It Continues To Look A Lot Like Texas

Christmas is one of the most visually bizarre times of year in Texas, even in years like this one where it’s been cooler and rainier than usual for a lot of the year.

It puts me somewhat in mind of what people in the southern hemisphere must experience in those places where December and January are summer months and Christmas Day is sometimes the hottest day of the year.

Texas is in the northern hemisphere, but its subtropical continental climate means that it’s British summertime temperature as often as it’s freezing, and there are years in which Christmas Day gets comfortable T-shirt weather.

It makes all of the polar-type Christmas decorations look rather odd.

People’s lawns turn that drab brown of Texan grass in its dormant winter period (I’m still used to grass being green all the time), the air conditioners are humming, the postman is in shorts, and dotted about over the landscape are these forlorn-looking inflatable snowmen, Santas, reindeer and penguins.

The stores are all playing Jingle Bells and Let It Snow and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and climate is not cooperating in the least. An open sleigh, even one with twelve horses rather than one, is not going to do much dashing through the drab brown grass. The weather outside is frightful only in the sense that 80°F in mid-December is absurdly overheated. And the reindeer died of heatstroke.

It really brings home how much of our Christmas trappings are Northern in origin. Visually at least, the Western Christmas has its roots in Scandinavia and Germany, places where sleighs were once a normal way of getting around in the winter, where the likelihood was that there would be snow for Christmas, and maybe for months either side, places where reindeer might actually be a normal livestock animal, places where it’s dark for almost 3/4 of the 24-hour period and lights are vital.

It makes me wonder what Mediterranean Christmas traditions look like. What do they do in Spain, for example, or Greece – places where the only white at Christmas is the plaster walls of the houses?

St. Nicholas may have become Santa Claus and Father Christmas in the north, with his reindeer and sleigh, but in Southern Europe, where he’s still St. Nick? How would he get around in a place in which the idea of a sleigh is absurd?

Climatically, Texas has far more in common with Southern Europe or North Africa than it does with the fir trees and reindeer of Scandinavia, so it would make a sort of sense for decorating traditions to borrow more from those lands than from the frozen north.

Yet visually speaking, the frozen north has become Christmassy in a way that doesn’t pay any attention to climate. The Texan landscape may be brown against a clear blue sky, but somehow snowflakes and reindeer and the dark green of Christmas trees seem right to us. It seems to us as though the climate should adhere to our ideas about Christmas rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, though, the Texan climate ought to bring home to us how unnatural all our ideas of snow and the bleak midwinter are to the real story.

The Bible says that the shepherds were living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night. In Israel, as I understand it, shepherds only live out in the fields during the summer months, which means our ideas of the Light of the World coming at the darkest time of the year may technically be wrong.

But this is when we celebrate the coming of the Messiah and the inception of God’s rescue plan for fallen human beings. A light shining in the darkness. The warmth of Divine love in the midst of the coldness of a Northern winter. Richness in the leanest time of the year; joy in the middle of bleakness.

It somehow seems a more appropriate metaphor for the coming into the world of God Incarnate than in the pleasant green of a lazy English summer, or in harvest gold, or in spring blossoms. Scripture is silent on when exactly the Birth took place. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. God perhaps knew that one day even places like Texas, Argentina and Papua New Guinea would be celebrating His Advent into the world, so He didn’t tell us in order to help us not make a fetish of the trappings.

So I will use the very forlornness of the inflatable snowman decorations to remind myself that it’s not about snow and ice and the coming of the man in red, but about grace and mercy and the coming of the Word in flesh.

Mary Did You Know?

The Christmas song “Mary Did You Know” is a pretty good one, and the Pentatonix version of it is particularly lush. Glorious soaring vocals, complex harmonies, and lyrics expressing the wonder of the Incarnation in a series of questions addressed to His mother Mary.

It’s lovely to listen to, and Christologically-speaking there’s very little you could argue with.

However, it does raise an interesting question: how much of her Son’s role and future was His mother aware of? Or in other words: Mary, did you know?

The lyrics are worth posting, especially in an examination like this, so here they are:

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your Baby Boy will one day make you new?
The Child that you deliver will soon deliver you?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand?
Did you know that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of The Lamb.

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
The sleeping Child you’re holding is the Great I Am.

A look at the Scripture reveals some interesting answers. “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?” leads us to the answer, probably not. There’s no particular fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in that miraculous sign; no reason she’d be able to be aware of it. The angel said nothing about walking on the Sea of Galilee, or feeding 5000 men with five loaves and two small fish, or giving sight to a blind man named Bartimaeus in the city of Jericho.

But to the other questions and statements, like “the Child that you deliver will soon deliver you”, well, the Scriptural answer is yes.

