For the better part of my life Christmas was regarded as the birthday of Jesus. Even though this is not the most likely date for his birth, and, even though his birthday celebration has been increasingly blurred with the secular emphasis of a capitalistic society, Christmas has been the acknowledged holiday to remember and celebrate when Jesus came into this world.
Over the past few decades we have seen this acknowledged celebration begin to shift even as the faithful still remember. But, with actions taken by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union who work to force the separation of the secular from the sacred, the presentation of Christmas as a religious celebration is no longer dominant and in many cases is outlawed in the public forum. A few generations from now, when children raised in a different public school system than my point of origin, a system where you celebrate Holiday Parties and Winter Concerts instead of those focused on Christmas, the cultural memory of this holiday will not be Jesus. The social landscape has begun to change.
In addition to these changes we have the additional reality that followers of Christian faith are decreasing and those of other faiths or no faith are increasing within our society. Even though Christian faith is still the majority religion in America at the present rate of change it will no longer occupy that position by the end of this century. Religious pluralism is an increasing reality. The religious landscape in America is beginning to change.
Over the past few years these changes have been highlighted by the Cultural War proponents demanding the use of “Merry Christmas.” I am an advocate of saying “Merry Christmas” for those who understand what that means. I am also an advocate of saying “Happy Holidays” for those who don’t know what “Merry Christmas” means. I am also an advocate of saying “Happy Chanukah” for those of Jewish faith or in recognition of those with Jewish heritage. I am also an advocate of saying “Happy Kwanza” to those who are of native African heritage. The genie is out of the pluralistic bottle and instead of fighting it I believe it is better to acknowledge it and open the door for conversation and understanding than confrontation and alienation.
We live in a changing landscape in America. We have seen it on another front in our recent political process. If somehow we missed it, this political cycle revealed how diverse and divergent we are. I do not know when or how we will ever move toward a more unified nation.
Now, let me suggest that this change is not all bad for those who celebrate Christmas and attempt to follow Jesus Christ as the one who forgives their moral and spiritual failures and is the director of their lives. Sometimes when we have grown up in a religious ghetto we so elevate our spin on the history of Christmas that we forget the social landscape of the world into which Jesus himself came. Let me explain:
- Jesus came into a world that was not Christian. In fact, there were no Christians.
- Jesus came into this world as a Jewish boy in a world that did not necessarily like Jews.
- He came into a mixed political world. At one level it was stable. The Pax Roma was the dominating force. At the same time the political landscape in Jesus’ home country was hostile toward this occupying army and political trials and executions were common.
- In terms of pluralism Rome demanded emperor worship. However, for those nations that had been conquered their native religions were ‘grandfathered in.’ Therefore, even though there was a dominant religion there were many other options as well. Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus addresses such pluralism (Acts 17:16ff).
- In terms of Jesus himself, outside of the Gospels of the New Testament, there were only a few obscure references to him on the pages of history. For most people of his day, Jesus was an irrelevant person from an irrelevant country on the outer reaches of an all-powerful empire.
History reminds us that this irrelevance did not last forever. In fact, in just a few years longer than the United States of America has existed, Jesus and his followers moved from being a small blip on the radar of history to being a dominant mindset on the pages of one of the most powerful nations of the era. The landscape had changed.
How did this happen? I believe the answer is quite simple. It is the same answer that I believe is needed today to determine if the Christian faith will survive and thrive in our present changing landscape. They lived the love they proclaimed. After all, Jesus had given them a new commandment:
Love one another as I have loved you. So you must love one another. John 13:34
A prolific Christian writer of our day, Chuck Swindol, reminds us how seriously those early Christians took this command. He said:
One of the most profound comments made regarding the early church came from the lips of a man named Aristides, sent by the Emperor Hadrian to spy out those strange creatures known as “Christians.” Having seen them in action, Aristides returned with a mixed report. But his immortal words to the emperor have echoed down through history: “Behold! How they love one another.”
However, they didn’t just love one another. They went into their world and lived that love in practical ways outside their faith community. They remembered the words of Jesus:
For God so loved the world (kosmos) that God gave his only son, that whosoever believe in him will not perish but shall have eternal life. John 3:16
God loved the world before the world could love God back. Jesus came to love the world before the world knew to love him back. God’s love initiated an action then anticipated a response. And, even though Jesus came as the “Word of God” (John 1:1-14) it was his actions that brought his words to life. In like fashion, those who followed Jesus didn’t just love others through pious words. They followed the admonition of the Apostle Paul who directed:
Whatsoever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the father through him. Colossians 3:17
It was this loving in word and deed that took a belief system and impacted the world. Different from our time in history where so much discussion has been focused on the number of people who are ‘going to church’ (or not), the emphasis of that early era of Christian existence was on ‘being the church!’ They weren’t content with just bearing the title, “Christian,” they lived their faith in practical ways being salt and light…love and truth…faith and hope…in word and deed in their homes, communities, and society.
So, when we celebrate Christmas, when we remember the sweet little baby born in a manger, when we read the words and remember the angels, and the shepherds and the magi, let’s remember the whole story. Let’s remember that Jesus became the incarnate love of God within our world and shared that love in word and deed. Let us remember that to be a follower of Jesus demands that we follow in his footsteps in word and deed. Being a disciple is not simply academic pursuit but a behavioral one as well, word and deed. Then maybe, just maybe, by ‘being the church,’ by demonstrating in deeds the love of God we proclaim, maybe the landscape of our world will change once again.
I believe this is ought to be the hope of Christmas.