The large number of discarded Christmas trees and wreathes at curbside around town are annual reminders that Christians regularly forget how to count as God would have us. It’s not that Christians and Jews alike have not been warned. The psalmist voiced long ago God’s hope and our challenge: So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart [Psalm 90:12]. Just what is meant by “counting our days?” I suspect it has little to do with my ripping page by page off my “New Yorker Cartoon-a-Day Calendar.” Rather, it is learning to be mindful of the time God grants us, receiving the days and seasons as gifts for living ever more fully as God’s people. Psalm 90 is a meditation on life and mortality, a prayer that God remains our guard, hope, shelter, security, and our eternal home. The psalm is also the source for Isaac Watts’ great hymn on time and eternity, O God, Our Help in Ages Past [ELW 632].
Those sad, abandoned trees and wreathes still sporting shreds of tinsel sprawl in silent witness to our forgetfulness. St. Paul, never one for holding back when we need the proverbial smack up the side of the head, remarks in his Letter to the Romans,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect [Romans 12:2].
Paul is responding to the twelfth verse of Psalm 90. Alas, we often are quite conformed to this world. Rather than being God’s renewed people with wise hearts, we are obsessed by insignificant stuff, feasting on marketing schemes filling our days to distraction. This is not Scrooge’s “Bah! Humbug!” of blessed memory, please understand. The celebrations, festive decking of the halls, the carols, gifts, as well as generous, charitable, and merciful sacrifices God’s people make are appropriate signs of the holy season. The rub is in the way we account for the time we’re given. It’s holy!
The way some tackle Lenten “disciplines” can help us understand what might be out of kilter with our Christian counting in general. The things folks are apt to “give up” for Lent tend to be the indulgences and habitual activities we otherwise just take for granted. A friend’s standard “give up” for years has been Diet Coke ©. She knows she’s practically addicted to the drink. She even tells folks she is. Then, she spends the entire Lenten “fast” acutely aware of her “sacrifice,” knowing that she also will put a can in the refrigerator at the end of Holy Week, ready for Easter afternoon. The “sacrifice” does nothing to transform or renew her more fully into God’s child – nothing has changed – the Lenten “discipline” was simply a brief inconvenience to be checked off.
Checked off Christmas trees and wreathes as well as Easter day Coke reveal hearts formed more by Target and Walmart than the loving presence of Christ – and it’s no wonder! The decorations and holiday songs start in September these days but come to a screeching halt about 4PM on Christmas Day. The greenery’s headed to the gutter by morning. Christian counting, however, begins in earnest on the Holy Day – and, humming the song — goes on at least for another eleven. [Easter’s so important it needs fifty days!] On Christmas Eve we hear “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; / cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today” [ELW 279:4]. Unfortunately, not much encourages us to live into the mystery of God’s in-born presence which takes time to grow and mature in us, season to season.
Christian counting is our awakening to God’s growing presence within us and others. Like the parents and family of a newborn infant, we already begin to project what that little one might become and experience. We give a Clemson or USC Class of 2042 sweatshirt for the baby to grow into. The family awakens each day, cognizant of the responsibilities the infant brings but more focused on the wondrous discoveries about life’s realities the newborn notices, grasps at, and learns. God’s children are no different. We’ve much to learn about the Christ Child. We’ve only begun to unwrap this holy gift we won’t fully understand and love until at long last we see Jesus face to face.
Faithful Christian counting means embracing the festival preparations, yet eager to reflect a good while on what God’s gift will mean for us throughout our days. Then, in the coming days, weeks, months, and years, we discover over and over that the Christ Child has begun …to grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God …upon him. [Luke 2:40]. And that, Christian counters, is how our own minds are renewed. We begin to discern …the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect [Romans 12:2b]. Walmart and Target may ditch this holy season in a skinny minute, but God’s faithful have only begun to celebrate, knowing it will take our lifetime, each day as precious as the one before it because God-is-with-Us. Count on it!