Each year Christmas comes along and so do various controversies.
The first of these is the sloganeering of it all: do we dare say “happy holidays?” How dare we be the sort of people that love our neighbors by not imposing our Christ-Mass holy day onto their December agenda! Only if one believes that America is a Christian Nation does this sort of war of words make sense. Clearly, this is a pluralistic culture and we need not coerce Jesus to the center of the public square.
Then, of course, we have the controversy over the commercialization of Christmas within popular culture and the full-fledged embrace of it by some Christians. Some of us spend more on Christmas than we do on the poor throughout the rest of the year. Some of us talk more about Santa than the incarnation. I’m certainly not against the giving of gifts or the Santa story, both can be fun ways to celebrate. The point I’m making is that the church has a deeper point during the beginning of the Church Year: to begin the journey to the manger that transformed the world. No matter what American culture, or any culture, holds on to as traditional celebratory activities during Advent, we must not neglect the Great Tradition: the beautiful reality that God became human for the redemption of all created reality.
This second area of controversy, the commercialization of Christmas, ought to push Christians to consider this question: “What are we selling this Christmas?” Are we selling a festive few weeks with jolly ol’ Saint Nick or are we donating lives that reflect the humility of God in a stable? Are we selling a season where we need to get our way with the display of nativity scenes in governmental places and the jargon of “Merry Christmas,” or are we donating ourselves to our neighbors by humbly honoring them with “Happy Holidays” as we seek to live out the way of Jesus?
If we sell a Jesus who demands to be the center of popular culture, then we fail to remember that Christ came to us from Bethlehem, not Rome. Had Christ wanted to fight the culture wars he would have positioned himself in the center of the “pagan” world, the capital of the Roman Empire.
Instead, he didn’t demand the central place in culture, but humbly “emptied himself” (Phil. 2). Certainly, Jesus will be the center of all cultures eventually, for a day is coming when “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2). But notice the pattern: Jesus first “emptied himself” (donated himself).
Jesus reminds us that donating our lives from the margins of culture is where we will most effectively make and impact for the upside-down kingdom of God. The moment we try to “sell Christmas” to culture, or rather, coerce Christmas (our holy version of Christ-Mass) back into the center of public discourse, we’ve failed to model our witness after Christ. May we become known as a people who donate ourselves to others and give up any aspirations of “selling” Christmas to popular culture. Then, perhaps those who don’t know the Christ of Christ-Mass will earnestly seek him from afar, just like the Magi did that first Christmas.