Earlier this week, our secondary students gathered in a congregation of Christmas sweater ugliness, having a good laugh at their horrid vulgarity. The kind of ugliness displayed is what philosophers call “kitsch,” which the dictionary defines as “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.”
We found humor in our sweaters because we knew how hideous they were. Perhaps we even thought, how could anyone actually think that these were gift-worthy?
This is good, because at Petra, we are concerned about students’ tastes. We want them to know the difference between kitsch and truth, beauty, and goodness. But it is now, during this holiday time of the year – a time of strong emotion and feeling – that we need to be careful not to succumb to a kind of kitsch that blinds us from the incomprehensible truth, beauty, and goodness of Christmas. For there are versions of Christmas and of Jesus that are as dire in their kitsch as the sweaters we wore that Tuesday morning.
The British philosopher, Roger Scruton, in an essay on kitsch, defines it as “the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap.” In reading this, I thought of the Christmas carol “Away in the Manger,” a saccharine song of suffocating sentimentality if there ever was one. Yet it is one of the most popular Christmas carols that people sing each Christmas season with fervor and joy. Allow me to quote the lyrics:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is what I call docetic kitsch, as it wants to elicit our emotions on the cheap by giving us a sentimental, almost inhuman, baby Jesus (recall that Docetism denied the full humanity of Jesus).
How do we know that no crying he made? Maybe like many babies, Jesus was colicky and cried all the time! Maybe, despite the title, “Silent Night” – a significantly better Christmas carol that still flirts with the temptation of kitsch – it was not a silent night. Maybe Jesus was not tender and mild. Maybe, just as the shepherds arrived, Jesus pooped his diapers for the third time or puked up his dinner for the fourth time, to the frustration of an exhausted Mary and Joseph whose eyes were bloodshot from weariness.
The picture painted here is an almost angelic baby who would never fuss, puke or poop his pants, in other words, not very messy, not very gross, not very baby-like. It is as if “Away in Manger” wants to get us to say, “Ah, look at the baby Jesus, so precious, so cute,” but again, how do we know he was cute? The Bible seems to suggest that Jesus was nothing to look at as an adult, and perhaps as a baby, this was the case as well.
At another point in his essay on kitsch, Roger Scruton writes, “The world of kitsch is a world of make-believe, of permanent childhood, in which every day is Christmas. In such a world, death does not really happen.” Songs like “Away in a Manger” give us a kitsch version of Christmas because, more dangerously, they fail to mention why, and in what context, Jesus was born. There is no death in “Away in a Manger.” There is no sense in this carol that Jesus was an infant born to die a brutal death on a Cross. There is no indication that Jesus was born into a world permeated by death, unless you interpret the line about Jesus taking us to heaven to live with him there, but that, too, is just a sentimental Gnosticism passed off as accurate Christian theology.
Nor is there any indication of The Massacre of the Innocents as a result of Jesus being born, where, to quote “The Coventry Carol,” Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
Like it or not, the actual birth of Jesus is ensconced and wrapped up in death. This infant, no matter how tender or mild, how cute or plain, with or without poopy pants and puked stained clothes, is our Savior – a Savior born to be slaughtered so that we may be born again. He is a baby born to die, that death might be defeated. We cannot (accurately) talk of Jesus without death. We cannot celebrate Christmas without acknowledging the haunting reality that he was born to die.
Now do not get me wrong. I am not saying that Christmas is a time of doom and gloom. It is indeed a time of great celebration. But we live in between what theologians call the already and the not yet, which means we can sing “Joy to the World” with all the joy and gladness we can muster, because we know that this infant, through his death, brings new birth. But our songs will – yea, they must be – tinged with a portion of sadness, because of what the world is still like. The work of the infant is not fully accomplished; death still reigns in this world. Therefore, our songs must have a portion of longing, a longing because of the harsh reality of death.
“Come, Lord Jesus,” is the cry of Advent. This Advent season, we celebrate what happened 2,000 years ago. But we look toward for the full realization of that birth in a future we long to be in now.