Losing the reason for the season

Christmas is prime time for Christian hand-wringing at the state of the world, more so it seems than Easter. It’s at Christmas that we find ourselves lamenting most loudly, persistently and at length at just how far secularisation has advanced. Not a single Christian carol at Tescos, no manger scene at Debenhams, cards galore with snowmen and Father Christmas, season’s greetings everywhere.

All people care about is the shopping, the presents, the food, while the Baby is left forgotten in the cold (to paraphrase a Finnish carol).

And then the inevitable city council which decides to celebrate Winterval and erect a Festival (or Winter) Tree, so as not to offend or appear Christian in a mixed community.

Ah, the degradation. Whatever happened to Britain (or USA, or almost any Western nation) as a a Christian country? Gone to the dogs.

Give me back my festival! Put Christ back into Christmas!

Sorry, folks, leave me off the bandwagon. I get hot under the collar about some things, but I just don’t get that bothered with the erosion of Christmas in the public square.

Why ever not? Lots of reasons, actually.

First, Christmas as a Christian festival is just that, a Christian festival. That is to say, it is a festival of the Church. It’s not the job of Birmingham city council to uphold the festival of Christ’s birth. They are responsible for bins and roads and public buildings and schools and such like—and community cohesion, law and order and that sort of stuff. If it promotes community cohesion to have a festival tree, so be it. If they do choose to promote the festival of the Church, well that’s great. But it’s not their job, so if they don’t do it, why complain. After all, I don’t complain if they don’t come and mow my lawn or change my light bulbs. (If they did, that would be great, but … you get my meaning).

Nor is it for Tesco or Debenhams to promote the Christian message. They are in the business of selling things to people. Christmas suits them well, thanks to the Magi and St. Nicholas and all that, but if they choose to do it in a non-religious way, I have no grounds for complaint.

Secondly, Christmas as a Christian festival is, ipso facto, a festival for Christians. That many pagans, for reasons of history, culture and tradition, have a glutfest that goes by the same name at the same time, and is based on the Christian original, is their business. How they profane their lives at Christmas time is their problem, and they are entitled. That they sing ‘Away in a Manger’ for the wrong reasons, and some even go to Church for those wrong reasons, is a bonus and I pray that the word accidentally heard may not return void but does its work in those lives.

Thirdly, being a festival for Christians, Christmas cannot, again ipso facto, be something that a country or nation should be expected to observe. For there is no such thing as a Christian country. In fact, as one UK Lutheran suggested recently on Twitter, the word shouldn’t be used as an adjective at all. In the New Testament, it’s a noun, describing persons. The rule of thumb is simple: if you can’t baptise it, it can’tbe or become Christian. Britain, the USA, Germany, Finland, wherever, never were Christian countries. There was a time when the Christian faith was predominant in culture and beyond, and almost everyone professed to be a Christian (however sincerely). Now they don’t. And they behave as such.

Which is a good thing: people are being more honest, no longer pretending. In the past (and still with older people), most people considered themselves Christian by virtue of not being Muslim or Hindu, and not wanting to consider themselves heathen. Now people are more honest: they don’t believe and they don’t pretend to believe. And so they celebrate a Christmas that fits in nicely with their non-faith: all food, family and presents. No more Christ in their Christmas than in their hearts and lives outside of Christmas. That’s helpful: when the Church encounters such people, it knows what it’s dealing with and can have open and honest encounters where everyone is open about what’s going on.

So if a pagan celebrates Christmas like a pagan, why get upset? It’s like getting upset that a Muslim fasts during Ramadan or a Buddhist meditates? What did you think they were going to do?

* * * * *

I have a much bigger complaint than all that. It’s not that pagans or politicians or merchants aren’t putting Christ into Christmas in places where Christ doesn’t wish to be worshipped. The real problems is at the other end of the compound word: that Christians are leaving Mass out of Christmas.

When I first spent a Christmas in the UK, I was shocked to discover near-empty churches on Christmas morning, with even the usually pious people absent. Why? Because for them, Christmas was family time above all, and they wanted to give the kids time to open and enjoy their presents, to get the turkey into the oven in time, and just to be able to have a relaxing Christmas morning. All of which a Christmas morning communion would have disrupted.

In other words, while we were wailing because the council and the shops were leaving Christ out of their Christmases, Christians were doing the very same in their own homes. Indulging in the paraphernalia, the feasting, the presents—while ignoring the Reason for the Season by staying away when He came down to them on Christmas morning in word and sacrament.*

Not that long ago, every Lutheran church in Europe would have held a Divine Service on each of the first four days of Christmas, as well as Christmas midnight, not to mention New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Epiphany, plus all the Sundays. There’s a carol still popular in my native Finland telling of the sleigh ride to church on Christmas morning. The first line: “The clock struck five, children wake up, John and Lisa, or you’ll miss the journey.” More remote farmers would have travelled literally all night to get to church in time for dawn (i.e. 9am).

Now the loss of that is something to lament. And, I suspect that Pastor Peters is right when he suggests that it is the loss of the Mass in Christmas that has most contributed to the loss of Christ in Christmas. The Church—yes, the institution, but above all Christians—have bought into the hedonism and the peripheral stuff and edged out Christ from the hearts of their celebrations (why, some churches even have Father Christmas, the bright red Coca Cola / Disney job,  appear in church as the gift-giver!). The world has watched and learned. Christians have left the Baby out in the cold, or at any rate only a cameo role, and so the world has stopped hearing the Gospel.

Give me back my festival! Put Mass back into Christmas.

*For the record, I should note that thankfully my current congregation do not fit the description but attend the Christmas services as they do all other services: in very good numbers.

The Lie

The lie is the death of man, his temporal and his eternal death. The lie kills nations. Through their lies, the most powerful empires of the world were laid waste. History knows of no more unsettling spectacle than the judgment which comes to pass when the men of an advanced culture have rejected the truth, and are now swallowed up in a sea of lies. As was the case with fading pagan antiquity, where this happened, religion and law, poetry and philosophy, life in marriage and family, in the state and society, in short, one sphere of life after another, fell sacrifice to the power and curse of the lie. Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie. Where man, even when dying, lies to himself and others, the terrible dissolution of his culture is held up as a glorious ascent, and decline is viewed as an advance, the like of which has never been experienced.
H. Sasse, Union and Confession, 1.