At this time of year Christians around the world send Christmas wishes of God’s hope, peace, joy, and love to those near and far. And there are numerous ways we’ll do such. We’ll mail packages or plan trips to be with loved ones or give food baskets to the needy.
That’s good news for the greeting card industry. With Christmas being the most popular of holidays, there becomes an enormous market for greeting card companies where sales soar into the billions of dollars annually.
The fact that we send so many Christmas cards is a sign that we’re still trying to get at the heart of what psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, called our “search for meaning.—tograsp another human being in the innermost core of his/her personality.”
The sales figures alone express the consumer’s attempt to say and do what Frankl contended—we want our message at Christmas to say to someone what they mean to us.
Whether it’s of the serious religious or the sacrilegiously humorous variety, we try to find the perfect card that puts into words what we cannot pen for ourselves.
But this isn’t a model that came from Hallmark. Rather sending sentimental greetings of hope, peace, joy, and love has been happening for centuries.
This is what the apostle Paul does when he pens his own greeting card message in his letters to churches. His words are intended to reach his readers’, and listeners’, innermost core of being: their hearts and souls.
They are simply but profound.
Imagine on the front of a card an image of a simple cross with maybe a star hovering over top with the words, “Now we can give thanks to our God for you.”
Open it and the inside reads: “We thank him for the joy we have in his presence in your faith. May the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow more and more and become as great as our love for you. In this way he will strengthen you, and you will be perfect and holy in the presence of our God.”
Now that’s a Christmas card, right?!!? Who wouldn’t want to get that one!
Paul’s letter is seasoned with the hope, peace, joy, and love of God because the people getting this Christmas card are struggling with separation from leaders; alienation from former friends; and fears of unrest, failure, persecution, and even death.
Paul’s words of encouragement, speak deeply to the hearts of the Thessalonians because they were exactly what they needed to hear.
So what are we to do with Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, in the midst of this Advent and Christmas season?
Well if Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is a message we would love to get at Christmas, if it was exactly what someone needed to hear, then it can serve as a model of the message we ought to be sending to our loved ones, friends, even strangers—because like the Thessalonians who needed a word of encouragement while surrounded by struggles and uncertainty, people today are also surrounded by similar struggles and uncertainty, and are needing words of encouragement too, because these holy days, these joyful holidays, are for many, anything but holy and joyful.
Because these days of Advent and Christmas, these days between Thanksgiving and the New Year can be anything but holy and joyful, a term for them has come about.
It came from a pastor, who a few years ago received a Christmas card from a friend. On the outside and the inside it all looked and appeared just as you would expect, complete with a printed greeting that read, “May the joy of Christmas fill your heart this season and all year long.”
Underneath these words were scrawled the words of a personal greeting from the sender: “Sending love and prayers for the hollowdays.”
The pastor recipient wasn’t sure if it was a simple misprint or if it was a subtle plea for help.
The dictionary defines “hollow” as: “Without substance, worth or character, a cavity, hole or space, a void.”
A person feeling “hollow” during the holiday season goes in line with what Psychologists call Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
Some might say it’s just a case of the winter blues, but SAD is recognized in The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual as a subtype of major depression.
It is a real and serious mental health disorder, that should never be taken lightly, and it can be triggered during what we all believe is the happiest time of the year—because for many it’s not.
It’s not peaceful, hopeful, joyful. For many, it’s sad…it’s hollow.
Truth be told, Seasonal Affective Disorder is linked to issues of light and length of day, and not temperature or hearing “Jingle Bells” every time you visit the mall.
But still, no other holiday can elicit feelings of sadness and loneliness like the Christmas season.
All five of the human senses go into overdrive during this time.
It might be a favorite carol or Christmas hymn, the smell of food or pine, the sights of decorations, the memory of a loved one, exhaustion, or a host of other things that can trigger a paralyzing grip on a person’s emotions, feelings or attitude.
