Every year about this time there are complaints about the commercialization of Christmas. I think even my hero, C.S. Lewis had some cynical things to say about it. No doubt, it is ironic and even scandalous that the ‘reason for the season’ is often only a pretext for people and businesses to make a load of money. And they do make a lot of money. And certain elements don’t mesh well with the ‘religious’ overtones of the holiday (etymology: ‘holy day‘), to be sure. Even within Christendom, there is the sense that we are to take a meditative, contemplative, introspective, ‘spiritual’ approach to the whole affair, looking with disdain on the ‘worldly’ celebration… of…. well… what, exactly, is the ‘world’ celebrating? Celebrating for the sake of celebrating? The horror.
Try to see it from a wider perspective.
Every year for more than a century, whether one is a Christian or not, all attention is focused on the heart of the Christian account of reality: God became Man in order to save All Mankind. For almost two months out of every year, all of Western Civilization orients itself around one of the core proclamations of Christianity. We get to see the doctrine of the incarnation spilled out extravagantly over entire cultures, and it is lapped up with joy nearly every place it goes–if it is permitted, of course. More on that, in a moment.
It is typical to hear the devout complain about the commercializing of the celebration, but the complaints themselves often contain a kernel of heresy that orthodox Christianity has been bedeviled with for more than a thousand years. That heresy is gnosticism. The complaints suggest that there is merit to the idea that matter is bad and the creation is flawed. Our physical bodies, being material, are intrinsically bad, by virtue of being material. Only the ‘spiritual’ is good, and the ‘spiritual’ can be tapped into by putting oneself in the right mood.
The spiritual mood can be manufactured through a devotional disdaining of ‘worldly’ things, usually through the same ‘worldly’ techniques that are decried. For example, where one might turn up their nose at a Christmas carol, they might repeat the chorus of a ‘praise’ song 30 times, or look down on both in preference to hymns. What many call ‘worship’ is often only a ‘devotional mood’ which is seen as superior to whatever else happens outside of the ‘church’ service, such as the potluck or fellowship hour.
But Christianity insists that matter is not bad and the creation is not flawed, rather, creation is broken. Our bodies, corrupted. Our spirits, dead–until brought back to life by God himself. For a little while, the ‘old heart’ wars against the ‘new heart,’ but when Christ returns again, it is not to take us to heaven as ghostly wisps, but rather to give us entirely new, physical bodies, which are no longer at war with our spirits. We will not live with God in heaven. God will live with us on Earth.
And oh, what a Life it will be! It will not be devoid of ‘earthly’ things, it will be packed full of them. There will be food, fellowship, and song. It will be the Feast that every other feast we knew to that point was a mere foretaste.
That a feast stretching six weeks or more has come to be bound up with the Good News that God’s rescue mission is well underway is a good thing, in my opinion.
But I don’t think its an accident, either. The commercialization that we lament is actually the ‘free market’ realizing that the Christian account of the universe plays. Everybody loves a party! And this makes perfect sense in a world created by God, for his pleasure and ours. It doesn’t make any sense in the Islamicist version of reality. It is incoherent to the Buddhists. It is an embarrassment to the atheists, who in their sterile, strictly materialistic conception of the world have literally nothing to put up against the sheer joy that tantalizes young and old alike every December.
From the materialist’s stand point, their Darwinian account of being ‘human’ would reduce our lives to sole purpose of surviving long enough to reproduce–meat machines with delusions of grandeur. Except for a brief period of human history where ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ and ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ were acted on as ‘scientific certainties,’ humanity has found such a perspective to be laughably out of line with actual human experience. Actual human experience revels in the glorious idea that there is more to this world than the ‘stuff’ of it. For those who are quite sure that this world is all there is and believe it possible to progressively perfect it, the belief that there are realities that transcend the material is a direct threat to their program. Atheistic regimes of the 20th century understood this well and moved to actively repress such beliefs… and still do, when and if they can get away with it.
But atheists enjoy a good Christmas jingle as much as anyone else. Even the fascist ‘tolerance’ patrols who insist on saying “Happy Holidays” gravitate towards celebrating Christmas and not, say Ramadan or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Indeed, if you take a good hard look at culture in general, its clear there is a great thirst for the ‘other-worldly.’ For our entertainment we go to movies that feature superheroes with super powers. There are television shows about the paranormal. There are books about Big Foot. Writers attempt to make such things plausible by reference to purely naturalistic explanations such as the multiverse or wormholes but that is far less interesting than the fact that sentient bags of copulating puss and bone have even the remotest interest in such impractical and fabulous story lines. I, for one, have yet to spot my cat or dog take any interest in any of the Avenger movies.
But it is precisely this ‘thirst’ that Christmas calls attention to, every year, for weeks at a time. Everything stops for a time, as if God himself grabs the attention of Mankind and says, “Look!”
Is it the full Gospel message? No, of course not. But it is good soil for the full Gospel message. The fact that this part of the story has been commercialized is testimony to its power to surface the intuitive knowledge that just as there is more to the world than we can see, there is more to us than can be crammed into a test tube. If someone grabs that thread and pulls, they may find themselves thrown headlong into the recognition that here is a story that is grounded in real history. No one who watches Marvel’s Agents of Shield comes to believe it corresponds to actual reality. They do not change their life and completely orient themselves to the Marvel universe. Yet every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to the conviction that Christianity is actually true. And they do completely re-orient their lives. Perhaps there is a reason why people accept Christianity but not Marvelanity?
Some say that Christmas cannot be celebrated because it incorporates pagan elements. Atheists scoff for the same reason. My attitude is like Paul’s in the book of Philippians:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Christmas is the yearly pricking of the Thorn of God in the side of a disbelieving and rebellious world. Are there pagan elements? That only illustrates what I’ve been saying: people love a party; they love the feast; they desperately hope that the Numinous is real. True yesterday, and true today. What is the best explanation? I submit that the reason why Christmas is such a central holiday is because deep down most people know that the best explanation is to be found lying in a manger, two thousand years ago.
In that account, God did not dispense with matter, or reject the creation. He re-affirmed his original design and redeemed creation. He turned water into wine for a wedding. He told made it plain that nothing God has made is ‘unclean,’ per se. The things we enjoy in this world, in the main, we were made to enjoy. And at Christmas, we enjoy some of those things in a profound way. These are not the things we should turn our nose up at. Instead, being innocent as doves and as wise as serpents, see the holiday as an opportunity to have conversations in a society that is increasingly hostile to such conversations, and also perceive in it insight into the nature of the Great Feast to come.
So long as people are making money from the holiday “out of selfish ambition” there is a way to proclaim Christ, in all his glory, and all the glory to come. What’s not to like about that?
Provided, of course, we seize the opportunity.