What happened to Christmas?

Scripture Readings

Somebody is waging war on Christmas. Who do you think it is? Is it the atheistic humanists who’ve replaced “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays?” Is it the immigrants who’ve brought their strange beliefs and customs to our country? Or is it the Wiccans and neo-pagans who’ve brought back pantheism and have replaced Christmas with the Winter Solstice? Are all these people trying to erase Christmas? I don’t think so. These people of faith are seekers, and seekers are the very ones to whom God reveals himself. Doesn’t Isaiah [55:6] say, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near?” No. The people waging war on Christmas are those who most loudly proclaim themselves Christians—those who are no longer seekers, but who believe they’ve found it: the answer, the truth, the Christ.

            How dare I say that? Aren’t those the people who shout, “Keep Christ in Christmas?” Okay…but look around you right now—less than a week away from our celebration of the birth of Christ. We’re in the middle of what people are fond of calling the “Christmas Season.” Advent, the season of expectation, the season of preparation, the season of seeking has been replaced. With what? With Christmas trees and Christmas lights and Christmas decorations of all sorts. With Christmas parties, Christmas parades, and Christmas “specials” in the movies and on TV. You know them all: “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Home Alone,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Polar Express,” and on and on.

            Why are we doing all this? It’s for the children, isn’t it? It’s so that they can experience the excitement, the wonder, the joy of this magical season, and the delicious anticipation of Santa Claus and the sparkling presents under the glowing, lighted tree. That’s what it is, isn’t it?

            Here’s my question: who is it that’s doing all this stuff “for the children?” Who’s working their butts off to turn our shabby ol’ world into a magical fairyland for a week or two in December? It’s not the kids. For the most part, it’s jaded, world-weary adults who are doing whatever they can to recreate the sense of awe and wonder that they once had as children themselves. It’s a giant festival of sentimentality. There’s no longer a Santa Clause, so we have to recreate him and pretend that he’s going to leave us joy and peace under the tree. Everything we do this holiday season is to reassure us that there really is meaning in our world and meaning in our lives—that peace and joy are still there, even if we can’t see it, and that we are loved. The war on Christmas is waged by replacing the awe and wonder of entering God’s presence with a set of commercially manufactured feelings.

            In today’s Gospel, Mary, carrying the coming Christ Child within her goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. She, too, is pregnant with the child who will become John the Baptist. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the child within her leaps for joy. And there it is: awe and wonder at the Presence of God. These weeks before Christmas invite us to create a spiritual space in which we can prepare to enter into that awe and wonder. It’s not a manufactured feeling. It’s a recognition of who we are and where we are and, like the infant John the Baptist, to rejoice in the sacred Presence that comes to us. It’s a joy and peace the world cannot give [John 14:27]. It surrounds us. It permeates us. As we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, we open ourselves to it once again. We make space for it. We treasure it when it comes to us. We rejoice for weeks afterward because, just as the world cannot give it, the world cannot take it away. What we want to do, as we prepare for Christmas, is to remind ourselves that it’s there for us.

            We don’t have to create a sense of awe and wonder in children. Each of us had it when we were young enough—before it was smothered by skepticism. Remember when the Presence of God was real? When you felt it? When God was as present to you as anyone else in your life? Remember walking into a church and feeling like the room was full, even though there was no one else there? Remember when you knelt down to say your prayers at night and you felt that God was right there listening to you, even though he was just out of sight? I do.

            Once upon a time, like the infant John the Baptist, our innocent hearts leapt with joy when we felt that God was near. That’s what humans do in the Presence of God. Even King David when he had the ark of God’s Presence brought to Jerusalem, danced with abandon before the Lord Who comes [2 Samuel 6:16]. There’s almost a week ahead of us before we celebrate God’s Presence among us. We still have time to invite Mary to bring her child to us so that, once again, we can be overwhelmed with awe and wonder at his Presence. Set aside for a while the tinsel and hoopla that’s the real war on Christmas, and listen to God’s voice as he invites you, “Be still, and know that I am God” [Psalm 46:10].

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