Here we are, in the shortest days and longest nights of the year. It’s cold and getting colder — a dark season with less life about it, in some ways, than the warmer, greener months. But we don’t hibernate, and most of us don’t fly south for the winter, though by February we may wonder why not. What we have — Christians and non-Christians alike — is the Christmas season.
There are two basic versions of Christmas, sacred and secular. A few people openly oppose both and do their best to erase them from our public life. Some folks embrace one version but not the other, and are either uninterested in or disdainful of the opposite choice.
I’m here to suggest that both versions are good.
Secular Christmas Is Good
Many who put their faith in someone or something other than Jesus Christ, or profess no faith at all, nonetheless enjoy a winter festival unmatched by anything else we do during the year. Even in 2020 there’s an air of celebration in the land.
We begin in late November on a Thursday, with a holiday for remembering our blessings and being grateful. I think we should be grateful to heaven, but even those whose thoughts are focused lower can be grateful to the people around them and the generations who came before. Either way, Thanksgiving is not a small thing.
The next morning, if we haven’t begun early, many rush headlong into a quest that has some excesses and may tempt us into debt we should avoid — but I won’t tell you the quest itself is bad. Hundreds of millions of people or more spend weeks finding and buying, or making, gifts they hope will bring others happiness, gifts they hope their loved ones will receive as symbols, gifts which point to something on a higher plane.
At their secular best, Christmas gifts speak of love, admiration, and fond wishes. These intangible things are quite real — and more important than what goes under the Christmas tree — even if they can’t be wrapped in colored paper with ribbons and bows.
A week after Christmas (depending on our respective cultures’ calendars), we finish by celebrating the New Year as a new beginning, a new life, a chance to leave the past in the past, to be better and do better in the future.
Think about it. Gratitude, a prolonged effort to make others happy, a commitment to renewal, even a common yearning for peace on earth – all of these are good things, and none of them requires any particular religious faith. If that’s all the Christmas season means to multitudes of people, it’s already a wonderful thing.
It’s Also Not Bad
Even as countless people embrace the ideals and aspirations of Christmas in a secular mode, some Christian believers reject the secular trappings as a betrayal of the divine meaning of Christmas. Some Christians (lumps of coal be upon them) are openly hostile to Santa Claus. But as my wife has noted, he is one of the last legendary heroes to care about every child.
He’s also one of the last surviving, generally accepted secular institutions to spread an ethos of moral good and evil and a sense of consequence. So if a mythical fat man in a red suit goes around ho-ho-ho-ing, driving a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer, practicing home invasion gift-giving, and making lists of the naughty and nice … I can’t bring myself to believe that’s bad.
I don’t speak for anyone else, but at the Rodeback home there’s room in our Christmas – our Christ Mass – for Santa and the Mrs., a goofy snowman, and an oddball reindeer with an electric nose. There’s even room for a Grinch, for Brother Scrooge, and for Charlie Brown and all his friends — to say nothing of the little boy (presumably fictional but much sung of) who thought the newborn Jesus could use a drum solo, because that’s what the boy had to give.
Full disclosure: I have a personal bias toward Santa Claus. When I was a youth, I knew him as my mother’s favorite uncle. When he wasn’t at his retirement day job as court bailiff, during the Christmas season you’d find LaVarr Jacklin properly bearded and suited, ho-ho-hoing his way among the shops in downtown Blackfoot, Idaho.
Even the local Santa of my youth would tell us there’s a lot more to Christmas than its rich secular tradition. I would not diminish any unbelievers’ celebration of the season, but it’s a genuinely holy day for many of us, including me.
To understand my sense of the sanctity of Christmas, you need a basic sense of my Christianity — what it is, at its core, and why I am a Christian.
I’m a Christian because I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe he lives (having once died). I believe he is, directly or indirectly, the divine Source of every good thing in my life, past, present, and future, and in a literal way the sustaining Power of life itself.
I am a Christian not because I believe I’m better than anyone else, or more honest, more moral, more generous, or kinder. I’m a Christian because I want to be more of all these things than I am, and I believe Jesus Christ has the power, will, and intention to improve me. I believe that every positive human attribute is, in its perfection, a Christlike attribute.
I’ve been at this long enough to believe he’s already made me better than I was — but the Lord who said “It is finished” (John 19:30), while hanging on a cross, will not soon say that of me.
Yes, these reflections raise uncomfortable subjects: my flaws, my weaknesses, my sins — no doubt including a host of imperfections I’m not presently equipped to detect. So be it.
My Christianity involves other uncomfortable ideas.
Though I’m required to judge between good and evil in choosing my own beliefs, words, and conduct, Christianity’s Founder is quite explicit on the matter of judging and condemning other people. “Judge not,” he said (Matthew 7:1). “Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). In practice, where human souls are concerned, even in roles where judgment is required, for me it adds up to this: Judge a person no more and no sooner than absolutely necessary.
He said that if I want his mercy, I’d better show mercy. He even said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you … pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).
He directs me, as a Christian, to care for the poor and suffering — personally, not just at an institutional arms-length. He taught that, in crucial respects, we are all have-nots and utterly dependent on him, whether we acknowledge him or not, so we should address others and their circumstances humbly and generously.
Sacred Christmas is Good
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) — a simple sentence which justly launches sermons. I cite it to suggest his central place, his comprehensive role in a Christian’s life and thought. For such a believer, every earnest Christmas gift is a symbol of Christ himself and his incalculable gifts to us. So you can see how the secular version of Christmas which many enjoy might seem to believers to be inadequate, at best a missed opportunity. Yet I maintain that the secular celebration is good — a lesser good, but worthy in itself.
A favorite Christmas hymn begins, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” Two of those words draw my attention here.
My Christmas joy is not conditioned on whether all people everywhere join in. My joy is in him, in what he means to me and for everyone (according to my faith) — but especially those who believe in him and seek him.
As for “triumphant,” it’s not my triumph over you or anyone else. It’s his triumph over death and sin, including my death and my sin. Yours too, but that’s between you and him, not you and me.
For my part, I don’t think just of Bethlehem and a Baby at this season. I think of what that night began, of the wedding at Cana and a sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes, a well in Samaria and Lazarus emerging from a tomb. I think of Gethsemane, Calvary, and a different, more gloriously vacated tomb, and even that is not the end.
If I had to identify a single facet of the story to prize above all at Christmas and throughout the year, it might be this, in the words of an old hymn I have newly come to love:
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to his cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the lord, oh, my soul!
(Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” 1873)
I accept Jesus Christ as the Truth — its Source and Incarnation — so Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous hypothetical is as unnecessary to me as it became to him, but this is the depth and power of the Christian’s love for Christ: “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth,” he wrote, “and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to remain with Christ and not with truth” (1854, letter to N. D. Fonvizina).
One Christmas Wish (Two Versions)
If all Christmas can mean to you is the celebration and practice of rampant generosity for a few weeks, a sustained effort to find ways to make your loved ones and even some strangers happy, so be it. How can that not be good? I wish you a joyous season on those terms.
If you’re a fellow Christian, and inclined as I am to celebrate the miraculous, personal incarnation of divinity in humanity — the Word made flesh, to dwell among us (see John 1:14) — then I wish you a joyous season on those terms, and I recall (for both of us to celebrate) what Paul later wrote:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
To you and yours, a blessed and merry Christmas.