Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Who's at War With Christmas?

Last week I was asked to be a guest on The Stream, a 30 minute news program on the Al Jazeera America Network.  The show was taped, and will air on Christmas Eve, and then again on Christmas Day.  When I asked the producer what the subject matter was for the show he replied "its about the War on Christmas."

Oh great.

I have past experience as a guest on this show, and know the people involved with putting it together to be great folks, so I said yes.  As always, the hosts were fair, and the conversation was civil, which is quite an accomplishment for any journalist when you have a Baptist preacher and the leader of an Atheist Group on the same program!  During the pre-interview on the phone the day before, the producer asked me a very straightforward question, "Joel, do you believe there is such a thing as a "War on Christmas?"  

For some time, I haven't believed this was a question that could be answered with a simple yes or no.  In one sense yes, there are a few people out there who would like to see Christmas eradicated from the public square--or at least those parts of it that appear to be affiliated with local, state, or federal government.  Apparently, some confuse the establishment of a religion with the simple recognition by a public entity that people of faith exist, and that there are a lot of us!  And, this confusion has somehow translated into animus for any public expression of faith, and the perception that nativity scenes on public property are a danger to America.  Yeah, I think its silly too.

But for the past month I've listened to the conservative "talking heads" warn, as they do now on an annual basis, of the impending destruction of the Christmas season by the secular left.  Organizations from the ACLJ to the American Family Association are adept at keeping us informed concerning the plethora of "liberal plots" to eradicate anything resembling Christ from the public square during the holiday season. AFA recently called for a boycott of Radio Shack by its ever-diminishing group of followers, apparently because Radio Shack doesn't mention Christmas in its holiday ads.  Almost every year now, it seems yet another conservative is writing yet another book about the "War on Christmas."

But the simple reality is that not everyone celebrates Christmas.  So when the cashier at Radio Shack wishes me "Happy Holidays!"  I don't see that as an affront to my faith or offensive to Jesus.  I simply see a young women who works for a company who would like to sell electronics to those who celebrate Christmas, and also to those who don't.  Radio Shack exists to make money.  It isn't their responsibility to talk about Jesus.  That's my job.  If you think the phrase "Happy Holidays" poses a threat to your faith, you have a very weak faith!

And when I think about that fact, I start wondering if the greatest threat to the central message of Christmas isn't the guy I see every morning in the mirror!

Every year we hear stories of ACLU sympathizers trolling schoolhouse and courthouse properties in search of nativity scenes to challenge. But the greater threat may not be the elimination of the nativity on public property, but rather the minimization of its meaning on private property. I think of the past several Christmas seasons, and I am embarrassed when I compare the time spent giving and opening gifts with that spent celebrating the greatest of all gifts. I remember as a child having to take a "time out" as it were, from my new toys to sit for the perfunctory reading of the Christmas story. With a nervous twitch that would not be relieved until I was back at my new electric racetrack set, I tried to fake interest in this story that I had heard so many times. To me, it was a required religious drudgery; a payment of sorts in exchange for two weeks of no school and new toys.

As an adult, I must still admit to giving more attention at times to my children’s presents than to their focus on Jesus as the center and circumference, not only of the season, but of our lives.

Sure, some of the methods used by secularists are ridiculous and silly.  Yet there is something more ridiculous, and more offensive, than removing any mention of Christ from Christmas by those who don’t follow Him, and that is the trivialization of the Christ of Christmas by those who do claim to follow Him. It is the equivocation of God the Son with eight tiny reindeer.

Though we are quick to defend the identity of this season as “Jesus’ birthday,” we often neglect to think that the incarnation was infinitely more that that. Perhaps this is why reflection on the Biblical Christmas story has lost some of its luster. Luke wasn’t just writing history. He was proclaiming that the One who created and foreordained history stepped into history on our behalf! God wrapped Himself in human flesh, and the wonder of that incarnation causes all the lights and decorations in the world combined to pale in comparison. Frankly, my boredom as a child, and passivity as an adult with the Christmas story is not the result of the story itself, but of my failure to truly appreciate how that moment in history affects all of humanity. It fulfilled every promise of God that was made up until that moment, and assures all who believe that this perfect and divine manifestation of the ideal humanity provides the righteousness required for the intimate connection with our Creator for which all of humanity longs.

But the ultimate rejection of the season’s truest meaning sometimes comes, ironically enough, at the times when we think we have the season all figured out and are enjoying it to the fullest. And there is a real chance that this coming Christmas could be like the last one.  We will read the story of the culturally questionable birth of a Jewish baby in a stall to a 14-year-old virgin and her blue-collar fiance. We will remember how He invested His life among those the world did not think worthy of investment, and how He claimed to come for the poor, the sick, and the sinful. We will reflect on this, the most vivid picture of what it means to be “incarnational,” and then forget that Jesus calls us to follow His example while enjoying our “upper-middle class” Christmas. Paul reminded the church at Corinth of Jesus’ words that the most blessed person is the person who chooses giving over receiving. Evidently, I haven’t wanted that blessing very often.

No, Freedom from Religion Foundation and Radio Shack aren’t our biggest issues this season. When it comes to the “War on Christmas,” the real culprits are those of us who should know better! And if I’m right, then we won’t recover the meaning of this season by court decision.  Neither will we recover it by our materialism.  The average American family will require the duration of 2014 to pay off the consumer debt they will incur in November and December of this year!  Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of the ultimate gift--salvation from God in the person of Jesus Christ.  What sense does it make for those who follow Him to celebrate it by going into debt for lesser things?

Instead, we should take ourselves back to that seminal moment in salvific history, hear the cattle in the stalls and smell the sheep dung. Hear the screams of a woman experiencing violent birthpangs who knew nothing of a soft bed, much less an epidural. Watch as the God-man in the body of a pre-pubescent boy learns the skills of a carpenter from his earthly father. Smell the stink of rotting human flesh as He walks among the lepers. Sense the spiritual darkness that has overcome the demoniac among the tombs. Feel the stomach-wrenching sensation of spikes being driven into the wrists. Sense the weight of God’s judgement upon all of humanity as it falls upon He who became sin for us. And feel the earth-shattering concussion that was the bodily resurrection.

There is a reason that the secular left is at war with Christmas. It is because this world is at war with Christ.  Scary thing is, Jesus leaves no room for “fence-riders,” which means that my past passivity is, in His eyes, enmity. My boredom is, in reality, scorn that has creeped back into my life along with other fleshly things; a part of that old life that Paul tells me was crucified with Christ 2000 years ago.

If there is a war on Christmas, I fear that many who claim to follow Christ are, by their indifference to the season, aiding and abetting the enemy. Moreover, I fear that in the past, I have been among that number. But this year, I resolve to be on the offensive! My family and I will spend less time opening gifts, and more time in front of the advent candles. Through Salvation Army, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, Samaritan’s Purse, and our own holistic service, we will serve those to whom Jesus calls us. And though our kids will enjoy a visit from Santa, they will be taught to stand in infinitely greater awe of their God, who eliminates all war and oppression, and who brings a Gospel of peace, all through His entrance into our world.

Not everyone celebrates Christmas.  I want them to, but culture-warring seems to me to be the least effective way of bringing people to the manger.

I'm not sure if there is an all-out "war on Christmas."  But as best as I understand the Scriptures, if there is one, whoever is waging it is going to lose.  So I'd better be sure I'm not an unwitting accomplice to diminishing this holiday.. May God grant us the grace this Christmas season to speak with our lips, and our lives, of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.

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