I am not fond of eggnog, despite that it is a holiday tradition. Before eggnog came processed in a carton, we got the home-made version, raw eggs beaten into milk and spiked with vanilla extract. The problem of course, is those slithery parts of the egg which do not dissolve well. Those slimy bits sliding around my tongue would give me the gag reflex. I cannot look a glass of eggnog in the face to this day.
Neither am I partial to fruit cake. It seems to be the go-to present for people who don’t like you THAT much. A fruitcake seems to be a serviceable stand-in for a real gift, when you don’t know what to bring or simply feel lazy. Fruit cakes are also on the list of eight things most regifted at Christmas time. That might beg the further question, just how old some of those fruit cakes are. I think copious amounts or rum coupled with perfect desiccation just keep that best before date moving forward another year. The Guinness World record for oldest cake, goes to one four thousand years old and counting that was found in an Egyptian tomb and is now on display in a food museum in Switzerland. The question in the back of my mind is how often that one was regifted.
Ugly sweaters are another thing on the list of most recycled. They are so much a “thing” that it is assumed everyone has at one time received an ugly sweater at Christmas, pretending to love it while wondering whom to give it to. Like socks and underwear from Grandma, these things have become part and parcel of our tradition, the disagreeable cozied up with the sublime. Ugly sweaters, fruitcake and such are the ballast for the season. You don’t get Christmas without them. They are like much of life… the old adage that you cannot get an omelette without breaking the egg, no icing without the cake, no sheep without a few goats thrown in.
Of course, we would prefer it not to be this way. So said the prodigal son, the story Jesus told in Luke chapter fifteen. He looked at his brother dutifully saying “Yes Sir” and working the vineyards day in and day out, then turned to his rich dad and said… “Can I cut to the chase and just get my payout NOW?”
It might be the first thought in the mind of many Christians, especially because Jesus, whose yolk is easy and burden is light, has promised us the abundant life right now. The kingdom is at hand. Still, it might be more elusive than that. Joel Osteen has made a lot of money on books like “Your Best Life Now” for all those like me who have apparently not figured out the fine print.
If salvation is free why then why all this extra baggage? Sheep AND goats as a box set. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously stated that grace is free, but it is not cheap. There might be some deferred payment on the road to understanding. It could be that… a salvation without this kind of undergirding is two dimensional and of the moment. It cannot withstand the inevitable storm. There could be some hidden user fees along the way. Jesus himself, when talking about faith, said..If any man will build a tower, let him first count the cost.
We all want our good stuff, free. In North America we are spoiled as Christians to live in a cultural island where Christianity is quite free. No social costs involved. You are at liberty to believe what you would like. Not so in other parts of the world, where Christianity is the religion most under duress. There are also those portions of history, where being a Christian put you in peril of your life.
Such was the case for the Christians to whom the first letter of Peter was intended, written during the reign of Domitian (AD 81–96). Under the persecution of Domition, Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem was crucified, and Saint John was (unsuccessfully) boiled in oil before being banished to Patmos. Domition made a rule that “no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion”.
Under such duress, Peter told his fledgling church to take heart. …“My friends, do not be surprised at the terrible trouble which now comes to test you. Do not think that something strange is happening to you. But be happy that you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings so that you will be happy and full of joy when Christ comes again in glory. When people insult you because you follow Christ, you are blessed, because the glorious Spirit, the Spirit of God, is with you... if you suffer because you are a Christian, do not be ashamed. ”
1 Peter 4:12-15
It seems that the ugly sweater and the fruitcake sometimes come before the good presents, the baggage before the prize. It is a reminder that faith is never a facile matter. Sooner or later there will come a reckoning that shows us and others, what faith really means. Faith of the slot machine and the candy store variety, will not stand. It begs the question. If faith is so free that it comes without any cost, is it really worth anything?
Fruit cake and ugly sweaters, on the gift list it would seem. And so it must be for faith to be real, to stand its own trials and to survive. After all, it’s part of the tradition.