It has been a long time since I had good Christmas cheer.
There are some fairly good reasons for it. The month of December in 2006-2008 was a parade of death for me and many of my friends who were deployed to Iraq with me, and these dates become rather grim anniversaries in the remaining years. I grew up as the child of divorced parents – and two families – which made most holidays uncomfortable and best and agonizing at worst. I’ve spent too many Christmas holidays away from my wife and kids, and that has made me a bit calloused and detached from the holidays that I have gotten to spend with them.
But, if there is one thing that consistently ruins my holiday season, it is The War on Christmas. Every year that I try to get into the mindset of peace on earth and good will to men, I’m told by many of my fellow Christians (and the media) to gird up my loins for battle. There is a pronounced uptick in the number of news stories that I see – both in casual browsing and linked in my Facebook feed – proclaiming the coming darkness of persecution against Christians. I cannot drive, walk or run anywhere without seeing signs, bumper stickers, and even billboards proclaiming: “JESUS is the reason for the season!” and “Keep CHRIST in Christmas.”
I agree with these sentiments on a philosophical level, and I would love to believe that we’re all just sharing our faith peacefully with these signs. It’s possible that many of these signs – at least the ones on private property, like on front lawns and church grounds – are just that. However, I know the real reason that I see so many of these signs coming out after Thanksgiving, and so do the thousands of people who display these signs in very visible places, even on public property.
These are the first shots fired in our yearly War.
As the weeks roll by, this Cold War will inevitably become a hot one. Someone will put a nativity scene up on the grounds of City Hall, or a courthouse, or a federal building, and the non-religious will cry, “Foul!” We Christians will say, as reasonably as we can, “We’re just celebrating our religious heritage? What can be wrong with that?” Harsh words will be said by both sides, cries of persecution will be issued, and we’ll soon be engaged in our yearly battle for the soul of Christmas.
Even as a Christian, I get irritated as soon as I see the signs, read the articles, see the memes about saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” I think I get irritated especially irritated as a Christian, because by fighting our war to keep Christ in Christmas, we have completely forgotten what the story of Christmas is about.
If you look in the Gospel of Luke, you’ll find the most complete of the two Christmas stories (though there is another in Matthew that serves as a complementary tale.) It tells the story of a young, teenaged girl who becomes pregnant in suspicious circumstances (though Christians believe that the pregnancy was the result of the Holy Spirit.) It tells the story of a man who determines not to shame her publicly (essentially saving her life), and decides to raise the illegitimate child as his own. It tells the story of being forced to travel a long distance at the behest of an unjust empire, of being denied basic hospitality as strangers. Finally, it tells the story of the King of Kings, the Son of God, being born in the humblest of all circumstances, in a cave surrounded by livestock and permeated by the smell of animal shit.
And who was in attendance at this grand event in history? Was it the teeming masses, everyone in the town and countryside? Nope, it was a group of dirty, tired shepherds and three magi, and they were only there (according to the story) because God personally invited them.
So, God didn’t force this event, this spectacle, on the masses. He didn’t forcefeed the coming of His son onto every passerby. He didn’t have the King of Kings born on the steps of the courthouse, or in a palace. The birth of Emmanuel (God with us) was a secret from everyone, except for the lowest of society and the highest.
Do we invite people to share in the joy of the birth of the Savior? Do we sing “Glory in the Highest! Peace on Earth and goodwill to all people!”, or do we demand that the rest of the world sing it with us?
Do we share in the rest of this story? Do we welcome the strangers, the travelers, the foreigners, into our hospitality, into our homes? Or, do we tell them that there’s no room for them? Do we force them into the dark, into our unused spaces?
Are we like Joseph? Will we bear the shame of whispers, of innuendos, in order to practice mercy over the Law?
Are we like Mary? Are we willing to bear the burden of bringing hope into the world quietly, in humble circumstances, and bear it with joy?
Are we like the shepherds, leaving our lives and livelihoods to come and welcome the Christ?
Are we like the Magi, humbling ourselves and kneeling in the filth of animals in order to welcome the King of All Kings?
This year is particularly difficult for me, in terms of Christmas spirit. Because, while I’m seeing all the signs of “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus Is The Reason For The Season”, I’m also seeing things like this:
It’s hard for me to feel joy at the coming of the Christ child, when this country feels more like pre-Messiah Israel. In our rush to start our War on Christmas every year, I think that we can often miss the importance of Advent. This year particularly, the weeks of Advent seem keenly appropriate.
We struggle under the harsh boot of injustice, both from Empire and from religious institutions.
We cry out for relief, for a Savior. We cry out for justice for the oppressed. We cry out for freedom for the captives.
As too many Christians seem to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “His Truth is Marching On”, and rush to sing “Joy to the World”, some of us are singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel.” Far too many of us are weeping and wailing in anticipation of our deliverance, while our captors are telling us that everything is fine. Too many of us are desperate for a place to rest at the inn, while the Innkeepers of our society are smugly putting up gentle and sterile nativity scenes, assuring us that the cave is clean and warm, and it doesn’t really smell like ox shit.
Too many of us feel the fear of being strangers in our own hometowns.
Too many of us feel the sting of being forced out into the cold, while hearing the sounds of laughter and warmth in our ears.
Too many of us have become innocent victims in this perpetual War on Christmas, and we have learned that the aggressors in this war aren’t who we were always told they were – that is, the aggressors aren’t the atheists, or the humanists or the government. The aggressors in this War are the religious, who have forgotten that the Christ child comes into the world for all people, and that God invites us to share in this joy.