It isn’t uncommon to hear Christians deplore the fact that so many people who clearly have no idea what Christmas is about busily decorate with Christmas ornaments and buy Christmas gifts and dine at Christmas parties and feasts all through the month of December. “They don’t have a clue what Christmas is about,” Christians wail, wringing their hands.
I am starting to ask, “Why don’t they have a clue what Christmas is about?” We decorate and buy gifts and feast, too. With all these Christians celebrating all over the place, why don’t people in general know what Christmas is about? Is their ignorance the real problem, or is it something else?
I believe it is something else.
I believe that Christians are too focused on the way nonbelievers get Christmas wrong. Christians deplore the commercialism that starts advertising Christmas gifts by the first of October. Christians despair of the frenzy of parties and choirs and plays and charity events during a season of prayerful waiting in the church calendar. Some Christians are upset because cashiers won’t say “Merry Christmas, while others are upset that the retail window displays blend Santa Claus and the baby Jesus.
There is another way to look at this situation.
Think about the culture into which Jesus was born. In that culture there were people faithfully waiting for Messiah, there were people who suffered in hopeless despair that Messiah would ever come, and there were people who scorned the whole idea of a Messiah. There were people who had unflappable faith that God always keeps his promises, and there were people who thought that believing in God was the attitude of a simpleton.
The time and place where Christ was born was just like the times and places in which we all live. With that in mind, I am glad that every December, America lights up like a Christmas tree. I’m glad that the phrase Christmas tree has found its way into the language in standalone usage. I’m glad that in the classic secular poem of the holiday season, Santa Claus says, “Merry Christmas to all!” I’m glad, because even though the language and culture pervert the Christmas story, the fact that Christians set up nativity scenes and sing “Silent Night” during this season keeps pointing to the Christmas story, the real story of Christmas. The cultural folderol does not crush the truth that Christ was born to bring God’s salvation and grace to every person on earth.
I have been known to rant a bit about the silliness of some of the “holiday” customs. I rant about silliness wherever I see it. I enjoy poking fun at all sorts of nonsensical excuses for meaningless festivity. However, I don’t think that the abuse of the opportunity for celebration at Christmas is necessarily a bad thing.
Jesus addressed the issue of misuse of blessings when he said, “[God] makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” God does not prevent evil people from receiving the blessing of rain. He lets them enjoy rain and grow crops watered by rain the same way he blesses his faithful children. Likewise, at Christmas, even in the midst of tinsel and baubles, you will also see the star over Bethlehem and the manger with the baby Jesus. Because the images of the birth of Jesus are so widespread at this time of year, we who love the Lord have many, many opportunities to tell people about him. We even get to talk about Jesus when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sues yet another municipality or homeowners association for allowing a public display of a nativity scene. We don’t have all those opportunities every day.
We should thank God for every instance of Christ’s name or his story in public life. If the people talking about it, we should thank God for the opportunity to discuss the story with them, and tell the story correctly. If people are confused, it gives us a chance to speak the truth.
I am very glad that Christmas is a very big deal in the USA in December. I am quite sure that Christians in Kazakhstan, where people can be arrested for carrying a Bible in a shopping bag on a public bus, would love to have the problem of too much glitz about Christmas in Kazakhstan. I can well imagine that Christians in Pakistan, who must be extremely cautious about their behavior during Ramadan, would love to need to explain to fellow Pakistanis which elements in a storefront Christmas display were Christian and which were secular. These Christians know what it is to be silenced by laws and regulations that are prohibited in the USA by our First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion. Let us give thanks for free speech, even when the speech we hear is repulsive, because free speech is our guarantee that we can say “Jesus is Lord!” fearlessly on any occasion when we feel led by the Spirit to speak out. Let us give thanks even for confused and error-filled Christmas displays that allow us as Christians many opportunities to talk about the real story of Jesus.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 ESV). At Christmas, in the midst of the frenzy, when you feel frustrated that people just do not understand what Christmas is all about, be glad. Let the Holy Spirit give you the words to share Jesus with everyone, because it is his season and his time. It is our open door to testify to Christ. We will not likely see the immediate response we hope for in those who hear us speak, but that is not our business. Our business is to share Jesus fearlessly and consistently. I am thankful that, because people love Christmas, I have a chance to introduce them to the love of Christ.