Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Christmas is finally here. Presents have been gifted, carols are being sung (appropriately!) and, for many of us, there is good food in the oven. Oh – and incidentally, the savior of the world has once again arrived. Apparently, that last little bit has been lost on some folks. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, while 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form, only 55 percent observe it as a religious holiday.” The question is why.
The answer depends on who you ask. Much has been made of the “War on Christmas,” described by some groups as being a coordinated attack on religious values. According to this view, refusal to say, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” has led to its decline as a “religious” observance. Not according to the Pew survey, which suggests the decrease in individuals celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday has been negligible and gradual” and has nothing to do with the “War on Christmas.” According to its results, most Americans don’t actually care what kind of greeting is used during the season before December 25. And, from an Anglican/Episcopal perspective, we shouldn’t have been saying, “Merry Christmas” until today ourselves!
What people do care about is how we treat one other- and that’s something Christians should be worrying about. A google search on “sexual assault scandals” results in 1.5 million hits, with articles ranging from the number of accusations against Hollywood and political figures, to reporting statistics among different generations. In terms of religion, what people are most interested in is how professed “Christians” are reacting to the scandals. Just as with the sex abuse disgraces within the Roman Catholic Church, citizens of all persuasions are looking to “religious” folks for moral leadership – although not as much as in the past – because younger people no longer see the church as the bastion of ethical authority and source of good acts that their parents did. But in the case of the recent sexual abuse scandals, we have a chance to demonstrate the kind of direction that angry and disconnected people are looking for. “Moral outrage [is] the appropriate response,” says Michael Gerson – and as it so often happens in history, moral outrage can either be divisive or unifying.
Contrary to what we may want to believe, religious divides have been common since theology began. It is probable that more wars have been fought over religion than any other single issue. Certainly, Christianity has had its share of violent conflict. From the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 70 years after Jesus’s birth to the Spanish Inquisition, Christians have been persecuted and persecuted others repeatedly in the name of a God who said that “love your neighbor” was the second-greatest commandment. In this country, Christians have been divided over the American Revolution, abolition, and the Civil Rights movement. Debate among Christians about the way to celebrate Christmas arose far before Starbucks’ cups were even thought of, with the “most organized attack on Christmas [coming] from the Puritans, who banned celebrations of the holiday in the 17th century because it did not accord with their interpretation of the Bible.” The fact is, Christians argue with each other. Various denominations interpret the Bible differently. There are frequent disagreements about church polity both within and between religious groups. Christians are not all the same.
But we do worship the same God, a God who cared enough about a lost and bleeding humanity to live – and die – among them. The ancient beleaguered people of Judah, looking for their own savior, were willing to believe that the birth of a child could save the world. They heard in Isaiah’s words, “a vision of the righteous reign of the coming king who is already at work in the world. They looked out at a world that was no less corrupt, corrosive, cruel, or confusing than our world, and they saw God at work in it. [They saw] the power of God moving in and through it, shaping it according to God’s will.” So did the shepherds. Dirty, cold, and terrified, they were nonetheless prepared to believe. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” Such willingness to open our hearts and minds to the power and love of God – to believe –is what all Christians share – and what we need right now.
We also share the desire to act according to God’s will, despite the fact that we may interpret it differently. Whether we are among the 32 percent of citizens who prefer to be greeted with “Merry Christmas,” or the 52 percent who don’t care, we can agree that Jesus’s birth is to be celebrated with grace and wonder as befits the gift of a loving and caring God – and we can agree that Jesus’s was a humble birth presaging a humble life and a ministry focused on helping the most humble among us. Most importantly, we must agree that it is what we do with our belief that is important, demonstrating how religion can influence us to act and react constructively to the world around us – how it can teach us to productively manage our outrage by making a path of change that is both proactive and peaceful. Christmas is not about presents, or food, or coffee cups. It is about awe and gratitude and grace. It is about glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. It is about believing in the power of love. AMEN.
Liam Stack, (December 13, 2017), “Is Christmas a Religious Holiday? A Growing Number of Americans say no,” New York Times on line, https://nyti.ms/2ACcPm0.
Pew Research Center (December 12, 2017), “Americans say religious aspects of Christmas are declining in Public Life,” http://www.pewforum.org/2017/12/12/americans-say-religious-aspects-of-christmas-are-declining-in-public-life/.
Jonathan Merritt, (December 7, 2017), “Amid a sex abuse crisis, a new conservative Christian vision for womanhood”? Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2017/12/07/sex-abuse-crisis-conservative-christian-vision-womanhood/.
Liam Stack, (December 19, 2016), “How the ‘War on Christmas’ controversy was created,” New York Times on line, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/us/war-on-christmas-controversy.html.
Mark Douglas, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 102.