Mt. Pleasant Lutheran Church

An Austere Christmas – by Pastor David Echelbarger

December 5th, 2016 by Pastor David Echelbarger

For as long as I can remember, I have been visiting home bound members just before Christmas.  Nearly all of them have a small table top ceramic Christmas tree.  Plug it in and you’re done.   I find that they like their little tree very much. The decorating is minimal, austere and I wonder when they were forced to give up the large tree and whatever else they once used to prepare for and celebrate the season of Christmas.

In our home, we are all in when it comes to decorating.  We have two live Christmas trees, both balsams (well, they were alive).  The “Old Fashioned” tree stands in our family room and we’ve been doing a tree like that since the beginning of our life with children.  It has white lights, including electric candles, handmade decorations and any number of ornaments that our children made when growing up and now grandchildren are adding theirs.

In the living room is our Historical Tree with ornaments Christine and I have picked out to represent each year of our married life.  We now have forty-one! In addition, there is an ornament for each child, their spouse, and our grandchildren.  The tree is crowded.  To hang the ornaments is a walk into the past and to take them down is to close the door on yet another Christmas season – neither of which is without emotional pain.

The rest of the house has decorations, too.  Table floral pieces, crèches, and a ceramic lighted Christmas Village.  There are decorations on the top of our kitchen cabinets, garland going up the banister, and various ornaments that came from my grandmother’s house, which we put on door arches or in windows. Outside, we light up the house, hang wreathes, put up a lighted angel and deer in the backyard and lighted garland on the deck rails.  We are the exact opposite of the single table top ceramic Christmas tree.

“How sad it will be when we are not able to do this,” I think to myself.  Or I also wonder: “What happens in the future when the children no longer visit us during the season but we go to them?  Will we still have a tree?  Who will water it for us when we are gone?  Will we go to, gasp, artificial trees?”  This causes emotional pain.  When will an austere Christmas be forced on us?

But this morning I am wondering.  What would it be like to not decorate like our life depended on it?  What would happen if we simply lived in the religious moment that is given to us in this season without all the trimmings?   As a child, my mother read a book to me entitled: The Animals’ Christmas.  This found its way deep into my consciousness.  On a cold austere Christmas Eve night the animals come upon a little evergreen in a clearing in the forest.  The branches are trimmed with a fresh snow fall.  The moon illuminates individual flakes that sparkle like tinsel.  Red berries on the evergreen are the ornaments.  Several apples have fallen to the ground from a nearby tree – a memory of what was once autumn.  Now in the December of their lives the animals gather under their tree – munch on the apple feast and experience an animals’ Christmas.  It is total discovery with no preparation.  They simply appear and receive an amazing gift.

Oh I know that Advent is the season of preparation and I don’t want to short shrift its theme, but what if preparation is not adding to what we already are doing but radically subtracting to allow the meaning to simply be experienced?  After all is not the meaning of this season unearned grace? A gift?

What if we didn’t put up the tree this year and wrestle with the sentimentality of time past?  What if we simply walked out the door of an undecorated house on Christmas Eve and wander through the forest that is Mount Pleasant and come upon a church service?  There, like the animal’s Christmas, it is sheer discovery.  We are welcomed into a clearing that is a decorated church.  We find our way to the altar rail and kneel to receive the sacrament and there in front of us are the statues of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the manger.  We kneel before the first austere Christmas where the gift is not in the trimmings but God coming to us fully.  The word incarnation means: In the meat.  The meat of the season is not the decoration – the substance is Christ.  Should we not put up the Historical Christmas Tree in the living room with all of its memories which including longing for what is gone and pain for what we are losing?  Should we live fully in the Christmas moment not so worried about the past or future?  Is the austere Christmas the truly abundant Christmas? And so I wonder.  Should I feel bad for the person with a single ceramic tree?  Or do they have what I need to come to know?  I am wondering about having an austere but amazing Christmas.

Pastor David L. Echelbarger

Postscript:  Well, in the spirit of full transparency, as we say – I’ll decorate like I always have.  And I’ll wrestle with the past, like I always have.  And I’ll focus on the trimmings along with the meat of the season like I always have.  But when the day comes when it is all reduced to a single little ceramic tree sitting on my table – it might just be ok.  Or even, much more than ok.

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