Posted in reflections

A genoux, petits enfants – thoughts on worship at Christmas

“On your knees, little children.” (A genoux, petits enfants)

This line from “Petit Papa Noël” sung by Josh Groban reminds us that – like many things in life – worship is something we teach our children. At Christmas time, adults supervise children in pageants at church. The little shepherds and wisemen arrive in their ill-fitting but colorfully cute outfits, and parent snap pictures, pride welling up inside. What are we teaching? From this activity, we teach our young that the Divine demands our allegiance, is worthy of our adoration.

Ideally, it is only to God that we teach our children to bow, in deference to the First of the Ten Commandments: “No other gods; only me” (Exodus 20:3, The Message). This is crucial, because to bow our knees to anyone or anything but God is idolatry, the setting up of false gods in our lives. But sometimes I wonder: When the Christmas pageant is done, the cookies are eaten, the fellowship hall vacuumed and we’ve locked the church door behind us, what are we modeling to our young the rest of the year? Even if we never verbalize “On your knees, little children” through our daily actions and reactions, to what other gods are we encouraging our children to give their devotion?

Merriam Webster’s fourth definition of worship is “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” As I look around our world, I see a number of things that – while wholesome within limits – can morph into something else altogether, usurping the place in our lives that belongs only to God. You probably have your own list, but here are three from mine:

Exhibit A – Media

ImageThis is a huge influence in our daily lives, and encompasses so many “gadgets.” Television is only the most obvious. By the time an English child has reached the age of 7, he or she will have already spent 1/7 of their lives – one full year – in front of the television screen. Is your living room set-up with furniture all centered around a big-screen T.V. or is it set-up in a way that encourages conversation among those in the room? Positioning of objects speaks of priorities.

Sometimes the advantage of living overseas is coming back to the United States with fresh eyes on my own country. Walking onto the platform of the Washington D.C. subway, I was amazed to see at least 80% of those waiting for the subway to arrive glued to their “smart phone.” We were all physically together, yet in spirit, we were inhabiting hundreds of different virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that Democrats and Republicans have trouble talking about anything big when in our nation’s capital we don’t even converse with each other about small things while standing side-by-side? Has our devotion to our gadgets become extravagant, edging out the rich, in-the-flesh relationships that otherwise might flourish? (This may be an ironic question on a web-based blog, so you have permission to stop reading and to spend some time with your twelve-year-old).

Exhibit B – Sports

ImageI must have been absent from school the day God passed out athletic ability. So, it may not be fair for me to pick on sports when I’ve never been accused of being a jock. But plunging ahead where angels fear to tread…

The whole “sports as god” scenario crystallized for me on Bus 42 in Manchester, England. On the way downtown, I looked out the window and saw a small road sign. On it was a football (that’s soccer ball, for my American readers) and over the top of the ball, a halo. Underneath were inscribed just three words:

Worship the Game.

I went to a Manchester United game at the temple…um, I mean stadium. The huge screen, the adulation heaped upon the players as they ran out onto the field, and the intensity of the crowd bordered upon the “extravagant devotion” Webster mentions in the above definition of worship. Of course, that’s nothing you don’t see between September and January in the U.S. connected with that other rugby sort of football. And what if our kids miss church activities (even Sunday) because of sports, whether watching them or playing them? Nah, that doesn’t happen…does it?

Exhibit C – the human body

Closely linked to media and (sometimes) to sports is the image we have of the human body. It is easy to cross over the line of taking care of our body as God’s temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and beginning to treat ourselves as objects of excessive devotion. The downside of the idolizing of the human body can be disorders like anorexia/bulimia, which is now affecting not just young girls but boys, too.

My wife and I like watching older movies for many reasons, but one reason is they were unafraid to cast people who were not “beautiful.” It was the age of character actors, and you didn’t have to be an Angelina Jolie or a Ryan Gosling to get screen time. You could be hunch-backed, have a big wart on your nose, ridiculously bushy eyebrows or a hundred other physical quirks. But these days the message on T.V., in print media and on a thousand websites is uniform: If you don’t have six-pack abs, then (by implication) you’re just a loser. Non-beautiful people need not apply.

What a difference between that and the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke of his dream where people would judge his children not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. What did he mean? He meant that what is most beautiful is not what is apparent on the outside, but what is hidden on the inside. White, black, tall, short, muscular, twiggy, curvy, all these things only count for so much. Character is what makes the person, and that less obvious trait can only be revealed over time.


But valuing only what’s on the outside is nothing new. When you look at the statues of the Greek gods and goddesses, it’s striking that they are always portrayed as physically perfect. Yet when you read their tales, it becomes obvious that each is deeply flawed in character. Contrast this with what Isaiah 53:2b says about the Messiah:

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

In other words, Jesus wasn’t counted among the “beautiful people” in a physical sense. Yet, in him was a moral beauty, an attraction stemming from his loving character that still draws us – like the wisemen – to bow in worship (Matthew 2:10). I wonder: Who exactly is our model? Is it the Greek gods and goddesses with their perfect forms but capricious lives, or is it Jesus, plain of appearance yet riveting in spirit?

Lots of things are telling us: “On your knees, little children.” Media, sports, the idealized human body – all of these demand our extravagant devotion. This Advent season, I’m only interested in bowing before one person, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Will you join me in kneeling at the manger?


Photo credits:


Football: The Bleacher’s Report

Artemis: Artemis Aviary


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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