As the Christmas holidays are approaching (‘holidays’ because they are ‘holy days.’ You should never be upset if someone says “Happy Holidays,” because at least they are recognizing the holiness of these days, and holy not only to Christians but also to Jews and maybe other religions, too, I don’t know), I am forced to reflect on how Christmas Eve is on a Sunday. For pastors, that fact makes Christmas Eve a hard day for their families, because a Christmas Eve Sunday means worship services all day long and a ton of preparation. I, for one, won’t be able to spend any time with my family from 8 in the morning until about 8 at night on Christmas Eve. Yes, that is a plea for your pity. The more I have reflected on the pressure of having Christmas Eve on a Sunday, I realized that the real problem is not with multiple worship services or that I have to work, but the approach that our society takes to holidays on Sunday. Essentially our approach is, “Who cares if a holiday is on a Sunday?”
With many declining churches across the country, but especially here where I serve in Vermont, pastors often hear a common refrain, that schools need to stop allowing sports games or practices on Sundays. Back in the day, people say, we didn’t have a problem with church attendance or youth attendance at church because there weren’t competing forces. Then the schools started having sports functions on Sunday and all hell broke loose. That’s what people in church say.
Recently, however, I discovered that the common refrain we sing to ourselves is short-sighted and, probably, entirely wrong. Both of my churches held Church History Nights in the past couple of months and, at one of them, old pastor’s reports were out and available to read. In the pastor’s report for 1930, the pastor at the time described church school (Sunday School) attendance to be unacceptable—the number had dropped below thirty on occasional Sundays. Thirty kids! Many churches in Vermont would bend over backwards to have thirty kids in Sunday School. But to this pastor, thirty on any given Sunday was unacceptable. Clearly, the trend of losing kids had started long before twenty or so years ago, days that we look back on with such gilded reminiscence because we had ten to fifteen kids. The trend is bigger and more far-reaching than sports on Sunday in the last twenty years or so.
Indeed, extending our perceptions to see the trend of declining adult and youth attendance beyond the past twenty years will show us that school sports on Sunday is not the problem but a symptom. Schools started to have sports on Sundays because they could, because parents and families had already lost interest in keeping Sunday as a holy day dedicated to God. For some families, this is because one or more of the parents work on Saturdays and Sunday becomes the only time in which a family can ‘have to themselves,’ and parents no longer see church as life-giving to the family. And there we have the crux of the problem that I want to flesh out here: what is life-giving?
Church and worship are no longer seen as life-giving, and are instead viewed as obligations, as time that a family is not actually spending together, as time forced upon us that could be spent relaxing. Rest days are no longer seen as Sabbath, and Sabbath is no longer seen as rest and renewing, not only for individuals but for the whole family. Church and worship, as Sabbath, are no longer family activities, despite being the ultimate family activity. Why is this the case? Because our answer to, “What is life-giving?” has morphed from being Other-centered, specifically as being God-centered or holy-centered, to Me-centered. Look no further than sports on holidays—not school sports on holidays, but professional and college sports on holidays.
Last year, I was kind of shocked to see that the NFL held their Sunday games on Christmas, which was a Sunday last year, as normal. Nothing was different. The NBA in the last few years has increased their Christmas day slate of games, one of many reasons why I do not like the NBA. Even the NCAA has asked college students, students who are not being reimbursed in any way for their sacrifice, to play on Christmas Eve and Day. Our response to this trend may be, “Okay, other than the college kids, so what? Professional athletes are paid a ton of money so it’s not really much of a sacrifice.” Maybe, but what about the people working at the ticket booths? At the concession stands? In the parking lot? At the TV studios? The security guards? We don’t even give them a thought. We don’t give those minimum wage workers a thought because, hey, it’s a holiday, it’s our holiday, it’s our day to spend with the family in a special way, these games should be there for us. The workers who make our means of relaxation and celebration possible become invisible, it matters little that they are not able to spend the holidays with their families in the way they’d like, because, hey, isn’t it awesome that we get to watch sports on a holiday?
I completely understand if sports are some families’ means of bonding and relaxing, of resting and celebrating, but a problem arises when we feel entitled to a day centered around us, when we feel entitled to a vacation and holiday good for us and so what if it’s not good for others. Perhaps sports, school or professional, on Sundays aren’t a problem, but on holidays they absolutely are a problem. And, again, sports on holidays aren’t a problem simply because of scheduling; they are a problem on holidays because it means thousands and thousands of people are forced, by those of us who are Me-centered, to tear themselves away from their families and work. When we take a Me-centered approach to holidays, or any designated Sabbath (Sunday, as a Sabbath, is meant to be a mini-Easter, so it is a holiday), we indirectly or directly ruin that day for countless others.
This is why a God-centered answer to “what is life-giving” matters. A God-centered approach takes the lives, the hopes and dreams, of other people and other families into consideration. If we are renewed, as individuals and as families, by centering on God and what is holy, then we can still have our rest, our bonding time, and whatever else, while also not doing harm to the lives of others. My wife and I try very hard not to do any shopping or eating-out on Sundays for this reason. When it comes to the holidays, though, John Wesley’s first general rule of, “Do no harm,” comes into clear focus: we should not only care about what we want, what is good for us, what will be relaxing for us. Me-me-me hurts a lot of others.
Yet unfortunately, the Me-centered approach to rest, Sabbath, and holidays has entrenched itself in our culture, beginning at least in 1930. It’s not your fault, it’s not the fault of the schools, of the NCAA, or even of the owners of professional sports teams. While we may say that professional sport team owners are greedy, we are the ones who let them be greedy. We turn on the TV, we go to the games, we buy the jerseys. We buy in. If anyone is at fault, it is the royal we. We have given permission to anyone and everyone to concoct a fantasy rest day, a fantasy holiday, and then convince us that it is what we want, and there we will be. We have done this because we think that holidays should be about us.
Ultimately, though, nothing is about us, individually. A healthy perspective on life realizes that. If you are a religious person, life should be about God, about the holy. If you are not a religious person, life should be about the communal good and welfare. Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the forefathers of existentialism, a philosophy that is all about the I, was rather emphatic in arguing that rather than existentialism being a Me-centered life approach, existentialism is actually a humanism: the only appropriate way to focus on our own I, according to Sartre, is to simultaneously acknowledge the countless other Is around us, and we can therefore not seek the good of our I by harming other Is. Religious or not, it does you good to move away from a Me-centered approach to an Other-centered life approach, or a holy-centered life approach.
As we approach the holidays, then, I encourage you to reflect and pray about what the holidays (holy days) mean to you, the special holidays and the mini-holidays. How are you celebrating? Are you concerned that the celebration be joyous to you? Or meaningful in a holy, communally uplifting way? Do you want to rest and celebrate in the way that seems right and good to you? Or are you willing to focus on the holy and find the infinite rest that is God? Do you, intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, want others to sacrifice so that you can have a good holiday? Or are you willing to find rest in God and let others also have a day of rest?
Whatever your answers may be, I pray that Christmas Day and the Christmas season (yes, there are twelve days of Christmas) not only be peaceful and joyous, but are a time of God’s inbreaking into your heart, whether you called Him or not, so that you can see who Christ truly is, what he truly means, and how you might find your calm in him.