The Comfort of the Cliché
I’ve always been one of those people who has a strong rule against Christmas music and decorations in November. In my own personal war against the holidays starting earlier and earlier every year – I plant my flag and say “NO! Not yet!” And then my beautiful wife and my adorable children, particularly the five year old looks up at me with those big giant eyes and says, “but, pretty puh-weeeease can we listen to Christmas music?”
And then I realize just how not-so-strong my rules against Christmas music and decorations are. And so we bust out the classic tunes and deck those halls in spectacular fashion. In our church we have a tradition of bringing out the Christmas Decorations the Sunday before thanksgiving. After services we have an event we call “Hanging of the Greens” where we get a bunch of pizzas, turn up the Christmas music and a couple of the families get together to decorate and set up all those beautiful traditional decorations. And every year we puzzle over how things were put away in the Christmas closet and we tell ourselves – “THIS year it will be different, THIS year we will put it all away perfectly and it will make total sense.”
And it’s funny – we do the same thing every year, we put up the same ginormous tree, we hang the same ornaments, and we belt out the same songs. And yet, somehow it doesn’t get old. On the contrary, for some reason – instead of being boring for doing the same thing over and over – it’s actually incredibly comforting. Particularly this year (and last year), these annual rhythms are deeply reassuring.
Turns out there is actually a deep psychological need for traditions. There’s a reason sometimes we would rather watch a rerun of a favorite show than spend the energy to invest in a new tv show. When we know what is coming – it gives us comfort. And this applies to almost every area of life. Having a rhythm for how things will go gives us an expectation, and when that expectation is fulfilled – we feel satisfied. Whether it’s the Lord’s prayer, unpacking the ornaments for the tree, or listening to our favorite Christmas jingle – it is reassuring and relaxing to already know what is coming. You see this all over our lives. One time, my middle child Amos was going to the bathroom and he missed saying grace at the meal. His big brother said grace and wanted to start eating without him. But when Amos came to the table, he put out his hands and said, “let’s pray.” And we said, “Oh, we already prayed buddy, you can go ahead and eat.” But he kept his hands out and furrowed his little brow as only three year olds can do and said, “no, we pray again.” We have a tradition in our house of saying grace before a meal – and that tradition brings him comfort and enables him to enjoy his meal better. Even in weekly worship – there is an expected rhythm that comforts us. Of course the words of the prayers and the songs change each week – but there are always prayers and there are always songs. The topic of the sermon and the specific chapter and verse change every week – but there is always reading the word and there is always an explanation (sermon). These traditions help us get comfortable in the worship space. They invite us to put down the shields we carry every day into the scary new world and to be vulnerable before God. Traditions are repetitive on purpose – because it engages our heart with comfort and safety and allows us to come before God as we are. The cliché traditions and repetitive rhythms of life are essential for rest. Whether it’s saying grace at dinner, singing a hymn on Sunday morning, or breaking out the same decorations year after year – there is a comfort in the cliché. New things, even just a new TV show, takes energy… and honestly? Right now - we are exhausted. Covid has taken so much, and the fatigue is very real. The case numbers go up, and while I know people are committed to doing everything they can do – so many people are burning out in dealing with this stupid virus. Teachers, medical professionals, police officers, restaurant workers, and even pastors – all across the board, people are weary. We have had so much to deal with, and for so very, very long.
Now, of course, we can take it too far – get stuck in a rut or become downright boring. But let me give you some advice for this difficult and exhausting season of life. Lean into the comfort of the cliché. Sing the songs early, put the decorations up whenever you want. Watch the same classic Christmas movies all over again. Even though you know the ending, even though you practically have it memorized. Don’t roll your eyes when you hear the same joke or the same story for the hundredth time – embrace it. Let it settle your heart and give your soul some rest. Lean into the comfort of the cliché - we need it this year. We need that reassurance.
Merry Christmas y’all.