I’ve never liked the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
It’s fine with me when people write “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.”
It’s hard to square the militancy and sheer meanness of those who insist on keeping Christ in Christmas with the Prince of Peace and the celebration of his birth. Are these the same people who have made competitive shopping the forerunning ritual of the feast of the nativity?
1. It’s not about the baby. Almost none of the appointed texts for Advent (four weeks worth of Old and New Testament, Psalms, and Gospel) deal with the manger stuff. They are stark and bleak (though not without hope). And when we do get to the infancy narratives we find danger and foreboding: a family on the run, authorities asking for papers, risky border crossings.
When Luke has Mary testify to what Jesus’ life (and death) will mean, it has little to do with cradles and creches and Christmas angels, and everything to do with raw power and the vulnerable poor: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The Christ of Christmas turns everything upside down and knocks everything sideways (like tables in the Temple and our own safe, soft, sentimental faith).
2. It’s not about family values. Create and savor all the family holiday traditions you want — the eating and drinking, the fun and games — it’s all good. But don’t confuse family togetherness (which is usually more imagined than actual) with the good news of the Incarnation: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
The Christ of Christmas hardly endorses the agenda of Focus on the Family. In the Church, baptism trumps biology, and thank God for that.
3. It’s not even about Christmas. Easter is the Church’s primary feast, the festival on which hangs “the hopes and fears of all the years.” The feast of the nativity was a minor observance in the Christian year until the mid-nineteenth century when savvy merchants figured out how to exploit it for commercial gain. (Clement Moore’s popular poem also contributed to the American mythology of Christmas: St. Nicholas morphed into Santa, and reindeer, stockings, and sugar plums entered the story).
The Christ mass, by contrast, is “the feast of Nicene dogma” and the Christ of Christmas is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos of God made flesh. But you probably won’t see that on a Christmas card this year (or any year).
For all the preachiness of these three points, I hope there is also a grace-filled word of encouragement in their essentials: The Jesus who comes into the world naked, homeless, and vulnerable is the Christ who comes to each of us in our own places of godforsakenness. And we know this not because of the cradle but because of the cross. The journey to Bethlehem, the risky birth in a barn, the flight to Egypt — these are not mere Christmas-pageant moments in a perpetually-adolescent faith; rather they are reminders of the historical dangers, the sheer contingency on which a mature, disciplined faith must rest: into a world of violence, fear, and misery, God came.
The put-upon silliness of American civil piety notwithstanding, God continues to come, and violence, fear, and misery will not have the last word.
These reflections were adapted from a post I wrote last year.