I had an interesting encounter at my favorite coffee shop (Beans ‘n’ Cream, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin — greatest people in the world…) last week. One of the regulars made the following observation, which led to a spirited conversation — “Christmas would be so much more enjoyable if all the religious people would just leave it alone.” On the surface, this is a ridiculous statement, but he made the following points to his argument — some of which make a lot of sense:
- the cultural experience of Christmas has overshadowed any religious intent
- we celebrate more Pagan aspects of the season than Christian, but even the intent of Pagan religion has been displaced and destroyed
- more Christians shop, cook, bake, decorate, drink and travel than go to church
- more money is spent on materialistic gift giving than are donated through our churches to help those in need
- Santa is more important to more people than Jesus
- the church has bought into the pageantry of Christmas and doesn’t even know/tell its own story with any integrity anymore
- Culturally, Christmas has become a time of stress, discord, depression and division more than a time of peace on earth and goodwill to humankind
- Secular celebration has nothing to do with the story of the Nativity — many people don’t even know what Christianity has to do with Christmas.
On one level, this whole discussion feels misinformed, ignorant and inane. But the person making this argument is a faithful and engaged Christian. His real concern is that Christians themselves are to blame for the current state of Christianity and the lame observance of the Christian holiday. In our desire to make Christmas “special” we fill it with myth, legend, pageantry, lighted trees, happy songs (with questionable or completely erroneous content) — obscuring any possible real meaning. We clean it up — we make Mary and Joseph white, middle class teenagers/young adults with pristine costume and wholesome values, parking in an immaculate, unoccupied stable. All lovely, all gentle, all acceptable, all sweet. Sucking the reality of the horrible conditions and situations, we keep ourselves happy and comfortable. We kid ourselves into thinking that Mary and Joseph were a lot like us. “We Three Kings” is the ultimate example of the way we take the story and change it beyond any reality to make the story “better.” No kings, no orient, no specific number of travellers, no arriving on the night of birth, no acknowledgement of the symbolism of the poor, outcast, margins of society. Pure fiction — now part of our “truth.”
Back in the 90’s a study was done to see how charitable giving lined up with gift-spending at Christmas. The conclusion was that 73% of Christians spent more on ONE GIFT for a loved one than was given in a WHOLE YEAR to the church. Go figure. Obviously we are honoring the one whose birth it truly is by caring more for ourselves than for the needy children of God. In fact, what do we give to God and Jesus at Christmas? This question confused and irritated almost 80% of Christians when posed to them in a 1995 study. The majority wanted to know what Christmas had to do with giving something to God or making a commitment to Christ.
Here is the sticking point for me: incarnation is redemption (if you disagree with this, then everything else I am saying will make NO sense). WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST!!! We are the present and real incarnation of Christ in the world. Christ lives in us, through us, and if Christ will be known in the world today, it is because we live the truth and reality of Christ in all we say and do. The challenge is: we are imperfect. We cannot BE Christ FOR Christ. We can only be Christ because Christ is born in us, grows in us, is nurtured in Christ, and matures as the Christ Spirit within us. Christmas is the renewal and regeneration of the Christ essence in the Christian community. If there is to be a recognition of God’s presence in the Spirit of Christ in our world, it will be through the witness of the Christian church. There should be a huge gathering of all true disciples to renew their covenant to be the body of Christ at Christmas. This should be a deep, meaningful, monumental symbolic remembrance and celebration.
I am afraid I agree that Christmas has ceased to be a religious observance. Oh, Christians gather in a spirit of reverence and devotion. We love the songs, we fill our church buildings on Christmas Eve (but rarely on Christmas morning — we are much too busy), and we may even shed a nostalgic and maudlin tear. But are we renewed? Are we transformed? Are we equipped to live differently in the new year to come? Are we bonded more closely to Christ, to each other, and in ministry to all the world? Do we experience sustained love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Are we more like Christ because Jesus is born anew in us again?
Christ will continue to come until we get it. But we make it harder and harder for the Spirit of the living God to find room in our busy lives. Our inns are full. All we leave for Jesus is the barn. And chances are, we will be too busy with gifts, and meals, and toasts, and family to even check in to see how he’s doing. This is the challenge of our post-modern age: what will it take to make Christmas not about us, but return us to a humble place where we focus our attention, our hearts, and our very lives to the infant child who desires nothing more than to make us different people?