War on Christmas
December 24, 2006
4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
I was driving down the road one day this week scanning radio stations, and I came across a Spanish station. What I was hearing was the end of a commercial. Mi Espanol is meager, and I missed most of what was said, but I heard the last two words: “Feliz Festivas.” Now everyone who has ever heard José Feliciano’s song knows that “Merry Christmas” in Spanish is “Feliz Navidad.” And I realized that what I had just heard was “Happy Holidays.”
Now I should not have been surprised, but I was a little, and a little irritated. I thought, even on the Spanish stations, they are waging war on Christmas.
This is a war that is being fought on our very own shore and Al Qaida has nothing to do with it. It’s a conflict being played out in shopping malls, post offices, schools, and just about everywhere that people congregate. Lines have been drawn, forces marshaled, and weapons locked and loaded — though in this case the weapons are not remote control bombs but nativity scenes.
For several years now, some folks have been saying that there is a conspiracy to eliminate Christmas and replace it with something called “the holidays,” this raise Christain hackles. This irritates even the most tolerant of Christians. We are ready to do battle over this issue. Perhaps you’ve heard about these battles taking place:
John Gibson, a commentator on Fox News, came out with a book last year titled The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Holiday is Worse Than You Thought. You can see that I borrowed part of his title for my sermon title today. In this book, Gibson talks about how “secularists” are trying to ban the word “Christmas” from stores, schools, and government as a means of pushing Christianity back underground.
President Bush, himself a professing Christian, was roundly criticized by people in his own political party for sending out greeting cards with “Happy Holidays” on them last year instead of “Merry Christmas.” The president’s people replied that not everyone who receives the card is a Christian. But that did not satisfy conservative Christian Republicans. One indignant commentator said he threw away the White House holiday card as soon as he received it because of the offending phrase.
Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association called for a consumer boycott of Target stores because the chain issued a holiday advertising circular in 2005 that did not mention Christmas. The year before, he aimed a similar boycott at Macy’s Inc., which averted a repeat this past December by proclaiming “Merry Christmas” in its advertising and in-store displays.
Some tree retailers are selling “holiday trees” rather than Christmas trees. Though, as one California Christmas tree grower says, “I don’t care what they call them as long as they buy them. Call them a weed if you want to.”
In another story, at least 1,500 lawyers have volunteered to sue any town that tries to keep nativity scenes out of its holiday displays. The next time someone talks about how bad lawyers are, you might remember that. 1500 lawyers have volunteered to take case to keep nativity scenes. And about 8,000 public school teachers stand ready to report any principal who removes “Silent Night” from the choir program. These moves appear to be connected to an interpretation of the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court “reindeer ruling” which said that town-square nativity scenes and the like were constitutional if balanced with secular symbols like Santa Claus. That ruling was supposed to clears up the whole church and state issue, but it only added fuel to the fire.
The war has also sparked its own uniform. Jennifer Geroux, founder of “Operation: Just Say ‘Merry Christmas,’” has produced a red and green rubber wristband for yuletide soldiers to wear. “We just wanted to encourage Christians to have the courage to say ‘merry Christmas’ instead of ‘happy holidays,’” she says. The reality is that Christmas has become pitched battle in our ongoing war with our secular culture.
The war is being fought everywhere, its battles being pitched in places like the local shopping mall, where an innocent checkout clerk offers a customer a cheerful “Happy Holidays” and gets an earful in response. “Why didn’t you wish me a ‘Merry Christmas’?” Jesus is the reason for all this, you know.” the clerk may reply she has been told what to say and her job depends on saying it.
That of coruse does not satisfay the indignant customer. She more than likelywill storm out of the store believing she has just encounter the forces of the antichrist in the person of a WalMart clerk. Of coruse you can argue that her anger and indignation do not give her the proper mood for wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas” either.
Christians of all people want peace on earth at this time of the year. And certainly we do not want to attack people who have nothing to do with the problem that irritates us. Perhaps we would do better to consider that the war on Christmas, like other real wars we know about, is a war based on faulty intelligence.
Take the basic justification and battle cry for this particular war, for example: Jesus is the reason for the season. So we Christians loudly proclaim. Let’s think about that a minute. What has the season become? Is Jesus really the reason for people to engage in an orgy of rampant spending? Is Jesus the reason that many people will experience crushing debt trying to make sure that everyone on their “list” is materially satisfied with the gifts they want? Is Jesus the reason that tempers flare in mall parking lots and store clerks become punching bags for impatient people? Is Jesus the reason we fight over placement of religious symbols? Is Jesus the reason that more people become depressed and lonely at this time of year than any other?
