Christmas is the story of God’s perfect love coming to earth in Christ Jesus. Christmas is not something the church is simply called to proclaim in the season of Advent. We should proclaim and live the Christmas story all year long. Proclaiming the Christmas story is about so much more than culture wars — about getting upset (for instance) if a store clerk says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Christmas is about God showing up on the human scene.
What happens when God shows up? People find healing. Outcasts are welcome at the table. In fact, they are given a place of honor at the table. When God shows up, sinners ostracized by the religious community find forgiveness and radical grace. Religious hypocrisy is called out on the carpet. The profound mystery of perfect love takes on human form. Religious zealots are told to cast the first stone — if they’re without sin. When God shows up, things are different, because “Light has entered the darkness.”
What would it look like for God to truly show up this Christmas? One of the biblical names given to Jesus is Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Immanuel sounds great, until you realize that “God with us” can be a bit uncomfortable, and even a little frightening. “God with us” can lead us to the kinds of radical love that Christ showed. “God with us” is divine holiness invading our personal space, and shining a light on the darkness within our own hearts.
The early church had a rich understanding of Christmas which led to the radical growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. If Christ is truly “God with us,” then part of what it means to follow and worship Christ is to be present with those who the world might reject and despise. Early Christians famously cared for the poor, sick and dying, even at their own peril, out of devotion to Christ, who inconveniently and sacrificially first loved us, “even while we were sinners.”
Around 320 A.D., the bishop of the city of Caesarea and historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded in Church History that during the plague: “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”
Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.”
If Christ was willing to leave the comfort and glory of heaven, what comforts are we willing to leave? Following Christ quite often means giving up our comfort. Giving up our privilege. Even giving up our own sense of safety or security. He gave up all those things for us. Will we enter the Christmas story by giving up all those things for him? The gospel and vitality of the church may, in fact, depend on it.
Unfortunately, many American Evangelicals are quick to manufacture a war on Christmas, but reticent to actually enter the Christmas story.
Instead of giving up privilege as Christ did, many Evangelicals seek privilege and advantage over others at all costs. Do people who seek their own advantage at every turn — even sacrificing moral authority and prophetic witness for political power — know the meaning of the words, Merry Christmas?
Instead of giving up comfort for the sake of the gospel, many seek a cozy relationship with government and political power brokers. Consider the wrong-headed movement to repeal the Johnson Amendment, where many Baptists trample the graves of our religious forbearers with their desire to tear down a high wall of separation between church and state. Do people who seek solace and comfort in sullying Christ’s church with worldly empire know the meaning of the words, Merry Christmas?
Instead of giving up safety and security as Christ did upon the incarnation, many evangelicals care only for their own safety and security, rejecting hospitality to immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and the poor, effectively rejecting Jesus himself. Christ Jesus poured himself out sacrificially for the sake of the world. Do Christians seeking security at the expense of the least of these know the meaning of Merry Christmas?
If Evangelicals truly want to “start saying Merry Christmas again,” many would do well consider the meaning of the words.