If there’s anyone out there who has one more space in their brain for a post-Christmas Christmas reflection (after all it is still Christmas according to the Christian calendar — the 9th day of Christmas, if I’m counting correctly), I offer the following. Can we put the War on Christmas to bed? And never, ever bring back it back?
For one thing, as far as I know, no one declared a War on Christmas. What’s funny and irritating to me is that the language about a perceived War on Christmas comes from those who supposedly are speaking on behalf of Christianity. They apparently perceive an intentional movement to purge any religious connections from the larger cultural observance of Christmas. I view it as an evolving cultural shift that has less to do with trying to smack down Christianity and more to do with an increasingly diverse and globally influenced culture. I haven’t seen any evidence of a large concerted and diabolical effort to sanitize the celebration. It has seemed more like an awareness that not everyone accepts the religious aspects of Christmas and for it not to be forced on those who hold different beliefs.
Here’s a tiny aside (rant): brothers and sisters who claim to speak for Christianity, can we just let go of the militaristic imagery? Why does every conflict or tension or disagreement have to take on the language of war. For almost my entire life, the U.S. has been in a state of perpetual war. We seem to have gotten comfortable with it. We now use militaristic language for anything we struggle against: the war on drugs, the war on cancer, the war on poverty (which in my mind has turned into a war on the poor). Frankly, I just think it’s the wrong language and the wrong imagery. Words matter. They form our thoughts and actions.
But that’s not the point I want to make. If you’re worried that the removal of manger scenes from public places and the greeting “Happy Holidays” replacing the supposedly more religious greeting, “Merry Christmas,” are going to ruin Christmas, then I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Those things aren’t central to the celebration on Christmas in the church. Even though I am a committed Christian, I don’t consider it appropriate that government buildings and spaces display religious scenes, especially as our society becomes religiously more diverse. I don’t see the removal of religious imagery from public places as a threat. If there is a separation of church and state, it seems to me that it applies here.
If we (the church) want to spread the meaning of the season — the profound truth that God has come to make dwelling with us in the Baby of Bethlehem — then we’re not helping ourselves by wagging our fingers at the larger society and insisting that they believe like us or make room for religious references they don’t believe in. Nothing about that approach is consistent with the core of what we believe.
Besides, there’s a far greater threat to the meaning of Christmas that comes just as much from inside the church as from the larger culture. The far more insidious disintegrator of Christmas is the rampant consumerism that has grown up around the festival. The voices that are angry at the loss of “Merry Christmas” as a seasonal greeting seem to have no problem with how the holy season preceding the holy day has become a spending bacchanalia.
Don’t get me wrong. Consumerism isn’t a seasonal malady. It’s not just at Christmas that we spend money we don’t have for things we don’t need. We do that all year long. But the cultural expectation has become so great at this time of the year, that few people stop to give it a thought. What are we doing buying all this stuff?
I am complicit. I have my own issues. A few years ago, I preached a sermon revealing that I had something like 35 dress shirts in my closet. No one needs 35 dress shirts. I love the outdoors. When I’m not thinking about it, buying outdoor things seems to scratch some itch about being an outdoors person. Sierra Trading Post is my crack.
There is a restless yearning. There is a grasping for that one thing (or many things) that well satiate our thirst. That seems to be the fate of broken humanity. Being a person of faith doesn’t insulate from the yearning. But the biblical faith points us to God as the object of that yearning. And the Christian faith tells us that contentment is to be found in knowing God in Christ. Instead, we mostly join with the larger culture in seeking our satisfaction in buying things, even if we can justify it by saying that we’re buying things for others.
Rather, I think we should take a different approach. Feed the poor. Shelter the homeless. Work for peace. Show a little respect and empathy for those who have honest convictions different than ours and try to understand their point of view. When asked, tell what Christmas means in our own lives. And demonstrate by our buying habits that we have a greater love for God and for God’s world than for the things that can be bought at the mall.