SCRIPTURE – Proverbs 4:20-27 – My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the[c] paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.
A Grinch-y Christmas
#1 – “The Grinch HATED Christmas!”
Dec. 1, 2013
I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but one of the worst things I’ve ever been called was…a Grinch. It was a few years back while I was serving at a church in Chicago. I was explaining to an irate congregation member why we weren’t singing Christmas hymns in early December. As the self-appointed guardian of the sanctity of Advent, I told her we couldn’t sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” if the Lord hasn’t come yet! I thought this well-reasoned and sound theological answer settled the matter, but she replied with an even more well-reasoned retort: “Well, you’re just a Grinch!” If the green fur fits…
Of course, being called a Grinch carries a lot of weight because of the character behind that name. Our Christmas story in the Bible has a lot of heroes – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise man, Elizabeth and Zechariah – but no real villain. Satan doesn’t make an appearance in the story, the Pharisees aren’t aware of Jesus yet, and King Herod plays a small role, but not until long after Jesus is born. You can’t have a good story without a supremely hate-able villain, so Dr. Seuss gave us the Grinch, who, since 1957, has come to symbolize all those party poopers and Debbie Downers who try to steal the joy of Christmas. During this season of Advent, we’re going to be taking a closer look at Dr. Seuss’ iconic story to see what word it might speak to us today.
“The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! Now please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.” But I think we should ask why. I think we should explore the possible explanations behind why anyone would hate Christmas. This is supposed to be a time of joy, of celebration, of singing and eating and opening presents. How can anyone hate that? And yet, we have the Grinch.
Dr. Seuss doesn’t tell us a lot about him. We know he lived in a cave just north of Whoville. We know he had a dog, the poor, long-suffering Max, who is forced to wear a reindeer antler and pull an overloaded sleigh. This guy is a Christmas hater AND a dog abuser? No wonder he didn’t have any friends. For all we know, he sat in his cave brooding and pacing and scheming ways to make life miserable for others.
But why? How did the Grinch get to be the Grinch? To paraphrase Shakespeare, who was almost as good a writer as Dr. Seuss, “Some are born grinchy, some achieve grinchiness, and some have grinchiness thrust upon them.” So which was it? I think everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, so I don’t think he was born a Grinch. And why would anyone strive to become a Grinch? That’s no kind of achievement. So maybe the Grinch became the Grinch because of life’s circumstances. His grinchiness was thrust upon him.
The Grinch isn’t unique in his downward spiral into holiday hatred. That can happen to any of us, can’t it? Even the most jovial among us can quickly turn green with anger when we are pinballed around in a checkout line full of impatient shoppers or stuck in mall traffic when we just needed a carton of milk. Think you are incapable of becoming a Grinch? Spend an hour trying to find the burned-out bulb in a string of Christmas lights. You know what I mean? Be careful, there’s a Grinch in each of us!
But I wonder if the Grinch’s hatred has deeper roots. I wonder if, at some point in his life, the Grinch was actually one of the Whos. It makes sense, right? Where else would he have come from? I bet he started out as Granville Who or Grady Who. He probably participated in the Christmas decorating and the singing and the cooking of the roast beast. Until one year…he just snapped. Maybe it was yet another fruitcake for a present or hearing Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Maybe the memory of a lost loved one became too much to bear. Maybe it was the recognition that all the trimmings and trappings and materialism didn’t add to Christmas, but took away from it. Whatever the reason, the Grinch was either booted out of Whoville or chose to remove himself from the situation, carting himself and Max up to a cave to escape.
Aren’t there times during this season we’d like to escape, as well? Escape the credit card bills, escape the contentious family gatherings, escape the memories of the people who are no longer here to share Christmas with us. Sometimes it’s easier to be alone rather than suffer through the challenges that come with being in community during this time of year. Let’s just lock ourselves in a cave until Dec. 26 when this whole madness is over! But there’s a problem with being alone: it gets really lonely, and isolation can do strange things to a Who.
I heard a story recent about a whale named 52 Hertz. We all know that whales can talk to each other, because we’ve all seen the scientific proof that is known as “Finding Nemo.” A whale’s voice usually registers between 15 and 20 hertz, and they communicate to each other within that frequency. But scientists have discovered one whale – not a species of whale, but one singular whale – that vocalizes at 52 hertz. That means that no other whale can hear this whale’s call. This whale swims and swims around the Pacific Ocean, sending out its whale calls, and never, ever gets an answer. Scientists call 52 Hertz the loneliest whale in the world.
