I have been laid up with a bad sinus infection pretty much since Thanksgiving, so I spent an inordinate amount of time surfing daytime TV. What an amazing amount of noise passing for entertainment… However, two tidbits caught my attention while navigating the vast wasteland of morning programming. First, I caught a Lutheran pastor’s sermon, “The Reason for the Season,” and anticipated getting all bent out of shape about another “advent” sermon that misses the point. That wasn’t exactly what I got — at least, it missed a completely different point than the one I expected. Second, I listened to a panel of people discussing how “Christians are ruining Christmas” for the general population — a truly novel idea.
Interestingly, I learned that Jesus isn’t the reason for the season; evil is. An earnest, sincere older white Lutheran pastor focused in on the advent theme of Jesus’ last week before his crucifixion to illustrate that our world is corrupt, violent, merciless, arrogant and disgusting to God. God looked at our world approximately 2,000 years ago and saw how filthy and diseased it had become and he sent Jesus to clean things up — however, the world was so far gone that instead of receiving the Son of God with joy and thanksgiving, we annihilated him. We “took God’s gift and spit upon it,” the preacher proclaimed. “And if we thought we were filthy then, just take a look at how foul we have become since!” Christmas, it seems, is like an annual flu shot — an inoculation against the corruption and disease that we call “the world.” Without Christmas, “evil wins.” He digressed to talk about the rampant cultural values that are destroying Christmas — mentioning that “Santa” and “Satan” employ the same letters for a very transparent and insidious reason. Then he said something that I found chilling and incredible: “The light of Christ come down 2,000 years ago has been extinguished — evil has won, the devil is the victor — it is up to us to reignite the flame!”
Two problems immediately emerge for me from this statement. First, do preachers of the gospel truly believe that evil is stronger than good? Do we believe the devil — in whatever form we understand incarnate evil to take — is more powerful than God? Are we really so driven by the fear of what evil forces might be doing that we abdicate our faith and hide in terror? Is the boogeyman of bad really greater than the God of good? I don’t think so. Terror theology makes a lot of sense — scare the hell out of people to make them more holy. But why can’t we love the hell out of people instead? Why can’t we hold a positive possibility of what human beings can become as our vision instead of a shaming and guilt-inducing image of everything we are not? Christmas is not a time to berate people for all their failings and failures. It is a time to inspire us to hope, love, generosity, mercy, kindness, and compassion. Christmas is not about the worst in us, but a beacon of grace to help us rise above our weaknesses and inadequacies. It isn’t about what we can’t do, but about what God can do.
Which leads me to the second problem I have with the preacher’s statement: that it is up to us to reignite the flame of the light of Christ. This smacks of works-righteousness — earning our way to heaven through human effort and achievement. Even if “the world” has defeated Jesus and extinguished the light, it is presumptuous to believe that those responsible for putting it out can in any way relight it. It isn’t all about us. Christmas isn’t something we do for God; it is what God did for — and continues to do for — us. Advent acknowledges that the world is far from God’s vision for perfection, but that what we see with our eyes isn’t the whole story. We live in hope, abide in faith, and expect the best — knowing that God will prevail and that there is still room for joy in the world. Why dwell on evil when we have a God of grace and light and life to contemplate? Our message is “good news,” not doom-and-gloom.
And it is OUR message. The talk show where an angry couple of “brights” (“brights” are people too smart and sophisticated to be duped into believing anything so stupid and “dull” as religion) argued that atheists, secular humanists, and intelligent people of all backgrounds need to fight to “redeem” Christmas from ignorant Christians who base the holiday in supernatural myth and fairy tales. Their thesis is that Christians suck all the joy out of Christmas by trying to make it a religious holiday. I sat incredulous, thinking “these people claim they are smarter than Christians?” They proceeded to recite a laundry-list of odd, backwards, simple, silly and unenlightened incidents that cast Christians in the worst possible light, then lifted up a series of heart-warming and wonderful stories of non-religious people who celebrate Christmas as a purely secular and cultural holiday. They concluded their rant by stating that Christmas could become a world-transforming phenomenon if only we could strip it of any spiritual or religious meaning.
Now, I confess that we Christians claim that Christmas is a world-transforming phenomenon BECAUSE is it spiritual and religious, and that we are hard-pressed sometimes to prove it, but bear with me. My simple reaction and response is that there is no such thing as Christmas apart from Christ. Certainly, we have glopped on layer after layer of snow, candy, reindeer, cookies, trees, lights, cards, wrapping paper, materialism, music, movies/TV, elves, tinsel, and egg nog, but underneath all the “stuff” is still the Christ child lying in the manger. Stripping away all the religion won’t leave us with a better Christmas — it may be a joyous party full of fun and self-indulgence, but it won’t be Christmas. I am not a soldier in the “war on Christmas” — I think the whole concept is ludicrous — but I do think a little perspective is needed. Nobody forces anyone to celebrate Christmas. It is hard to ignore, but it isn’t impossible. You can listen to whatever music you want to and avoid Christmas carols completely. You can watch whatever you want on television without seeing one Christmas related show. No one will show up and force you to decorate your house at gunpoint. Likewise, it is possible to celebrate a totally secular form of the holiday called Christmas. Frosty, Rudolph, Santa, the Muppets, and Charles Dickens make it easy (though it is hard to ignore the spiritual in Dickens…). What I cannot understand is the animosity towards those who do want to celebrate the religious aspects publicly. Nativity scenes, decorations of a religious nature, etc., should be allowed side-by-side with Santa-scenes and snowmen with no one upset or angry. Free expression is part of what makes this country great. The two women sitting having coffee — one with a flaming devil tattoo, the other sporting a Renaissance angel — have no beef with one another. Why are non-secular religious displays so offensive, or for that matter, why take offense at purely secular displays? What if we could allow Christmas to be a fully open, free expression of our beliefs and values without having to judge or condemn anyone? We could enjoy that which is meaningful to us personally, while ignoring that with which we disagree or find no value. It doesn’t make sense that we must impose this entitlement mentality to Christmas that everyone else should make US happy.
Why do we celebrate Christmas? I celebrate because I want to. I want to focus on the hope and joy. I want to make Jesus a more central part of my life. I want to experience God’s love and grace, and I want to be inspired to share it with others. I want to immerse myself in the rich traditions of the Christian faith — both myth and mystery — and be amazed all over again. I want to laugh and sing and watch Rudolph learn to fly and Charlie Brown learn the true meaning of Christmas. I want the whole experience, and I don’t want a bunch of bickering buttheads ruining it for me — and I’m not going to let them. I can self-differentiate just enough to have the kind of Christmas I like and I can only hope that my enjoyment won’t infringe on the enjoyment of others. I can’t fathom taking Christ out of Christmas, but then, I don’t have to.