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Pondering Christmas in the World and Among Christians

Raymond J. Keating

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Raymond J. KeatingThere's a lot of hubbub right now about Christmas coming under attack. Specifically, many Christians worry about losing the true meaning of Christmas.

This is not exactly new. Christians not only have worried for some time about commercialism and secularism crowding out that most precious babe in the manger, but disagreements also have existed within Christianity over how to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Let's start with commercialism. Some Christians find Christmas gifts and lights uncomfortable. And of course, they are correct if such things shift the focus off "the reason for the season," as the bumper stickers say, and onto selfishness and materialism. Others see no problem with gifts and decorations as long as primary attention stays on God offering the ultimate gift to save the world.

As for an attempted secular takeover of Christmas, this battle has several fronts. A variety of complaints and boycotts have been launched at stores shunning "Merry Christmas" in favor of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings." It is an open question as to what, if anything, such boycotts accomplish. But if businesses wish to be inclusive, then why not just go with "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah," for example? It would be both respectful and smart business to recognize these holidays for what they actually are, rather than trying to mix them all into an offensive retailing goo.

Even bigger trouble emerges when the easily offended use nervous politicians to push Christmas out of the public square. Consider two recent examples on Long Island that were reported by Newsday. A lawyer sued a town over a nativity scene, Christmas tree, and two signs reading "Peace on Earth." A menorah was included as well, but deemed a mere token. A deal was brokered by a judge requiring signs noting who donated the nativity and the menorah.

A week earlier, in another town not too far away, a Roman Catholic priest invoked the name of Jesus Christ during his blessing for a Christmas tree lighting. As he spoke, the priest said he could hear the town supervisor objecting "this is inappropriate." The politician then told the crowd: "I just want to make clear that this is in no way a religious ceremony." The supervisor suffered a backlash, and subsequently apologized.

These government-related Christmas controversies flow from various citizens, politicians and U.S. Supreme Court justices failing to understand what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution actually means. It allows the free exercise of religion, while prohibiting government from establishing a state religion. A complete separation of church and state was never the point. Therefore, nativity scenes and menorahs, for example, if that is what the people desire through their elected officials, in no way violate anyone's constitutional rights.

More subtle cases, though, might prove more subversive to Christmas. One is the perplexing phenomenon of non-Christians celebrating Christmas. Optimistically, Christians might hope that embracing Christmas could lead to embracing the faith. But making Christmas about warm feelings devoid of content further undermines the fundamental point.

Finally, there is the distressing case of various mega-churches deciding not to hold services on Christmas this year, even though it falls on a Sunday. Many of these churches focus on attracting more people into the pews, and some can succumb to the consumerism of the secular world. Unfortunately then, worship services become more about the convenience and feelings of those coming to church, rather than about the ultimate point of attending church, that is, coming together to worship the Lord.

What does it say to the world when Christians want to make clear what Christmas is about in stores and on village greens, but some churches fail to open their own doors on a Sunday that happens to be the same day commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ?

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 14-Dec-05

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