When I was a little boy growing up in west Indy there was an old yellow station wagon that came around every Christmas season. It had an enormous, even cartoonish, speaker mounted to the roof from which blared forth a variety of Christmas carols. I don't think we ever learned the identity of this driver but I remember that we always jumped up and ran to the porch when this old car came cruising down our street each December to listen to the carols as it rolled slowly past our house. And when I was a little boy I remember going Christmas shopping with my parents and grand-parents where more Christmas carols were being played in the stores and where random choirs stood on street corners singing even more carols to throngs of harried shoppers and passers-by.
And even as a little boy I remember reflecting on the irony of this seasonal foray into religious expression when every other time of the year was decidedly secular. It was an affirming experience to be sure, listening to songs proclaim the coming of the Son of God into the world while running down the toy aisle of the local Air-Way department store, but even then I thought it curious that carols were tolerated in December while the other months of the year we had to endure Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass and others in the "muzak" overhead. (Man, did I just date myself there!)
Fast-forward to 2005 and we see the latest in an unending round of tug-o-war over the religious aspects of the celebration of public holidays. There have been numerous news stories and articles over the White House "Christmas" tree vs. "Holiday" tree flap and pundits of every stripe have weighed in on the propriety of celebrating a uniquely Christian holiday in our pluralistic society. And ironies abound. For instance, Abercrombie and Fitch, often in hot water over their racy print ads, feature the word "Christmas" in their store displays while other stores have dropped the term in favor of "Holidays" or "Seasons."
So once again the timeless debate over the "real meaning of Christmas" is upon us and battle lines are drawn. Someone should run and tell poor old Charlie Brown that we are no closer to answering his question; "Doesn't anybody know what Christmas is all about?" now than we were in 1964 when he first posed it.
All of this could be very disturbing if we were to live our lives under the delusion that the world around us should be supportive and affirming of our faith. You might be expecting me here to launch myself into some sort of diatribe about society and consumerism and all that rot but I have to tell you I don't see this as being an altogether negative thing for Christians. Perhaps a little history is in order.
What do we know about the Nativity of Christ? What do our children re-enact at every Christmas Pageant? Remember that the Lord of Glory was born in obscurity, conceived of the Holy Spirit to a lowly virgin maiden who was raised in the temple away from prying eyes. Remember that her betrothed took her to Bethlehem, no metropolis that(!), to enroll in the census of Caesar Augustus, and that immediately upon arriving in Bethlehem Joseph took Mary to a stable where God incarnate was born in an animal food trough. Meanwhile, in the Judean hills outside of the village, angels appeared to simple shepherds to announce the "glad tidings of great joy." It wasn't to dignitaries or wealthy patrons or religious leaders that these angels appeared, but to people so lowly that quite often slaves were pressed into service as shepherds!
St. John begins his gospel by telling of the coming of the Son of Man into the world and how His Incarnation was received. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not." (John 1:1,10-11) And the Lord, speaking to Nicodemus as recorded in the 3rd chapter of St. John's gospel, tells him; "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)
So even from the very beginning the world didn't "get" what Christmas was all about. The Light shined in the darkness of the world and the world shied away from the Light rather than ran to embrace the Light. Things are no different now than were from the very beginning except, perhaps, in one important aspect.
I have remarked before in previous columns about the curiosity of "civil" or "societal" religion and the grave temptation this represents for Christians today. Witness the current Advent season now underway. Far too many Orthodox today either don't realize (somehow!) or simply choose to ignore that the Church has been fasting since the 15th of November in preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation. Parishes across the country host numerous galas and dinners and parties where non-fasting foods are served and this passes without comment. The entire cycle of festal preparation is turned on its head as we find ourselves sucked into the seduction of worldly celebrations to "shop till we drop" and stuff fattening treats down our gullets when we should be preparing ourselves as we are taught by the Church. Liturgical schedules are gerrymandered so as not to "interfere" with the private family celebrations of Christmas even though it is from the liturgical life of the worshipping Church that Christmas find its meaning and content in the first place. Let's face it! We've been sold a bill of goods in the name of the so-called "true spirit of Christmas" and our manner of celebration differs little from that of our un-churched neighbors.
This year's controversy over the use or disappearance of the word "Christmas" from the public lexicon is but another installment in a long line of events designed to expunge anything other than "private" belief from public holidays. Anyone who today really believes that America is still (if indeed it ever was) a Christian nation has clearly not been paying attention. But does that mean that we cannot celebrate our religious holy-days in a manner consistent with our faith? Certainly not! Quite the opposite in fact, for I would argue that stripping the pseudo-religion out of our public celebrations frees us to enter more fully and more intensely into the festal cycle of the Kingdom of God.
But the challenge that exists for us today is in re-learning the customs and traditions of the Church so that we can celebrate our own holidays as holy-days and thereby reclaim our spiritual birthright as Orthodox Christians. It is ridiculous for us to imagine that if our local shopping mall isn't hawking holiday wares in the name of Christ's birth that our noetic participation in the Feast of the Nativity is in anyway diminished. Shopping, going to parties, hanging decorations, and all the other popular societal customs of Christmas, though pleasurable, are not meant to replace the simple act of worshipping Christ in His Holy Church according to the liturgical tradition of the Church.
The Lord's words to the Pharisees of His day are remarkably applicable to our own. "And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation? and to what are they like? They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept. For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! But wisdom is justified of all her children. (Luke 7:31-35) We must no longer be content to allow the "children in the marketplace" to call the tune for us as Orthodox Christians. The beginning of the baptism of popular culture will begin on the day that we finally disabuse ourselves of the notion that to be a good citizen is tantamount to being a good Christian. To live, or to attempt to live, the life in Christ is to walk the narrow path down which only the committed may go. The kind of casual, "I'm o.k., you're o.k.," lassez-faire Christianity that gets us invited to all the right parties will not be sufficient to withstand the onslaught of faithlessness that nips at our heels and the heels of our children.
But rather than decry the unfairness of it all, why not re-engage our faith in the context of our parishes? Going to Church shouldn't be something we do twice a year like changing the clocks for daylight savings time in the spring and autumn. And sure, it's great to still hear that occasional Christmas carol that slips through the grid while we're buying presents for loved ones, but our joy must not be dependent on the extent to which the world around us chooses to affirm or ignore our holy-days.
More generally, how are we to comport ourselves to the reality of a culture that wants nothing to do with our faith -- beyond the mumbled platitudes of officious public invocations? Here we can learn a great deal from St. Peter whose powerful and direct prose jolts us from our lethargy. "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. I Peter 4:12-14) To be an Orthodox Christian in the world is to carry the cross of Christ and the surest sign we can hope for that our faith is not misplaced is in the trials and challenges we face and the persecutions we suffer in His name.
Christ came into the world to dispel the darkness of sin and error and to re-create His Image in us, not to give us an extended "holiday" shopping season. His Birth spelled the end of the kingdom of Hades as the angels announced "Glory to God in the highest, Peace on Earth, and Good-will toward men." And it is this wondrous event in God's plan of salvation for creation that we must celebrate in this holy season of Christmas. Christ is born and all things are made new! Christ is born and all of creation rejoices! Christ is born and the true Light that enlightens every one who comes into the world has shone! Let us all rejoice in that Light and carry it forth to the darkness of the world around us in the name of the Incarnate One.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado. Reprinted with permission of the author.