That’s what happens when we isolate ourselves: we start to communicate in ways that don’t register with others. After spending years and years on his own, the Grinch forgot what Christmas was really about, and convinced himself that it was OK to hate Christmas. He came to believe that stopping Christmas by stealing things from the Whos was actually a good plan. Without a community around him to love him, nurture him, hold him accountable, the Grinch lost his moorings. I don’t believe the Grinch was born with a heart that was two sizes too small. I believe without a community around him, his heart shrunk.
When that happened, something very, very dangerous occurred. There came into existence in the Grinch’s twisted mind that there was an “us” and a “them.” The “us” was really a “me,” the Grinch. And the “them” was the Whos. And once you start to look at the world in such black and white – or is that green and white? – terms, you can justify all sorts of atrocities, including the stealing of Christmas. The Germans have a great word for this. It’s Schadenfreude, which is defined as “a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.” The literal translation of the word Schadenfreude is “harm-joy.” There’s a lot of Schadenfreude going on in our world right now, as people revel in the failure of others. Is that the kind of joy we should be proclaiming this season? The Grinch believed that misery loves company, so by stealing the Whos’ Christmas he was trying to create some company to go along with his misery. If the “us” can’t be happy, then the “them” shouldn’t get to be happy, either. So Christmas became the collateral damage for the Grinch’s anger, and he ended up hating Christmas. Are we in danger of the same thing happening to us?
And in all honesty, is that such a bad thing? To be honest, there are parts of Christmas that are easy to hate. In some ways, I don’t blame the Grinch. One of the things the Grinch hates about Christmas is the noise. “For tomorrow he knew all the Who girls and boys would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys! And then! Oh the noise! Oh the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That’s one thing he hated! The Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!” Can’t I get an Amen? Our ears are filled with the cacophony of the season, which seeks to sap the joy right out of us.
But somewhere buried beneath the noise is a still, small voice, saying, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Beneath the honking of car horns and the jingle of cash registers, there’s an angel choir singing, “Glory to God in the highest Heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Beneath our own grumbling about the co-opting of Christmas by our consumer culture is a voice crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Are we in tune with that message this season?
The best place to hear it is right here, in the midst of this community. Oh, you can hear it out there, but it sounds more like a battle cry than a proclamation of Good News. There’s a horrific irony in the attempt to reclaim the meaning of this season by asserting there’s a War on Christmas. There’s only a war if we let ourselves be drawn into battle. The Grinch tried to declare a war on Christmas, but the Whos didn’t take the bait. They simply proclaimed their own good news. And then the Grinch’s heart…we’ll, we’ll save that for later.
I feel sorry for the Grinch. Maybe his head wasn’t screwed on just right. Maybe is shoes were too tight. Or maybe, in his desire to achieve Schadenfreude, to see those unlike him suffer, he convinced himself that when it comes to Christmas, there are winners and there are losers. Maybe he didn’t keep his heart, as Proverbs says, but instead let it be contaminated by the things that detract from the joy of the season. It’s easy for us to write him off, to make him the Other in our own minds, but remember: there’s a Grinch in each of us. Each of us is susceptible to losing our moorings during this season, to getting caught up in the cacophony and tuning out the voices of the angels that come to speak good news to us.
There IS good news out there! Christmas is coming, Christ will be born again in our hearts and in our world. Hope will spring up anew, joy will be spread around, love with abound. It would be a terrible, terrible thing if we missed that because we were too busy decorating and buying and wrapping, if we missed it because we were too busy grumbling about this and that and the other, if we missed it because we were just…too busy. The Grinch almost missed it, didn’t he? We’re not there in the story yet, but we can’t leave today without a little bit of hope. And there is hope, for the Grinch and for us. For all the reasons we may have to hate Christmas or to hate those who don’t celebrate Christmas our way, there is hope coming. And when there is hope, even hearts that are depressed, sad, lonely, bitter – even hearts that have shrunk two sizes too small – have reason to believe. Thanks be to God.