By Bill Leonard
When the church’s Christmas witness wanes, let’s blame Starbucks. When our Advent hope falters, let’s fault the “war on Christmas.” When the “Gospel of Wealth” (Andrew Carnegie, 1889) fails to undergird our Bethlehem-borne faith, let’s whine about it. Or we could repent of such whimpering worldliness and again turn loose the Advent story with its radical implications for both church and community.
In yet another Advent season, certain Christians complain that Starbucks and other business establishments attempt to divest “Christ from Christmas” through a litany of politically correct holiday blessings at the drop of a VISA card. Starbucks specifically is accused of instructing employees to wish customers “happy holidays,” thereby omitting references to Christmas, the Christ-child, or related Christocentric niceties. Righteous indignation is also manifested against Starbucks’ decision to delete explicit Christian decor from their throwaway coffee cups, replacing it with nondescript secular (Santa Clause) red. As one Baptist leader noted, it was simply another attempt to “diss” Christianity in American public life. Perhaps we should be less concerned for political correctness than for a gospel incorrectness that falsely demands of the culture a witness that belongs primarily to the church itself.
It was not always thus. Early Puritans waged another kind of Christmas “war,” aimed at rescuing the Jesus story from the dual corruptions of church and state. In a 30-year-old essay entitled “The Puritan War on Christmas,” Chris Durston documents Puritan efforts to end Christmas celebrations all together. He cites a 1580 treatise, “The Anatomie of Abuses,” by English Puritan Philip Stubbes, who condemned the Yuletide debauchery and materialism promoted by Catholics and Anglicans alike. Stubbes lamented “that more mischief is that time committed than in all the year beside, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what is not committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used more than all the year besides, to the great dishonor of God and the impoverishing of the realm?” Puritans didn’t want to take Christ out of Christmas; they wanted to take Christmas out of the church.
In December 1643, both houses of the English Parliament, then controlled by Puritans, approved a law declaring Dec. 25 a day of fasting, in part to repent for “the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast [Christmas], pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.” (Might today’s “sensual delights” include a double espresso in a generic red cup?)
New England Puritans followed suit. In 1687 Increase Mather explained that Dec. 25 was not the date of Jesus birth but the time of “the Heathens Saturnalia” present in ancient Rome, “Pagan Holidays [that] metamorphosed into Christian.” These reformers meant business; between 1659 and 1681, any Massachusetts Bay colonist found to be celebrating Christmas was fined five shillings!
Amid their purgative biblicism, perhaps those 17th-century Puritans understood that you can’t trust the world to preserve the Bethlehem story in the first place. That’s the church’s vocation. Asking the culture to prop it up, mediates, perhaps even distorts, the story itself. If the manger story doesn’t energize the church to incarnate God’s good news, then printing it on a red cup of dark-roasted certainly won’t save us either.
Given the state of the world this Advent season, why not recount “and it came to pass in those days” in the same scandalous, ironic and, yes, earthy way the Gospels do.
• An unmarried, pregnant teenager is told by an angel not to worry since her child “will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
• When the woman (named Mary) visits her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s own unexpected baby “stirred” in her womb — no doubt a wonderful intrauterine declaration of faith (Luke 1:41).
• Mary, “great with child” accompanies the erstwhile Joseph to his birthright town of Bethlehem for reasons of taxation! (Nothing changes.)
• With “no room in the end” the baby Jesus winds up “swaddled” in a manger — maybe in a stable, maybe in open country. We made up the stable part.
• Outliers (we call them shepherds) are the first to show up to pay him “homage.”
• A covey of Zoroastrian astrologers arrive after charting the child’s horoscope (Luke 2: 1-18).
• A local political martinet (the terrorist Herod) commits infanticide in hopes of eliminating “a newborn king of the Jews” and potential rival.
• The mothers of the murdered children will not be consoled.
• The accommodating Joseph takes “the young child and his mother” to Egypt where they live as refugees until the terrorist threat is over — OMG (Matthew 2:16-23).
• That strange, dare we say bizarre, story compels the church to sing (with the angels), “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Peace” (Luke 2:14).
This Advent we don’t need a bone-tired salesperson to wish us “Merry Christmas” when we pay $5 for a red cup of coffee and then dash past the homeless folks asking for change outside the average urban Starbucks. The just still live by faith, not caffè latte.