Most Christmas seasons, there are two things that I try to do as part of my own personal preparation. I try to listen to Handel’s Messiah–not one of the shortened versions but the whole thing. And, just to assure you that I am not completely strange, I also try to watch National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation”. While there is a great deal I could say about the “Messiah”, I want to write about “Christmas Vacation” today. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it as part of holiday viewing.
I don’t think it will spoil the movie by saying that the whole movie is about Clark’s quest for a “good, old fashioned family Christmas”, which he feels he achieves in the end. The quest for this provides for a hilarious movie–but it also highlights the deeper realities whenever we seek a return to the past.
I often think of this “the good old days syndrome”–that feeling we get when we look around ourselves and begin to think that things were better at some point in the past. If we could return to those days, everything that is wrong today would disappear and the world would be right. I ran into a version of this while I was a theology student many years ago. In those days, it was trendy and exciting to talk about getting back to early church, doing things like they did. That was, according to many, the good old days of the church when people really understood their faith and practised a version of the faith that made the church what it was supposed to be.
I have seen the same things working with small churches where its older members remember the “good old days” when the church was full, had lots of money and old Rev. So and So ensured the purity and strength of the faith. We see it a lot at Christmas time, when people tell us that we need to go back to the time when Christmas was about Christ and not about buying and parties.
The trouble with this thinking is that when we look at the “good old days”, we are looking at them with very selective memory, memory that forgets the full reality of those days. The early Christian church did have some good things going on–but we must never forget that a good portion of the New Testament was written to correct mistakes that the early church was making. Most of the letters in the New Testament deal with serious problems that threaten the stability and health of the church.
Similarly, congregations that long for the good old days forget that in those days, attendance probably wasn’t much better and many people attended because of social pressure. And old Rev. So and so probably wasn’t as great as memory makes him. As well, Christmas was never really about Christ alone, at least not in the days of anyone alive today.
The good old days are definitely old but in the end were probably no better overall than today. Spending our time and energy trying to recapture what we think was means that we have less energy and time to live today, dealing with the realities of what is. Focusing on our unrealistic yesterdays means we don’t focus on the very real today. Mind you, spending our time and energy trying to recreate an idealized past is sometimes easier and more appealing than trying to deal with the all too messy present, which is probably why we spend so much time doing it.
Jesus dealt with this issue in a slightly different context. He appears to have been dealing with people who were looking to tomorrow for things to be better. What he tells them is found in Matthew 6.34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)
Like tomorrow, yesterday had its own troubles and issues, troubles and issues which are easy to forget when we look back. Too much focus on either tomorrow or yesterday means we miss the reality of today. The best advice is that which Jesus gives in Matthew 6.33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness….”
My guess is that Clark would have had a much better Christmas if he had focused on the reality of his life and family rather than the idealized dream. I know that the church and the faith are much more powerful when we focus on God’s kingdom than on our idealized memories or rosy dreams.
May the peace of God be with you.