So if such is the case, and given the contemporary landscape of our culture and its consumerist love affair with Christmas—what might the church do within this season of hope, peace, joy and love, to help people avoid or overcome the hollowness of the holidays?
Certainly one thing the church can do is emphasize the Incarnation.
Sure cookies, chocolate, caroling, grand meals, and gift giving are all good and fine; but they only enhance the season. They don’t tell the message.
A strong emphasis on the theology of Advent can better help us, and others, rediscover that at the heart of the Christmas season is so much more than the cultural celebration.
So perhaps one way we the church can do this is to decry the Food Network and Martha Stewart visions of Christmas. Sure they are warm and whimsical, but they are myths, right?
I mean, really, who has the time to cook and decorate in the manners they flaunt.
There is a reason why “National Lampoons: Christmas Vacation” is the most popular Christmas movie today—Because that movie depicts what happens when we try to replicate the Norman Rockwell and Hallmark Christmas—it all goes to heck in a hand basket where the crapper is full, the cat gets fried, and a SWAT Teams crashes through the windows!
Thinking and believing that Christmas is only, and can only be, picturesque creates unrealistic images of Christmas that, sure, we would cherish, but they can also usher in depression and exhaustion.
Days that should be full of joy are instead empty with weariness and despair because expectations go unmet, dreams and visions never materialize.
If we are going to bring a word of encouraging hope, peace, joy, and love to a struggling and uncertain world, we must start such an immense task by remembering that Jesus came into a world that was dim, a world without hope, a world crying out for peace, a world that had forgotten what joy felt like.
Therefore the spiritually sound thing the church can do is to reach out this Advent and Christmas to the lost, lonely, forgotten, abused and oppressed people with whom we live each and every day, because as Paul show us, the best greeting of hope, peace, joy, and love is one that finds people where they are in life, not where we think they ought to be.
The best greeting for Christians is one that reflects the very life of the God of Christmas, the living Christ in the greeter’s life.
It may sound trite or silly, but the best way Christians can reach out to all people this Christmas is to be real, live Christmas cards!
Sure, let’s send them, but let’s also be them! Because wherever believers go this season, we should be the living greeting cards God sends to all people.
Living greeting cards express to people who feel alone that they are not alone.
Living greeting cards show people they are loved.
Living greeting cards work to release people from oppression and injustice in an unjust and oppressive world.
Living greeting cards bring strength and encouragement to the weak and discouraged.
Living greeting cards can turn hollow days into holy and joyful days.
The holy days of Advent and Christmas are days to bring to folks the God whose child was born to save.
The holy days of Advent and Christmas are days to give hope for a future that rests in God, a future whose seeds are planted in the present situations of everyday life.
The holy days of Advent and Christmas are days to invite people to church to sing the great hymns and carols proclaiming the God who lives in our “now’s” and who invites all people to live in them fully and authentically.
The holy days of Advent and Christmas are days to thank strangers who work hard to serve us at stores, restaurants, post offices, and the like.
The holy days of Advent and Christmas are days to go visit the elderly and homebound.
The holy days of Advent and Christmas are days to bring holiness to hollowness.
This is what Paul meant when he said, “We thank God for the joy we have in his presence because of you.”
The key word in Paul’s greeting is “presence.”
Living greeting cards bring to hollow lives, the presence of holiness.
The holidays, when viewed and experienced as holy days, help people to savor the Savior’s presence in this world. But when people dread such days, it’s because of feelings of emptiness or hollowness.
The church must be God’s community that sends out, like Paul, a message of hope, peace, joy, and love, so that those who receive this message can have their hollow-days transformed into holy days by experiencing the true meaning of Christmas—the coming of our Savior.
So as we look for that perfect Christmas card for loved ones—the ones that say just what we want to say, the ones that grasp others at their inner most core—may we endeavor to do such beyond a simple greeting card.
May we endeavor to so with our lives. Because we never know if a person’s holidays are really “hollowdays”—and by being living greeting cards of hope, peace, joy, and love, we will be like the Apostle Paul, and offer exactly what someone needs. Amen.