A sermon by Fr. Gregory Jenson.
From both the left and the right then, we hear attacks of the contemporary American celebration of Christmas. Every year about this time you can be certain that someone—and not necessarily a Christian—will write an essay lamenting the secularization or the commercialization of Christmas. And for the last several years I have dutiful read these woeful litanies about how we have lost the true meaning of Christmas.
Typically Christians on the cultural and political right complain about how Christmas has become secularized. These individuals are offended when they hear “Happy Holidays!” rather than “Merry Christmas!” in the stores and malls where they are shopping.
Just as predictably, Christians on the political and cultural left will take others to task for the commercialization of Christmas. In tones as woeful and self-righteous as their opposite numbers on the right, they will express their indignation that Christmas has become about buying useless gifts and consuming too much of the earth’s resources.
To be fair, there is more than a little truth to what is said. But then, to be fair, there is more than a little truth to be found in the secular and commercial rituals that have come to surround how we celebration Christmas.
Something Crass About Christmas
Theologically there is something crass about Christmas. In the best sense of the word, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity is vulgar. In Jesus Christ, the “creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” becomes a small child. Whatever might have been Mary and Joseph’s economic and social status it paled beyond words relative to the glory Christ has as God Son.
And yet He who “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,”
…made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:6-11).
To the powerful of this world, to the sleek and the strong, to the wealthy and the well-born, to those who imagine themselves wise according to the wisdom of this world, the Incarnation is simply in bad taste. At the risk of offending unnecessarily, looked at from the angle of those who imagine themselves to be someone important, Jesus and His followers are just, well, white trash.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:26-30).
The Good News that God in Jesus Christ loves and forgives us and that He has joined Himself to each of us is entrusted to those who are weak and despised by those who in their own minds are strong and wise.
A Secularized Christmas — More Than Meets The Eye
“But,” you ask, “what about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas?”
For all that is lacking in our culture’s celebration of Christmas, it points beyond itself to something greater, more sublime, something more angelical and even divine. And it must be so because for their failings our celebrations are so human.
We be wise, discerning, generous and, above all merciful in our criticism of how our culture keeps Christmas. Above all else there must not be any hint or suggestion of condemnation because “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). What I cannot lose sight of in my critique is that what Christmas celebrates above all that “faithful saying worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).
From where I sit, the problem with the commercialization of Christmas is not that we are prodigal in our gift giving but miserly. It isn’t that we consume too much but too little. Because you see, or so it seems to me, we give each other every manner of gift except the gift of ourselves in love, compassion, and chastity. And isn’t that some of us eat too much Christmas roast or drink too much beer but that too few of us feast on the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
We should be as extravagant as we can in our gift giving, in our eating and drinking because it is in cheerful generosity that we most closely resemble the God Who on Christmas Day is born in poverty and obscurity for us and for our salvation.
God is extravagant, even wasteful, in His love for mankind. There is no sin He does not forgive, there is no sinner He does not bless “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” commanding us to do likewise telling His disciples “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (see Matthew 5:45, 48).
So if people eat and drink too much at their Christmas dinner how can we who are Christians fail to feel at least some responsibility for this?
Abstinence and Restraint Might Hide A Greater Failing
Our fault isn’t that we haven’t preached abstinence or self-restraint—we have and should continue to do so—but that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel. Are we really so naïve that we are surprised that those who don’t know Christ or live according to the Gospel eat too much and drink too much when all they is “bread that doesn’t satisfy” (see Isaiah 55:2) rather than the Bread which has come down from Heaven, the Holy Eucharist (John 6:41-58)?
If Christmas has become secular, a mere commercial event, a celebration of materialism and conspicuous consumption, it is because Christians have withdrawn from the Public Square into our churches, our families and our increasingly narrowly defined private concerns. If the only songs we hear in the malls and stores are “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Blue Christmas,” it’s because we “who mystically represent the cherubim” and our called “to sing the thrice-holy hymn” of the seraphim have failed to sing for people to hear.
And yet, even the most secular and materialistic among us is created in the image of the God. It is incumbent upon those who have been given the gift of faith to see that image in our neighbor and hear the frustrated longing for God that grips them and to do so not just at Christmas but every day.
Yes, I am a fan of secular, commercialized Christmas. Not because I don’t believe in God but because I do. And because these celebrations remind me of how inadequate are my own attempts to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. You see it isn’t that “they” do it poorly and “I” do it well. It is rather that God in Jesus Christ has done it “all on behalf of all for all.”
In one of the Church’s hymns for the Nativity, we are told that, on that first Christmas, humanity offered a Virgin, the earth a cave, the shepherd’s a song and that together they welcomed wise men who followed a star.
So by all means, let our Christmas celebrations be as beautiful and dignified as we can make them; but let them also joyful and merry. And if my neighbor fails to keep Christmas as I think he should, let me open my heart and my home to him in imitation of the God Who opens Heaven to me.
Fr. Gregory Jensen edits the Koinonia blog (“An Orthodox priest’s thoughts on this and that. Mostly that but a little of this”).