What is it like to be “Christian” in America at Christmas time? By that question I don’t mean vaguely, culturally Christian in some civil religion sense, where one may or may not attend worship services at Christmas and Easter. I mean Christian in the sense of devout, practicing Christian, whether Protestant or Catholic, attending worship services more than once weekly and seeking to lead a life of spiritual discipline according to the dictates of the Christian faith.
The answer is that it is difficult. It is painful, with hearts that are dedicated to the Savior whose birth we supposedly celebrate, to watch the secularization and commercialization of the holiday. Bethlehem and the manger story are almost completely obliterated in a blizzard of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and consumerism masquerading as gift giving. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at war with St. Nick and we have a Christmas tree in our home with stockings etc., but when it camouflages the true meaning of Christmas it is tragic and sad.
Trying to get back to the real meaning of Christmas-the greatest gift of love and sacrifice ever given-and it was given to all, everyone on earth-reminds me of the recent experience of a close friend of mine. He cajoled and corralled his extended family (wife, children, daughters-in-law, grandchildren) to spend Thanksgiving weekend at a large cabin in the Smokies. He told me later he was very disappointed with the first part of the weekend because everyone was doing their own thing via computer, smart phone, and IPad. Then a storm hit, the power went out and as batteries ran down, they were forced to interact as a group. Using old kerosene lamps, they found some parlor games like Monopoly and ended up having a great family time together for the next day and a half.
As Christians we need to turn off the fights about “Merry X-Mas” at malls and Santa Claus and “Holiday” celebrations as opposed to Christmas celebrations and unplug ourselves from the collective cacophony of the modern Christmas season. As Helen Keller put it, “The only blind person at Christmastime is he who has not Christmas in his heart.” Let us each one determine to focus on the incarnation of Jesus, God made man to save humanity from itself as the reason for the season
My favorite Christmas hymn is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Written during the heartbreaking days of the terrible fraternal blood-letting that was America’s Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat, of peace on earth good will to men.’
Then Longfellow confessed, “and in despair and I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on earth’ I said, ‘for hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men.’”
In the midst of his despair and personal grief over loved ones lost and maimed in war came renewed faith, “then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to men.’”
In joyous song the hymn concludes, “Till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peach on earth, good will to men.”
I pray that every devout Christian in this blessed land of ours will unplug for “Christmas” as a secular, consumer extravaganza and focus on the true meaning of the birth of the Savior-the guarantee that indeed ultimately “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peach on earth, good will to men.”
God bless each of you, your family and may God truly bless America!
Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.