It is too far into the 2005 Christmas season for us to worry about Christmas past, or Christmas present. Yet, it seems the perfect time to think of Christmas future. The Pope has offered some guidance on Christmas, and it might behoove all of us to listen to what he has said with an eye to the future. His statement on the real meaning of Christmas is a very meaningful assessment of our current challenges as an international, or universal people of God. His words can be seen, if we look sincerely enough, as a wisdom that suggests a possibility, whether he intended it or not, that might empower the poor, and serve notice on the transnational corporations, the banks, the rich and the elite, that they will either mend their greedy and elitist ways, or be denied the great potential of the most prevalent, and popular traditions of Christmas, found in its commercialization.
The “Christmas War” as it has been called, is not a war being fought over religious dogma. Depending upon how you look at it, it could be seen as a war that is being fought over first amendment rights to free speech, and to say “Merry Christmas,” or it might be about the right to religious expression, to put up crÃ¨ches, and sing religious hymns in public, and outside one’s home or place of worship. It might be called a battle to preserve the idea of Christmas as previously a mostly Western tradition that has been both a religious and secular celebration, since Christmas was originally introduced as a nationalist holiday, and was still called Christmas. It could also be the beginning of a legal dialogue about who owns religious symbols, and who owns the right to use, or to control the use of religious symbols, and who has the authority to say when, how, who, and why in respect to the use if religious symbols. It could mean many things, yet most believers might say, that it should be, most of all, a battle to unite mankind, and not to further divide us.
Most people are familiar with the story of how the Christmas tree and lights were associated with the pagan feast of Saturnalia, and how an enterprising Emperor in Babylon sought to unite his kingdom, by combining the feasts and celebrations of the various groups, religious and non religious, into a single festive season. Those who want to advance us into the concept of a “Holiday Season” in contrast to a purely “Christmas” season, might merely be compelled by the same motive, and hoping for the same outcome, which was said to be national unity. In today’s setting, we might also add to that motive, millions of additional shoppers and gift givers. The idea was obviously an inspiration, and has served to unite not only the West, but also the entire world in a universal celebration, and remembrance of Jesus. While very few of us even think of pagan sun worship this time of year, or the feast of Saturnalia, the idea of Christmas, and the universal message of peace and joy to the world have taken on universal appeal.
Some argue that this joining of paganism and the celebration of Jesus polluted the purity of Christmas as a religious, and national holiday, which is sort of a novel way of thinking about religion. Since religion is for the world, how does becoming a worldly idea defile religion? If the problem is that we believe that pagans were committing idolatry in the feast of Saturnalia, and that idolatry cannot be joined with celebration of Jesus, we might ask if it is not true that Jesus came to sinners, among whom we are all included, and he was not defiled. Should we cancel religious celebrations because idol worshippers, murderers, adulterers, liars, thieves, gossips, backbiters etc., all join in these celebrations? If we have not joined to worship the sun, and we are not worshipping the sun, have we been defiled? If we cancel celebrations to avoid being joined with sinners, who will be left to have the celebrations? We might also ask ourselves if Jesus was actually born on December 25th?
If there were any tranformative qualities to the associations, it would seem that the religious quality would have a redeeming, and transforming effect upon the non-religious, rather than vice versa. Today, centuries after the emperor’s inspiration, Christmas is loved and celebrated by people throughout the world, and not all of them are Christians, and many of them would not identify themselves with evangelicals, or any of the other Christian sects, or trends. Christmas has become a universal celebration of good things that remind us of Jesus’ message of love, charity, sacrifice and hope for mankind.
What we are celebrating may not in fact, be the birth date of Jesus, but rather perhaps we are celebrating Jesus, and we can do this any day of the year, and should do it everyday of the year, and make it a cause to promote peace on earth, and goodwill toward men and women, and children of all faiths and nations.
As for Muslims, it reminds us that there is truly One God, and One Creator, and that the Qur’an is accurate in its insistence that the prophet’s of monotheism, which we believe includes Jesus, preached a common message that was intended to unite, and not divide the human race. There are no limits to our unity except the repulsion to sin that separates the people of God from others who have not accepted that there is a god, or even that He is “One,” nor submitted to His laws. This is a spiritual, and not necessarily a material, or political separation. As for those who do not recognize Jesus as a prophet, and/or as God’s Word, their lack of belief in no way diminishes the power, beauty, and truth of that Word, and how it transformed the human society, and the benefits that this “Word” brought to the world, even our contemporary world. We have all, believers and non-believers benefited from the word of God, and the Ministry of Jesus, and this is the greatest testament to the universality of God, and His vast love and Mercy for all of mankind. Why should we be separated by a common belief in, and hope for good things? As for the ideologues among us, we question their treatment of Jesus as merely a symbol, rather than as a real and living embodiment of all things that are good. We question the intent of those who seem to think that only one religious sect, people, nation or part of the world have ownership of Jesus. He came to the Jews, yet his teachings inspired the world, and belongs to the world, and no one, and nothing can diminish, or limit him, the God that sent him, or the impact of his message. Peter took that word, by God’s command to the world, and a people, Jews and Gentiles alike, accepted, and did not reject Jesus. They believed in him, and followed him.
The Pope’s reminder that we should not commercialize Christmas, at the expense of loosing the true meaning of Christmas is a word for the wise, who realize that the meaning of Christmas includes economic prosperity realized through trade and commerce, all of which is a promise from God to the righteous. Christmas is about gift giving that creates and strengthens the ties of love and affection between people, while simultaneously stimulating the economy, and creating jobs, even if many of them are seasonal. It is not about greed, influence peddling, and social status. Christmas is about gratitude, and families and others coming together to say “Merry Christmas” in gratitude for the gift of Jesus, his message, and the freedom he brought to mankind from the superstitions and spiritual enslavements, and also the religious and government tyranny of the past. It is not about social or religious pressure to conform, it is about the freedom to profess belief in God and his prophets, and to live in peace in our obedience to God, and Jesus, and other prophets, as we understand and are growing in faith and knowledge. We celebrate the Jesus that made us “Merry,” and causes us to remember Peter and the noble and courageous men and women at Antioch who were persecuted, and killed for their faith and belief in Jesus, and their teaching and healing and sheparding of his flock. It makes us remember the events of the upper room, where the Holy Spirit manifest itself upon a universal congregation of men and women from every race, and nation on earth, people who united, came together in their belief and faith, and who continued the greatest movement in the history of mankind, and who saw it through and beyond Calvary, and were not broken or cowered by persecution, or rejection, and hardships. We celebrate the “mas,” or congregation of Christ Jesus, who struggled over the centuries to preserve his teachings, and who saw to it that throughout time, mankind would have access to Jesus, so that those who choose salvation might find him, and those prophets who followed him, including Buddha, and Muhammad, and the other prophets, those that we don’t even know about.
We must bring the atheist, and pagans and the secularists along with us in this celebration of Christmas; since it is sufficient that mankind continues to exist in spite of sin, as a cause for faith in God, and also faith in what is good in them, and what is good in us. It is the power of universal or common good that has preserved us through the mercy of God, and it is the unique belief in God that has preserved, and explained the common good to all of us, since this good and its common appeal were created by God, and revealed to us through God’s Holy Scriptures. As our brothers and sisters say to us “Happy Holidays” we say, “thank you” and invite them to a “Merry Christmas” that they might know that our faith has united with their hope, and that together we can advance mankind beyond hate, and division, injustice and tyranny, and move humanity forward to the peace, prosperity and salvation in this life and the next, that is the promise of God and that was the message of his prophets.
“And Jesus said unto them, “Come ye after me and I will make thee fishers of men” — (Mark 1:17).