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It has become a sign of the season right along with lights appearing on the neighbors’ shrubbery and listening to Tony Bennett cover “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on my grocery store’s Muzak. I refer to the now-annual heavy breathing by conservative pundits and talk show hosts who are all over the alleged “War on Christmas.” “Happy Holidays” is no longer a general way to wish people well in December–it is a stealth attempt to smother the baby in the manger by refusing to let “Christmas” pass one’s lips. This year some have even scored a kind of smack-down “snap” of a rhetorical victory by pointing out that the early end to Hannukah in 2013 means there is no plural “holidays” at all this month so now it really makes no sense not to refer by name to the one big holiday still coming up on the 25th. A number of big box retail stores are being singled out for not being religious enough and so Christians are being urged to spend their money at only those retailers that have not joined the other side in trying to strip this season of what it’s really all about (which means, I guess, that what we used to lament as the commercialization of the Christmas event is now not only just fine, exploiting just that capitalist swamping of anything having to do with Jesus has become the weapon of choice among at least some in the church).
I am as in favor of true religious freedom in this country as anyone else and would not dismiss as wrong the claim that sometimes our much-vaunted “separation of church and state” is exploited by some as a de facto smothering of the very freedom we value. The government must not select an official faith for all to follow and should show no legal preferences in that area. But that does not mean that those who adhere to a faith may not let it influence their actions or how they talk even on the floor of the Congress or in a corporate board room. Freedom of religion does not require that people pretend in the public square that they are shooting for a kind of freedom from religion as though every public expression of the faith violates a prudent separation of church and state.
Still, even bracketing some of the loopier ways by which some are claiming to be victims of the “War on Christmas,” I often wonder if it would not be such a bad thing to surrender some or many of the battles being waged. What if we stopped expecting Macy’s or the Muzak at the shopping mall to go along with the conveying of Christmas messages. What if we didn’t put so much stock into public square creches and stopped being so offended that ordinary people in society–who may or may not be regular church attenders themselves–prefer “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.”
What if those of us who are Christians actually expected that the only place to get Christmas right was inside church in Sunday worship services, in Bible studies, in festivals of Lessons & Carols where the big story is narrated and the main theological dots are connected in ways we should never in a million years expect to happen anywhere outside the worshiping community of the church. What if the church were really able to say that Jesus is ours and that he does not generically belong to everyone and that we should hope that those who talk about the Christ of Christmas would be those in the best position to do so in the first place: not politicians but pastors, not retailers with dollar signs in their eyes but ordinary Christian folks with the Holy Spirit dwelling in their hearts by faith.
What if we in the church just stopped worrying about alleged attacks “out there” in the shopping mall or on the front lawn of the town hall building and focused on making very sure that for us and for our children we get it right where it counts the most: in church. In preaching. In singing, In praying. Yes, the church needs to move outward from all that to a proper witness to the world and if the day comes when that is threatened–or when the doors of any church anywhere are actually threatened to be chained shut for good by the government–then we have something to ponder and to respond to as Christ would have us to do.
For now, though, I am frankly much more worried that our Advent and Christmas worship services are influenced by the secular Christmas ethos than I could ever worry about whether Macy’s is getting the message across correctly. We can say “Merry Christmas” all we want but a whole lot of our churches too often look like they have been decorated by the spirit of “Happy Holidays” in ways we more and more fail to notice.
Or put it this way: if the day comes when someone outlaws the grocery store’s playing of Frank Sinatra’s belting out “Silent Night,” I won’t be nearly so concerned as I would be if I sensed that inside a Christian worship service at Christmas we could no longer understand how something like Mary’s “Magnificat”–and its radical predictions of God’s upending the normal social and economic order of things–has anything at all to do with the birth of Mary’s boy Jesus.