This year, if you are truly struggling for something to buy for that relative back east whom you hope not to see more than a couple of times a decade, you could do worse than take a look at hallmark.com. For instance, there is the ‘Because Jesus’ mug. Indubitably, if you wish to confound Great Aunt Mabel, send her one of these and she will never speak to you again because all of her time will be occupied with trying to figure out ‘what’ because Jesus… Of course, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Jesus is best consumed, it would seem, when most open to modification. One could imagine an entire evangelism campaign centered on the ‘Because Jesus’ slogan. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, I will stand on your street corner preaching loudly to the neighbors. ‘Because Jesus’ is happy to be Jesus, I will be happy to play Christian rock on my car stereo at high volume with the windows down at busy intersections. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, we will invade your country until my Jesus is also your Jesus – although I suspect that last one might pre-date the mug by a year or two.
The ‘Because Jesus’ mug intrigued me when I discovered it because it speaks to how pervasive the customization of Christ has become. For instance, the other day, I went shopping. One of my great shortcomings as a preacher is that I rarely ever shop. It might count as a spiritual discipline – I’m not sure. Either way, unless someone is talking about ‘what happened in CVS this morning’ on NPR, I can feel from time to time that I might be missing something important about life in America. It was reassuring, therefore, to have the opportunity to go shopping this week at my local grocery store. At last I was in the mix with everyone else, navigating meter upon meter of wrapping paper and Christmas tree decorations.
I had gone shopping to look for a couple of Christmas cards. The first thing that struck me was how very difficult it was to find a card that was just about the birth of Christ and not also about something else. Card after card read something like this, ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come…May Your Christmas be as Bright as Your Smile’. I couldn’t send that. I’m an Episcopalian, we’re not supposed to encourage smiling. I kept on looking, but in vain. I could feel the color drain out of my face as yet another promising piece of artwork was undermined by the reminder that the real reason for the season isn’t Jesus; it is me. I was everywhere, and there was little I could do to stop it. ‘Treat yourself to something special this Christmas’, it said as I tried to make my escape down the cosmetics aisle. Towering letters hung over me as I made a left down by the wine – ‘Have an extra merry Christmas on us’. It was all I could do to make it back to my office at church and put BBC‘s ‘Lessons and Carols from Kings’ on a repeated loop on YouTube.
I lived a cocooned life, and I liked it, I guess. Yet, following a period of lying down in a dark room for a while, I realized something: Jesus was cocooned too. The Lord of all creation, lost somewhere between the super sale on candy canes and dashboard bobbing Santa heads. From this dark epiphany, the day only descended. That evening, my family and I went out to see a neighborhood nearby which at this time of year can be seen from space. We knew that we had arrived at the right place because the kids no longer needed to ask if we were there yet. In fact, they could no longer speak at all, such was the mesmerizing bedazzlement of the several million lights that twinkled in the night sky in San Diego suburbia. ‘Why are we here?’ I mumbled faintly to myself, but it was too late, I had been sucked into their sinister game. I too gawped and gaped and guffawed.
If you have ever imagined a scene that you would construct outside of your house if neither money nor sanity were an object, then you would have imagined it too late – because it would have already happened here. My family and I had stumbled upon another reality altogether. Frosty was there, and the entire cast of Frozen, many times over, were with him. Santa was a staple, as were his reindeer. Yoda made a surprise appearance. One resident had even stuffed his car full of soft animals and pretended that this counted as a Christmas display by crudely placing a couple of fluorescent stars on his hood. I knew that should this man – for it had to be a man – ever came out of his house, eye contact would have to be avoided at all costs. It was at this moment, somewhere near to a giant Homer Simpson trapped in a giant Manhattan-themed snow globe that I decided that perhaps it wouldn’t be all that bad to give up the priest thing and move into illumination sales. This street alone could pay for my kids to go to college.
And then it happened. The renegade house. Simple. Understated. A crib. A message. A name surround by light. I was saved from what surely would have been a disastrous career as a salesman. Jesus was back; a holy insurgency amidst the festival of festivities. I stood there and admired it for a while. As I did, I imagined that in centuries gone by, perhaps it was so that the great, towering cathedrals of medieval Europe dominated the local landscape so much that it was the Church that made the locals’ heads swing as religion sought to dominate the cultural imagination. Perhaps, then, this is a fitting circle – that we have come back to the backwaters, to the one, anomalous house that had room for a family in flight and great need. The Light of the World born behind the main thoroughfare, in a place fit for animals and their muck. An insurgent God, whose love will not extinguish a dimly burning wick. There it was. Grace upon grace.