Isn’t it remarkable how some are actively trying to take the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus out of Christmas? They advocate a “Christmas” reduced to “season’s greetings,” “gift giving,” “merry making,” family gatherings and the joy of children delighted by new toys and trinkets, and “holiday cheer” without Jesus – so that somehow all can celebrate Christmas without the divisive baggage of particular religious commitment. Considering the inhumane conduct of certain extreme persons of religion, they propose that a humane world without religion might be a better place to live in. To some, their position may seem rational.
But we must also consider what happens willy nilly when we extirpate religion from our lives. They ask: why church communities when there are country clubs? Why religious charity when there is national social welfare and adequate disaster relief? Why saints of the universal church when there are Nobel prize winners and CNN Heroes? Why, indeed, religious morality, when religious imperatives lead even just some to blowing themselves up and murdering innocent people in the name of their worshiped God, and universal condemnation of their action is based on a universal humane ethic? The architects of global secular culture package “Christmas” throughout the world merely as a spectacular feast of humanity whose original religiosity is best substituted by sentimentality. But even their advocacy is underpinned and energized by powerful global commercial interests. For them, merriment, peace, media spins and accompanying narratives are justified and sustained only insofar as they fuel the consumptive engines of the world and these engines sustain them. And even these are valid only to the extent that discord, destruction, violence, war do not call forth the even more profitable military war machines. Today, the drive towards peace and the drive towards war compete with each other above board and underground for greater profitability. That neither wins prolongs the sustained income. Their God is not enhanced humanity, but enhanced profitability. And while profitability is a great driver for peace, in the name of profitability peace is often trumped by war.
There was a time when religious reference to a divine God who offers his rule over our lives in our world gave us access to a source of absolute truth on the basis of which we could make the major decisions of our lives. We accepted him and his rule in faith; our secular laws and customs supported his acknowledgement and reign. Thinking truth and acting rightly without reference to God were impossible. Things were clear. Right was right, wrong was wrong. Acknowledging God and recognizing his will, one could map out one’s life accordingly and lay one’s life on the line in pursuit of his will. As just reward, for a life of virtue, one expected heaven; for a life of vice, one expected hell.
But things have meanwhile become confused. God appears to have been dethroned from his absolute rule by false gods: the consumerist world, the aggressively secular world, reaction to religious extremism, moral relativity, post-modernism and the cynicism of erstwhile believers. Reference to God’s and Jesus’ moral norms seems to have no place in “serious” business transactions. The really real is not a transcendent Lord who comes to judge heaven and earth at the end of time, but the market and the judgment of those who control it. It may now be for us to reflect on whether all this has advanced us as human beings, helped us be more open and caring for one another, or transformed us into calculating cutthroats and or reduced us to bigoted buffoons.
All this may invite us to a deeper consideration of the feast we celebrate today. We are invited to look beyond the flickering lighs, the colorful parol, and the commercial Santa Clauses to where the star atop the Christmas tree is pointing: the Christmas crib. However exquisite or simple these belens may be, they are invariably focused on a Child born to a Virgin, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger and called “Emmanuel,” – God with us (cf. Mt. 1:23).
One must re-experience in the simple figurines of the belen the drama of the first Christmas. They needed to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. But Mary was heavy with child – the mysterious child conceived by the Holy Spirit. They went from inn to inn. But “there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). So they came to a stable, where “the Savior was born, Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). He who would nourish the world with his teaching and his body and blood, was laid in a manger used for feeding animals.
One must gaze at the manger not only with one’s eyes, but with one’s ears. For what lay in the manger was not only a newborn child, but the Word of God spoken to us in cosmic silence. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3). This dramatic Word is spoken to us from the manger in love, as it is spoken to us from the Cross in love, as it is spoken to us from all eternity. Without this powerful Word of love, nothing came to be. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). He pitched his tent with us, cast his lot with us, proclaimed his message to us, and accepted from us rejection and death, so that we may come to our senses and finally hear the word of life spoken to us. Before all creation, his Word of love is with God. Before all cultures and civilisations, his Word of God is spoken. Before all science and rationality, before all modernism, enlightenment and post-modernism, before all religion and religious diversity, the Word of the Lord is spoken to us. Before all of our quarreling and warring and violence and murder, before all aggressive secularism and religious extremism, the Word of the Lord is speaking life, love and peace. Our noisy words do not extinguish his Word, our scrawny thoughts do not snuff out his Wisdom.
Christmas celebration without Jesus? Christmas without the Word of God-made-flesh spoken to us in silent love that we may hear it, accept it, and live it? But what would we celebrate without Jesus? Our human condition without this Word of compassion and forgiveness? No, thanks.