Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle A
Now that Dec. 25 is over, the real war on Christmas can begin.
Because, you see, that other “War on Christmas” that begins in late November and ends on Dec. 25 is a manufactured war. That war is fabricated by a television network that, despite the Bible’s repeated message at the birth of Christ to “not be afraid,” wants Christians to live in fear of some secular agenda to destroy Christmas. After all, there’s nothing like fear and a manufactured war to raise television ratings.
That’s a manufactured war because, as Diana Butler Bass has brilliantly pointed out, the season from late November to Dec. 24 isn’t Christmas. It’s Advent. If anyone were waging a war on a Christian season during the early part of December, it wouldn’t be on Christmas. It would be on Advent.
The real war on Christmas begins on Dec. 26, but no major television network will tell you about it. The real Christmas season, known as Christmastide, begins on the evening of Dec. 24 and lasts 12 days, ending on Jan. 5.
We’ve created a Christmas monster: a grotesque assemblage of pagan, Christian and capitalist symbolism into something that resembles something we’re both attracted to and repulsed by at the same time. We’re fueled by an admixture of both guilt and greed, while the domestic economy pins its annual hopes on our propensity for spending far more than we have or want to spend.
All in the name of baby Jesus.
It seems that we have no means of escaping the vortex of materialism, partly because whoever is the first not to buy gifts is the cheap jerk who throws the whole transactional nature of gift-giving out of whack. But one Christmas, a few years back, my wife, Amy, and I had finally reached our limit. We were in the midst of our Financial Peace budget slim-down and Christmas spending was an obvious target.
A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, they viewed the lights, trees, carols, gifts, and festive spirit of Christmas as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.
But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own Christmas traditions.
“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”
Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.
But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.
It’s no surprise that most Christmas pageants leave out the Herod story. King Herod jealously guarded his power, killing anyone who got in his way. When he learns of Jesus’ birth, he declares the first war on Christmas. Herod doesn’t just want to kill Jesus. He wants to destroy him, taking Christ out of Christmas once and for all. When his efforts are thwarted, he resorts to genocide to ensure Jesus’ demise, murdering every male infant in Bethlehem. This, for Herod, is a bargain to rival any department store sale: The lives of Bethlehem’s youngest? A mere pittance for unrivaled power.
In other words, Herod gets it. Herod, more than anyone else in the story so far, sees this poor, refugee child for who he really is — a rival king.
We are all hypocrites. I am a hypocrite. That guy over there shoveling his driveway is a hypocrite. You have most likely been a hypocrite at some point. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, and atheists — all hypocrites. This is not so much a statement of judgment as it is a statement of human nature. It is unavoidable and so wonderfully human. All of us have double standards and fail to practice what we preach, simultaneously looking down on others who do the same thing.
That being said, I am about to criticize something in which the act of criticizing will itself be an act of hypocrisy. I am criticizing the vast swarm of words, opinions, responses, and re-posts that have a tendency to take over the Internet and our modern-day consciousness. So now I will simply add to the chatter (though for your sake, hopefully briefly) and then depart to spend at least one day, God-willing, in some form of peace and quiet before Christmas, because really that’s why I’m so perturbed. It seems as if we are in a rather confusing tale about two Christmases.
There is one Christmas as celebrated by orthodox Christians in which we rejoice in the birth of Jesus into a manger, coming not as king, but as beggar and blue-collar worker, born amid dung and hay, eventually coming to signify and proclaim the reconciliation of heaven, earth, and nations, and trumpeting peace, joy, love, and life.
There is another Christmas that is on the surface very similar looking — the Christmas in which pundits on both sides use the day of Christmas as fodder to further their political, ideological, and religious views and people bludgeon each other to death with action figures.
Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and a time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!
The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season. So, I give you my “10 Things You Can’t Do AT CHRISTMAS While Following Jesus.” As with my other “10 Things” lists, this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.
As we move into the Sundays following Christmas and begin to anticipate Epiphany, we face the terror of the coming week’s Gospel reading, the Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod’s murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top.
Herod’s brutality is legendary. Most of what we know comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus. Matthew records that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and “he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). While scholars debate whether this event is historical or not, it is certainly consistent with what we learn about Herod from Josephus.
If there is indeed a “War on Christmas,” those on the anti-Christmas side of the war have lost — big time.
The television pundits, conservative politicians, and talk-radio loudmouths who believe there is a “War on Christmas” should look around, withdraw their troops, and quit screaming. Because if there is a war on Christmas, Christmas has won.
As Christmas approaches, tens of thousands of churches around the country are planning Christmas services and expecting packed pews. Their choirs are rehearsing Christmas music; and church members have taken the Nativity scene figures out of storage and put them on church lawns. Children costumed as kings and shepherds are learning to sing “Away in the Manger.”
Christmas cards with manger scenes are speeding around the country through the U.S. Postal Service or in the form of online animated greetings that play “Silent Night” and show the wise men following the star to Bethlehem.
It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve decided to relax about him. I refuse to beat myself up over his presence anymore. He’s okay. I mean, don’t get me wrong — he’s annoying and I have concerns. And I know that many of my fellow parents will disagree, and that’s okay. This makes me cringe, but that little Elf on the Shelf can stay.
After some debate, my wife bought the Elf on the Shelf in 2010. If you aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf myth, it goes something like this: Apparently Santa is incapable of knowing if children have been bad or good on his own, so Dec. 1 to Dec. 24 that Jolly Old Elf sends his little elves to houses to spy on boys and girls. Their job is to check to see if children are being naughty or nice. So, each morning before anyone is awake, our Elf flies in from the North Pole and hides in a different spot in our house. When our children wake up — noticeably earlier in December than any other month — they look for him. Yup, it’s hide-and-seek every morning with the Elf. Then, the National Security Agency Elf spies on our children throughout the day. When our children fall asleep at night, the Elf flies back to the North Pole to provide Santa with a report on how our children have behaved. Then the Elf promptly flies back to our house, hides in a new place, and the morning hide and seek ritual begins again.
Truth be told, my children love it. They. Love. It. They can’t wait to wake up in the morning and search for that little Elf.