“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-28)
You know what I mean, I’m sure. Someone in some media outlet somewhere catches wind of a story about someone or another taking a nativity scene away from a town square. Or some coffee chain that changes out its regular cups for “Holiday Cups” with snowflakes or other non-specific winter imagery, so that we can’t sip $5 lattes out of cups adorned with baby Jesuses or Christmas trees, as the Lord intended. And this media outlet somewhere writes a headline that ominously intones that this is the latest skirmish in the War on Christmas, and that those who want to hang on to their right to prop up dead evergreens in their living rooms had better come to arms.
And then we do what this media outlet somewhere knows we’ll do: we watch, we click, we read. We share on Facebook and Twitter and write blog posts and bulletin articles that link to their article or video or post or whatever. And they get paid.
Can I confess to you a heresy? I’m a Christian. (That’s not the confession, though some might doubt that I am.) I’m a minister at a church, in fact. But at some point in my life, I developed the habit of wishing people I didn’t know well “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Oh, with family or at church I’m a “Merry Christmas” kind of guy, but when I’m with someone I don’t know very well I don’t assume. I doubt seriously that there are many people who would take a well-intentioned “Merry Christmas” and make something sinister of it. But I figure it doesn’t take all that much energy to be respectful of someone else’s background. We live in a very diverse city in a diverse country on a diverse planet. It’s not surprising, I guess, that we sometimes have to take a second look at the cards we send out.
But here’s my heresy, maybe. It’s not “giving in to political correctness” (as someone once accused me of doing when I confessed my “Happy Holidays” leanings). It’s this: the holiday that Christians – and non-Christians alike – are getting ready to celebrate marks the moment in history in which God sent his Son into the world to unite all human beings, whoever they are and wherever they live, in him.
The gospel writers drop little hints to remind us. Jesus was born, we’re told, at a time when Caesar had decreed “that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Luke 2:1) Wise men “from the east” – what we know as Iran, most likely – traveled to a small town in Judea to worship a little Jewish baby. Jesus spent the first few years of his life living as a resident alien in Egypt – Nazareth would have seemed pretty small and provincial in comparison, no doubt. While Matthew shows Jesus as a descendent of Abraham, Luke goes back generations earlier to remind us that Jesus, like every human being, is a son of Adam and a son of God.
The herald angels on that night sang of peace on earth “to those on whom his favor rests” – not of just one ethnicity or race, but all. Maybe most eloquent was old Simeon, who spoke of Jesus as God’s salvation “prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Yes, it’s important to make sure that we select appropriate cards to send out. And it’s good for us to be sensitive to other people’s cultures and traditions. But along the way, I don’t want to make the mistake of perpetuating the myth that Christmas is a Western holiday for only some of the people on earth.
Maybe part of the problem is the way we celebrate it. Most of our best-loved Christmas traditions and music and other trappings are very Western in orientation and origin. Certainly, the conspicuous consumption and rampant consumerism in which most of us indulge at Christmas time would be foreign to the majority of people in a good portion of the world. And that might just be part of the reason that so much of the world thinks that the story of Jesus is for us, not them.
But of course Jesus lived in the Middle East, and was firmly a part of that culture. He didn’t ask that his birth be celebrated by exchanging expensive gifts or eating lots of food or putting lights over every square inch of our well-kept neighborhoods. And while all those things might be well and good, I think I’m safe in saying that it’s much more important that those of us who still remember what the story of Jesus is really all about let our memories inform our lives.
The story has to do, of course, with what happens when the literal embodiment of God’s love and grace moves in down the block. It’s about the inevitable clash between the kingdom of God and the petty tyrants of the world’s power structures. That “silent night, holy night” was an illusion. What happened that night was subversion and revolution – not with weapons, but with love, sacrifice, and humility. Christmas is about what happens when God in all his glory, power, and pure, undiluted love gives himself to every one of us without regard to the language we speak, the color of our skin, the part of the world where we live, or whether or not we go to church on Sundays.
“You are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote to churches in what we’d call Asia today. Sometimes I wonder if we believe that. There are times when anyone looking at my life might reasonably doubt that I do. Paul wasn’t saying that those differences of culture and social standing that divide human beings aren’t real, or that they get left at the bottom of the baptistery. He was reminding them that in Christ all of them were participating, along with believers everywhere, in the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And he reminds me that wherever there is a believer in Jesus, there I have a sister or a brother.
We celebrate Christmas best when we share our lives with the people around us – not just the people like us, but those different from us as well. We celebrate it best when through our love of our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are, we join in the angels’ chorus of “peace on earth to those on whom is favor rests.”
Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong;
And men, at war with men, hear not The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife And hear the angels sing.
As it strange as it seems to some, I grew up in a church that didn't really acknowledge Christmas. Oh, as individuals and families we did, but never in church, simply because Christmas wasn’t in the Bible. I think that might have been an overreaction, but I mention it to point out that saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t inherently better or more spiritual than “Happy Holidays.” Or worse, or less spiritual.
But may we who believe in Jesus never forget that he did not just come for “us”. There is no War on Christmas, because Jesus chose not to fight. In Christ there is no Us vs. Them. There is only the good news of God’s love made flesh.
Hush the noise, you people of strife. Hear the angels sing.