In some religious corners these days there is whole lot of grumbling about the secular takeover of Christmas, essentially a Christian holy day. At the same time there seems a more stringent observance of the separation of church and state. In most places manger scenes are no longer allowed on City Hall lawns. Fifth grade classes have been required to replace Christmas carols with seasonal songs. Christmas trees have become holiday trees, and “Merry Christmas” has given way to “Happy Holidays.” I, for one, think these recent developments are good for both religion and the secular world. Every time religious symbols venture into public space, religion gets purloined. If people pay more attention to store windows than church services, that is a problem for the church, not for the store.
Some so-called secularization offers more than meets the eye. The three specters, who visited Ebenezer Scrooge, eventually brought new meaning to the whole neighborhood, and this grumpy old miser found his life changed by what was basically a non-religious message. There was no manger, no shepherds, no virgin mother, angels, wise men, or a star, and Dickens would have ruined a magnificent tale by trying to force them into the story. There was a lame child, a goose in the neighborhood butcher’s window, a dance and a stolen kiss in old Feziwig’s workshop, and a doorknocker that became the face of dead Jacob Marley. Without the religious symbols, the secular images may at times even dig deeper into the human heart than any attempt to reduce the event to texts from Matthew and Luke, as precious and important as they may be.
So I’m just fine with a Christmas tree at home and in church, and a holiday tree in the local school. In our house we will play the great Christmas oratorios, masses and carols. But I won’t mind hearing something quite different in the local mall — on the remote chance I get there.
While little harm may be done when the non-religious world substitutes a Red Nose Reindeer for a band of heavenly angels, it is much more dangerous when the church seeks to cuddle up to political power and relies on that power for its place in the public square. History is replete with how religion has been emasculated when it has allowed itself to be taken over by aggressive political interests. When in the 4th Christian century, Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Christian experiment began to look much more like the Empire than the message coming from Jesus. Much of the church, even today, still bears Caesar’s imprint.
When the cross and the flag, any national flag, appear side by side on the same platform, you can be pretty sure which one expresses the announced policies of those who gather around it. When Christians are lured into making common cause with the American empire, believing that it is their agenda which the empire has adopted, they are badly mistaken. It is the empire’s agenda that has most likely seduced the faithful. There are plenty of contemporary examples. Tell me if you really believe that gun ownership, capital punishment, tax breaks for the wealthy, the loss of food stamps for the poor, the denial of health insurance, the nation’s overwhelming military arsenal, wars for oil, the destruction of the environment for profits, all really flow from religious commitments — or if the empire has sold these things to the very religious.
So Christians have to decide what values flow from the essence of faith, and what values political hucksters peddle. In the meantime let’s deck the halls with boughs of holly and make a place for the manger where it rightly belongs.