Her husband Joseph was told by the angel, when he was contemplating putting her away quietly, that “you will call Him Jesus, because He will save the people from their sins”. This is a clear Messianic reference even if it wasn’t exactly the sort of Messiah they’d been expecting, and only a high-order moron would suppose that he never discussed it with his wife.

Even Mary herself was told a great deal: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High”, “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God”, and so on.

Elizabeth told her more: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so fortunate, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Even Zechariah’s prophetic words at the birth of Jesus’ cousin John would have found their way to Mary’s ears quite easily: “And you, my son, will be a prophet of the Most High, to prepare the way for Him…”

Then there were the words of the shepherds who came to see Him laying in the manger, and the Magi who came some time later. She had enough to go on that it would take an unusually dense person not to know; not the sort of person God is likely to pick as the mother of His Son, and not the sort of person the Scriptural evidence indicates He did pick. Mary gets it enough to make the gutsy, faith-filled declaration that “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word”. It would be incongruous to suggest that she’s suddenly become clueless.

Did she know the precise details of individual signs and miracles He would perform? It seems unlikely. But she certainly knew Who He was and that He was capable of them. Just look at the way she pushes Him forward at Cana!

But in a way, whether she knew or not doesn’t actually matter. Though the song purports to be addressed to the Virgin Mary, it’s actually addressed to we who listen. Mary is, after all, beyond the place where she could give an answer we can expect to hear; she’s with the One to whom she gave birth. The point of the song is for us, no matter how it’s worded. Did you know that Mary’s baby boy is the promised Deliverer? Did you know that He’s the Incarnate Deity, God with skin on, with all of the power and grace that implies?

A Season of Anticipation

I actually like Advent. Mostly. America thankfully hasn’t discovered a lot of the dire British Christmas pop songs, and even more crucially doesn’t start playing them in August. Oh, it has its own crop of irritating songs, like the terrible earworm Feliz Navidad and the dubious It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (what on earth is that line about “scary ghost stories” doing in a Christmas song??), but nothing to match the horror of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day or the dreadful Jive Bunny Christmas single. Not quite.

I like putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it. (Artificial tree for preference; the one time growing up that we had a real tree it shed needles all over the carpet, was mostly dead before Christmas Eve and generally seemed like a complete waste of time and money). I like singing Christmas carols. I’ve even reconciled with some of the weirdly Mediaeval ones like The Holly and the Ivy. I like my annual venture through the Christmas Story, focusing on a new aspect each year. I even like a lot of the traditions and trappings and stuff that surround it.

In addition, I work on a construction site and not in a store or somewhere, so I don’t have to deal directly with the brigades of stressed and manic shoppers very much. Thank you, God!

The day after Thanksgiving traditionally begins the US Christmas shopping rush. “Black Friday” is the worst possible day of the year to go anywhere even close to a store, and once again, this year I’ve managed to avoid doing so with alacrity. I actually mostly enjoy shopping for Christmas gifts, but that doesn’t mean I want to have to resort to nuclear weapons to pick up a present or two.

Advent for me is a time of anticipation and looking forward. I’m remembering the True Story of Christmas and wondering which aspect of it will be brought into focus this year. I’m looking at toys that I might get for my kids, which is always a fun thing as it gives me a valid excuse to be poring over the LEGO sets in a store. I’m looking forward to some really good Christmas food, trying to remember to get cards in the post on time (always debatable – just ask my longsuffering family), looking forward.

Ecclesiastically speaking, the season of Advent has traditionally been used as a season to remember the preparations for the First Advent and to anticipate and prepare for the Second.

Given what I said a while back about one of the main points of eschatology being to de-absolutise our own concerns (in the face of the End of the World, what does it matter who wins the election?), it seems an especially profitable thing to focus on in the run-up to what is for many the most stressful and panic-inducing time of the year.

What better way to throw the shopping mayhem and traffic nightmares and culinary disasters into sharp relief than to remind ourselves that Jesus is coming back soon?

Depending on your eschatological perspective, that may mean either a great persecution and trouble is coming – I mean real persecution, not people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” – and we will have to exhibit the “patient endurance” that the Scripture says is called for, or else we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air before all the great trouble starts. Either way, it kind of makes all our Christmas stress look… small. Irrelevant. Not worth the worry and effort we expend on it.

Yes, it’s nice to be able to get our kids and relatives what’s on their wishlists. But a wishlist is a wish list, not a demand list. If we’re paying some kind of a ransom for the delivery of an argument- and disappointment-free holiday, we may be doing it wrong. Yes, it’s nice to get all the details right and to have our Christmas be the fairytale we dream about. Even snow on the ground in London or Texas.

But it doesn’t ultimately matter. Advent looks forward to a Second Coming as well as back to the First, and being aware of this might serve as a buffer against some of the stress of the holiday.

I hope I can remember this the next time I’m stuck in traffic on the way home from work because some crazed shopper ran off the road.