The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2016
The War on Christmas
Like many of you, I’m spending this last week before Christmas finishing my last minute preparations. I’m knocking off the last things on my shopping list. We’ve got a plan to set out the cookies for Santa Claus. We’ve got Christmas carols going non-stop in the house. But in all of the preparations for the holiday, even I can lose sense of just how radical Christmas truly is. Think about it – the story we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew is provocative; it’s even a little bit scandalous.
There’s Joseph and Mary in the story. They aren’t married, but Mary is found to be with child. In other words, this is a story of an unwed teenage mother. Joseph is thinking about quietly dismissing Mary, but he has a dream, and in that dream an angel tell hims to wed Mary and to name the child. Usually we think of dreams as some sort of Freudian revelation of our subconscious. Can you imagine the scandal if someone said they had a dream in which God spoke to them? And that they actually did what the voice said? We might suggest that they have a mental problem. The Christmas story is scandalous to say the least.
This is part of the reason that I’m always surprised by the cultural, “War on Christmas.” You’ve heard about the War on Christmas, right? The accusation that our culture has abandoned the Christian roots of Christmas; that we, as a culture, are trying to whitewash over the true meaning of Christmas. The true scandal of Christmas, is just how far God will go to reach out to us and to love us. But the scandal for some in our culture is over the superficial stuff.
First, is Starbucks. Every year Starbucks comes out with its holiday cup. This year it’s a green cup with drawings of faces and people. Critics have denounced Starbucks, some even boycott Starbucks, because the holiday cup doesn’t have any Christmas images on it.
We also hear about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” Right? This is when critics get angry at the abbreviation “Xmas.” The critics claim that “Xmas” is a way of erasing Christ, taking Jesus out of Christmas.
Then there’s the nativity scene. This is a big one, isn’t it? Some courthouse is always fighting about whether or not they can put a nativity scene on their front step. When the courthouse doesn’t do that, critics and the cultural warriors claim that the court has lost its roots and heritage and that they’re losing the fight to secularism.
And finally, and perhaps most contentious of all, is whether we say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Critics claim that “Happy Holidays” is just too politically correct and that we’re erasing “the reason for the season.” Some will even go so far as to say that they are being persecuted when somebody wishes them “Happy Holidays.”
Now, all of these – Starbucks, Xmas, the nativity scene, all of it – what interests me in these discussions is not their political element. Actually, I find the political argument around these things to be incredibly boring. What’s actually happening is that we, as the Church, are having a spiritual crisis.
See, what’s happened, is that for a long time, Christians assumed that the popular culture would teach them and their children about being Christian. We gave away our tradition to the wider culture. Now, the culture has changed. Therefore, we are having a spiritual crisis because we don’t know how to be Christians in the public square. We assumed that the wider culture would take care of our Christianity. In fact, our faith is our own responsibility. We are simply reaping what we have sown. We have lost our own faith because we gave it away. The War on Christmas is not a political issue, it’s a spiritual issue.
And the only way out of it is not through fights in the courtroom or angry posts on Facebook. The way out of it, is to get to know Jesus again. For us, as Christians and the Church, to fully embrace our faith again. Think of our spiritual life and the Church as a tree. The winds of the culture are blowing, and we don’t have very deep roots. We are blown over when somebody takes the Christmas tree out of the courthouse. We are uprooted when we hear somebody wish us happy holidays. And the tree can’t tell the wind to stop blowing. The tree needs to grow deeper roots. You and I – as the Church – we need a much firmer foundation in Christ. That’s what the War on Christmas reveals to us, just how shallow our faith has become.
And I do think there is a War on Christmas. But the War on Christmas is being waged by the evil one. In this war, the Church is distracted from what really matters. When we squabble over coffee cups and nativity scenes, we forget the true nature of this unfailing, eternal, radical, one way love of God we find in the gospel. Our roots are too shallow.
Here you have children, in Spring, Texas, who are going to bed hungry every night. You have kids who are raised in gangs. At Salyers Elementary School, children don’t have enough money to buy just a single book at their book fair. You have the entire city of Aleppo falling apart before our very eyes. We have people in our homes, our neighborhoods, our families, who have never heard that God loves them infinitely. And yet, we are squabbling over coffee cups.
And now look at my stole. That’s not an “X” that’s a “Chi.” Chi is the first Greek letter in the word for “Christ.” Xmas is simply another way of saying, Christmas. I am much more concerned about keeping the Mass in Christmas. The Mass. Worship. Holy Eucharist. If we are disturbed by Xmas, but we do not make worship on Sundays a priority in our lives, then our roots are far too shallow. If we are bent out of shape by Xmas, but we don’t come to church, to mass, it only shows that we have work to do. And if we are truly concerned about the state of the world, as we rightly should be, then it’s even more important for us to come to Mass, come to worship, to pray for the world and to pray for the souls of those whom we love.
And nativity scenes. They look so perfect and so serene. It’s all so fake. I think all of us know, there is nothing perfect or serene about giving birth. It’s hard, and difficult, and scary. A plastic nativity scene reinforces the idea that God is removed from this world. That God has never been with us in the muck and the mire of real birth, real life, and real death. But that is not the gospel – the gospel is that God loves us so much that he came to dwell with us, in the muck and the mire. In birth, in life, and in death. God has been with us in all the hard, and difficult, and scary places of our lives. Remember that this same little plastic Jesus that we fight over in the courthouse, is the same Jesus who bleeds and dies for us on the cross.
And finally, if our faith in Jesus is so fragile, that it can be broken by a clerk at Target saying, “Happy Holidays,” then we need to reassess our faith in Jesus. Remember, the first Christians lived at a time when it was illegal to be Christian. Our Christian ancestors considered it an honor to be thrown to the lions. And yet here we are, with such a superficial faith, that we can’t even deal with “happy holidays.” I pray that our roots are deeper than trite greetings at Wal-Mart.
The War on Christmas reveals to us that we have a spiritual problem. The original story of Christmas is a scandalous story. The scandal today, is how shallow our Christianity has become.
So I bid you, during this last week of Advent, as you make your final preparations for Christmas, grow your roots deeper. Just a few chapters later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that the most important things in life are to love God and love neighbor. And truly, I have yet to see anyone who has fought the War on Christmas and came out on the other side loving God or loving their neighbor. The War on Christmas only fills us with spite. We could get rid of all the Starbucks, we could get rid of all the Christmas trees, we could get rid of all the nativity scenes; if we love God and love neighbor, that would be enough. That would be a scandal.
Imagine if we could harness all of the energy that is wasted and spent on this War on Christmas. If we could harness all of that energy and spend it on loving God and loving neighbor, the world would be changed. If we could take all that time and energy, and spend it on worship, on bible study, on prayer, on serving the poor, on being kind, on being gracious, and forgiving. God would be glorified. If we could grow our roots deep so that no matter how hard the cultural winds blow, we stand firm. The real scandal would be, if we lived by the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”