Against keeping Christmas to ourselves

Two worthy Christmas posts. First, from Siris:

And so we see the significance of Christmas. Annunciation is the Feast of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh; Epiphany is the Feast of His manifestation to the world as flesh. But Christmas grabs us, seizes us, because it is the Feast of His Humility, that he did not regard equality with God something to hold tight, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, coming in human likeness, found in human appearance, humbling himself. God wrapped in a blanket, lying in a trough in some cave in a tiny little town because no one had room for him elsewhere; unheralded and unsung except by angels in the heavens and shepherds coming in from the fields. Luke knew what he was doing; what he wrote down was one of the most memorable religious images in all of history. It seizes the mind, overwhelms it, sets it alight, and moves it to action.

This is why, incidentally, I am always wary about Christians criticizing people for celebrating Christmas, which we often do. We should not do this — no, not if they put up their lights and tree ten weeks early, nor if they listen to inane songs, or whatever other random fits of daffing with which they may go crazy. They are caught in the grip of an image that cannot be shaken; it inflames them with a fever that they can hardly bear. It grabs their hearts by their handles and pours them out until they are half-mad and all irritable from the strain of it. And, absurd as some of the festivities may be, the fire that lights them is a little bit contagious; even on the fringes, where people isolate themselves as much as possible from the religious side, one still feels its influences. It’s not always the healthiest madness, but it is a forgivable one. When Dionysius descends, can people not be caught up in the bacchanal? How can they hold back, and not romp in reverence? Is there nothing to be enthusiastic about in the celebration of God’s own humility, rich in giving, unashamed to be poor? By one gift beyond all expectation, we are inspired in our own myriad little ways, however faulty, however absurd. But if God was so humble that he did not shirk being a poor baby boy laid in a trough, we are called to the same humility; to humble ourselves in giving, and, failing that, to humble ourselves to those things others do that we deem foolish or absurd or tacky. God had to put up with your own folly and absurdity and tackiness, but He did not hesitate to endure it, and, more than endure it, associate Himself with it, if that’s what it took to bring you to light. And that’s what it took. We should all let the humility rub off on us a bit.

And one from Connexions:

The commercialism and materialism of Christmas is such a soft target, I almost wonder why we bother. If everyone agrees it’s wrong (At last! Something the whole church can agree about!) why do we bother talking about it? I want to suggest that even in the materialism of a modern Christmas, there’s a lesson for God’s people if we are willing to hear it.

Christmas is a supremely materialistic festival. We celebrate the fact that God took human flesh — became incarnate — and lived among his people. He did not enter the world as a glorious heavenly being. He came as a baby, doing all the things that babies do. Forget the sentimental carols and Christmas cards. If the Christian gospel means anything at all, it is that “God is with us”. Through the incarnation, God takes fallen human flesh and makes it holy. I think it was Irenaeus who put it this way: “He became what we are, that we might become what he is.” So if ever there was a time to celebrate our flesh with eating, merrymaking and music — this is it! Christians should not be on the sidelines looking po-faced. We should be showing the world how to party!

The real trouble is not with Christmas, but with the rest of the year. In the west we live every day as though it were a party. The reason we over-indulge to such excess at Christmas is that we over-indulge the rest of the year. The target of the church’s complaint should not be the materialism of Christmas, but the materialism of a lifestyle in which excess is not only lauded, it is practically compulsory.

When I went through my thoroughly anti-religious phase, I still retained a love for Christmas, with its sense that, at least one night of the year, something magical and transcendent was possible. Maybe it was just sentimentality, but presumably God can take natural sentiment and transpose it into something more significant. For a lot of people, that little spark may be all they have, but surely part of the job of the church is to fan those sparks into flames of faith and love whenever that’s possible.

I’m not really in favor of the attitude that simply asks secular people to leave religion to “us” religious people and stop co-opting “our” holidays. For one thing, secularism is, at least in part, the offspring of Chrstendom, and Christians can’t simply disown it and disavow any responsibility for it. If nothing else, a society thoroughly purged of its Christian residue is likely to be far worse than what we have now, with all its compromises and half-measures. And secondly, doesn’t the church exist for the world rather than to provide a religious club for like-minded members? I’ve always liked the parable of the sower, who promiscuously spreads his seed to take root where it will. And that has always seemed to me like a pretty decent image for what the church should be up to.

I’d wager that it’s when Christians really celebrate Christmas with the joy appropriate to the occasion, rather than acting like sour-faced scolds, that non-Christians, marginal Christians, half-Christians, and “cultural” Christians will be drawn into the fullness of life that we believe is possible when God comes near us, as he did in the Incarnation of his beloved Son.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

One thought on “Against keeping Christmas to ourselves

  1. Lutheran Zephyr

    I’m challenged by your post, because I am someone who would prefer that the political and commercial arenas divest themselves from using religious imagery for their own purposes. I complain less about those who celebrate religious holidays with inflatable Santas and plastic easter eggs dangling from their front yard trees, but I wouldn’t mind an overall decrease in the cultural celebrations of religious holidays.

    Of course, when I complain along these lines my wife often comments that such celebration is not necessarily rooted in Christian religious celebrations, but in the pagan holidays these Christian holidays sought to replace. Indeed, the tradition of northern hemispheric peoples celebrating with fire, lights and song in the dark of winter goes back farther than the Christianization of Europe, as does the celebration of springtime fertility festivals. So, perhaps our culture’s celebrations in winter and spring (and fall, with Halloween/All Saints) are not corruptions of Christian holidays, but transformations and continuations of earlier pagan seasonal celebrations.

    Nonetheless, I am bothered by some of the practice of religion by otherwise non religious people – and its not why you might think. I wonder if there is yet some carryover from Christendom that leads some people to call on the symbol of religion in certain situations even though religion otherwise has no real meaning to them. As a hospital chaplain, I often get called to many rooms to pray, even though what these people more likely need or want is a nurse, social worker, or a listening ear (which I always offer). My wife gets called to perform the rite of Christian burial for families who otherwise do not have a religious practice. And clergy are constantly asked to perform weddings for otherwise non religious people. And so I wonder, is the presence of religion (in the form of a chaplain or a clergyperson at wedding altar or the graveside) truly something comforting, or is it requested out of an imposed, burdensome sense that “this is what we are supposed to do.” That is, is there some lingering cultural expectation that people should turn to religion at certain moments in their life? I fear that many people turn to religion reluctantly and begrudgingly, without any real desire or knowledge of what this religious act means.

    I’m all for people worshiping or praying or calling on clergy at different times in their life if that is what they want. But I also want people to be free of the expectation to be religious. Weddings do not need to be in churches, folks, if that is not your thing. Why bother singing about the blessings of Baby Jesus if all you really care about is magic of Santa Claus and Rudolf? I just want people to be honest with themselves, to explore their hearts, and to be free of any expectation or outside pressure to be religious.

    Please, join us in celebration at our church, if that is something that will be meaningful to you. But if you’d rather celebrate with eggnog at home listening to Frank Sinatra and watching the Extreme Makeover Home Edition Christmas Special, go for it. God bless you. And I mean it. God bless you. That’s ok.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. Have a blessed Christmas, regardless of how you celebrate it.

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