On Christmas Eve Eve, Daniel Henninger declared this “The Year Christmas Died.” He laments that this year the store windows of New York’s famous Fifth Avenue are devoid of not just religious Christmas imagery, but virtually anything traditionally associated with the holiday. It is a lamentable fact. For some years I had a client that had me traveling to New York during the holiday season and I always tried to Christmas shop for the Missus on that fabled Avenue. But with each passing year you could feel the cheer oozing out of the area. When the contract came to its inevitable end I found that the shopping was better closer to home. That said, Henninger’s observations, as corroborated by my own experiences, are symptomatic of the problem, but do not give us a clue as to the cause of death. Like the skin lesions associated with Chicken Pox, it tells us we are sick, but the lesions are not fatal. Nor will treating them cure the illness.
Franklin Graham’s anti-GOP tantrum this past week is treating the lesions, not the disease. Christianity is most assuredly the cure for what ails our culture and our nation. But when we wave it like a magic wand at surface symptoms not only do we make it look ineffective, we reveal how little we understand of its true nature and power. “Christian” is not a brand name to be hung on political stances or commercial products thus somehow sanctifying them. When we treat Christianity as a mere label, even if what the label represents is in line with genuinely Christian thought and teaching, we are constraining it. We are putting walls around it to keep it from leaking into the places where it is really meant to do its work.
For thousands of years God lived inside the walls we constructed. He expressed Himself in laws and objects, temples and a nation. But on Christmas, some 2000 years ago, He blew the walls down. No longer were things intermediate between Him and us; the Incarnation enabled us to confront God Almighty most directly. But more importantly it enabled Him to confront us face-to-face. From that point forward the laws and institutions, governments and behaviors were not the way TO God, for God was now with us. From that point forward such things emanated FROM God because we were, in fact with Him.
Christianity lives not in laws or temples or governments, but in us. We build those things as a reflection of the work that God is doing in us. If the reflection is ugly then we, as what is being reflected, must be ugly too. The first thing that happens when God confronts us face-to-face is that we discover our ugliness. If we insist that the world is ugly because of “them” instead of ourselves then either, a) we have not really met God face-to-face and had our own ugliness revealed to us, or b) we have not been up to the task of helping those around us to also come face-to-face with God. And let’s be honest, option b) is really just another revelation of our own ugliness.
I think we keep wanting the way to God to be in the governments and laws and temples because we don’t want to have our own ugliness revealed to us. But that also means we do not understand Christmas at the deepest levels. God did not bother to assume humanity in order just to show us how inadequate we were. On the contrary God, assumed humanity to in order to grant us the grace to overcome our inadequacy. Unfortunately, we cannot take advantage of such grace until we understand our need for it.
Is Christmas dead? No, most assuredly not. Jesus tried dying once, didn’t care for it much and gave it up. After that, it is going to take a lot more than some inappropriate store windows to kill Christmas. Besides, Christmas does not live in those stores windows anymore than Christianity lives in federal budgets. But if Christians and Christian leaders keep looking for Christ in those places instead of in the hearts and minds of those that have met Him face-to-face, He is going to get harder and harder to find.
The world is an ugly place because we are ugly people. If we want the world to be prettier, then we have to start by making ourselves prettier, and the only way to do that is in face-to-face confrontation with Christ. If we worked more on that and less on store windows and federal budgets I KNOW that the windows and budgets would get prettier too.