…[T]he Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
-Matthew 20:28 (NIV)
An unidentified man at LaGuardia airport was thrown off a flight Tuesday for being, well, kind of a Scrooge.
The man apparently took umbrage when an airline gate attendant welcomed the passengers waiting to board with a cheerful, “Merry Christmas.” He lectured her, somewhat loudly, saying, “You shouldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ because not everyone celebrates Christmas.” When the agent asked what she should say, the man shouted, “Don’t say Merry Christmas” again before storming past her.
It got worse from there, though, because once on the plane, a flight attendant greeted him with, you guessed it, a warm and friendly “Merry Christmas.”
At this, the passenger kind of lost it. He repeated, loudly, that “Merry Christmas” was not an appropriate greeting given a diverse society. When other attendants came over to try to defuse the situation, he lectured them, too. Even when the pilot came out, the man refused to sit down and quiet his outburst. Eventually, with the man still telling anyone who would listen that “Merry Christmas” was inappropriate, he was escorted off the plane.
Presumably by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
On the other hand, a few Christians called astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson “disrespectful” for his Christmas morning tweet:
On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy
Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642
Clearly, in our world Christmas isn’t just a holiday. It’s an ideology that must be either opposed or defended. A news channel that shall remain nameless says we’re in a “war” that revolves around Christmas, though others would argue that Christmas is actually just an annual skirmish in the real war. Undeniably, it’s become a battleground where those who advocate runaway political correctness on one side clash with those who envision a sort of neo-Victorian world where everyone goes around wishing each other Merry Christmas and wassailing (whatever that is) and eating figgy pudding. Every year, someone somewhere gets very publicly offended by a nativity scene on public property, and then someone else gets publicly offended that they’re offended. (Really, with all this offense, why can’t the Bears score more than 20 points a game?)
Well, listen: Christians who are offended with what Tyson wrote on his Twitter account and the guy at LaGuardia offended because someone wished him Merry Christmas have the same problem.
The difference is, Christians should know better.
The fact is, Jesus didn’t die for Christmas. Believe it or not, he didn’t go to the cross to secure my right to celebrate his birthday by putting up a manger scene at City Hall, having my family over for dinner, and going to a Christmas Eve candlelight service. I have no problem with any of those things. But neither do I need to force Christmas on those who for cultural, political, or religious reasons, or even out of general Scroogeishness, don’t celebrate it.
Jesus did not, in fact, celebrate Christmas. As near as I can tell, none of the Apostles ever so much as sent him a card on his birthday. Paul never writes a letter to answer the tinsel/non-tinsel controversy. It doesn’t seem that the church ever celebrated the birth of Jesus until 300 years after his death at the earliest, and even then the fixing of the date as December 25th was kind of arbitrary. Christmas just isn’t in the Bible.
You know what is? Love for God and neighbor, that’s there. Non-resistance against those who lash out at us is there. (That was kind of a big one for Jesus.) Care for the poor is in there, I seem to recall. Not to mention exhortations like “live at peace with everyone.”
The problem is this: when we get too caught up in defending our “rights” — to force Christmas on our neighbors or whatever else we may feel we have the right to do — we turn away, at least slightly, from the transformative power of the gospel. Jesus, after all — the One whose birth believers celebrate at Christmas — stood up for the rights of others. He called the weary and burdened to follow him, and find rest for their souls. He taught about a life in which the first would be last, and the last would be first, in which rulers would be brought down and those in humble circumstances lifted up. He dared to say that the marginalized could be saved just like the privileged. And when it came time to put his money where his mouth was, when his own rights were taken away, then in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “he did not open his mouth.”
We may not be very good Americans if we suffer the loss of our rights silently, but it makes us excellent Christians.
If I follow Jesus, then no human being, however hostile his intentions, is truly my adversary, and any attitude I cling to that pits me against him is, plainly, wrong. So I, for one, hope the church surrenders soon in “the war on Christmas.” I hope we just lay down our guns and give up. I hope we’ll respect our neighbors enough to wish them Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings or whatever. That’s not giving up on Jesus — in fact, it’s loving people like he did. It’s attributing to them humanity and dignity. It’s letting them know that their opinions and feelings matter to us enough to influence the words we choose around them.
That kind of love creates space in a relationship into which Jesus can step and do his work. It creates room for the Holy Spirit, in which the gospel can transform and redeem and restore.
I’ve come to believe that the way most believers celebrate Christmas does nothing for the gospel. It’s more about us and those close to us, less about Jesus, and even less about others. So what if we had parties and invited, not our friends and family, but the poor? What if we gave gifts to those who couldn’t give back to us? What if we reached out in love and friendship to those who don’t recognize Jesus at all? Wouldn’t that honor Jesus more than the way we celebrate Christmas honors him now? Wouldn’t it better do justice to the gospel?
I don’t mean to Scrooge up your Christmas celebrations. But do consider what your celebrations say to the world around you about the One you claim to honor, the One who came to this world to give himself.