Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

December 23, 2004

The Two Christmases

Two holidays coincide, this time of year, and both, confusingly, go by the same name: Christmas. There is secular Christmas, and then there is--oh, what shall we call it--spiritual Christmas. The secular version, though younger, and indeed though a cultural offspring of spiritual Christmas, sharing many of its same values, has come to be the dominant of the two holidays.

This morning I read John 3, where Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about the new birth. He says something very challenging, very "in your face," to poor befuddled Nicodemus. He says, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." A few paragraphs later, John the Baptizer says something very similar. "The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth."

There is a quite literal divisiveness about the Gospel, as these passages and many others indicate. It seems that everything comes down to how a person answers the question that Jesus put famously to Peter: "Who do you say that I am?" There are those who stand with Peter: "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." And there are those who stand, well, elsewhere.

Similarly, the spiritual Christmas celebrated by some at this time of year is a divisive, exclusive holiday (or, more precisely, holy-day). It is from above, and it calls forth a response that is one either of recognition or denial. Those who observe this spiritual version of Christmas are celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who, they say, was God incarnate, God with us, Emmanuel. In other words, whether you celebrate spiritual Christmas or not comes down to who you say Jesus of Nazareth was and is.

Secular Christmas is, on the other hand, inclusive. No prickly questions of religion need mar the celebration. It is not a "holy-day" but a holiday. A day, ideally, of cheerfulness, charity, family, love. All who believe in these things may join in the festivities. Gift-giving is the central ritual of secular Christmas. Instead of Jesus in the manger, presents under the tree. To exclude anyone from such largesse would seem downright Scrooge-ish.

As I've mentioned, secular Christmas is of course the dominant of the two holidays. One reason for this is that its values coincide quite nicely with retailing interests, with which indeed secular Christmas seems inextricably bound. It might be tempting to say that secular Christmas is marred by covetousness, but that would not be quite right. Human beings are marred by covetousness, and secular Christmas happens to be a human creation that seems peculiarly designed to encourage that particular sinful inclination.

But that is not to say that spiritual Christmas is pristine and uncontaminated. It is contaminated to the extent that it has been influenced by its secular counterpart. To the extent, that is, that the central focus, Jesus of Nazareth, has been replaced by the ritual of gift-giving. If you can imagine Christmas without presents, and it still makes you happy, you just might be celebrating spiritual Christmas.


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