It happens every year. The retailers and the wholesalers lay out their carefully construed and constructed consumer traps in October and, by the time mid-December comes, most of us have been duly indoctrinated and are on the hunt for things to buy. And, as certain as shops will decorate and seek to captivate, there will be calls for us either to keep Christ in Christmas or put Christ back in Christmas. These will come from pulpits and from petitions – pleading that one and all remember the ‘reason for the season’.
Often, this call is accompanied by a bemoaning of the fact that others – variously described as being agnostic, atheist, anti-God and/or avaricious – are focusing on a plethora of less acceptable ‘reasons for the season’ than Jesus’ birth. The tone can be cajoling, carping or concerned, but, almost always, it is critical. It is a popular call and it is easy to understand the criticism and concern. Almost always, such a call is met with support from other believers. I’ll confess that I, too, have enjoyed riding on that particular bandwagon.
In the early Nineties, I imagined the confusion a space traveller may have if they arrived on earth, somewhere in the West, in the middle of December. I wrote this piece as a result, with the questions in bold being posed by the alien:
So, this is Christmas?
All the malls are crowded; filled with angry shoppers;
Tired and impatient, with their teeny boppers!
“Mommy, buy me that toy – Robert’s mom has bought it!”
“Q-u-i-e-t! Or I’ll smack you... then you can report it!”
Trolleys heavy-laden, filled to overflowing...
All these Christmas extras... where is it all going?
Mom has slaved for hours, cooking Christmas dinner
If you leave a green pea, you feel quite a sinner!
Turkey, roast potato, cranberry and stuffing –
There’s so much food to eat up, Dad’s already puffing!
Then there’s Christmas pudding – custard by the ladle...
What has this to do with Jesus in a cradle?
Wrapped up presents lying neatly round the tree;
Christmas stockings bulging – “What’s in it for me?”
Children list their preference; parents obligated...
Cars and dolls and train sets – battery-operated!
Have you seen the prices – it is daylight thieving...
Shopping! Eating! Presents! What must I believe in?
I know what this must seem like – it is so confusing,
And I want to guide you as you do your choosing.
Christmas makes us happy – all the decorations;
Family get-togethers, joyous celebrations...
None of this would mean much, 'cept as strange behaviour –
‘cos Christmas isn't Christmas, when there is no Saviour!
My thoughts about this haven’t changed, of course – without Jesus Christ, Christmas ceases to be Christ’s mass, a celebration of the nativity of Christ. It may be a holiday, an opportunity for trade, an opportunity to eat, drink, dance and be merry, an occasion for a family get-together (with all that it entails of food, fellowship, fun and fractiousness), but it is not Christ’s mass – Christmas. It may even be called by the same name, ‘Christmas’, (although, increasingly political correctness drives a strong agenda to be more inclusive and less offensive in language usage, thus ‘holidays’, ‘Yuletide’, ‘Winterval’ and ‘Festivus’ have all come to make the rounds), but it is not the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
However, despite this apparent affirmation of the ubiquitous annual call to the world to put Christ back into Christmas, I want to tell you that I have disembarked from that particular bandwagon. I have done so for three reasons:
1. Such a call should not be addressed to the world. They are entitled to leave Christ out of their celebrations at this time of the year, regardless of what they call it and regardless of what they include in their traditions. They don’t know Jesus, they don’t belong to Jesus and have no part of him and so they see this time of the year as an opportunity to indulge: to enjoy themselves, to make some cash or both.
2. Such a call should be addressed to the Church. It is to those who claim Christ as the centre of their lives that the challenge should be constantly before them to keep Christ at the centre of their celebrations. There is much that has been added to our celebration that has nothing to do with Christ’s birth, but which have become traditions that we connect with the celebration of Christ’s nativity. Whereas these traditions are not wrong in themselves, they can hinder our preparations for Christmas by taking too much of our resources – time, talents and treasure.
3. Such a call can make the Good News which Christmas celebrates and communicates seem to be petty, unattractive and un-Christlike. Depending on the way it is delivered, it risks being devoid of the spirit of Christmas – the love, joy, goodwill and peace which the angels announced; the very essence of the Christmas message can be obscured by the way we choose to proclaim it. We risk focusing on guilt rather than grace.
Does this mean that we should yield to those who actively seek to remove Christ from Christmas? Absolutely not! On the contrary, this is a call to do more than persistently proclaim (and too often, protest) the Good News of Christmas. It is a call to live out those values of love and peace and goodwill and joy – to live out Christ to a world that is as desperately in need of a saviour today as it was on the day of his birth; a world desperately in need of Good News rather than guilt trips.
There are but a few days left before we celebrate the greatest miracle of all – God becoming man, “pitching his tent among us”, “moving into our neighbourhood” (as a couple of our English versions of Scripture describe the Incarnation). It is an astounding demonstration of God’s love, grace and mercy – it concerns not only the incarnation, but the humiliation, of Deity. Paul describes that humiliation, the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ coming – paying the ultimate price for the salvation of the world, dying a criminal death on a cross – in Philippians 2. The Christmas story is a beautiful declaration of the gospel, for behind the crib is the shadow of the cross.
Let us aim, for the remaining days of this season, and, indeed, for the rest of our lives, to permeate the world with the fragrance of grace and truth, embodied in the Christ-child and exemplified in the Christ of the cross. What a Christlike Christmas it would be if such a fragrance emanated from the Church of Jesus Christ! May it be so!
Have a blessed Christmas!