‘Peace on earth’–about Christmas

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. 

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? 

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (Romans 14:5-13)

One of my favorite moments in the movie Gallipoli, the story of Australian mates fighting in that historic WWI battle, is when Frank (Mel Gibson) and Archy (Mark Lee) meet a lone codger crossing the salt lake on their way to enlist in Perth.

The old man is surprised to learn that Australia is fighting Germany—in Turkey no less. Archy’s explanation that Turkey is a German ally doesn’t seem to matter.

“Still, can’t see what it’s got to do with us,” he says.

“If we don’t stop them there, they could end up here,” Archy replies.

Glancing at his surroundings, “And they’re welcome to it.”

I may lose some of you by saying it, but that’s how I feel about the so-called “war on Christmas” that, at least until this year, was the latest regular feature of the already heavily-encrusted-with-tradition holiday season.

Or, non-holiday because it has no scriptural basis and is just a “baptized” version of a pagan celebration invented by the early church. Or holiday hijacked by retail giants and mom-and-pop businesses that depend on the holiday season to end up in the black by year’s end. Or numerous shades of pro and con in between.

I’m not interested in fighting a war on Christmas. I won’t enlist, man the barricades, take up arms or engage in any other metaphorical form of participation. Why should I? What’s the point?

Mercifully, there doesn’t seem to be as much social media contention over Christmas this year. (Or, maybe I’ve wised up enough to avoid its most popular online battlefields.) It may be one of the silver linings of the pandemic: other things matter so much more that the petty and inconsequential fall and blow away like the autumn leaves. I hope so.

It’s inevitable that with the decline of so many churches into nominalism that some will say “Christmas has lost its meaning.” That was the theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted more than fifty years ago, so the notion isn’t recent. After an exasperated Charlie Brown asks if anyone knows what Christmas is all about, Linus takes center stage and reads from one of the nativity stories in the New Testament. “And that’s what Christmas is all about,” Linus intones.

Except it’s never been about that in my lifetime, and my 63 years span my parents’ generation, which still regarded church and Sunday school attendance as an essential part of a child’s upbringing. And when I became a Christian as a college freshman in 1976 they were eventually appalled at what I had become.

The truth was closer to the excitement expressed in the The Who’s song Christmas from the rock opera Tommy. It was about the almost unbearable (to a nine-year-old anyway) wait to tear open the brightly wrapped presents under the tree and then tuck into a breakfast that always featured bacon and eggs and warm-from-the-oven cinnamon buns.

We went to church on Christmas eve, I had roles in Christmas plays and cantatas, and sang in the youth choir. And none of it had the effect of the single presentation of the gospel message I received over several months when I was at college in Baltimore. One presentation, after years of going through the religious motions until my teenaged years, when I finally vetoed religion as a useless anachronism.

I’m sure you have holiday memories and personal and family traditions that have the same significance to you as mine, though they may consist of things that are quite different. Is it a crime to celebrate with family and friends, exchange gifts and in other ways express our appreciation for those we know and work with?

But what does all that have to do with the birth of Jesus, the shepherds tending their flocks, the adoration of the magi, the angelic host singing, “Glory to God in the highest”?

It’s like the tiny seed to the ripe apple, completely different in appearance but the latter the product of the former. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like the mustard seed, “the smallest of seeds,” that grows into a large tree, and like yeast mixed into a large amount of flour until it pervades all the dough (Mt 13:31-34). The kingdom of heaven is not always manifested outwardly; it works from the inside out.

Having said that, I am not against Christmas pageants, cantatas, candlelight services, etc. The tension that arises over the dilution of the meaning of Christmas is a vestige of another era, when America was a more homogeneous country culturally and socially. We’re not the same country we were when It’s a Wonderful Life hit the theaters.

And we never will be. Christmas as a year-end celebration originated in the Roman empire when, after Christianity was recognized as the state religion, it became a good idea to go along to get along. The same thing happened to the barbarian tribes that converted. If the tribal chief decided to become a Christian, holding out as a matter conscience was neither a wise nor a practical solution.

After the horrific and pointless fighting that followed in the wake of the Reformation, the settlements allowed each political entity to choose its religion (Catholic or Protestant). But when something is an obligation rather than a truly voluntary expression of faith, that produces a shallow “faith” that is more a surrender to conformity than anything else. Look at the moribund state churches of Europe.

America is about liberty realized as in no other place or time in world history. That is why there are so many churches, denominations, sects, offshoots of denominations, “reformed” versions of denominations, etc. You may as well herd cats as try to unite them on the subject of Christmas.

So why not let it go? Is there any aspect of the Christmas season—the incredible excess of buying ever more expensive gifts, the reveling that goes overboard, the occasionally mawkish sentimentality—that isn’t present the other 364 days of the year? People talk about the “magic” of the Christmas season as if it permanently changes us. Usually, it doesn’t. Like most magic, its effects wear off quickly and lose their luster.

For some who aren’t particularly religious but perhaps once were, going to church on Christmas eve is the thing to do. Maybe it will reunite them with the faith of their youth. Maybe not. But why not offer that option if they associate it with the birth of Jesus?

Maybe you dread the year-end, out-of-control office parties. Don’t go. You don’t need to wave a Bible under their nose. Just tell them you don’t care for it.  The Puritans didn’t like holiday celebrations for the same reason. But you can organize a party of your own—on your terms—and still enjoy the company of friends. Just because Scripture doesn’t authorize a holiday doesn’t mean it prohibits a celebration, either.

Be honest. Which is more in tune with the spirit of the kingdom of heaven? Arguing over the legitimacy of Christmas as a holiday, criticizing its garish excesses and trying to prove you’re right about its alleged pagan origins—or “on earth peace, good will among men” (Lk 2:14 ESV)?

The nativity stories:

Matthew 1:18-25  

Luke 2:1-21

Photo by Jonathan Meyer from Pexels

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