I was talking with a woman in our community about church. She told me, “I used to love coming to Christmas Eve services, but I just got fed up with all the religious baggage.” I asked her to explain what she meant, so she went on, “I love the music, but Christmas is a time for joy! I don’t want to sit through all those tedious scripture readings and prayers. It’s so somber and depressing. I would love to find a church that does nothing but sing Christmas carols. I asked her what her favorite Christmas hymns were and she said, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World, and Sleigh Ride.”
Sigh. Every year I hear someone lament the “War on Christmas” and how “secular” society is trying to destroy “the reason for the season.” I am truly not concerned about non-believers when it seems the real threat are Christians bent on taking Christ out of Christmas. I actually had someone ask me if we could hold our service on the 23rd to “allow us to have a full three-day holiday weekend.” Heaven forfend church might get in the way of Christmas!
I remember a few years ago attending the Annual Christmas concert at the Overture Center, and as we were leaving the woman behind me lamented, “that was such a nice concert, but why did they have so sing so much religious music?” I fully understand that Christmas is two (or more) holidays – sacred and secular – but are people really so disconnected that they don’t understand that there would be NO Christmas without the spiritual foundation? Certainly, much that we have piled upon the Savior’s birth has nothing to do with him; in fact, most of the extraneous mythology came from inside the faith rather than from outside, but baby Jesus is still in there somewhere and has at least some claim of ownership to the Christmas deed.
My goal this first year back in a regular pulpit is to make the full Advent journey BEFORE we get to Christmas, then work toward twelfth night and Epiphany in a more historic and theological form. My, people don’t like being told that we don’t sing Christmas songs before Christmas and that the magi are simply not invited to any festivities this side of the new year. Trying to be more biblical borders on blasphemy! Oh, and the idea that Matthew and Luke DON’T tell the same story, and that most of our cherished Christmas songs were not written by folks crowding round the manger? Talk about your “fake news.” People by and large could care less what the Bible says, unless it can be used as a weapon to harm or exclude someone. Trying to deal with what is there is tricky. I remember the woman who told me that “they changed the Bible” because she could remember when it said that Jesus was born “in a stable surrounded by animals.” I could not convince her that neither stable nor livestock were mentioned in scripture.
In an innocent conversation with someone where I was explaining the different theological messages intended by Matthew – having Joseph receive spiritual guidance through dreams – and Luke – having visitations directly through Mary, a person stood abruptly tipping over their chair, and the person stormed out after yelling at me, “Why are you a pastor if you don’t believe the Bible?” This always confuses me. I love the Bible. I don’t worship the Bible, but I love the Bible enough to truly treasure it and study it and contemplate it and research it and dig through it for origin meaning and intention. I spend more time with the Bible than just about anyone I know. I read commentaries for enjoyment and relaxation. I read the New Testament in the Greek. I study the extra-canonical writings of the first four centuries (my Ph.D. focus). My mistake is that I think other people want to know more about the Bible than they actually do.
I cannot fathom a Christmas where we successfully excise Jesus from the story. I can kind of understand how those who don’t believe in the Christian faith still want to enjoy the fun side. What I don’t understand are those who call themselves Christian who feel that Christ’s church is ruining the holiday for them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shoo the wise men away from the nativity scene… again!