The great Lutheran preacher Edmund Steimle gives us the following bit of history (and I completely understand how it can happen, having lived in Baltimore, Maryland, where a number of locals spoke of it as Bawlmer, Merrlin):
In England at the beginning of the 15th century, the members of the Roman Catholic Order of the Star of Bethlehem began to take in some patients, and in time their efforts became the Bethlehem Hospital in London—the first lunatic asylum, as they called it back then. Over the years, Bethlehem became shortened and slurred into Bedlam and “Bedlam” became the name for any lunatic asylum and eventually it entered the language as a name for any wild uproar and confusion. From Bethlehem to Bedlam.
As I write this three days before Black Friday, and with however many shopping days until Christmas, I think you know where I’m going with this: are we going to Bethlehem—to the manger and to Jesus—or are we going to Bedlam, that is, are we going crazy? Are we going to use the season of Advent as a time of patient waiting, prayer, reflection, and family time together, or are we going to jump on the express train to Bedlam?
The concern over the nature of our Christmas celebration is not a new one; in the 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin observed: “O how many observe Christ’s birthday, how few his precepts. It’s easier to observe holidays than commandments”.
Even earlier, Puritans in America were shocked and appalled by what the holiday had become. You know H.L. Mencken’s definition of a Puritan, don’t you? A Puritan is someone who is upset that somewhere, somehow, someone else is having a good time. In the 1600’s, Puritan William Prynne thundered from the pulpit, “Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety have we now degenerated. Christmas ought to be a day of mourning more than rejoicing, not a time spent in amorous mixt (sic), voluptuous, unchristian, dare I say pagan dancing, to God and Christ’s dishonour, religion’s scandal, charitie’s shipwrecke and sinne’s advantage”. Puritans struck Christmas from the church calendar, and insisted it ought to be like any other day. They wanted to avoid any appearance of celebrating a “papish” or Catholic, holiday. Puritans treated Christmas like any other day; they saw no word in the Bible that called believers to a special celebration.
To paraphrase a bumper sticker posted in my office window, “Tough Season? We’re Open on Sunday”. During Advent, my sermons will be focusing on participants in the “First Christmas”: “Mary: Jesus’ First Disciple”, “Joseph: Journeyman Carpenter” and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Shepherds.” I’ll also take a look at a later addition to the festivities: “The Real St. Nicholas”. And on Christmas Eve, we will remember the story of Jesus’ birth through the Tableaux.
I’ll see you in church!
The Peace of the Lord be with you,