Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Christmas Lacks Christ?

The Rev. Frank Dunn 
For as long as I can remember, people have been exercised about how commercial Christmas has become. I well remember my grandmother harrumphing that stores had put up their garlands and ornaments before Thanksgiving. The shame! (I have no idea what she would say about the year-round shops that sell Christmas incessantly.)

I am a voice crying in the wilderness. But it is not the wilderness you might imagine. I actually have no problem with the commercialization of Christmas. Only those who care nothing about Christ could fall for the idea that the glitz and parties and decorations and general frenzy are the real reason for the season, to coin a phrase. Why should people who don’t know Jesus really care? I have better things to do than to try to stop a party that doesn’t concern me.

The truth of the matter is that there are about four distinct Christmases, with some overlap between one or two of them. One is cultural Christmas. In this symbol-starved, festival-poor culture of ours with anemic holidays, rootless except in sentimentality, Christmas is about the only culture-wide occasion for massive celebration. So performances of The Nutcracker, Handel’s Messiah, and all the various concerts and singing Christmas trees and pageants ground us in a tradition that mixes idealism and kitsch. 

A second is commercial Christmas. If we were to do away with Christmas tomorrow, something would arise to take its place. The same people who wail and moan about the loss of Christ in Christmas are usually among the first to defend our economic system as consonant with the Will of God. People are out to make a buck. And they will. If you don’t like commercial Christmas, don’t participate in it. 

Family Christmas is the trickiest Christmas. It is the one about which people frequently say, “Christmas is really for children.” It is allied with commercial Christmas in a huge way, for most of the things bought for Christmas go home and stay home. Research I did some years ago about the role of ritual in family life documented that Christmas is the major time, not only in America but in Europe (and I suspect elsewhere as well), for families to have an annual reunion, and the emotional price for skipping it is sometimes quite high. Family Christmas is the one, by the way, that generally makes the sad sadder and the depressed suicidal. Its shadow-side accentuates loneliness.

And finally there is the religious Christmas. Churches often think the Baby Jesus is happy when they have parties and toy drives, especially if they focus on the poor. Some, seeking to fall in line with prevailing cultural attitudes, disregard The Church Year and mimic commercially driven December by crowding Christmas pageants into woefully stressed Advent Sundays. Religious Christmas is really none of that. It is the celebration of one of Christianity’s two pillars: incarnation. (Resurrection is the other.) Incarnation is the stunning realization that the essence of the divine is totally compatible with the human body. That is what the baby in the manger really means. And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

Ironically, twinkling lights in restaurant windows, far from insulting the incarnation, simply underscore (for me, at least) how it is that the Holy finds a way to shine through everything. 

And why should it be thought a stinking shame for there to be a planet-wide bash occasioned by the Birth by which the whole world is saved?

Frank Dunn is the senior priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Columbia Heights.