing in the Beachboys song “Little Saint Nick”: if you have Prime, you can listen to it at the link above.) But when Kermit the Frog sings, “I don’t know if you believe in Christmas . . . but if you believe in love, that will be more than enough,” or John Denver gives the solemn blessing, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” we get to the heart of the issue.
“John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together” seems a nice way to get at a more serious issue: the sentimentalization of Christmas, and of Christianity. John Denver is only a more dramatic instance of what happens with a lot of our Church music and preaching, and a lot of the people in our churches, whether at Christmas and Easter or any other time of the year. As Kermit says, they don’t seem to believe in Christmas, they just “believe in love.”
To get at the issue, let me approach from another angle. I’ve been working with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. One way to say what I’ve found is this: I think everything I’ve ever heard said about it misses the point.
Now, my point here is not to explain John Paul II, I’m just using him as an example. (I should write a post about Theology of the Body – or a book – some other time.) In short, I think Theology of the Body uses a close reading of the Bible’s teaching on marriage to understand the power of grace in regard to our sexuality. It is, ahem, theology, and he is articulating the Basic Gospel Message as it plays out in the realm of sex.
Instead, people have all sorts of ideas. A devout young man in our parish has a sweatshirt that summarizes Theology of the Body with some line about the dignity of the individual. That’s pretty far from any reference to the Bible or the power of grace. A scholarly work I was reviewing thinks it’s all about personal experience. My kids went on a retreat where they were told John Paul’s main point was to embrace your sexual identity. Etc.
Now, my point is this: On the one hand, those are not good summaries of the main point of Theology of the Body. In fact, they completely miss the point. They are philosophical points which say nothing about the redemptive power of grace – by themselves, they make the saving grace of Jesus Christ sound unnecessary or even irrelevant.
On the other hand, they are points that John Paul II makes along the way. In fact, they are good points – not the main point, but good points, and truly parts of what John Paul II is saying. And it’s not surprising that when a great Christian thinker dives into the heart of the Gospel – Scripture and grace – he also makes some nice philosophical points about other things. And it’s not surprising that those points, too, are so wonderful that, even when people fail to grasp the Gospel’s teaching about grace, they are still amazed at that Christian thinker’s thinking on other things. It’s a sign of John Paul’s greatness that people get so excited about his side points.
One of Pope Francis’s most powerful points is that we need to focus on the “kerygma.” (Kerysso is the Greek verb for proclaiming; –ma is the Greek ending for “the thing done by the verb”; so kerygma means “the thing that we proclaim,” the heart of the Gospel message.) In fact, if you put the encyclicals of Pope Benedict side by side with those of John Paul II, you see Benedict saying the same thing: JPII talked about a million things, and Pope Benedict said, let’s focus on the love of God. JPII was wonderful at showing that there are a million wonderful consequences of the kerygma – but Benedict and Francis are right that if we don’t get the kerygma clear, we miss the boat.
Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year for discovering that people have no idea what the kerygma is, no idea what Christmas, and Christianity, is really about. John Denver and Kermit the Frog – and an awful lot of other people, including too many of our priests – seem to think that Baby Jesus is a sweet little metaphor for everyone getting along and enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep.
And so Christmas is an important time for the rest of us to clarify the kerygma for ourselves, to figure out just what it is All About. There are lots of ways to put it. I like Romans 5:5, “The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.” Or Galatians 5:22, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,” etc. Or you could say “Christ is the Redeemer,” or “God became man so that men could become God.” “If Christ is in you, indeed the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10 and many others). Christ has opened the way to the Father. There are lot of ways to put it – and Christmas should challenge us to figure out what is the kerygma that the Baby in the Manger helps us appreciate.
On the other hand, just as I can appreciate all the side points people gather from Theology of the Body, so too at Christmas, we needn’t be greedy. Yes, John Denver, and a lot of the people in our churches, are missing The Main Point about Christmas. But the side points they grab onto are real. Jesus does bring peace among men and peace in our hearts, and it’s beautiful that people are attracted to those things – even though they still need us to articulate for them why they need the Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to attain the secondary things they so love.
Even my family gathered around the Christmas tree, as beautiful as that is, isn’t the heart of the matter. We need the kerygma. But we can be generous toward those who still see only partially.
Where do you get annoyed about people missing the point at Christmas? Can you articulate the connection between the goods those people are after and the kerygma, the heart of the Gospel?