In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that Christmas, as many people practice it, has become more like Festivus — the holiday made up by Frank Costanza’s character on Seinfeld. During Festivus, the primary symbol is an unadorned metal pole, the central activity is telling the people you love how much they’ve disappointed you in the past year and the after-dinner entertainment involves wrestling to see who can pin the host. What looks like Festivus to the rest of us is actually Christmas for many!
Is Jesus really the reason for any of the stuff that Christmas has become? Would Jesus embrace all this? Well, we could argue that Jesus would be rolling over in his grave about what the holiday that claims his name has become — that is if Jesus were still in said grave … which he’s not … which is really the whole point.
Instead of fighting to put Christ “back in Christmas,” maybe we should be looking at ourselves and what we have made of Christmas, and instead of talking about war on Christmas and fighting for Jesus, we should recognize that such talk does not sit well when the subject is the prince of peace.
Better yet, we need to recognize the monstrous theological error of talking about putting Jesus anywhere at all. That is blasphemy. We do not put Jesus anywhere, instead we put ourselves in relationship to him.
Paul’s letter to Titus is instructive on this point, laying out the real reason for the season. Note that in v4 the birth is Jesus is describes as the appearance of “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior.”
A baby was born in Bethlehem. That is what Christmas is about. Who can be against that. Babies are nice. Everybody love babies. But this baby was actually the incarnate love of God. It says in v5 that “he saved us.” This brings me back to my pet peeve mentioned earlier. We do not Jesus anywhere and we do not save ourselves. The verse goes on to make this as clear as possible. We have no “works of righteousness that we had done,” that could lead us to deserve salvation of God. We do not deserve salvation at all. No one deserves to be saved, but God “according to his mercy,” has decided to save us anyway. Consequently God has poured out his Spirit “on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” But again in v7, the writer hits the theme. We are justified by the grace of God. We are made heirs of the kingdom with “the hope of eternal life.”
It should go without saying that Christmas Eve is fundamentally about what God has done by acting as our Savior, but alas the evidence often points in another direction. For some locked in a kind of perpetual childhood, Christmas Eve is bound up in hopes for gifts that will validate our worth as compared with others. For others, the demands and expectations that have been foisted upon them that they should prove their love by lavish gifts has robbed them of the joy of receiving love. Either way, Christmas has become “all about me.” To such a culture, these few verses from Titus provide an important reminder about who it is that is really the active force on Christmas Eve.
It’s tough to imagine anyone wanting to engage this message about Christ when some of his followers are so bent on being right rather than renewed. Truth is that you can’t really witness for Christ through clenched teeth or indignant ranting (don’t see much of that in Jesus). We are called to embody the grace of God through the example of Christ regardless of whether the person on the other side of the counter or checkout line is wishing us a “Merry Christmas” or not. Everyone is worthy of God’s grace. Fighting the “war on Christmas” is simply one of the “foolish controversies” that keep us from authentically bearing Christ to the world (3:9).
The whole point of Christmas is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, came among us: a living example of the way of God’s kingdom — the way of peace, of justice, of concern for the poor and marginalized; the way of servanthood, the way of suffering, the way of salvation.
Read the story and you’ll see that Christ didn’t come to spark wars (either the shooting kind or the cultural kind) but stop them. Christ didn’t come to be a superior religious icon, but to serve. Christ didn’t come to give gifts to the good little boys and girls and the coal fires of hell to the naughty ones. He came to live and die and live again as a sign for everyone — especially for the naughty and the needy.
The truth is that, in Jesus, God put himself with his people — all people.
It all comes down to the fact that God, in his infinite wisdom and love, has chosen to be with us; to live in us, to work through us, to love us all. The truth is that Jesus entered the world as a smiling, helpless baby rather than as a mighty warrior, showing us that we don’t have to fight for God’s love. We don’t have to earn it, to possess it, or hoard it for ourselves. We only have to embrace it.
So, go ahead and enjoy Christmas (or the holidays, or whatever you want to call it) — the tree, the gifts, the parties, the food, the family. All are wonderful things.
But if you’re going to focus on putting Jesus somewhere, put him here (in the heart) and here (in the hands). Do that and you’ll find yourself doing a lot less fighting and a lot more loving. Maybe then the world would look at Christmas, and Christians, a lot differently.
Davis, Matthew. “Lines being drawn in battle over Christmas.” BBC News Web Site, December 10, 2005. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4512156.stm. Viewed May 10, 2006.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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