Over the past few weeks our local paper, The Berkshire Eagle, has printed a running debate about Christ and Christmas in its letters to the editor. It’s been the common lament that Christ is missing from Christmas and then someone refuting it. I think it’s been tiring.
I know that Christmas does not hold the same place in our popular culture than it did back in the 1960s. Still, up until December 25 it seemed that wherever I went in public I’d hear Christmas carols. Nevertheless, some people lament that children don’t learn Christmas carols in school anymore (as though it was the school’s task to teach them) or they don’t like that a creche can no longer be on public property. (The creche in Pittsfield was on the lawn of the First United Methodist Church, directly across the street from City Hall.)
Most of us probably have forgotten that our Puritan forebears didn’t mark Christmas Day with any special recognition. It was work day, lest it become idolatrous. It was not a time for frivolity. Christmas became a legal holiday in Massachusetts in 1865. If the Puritans could look at our Christmas today, they would think that Christ was very much in Christmas (maybe even too much).
The Christ in Christmas thing does bug me, but not as the debate played out in the paper. First, Christmastide is twelve days. Our culture has placed too much emphasis on Christmas Day so that everything dealing with Christmas seems to end on December 25. No more Christmas music. Better take down the tree. We don’t say Merry Christmas on December 26. Heck, even some of our churches barely acknowledge Christmastide in their hymnody.
Second, and more importantly, Christmas actually is a lot more than saying or not saying Merry Christmas versus Happy Holiday. It’s a lot more than singing the Christmas music, too. Christmas is the coming of God into our midst. Laurence Hull Stookey wrote in his book Calendar Christ’s Time for the Church, “Christmas commemorates the appearing of that Eternal Word in our midst. To settle for the romance of a displaced mother giving birth in a stable, to argue about how a virgin can conceive a child, is to bring profundity to the brink of ruin…Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God. God accepted death that the world might accept life.”
OK, so maybe that’s a little over the top, but he has a point. When we remove the cultural baggage which we’ve put on Christmas and see it for what it should be, then Christmas becomes truly mind-boggling. Christmas reminds us of the possibility of God’s kingdom on earth. God’s kingdom means true peace and justice for all. God’s kingdom is rooted in radical, inclusive love that is not an emotion, but a verb. It means living compassionately and that we will seek reconciliation, and forgiveness despite the challenges they present. It’s about living as a community in a way that enhances the common good. It’s loving our enemies as hard as that might be. In God’s kingdom Creation’s abundance will be shared so that no one would know scarcity or deprivation.
The sadness is not Christ not being in Christmas, but that culturally we’ve come to see Christmas as a single day and not a call for transformation or the end of a world organized by fear and scarcity.
We’ve lost sight of Christmas because we’ve allowed it to become trivialized and squeezed into a single day driven by commercialism and voices that seem more interested in scoring points in the public arena than actually lifting up the poor, giving hope to the hopeless, and forgiving those who trespass against us. Then again, living into the kingdom of God is really hard work. Maybe trivializing it and making it one day enables us to overlook how really radical Christmas is.