“Keep Christ in Christmas,” around town I have already seen a few billboards pleading the case. And it seems nice and noble, because what Christ loving Christian wants Christmas to degenerate into simply a commercialized day in the midst of the vague and generic heading of “Happy Holidays”? Yet, is it even possible to take Christ out of Christmas and would It still remain Christmas? And does the “secular” world really have the power to de-Christify (I just made that word up) Christmas? Or does this mysterious vanishing of Christ from Christmas have a more sinister origin? Indeed, I would argue, it does. It originates with Christians (I use this word in a general manner). Christ Jesus was long ago removed from the figurative American manger on Christmas morning by well meaning Christians. Unwittingly they replaced Him with, presents, meals, family, friends, and so on. For Christians, too many times now, Christmas morning is not about going to church and worshiping the God-Man, but about earthly goodies.
Do we really want Christ in Christmas? If Christ was the true center for us then maybe all our festivities (good when centered on Christ but worthless without Him) would have to take a secondary role. And do we really want that? As I pondered this mysterious vanishing of Christ from Christmas, I thought maybe I am wrong, and maybe there are plenty of Christian groups gathering on Christmas morning to worship God. Thus, I began making calls to various, mostly Protestant, churches in town inquiring about their Christmas time services. Almost no one had a service on Christmas day (although one church has a service on Christmas day in the evening, one of the Presbyterian churches will have a 11:30pm service Christmas eve. The Roman churches mostly have midnight services, which is a commendable practice, and some on Christmas morning. Yet I focused on Non-denomination, Evangelical Protestant churches, mainly because America has been typically a “Protestant” Nation). When I inquired as to a service on Christmas morning I was greeted mostly by a stunned silent pause, and an audibly baffled and confused “no” was the answer (I could almost hear the thought “don't you have presents to open?”). After a number of calls I simply gave up. Almost no Protestant church (at least in my town, as far as I can tell) is going to gather and worship God on Christmas morning. And who is taking Christ out of Christmas? The “world”?
Now I would conjecture that this trend, which is symptomatic of the overall greater trend of churchlessness that many who claim Christ subscribe to, and has its roots in the very prominent view of “individual relationship” with Jesus that most in the modern Protestant world adhere to (I purposely did not say “personal”). According to the very strong “me & Jesus” mentality, which dominates modern thought, why would I (me, myself) need to gather with others on Christmas? I can worship Jesus “in my heart” at home just as well, and open presents for that matter! And of course, Christ understands and condones (so the thought goes), because He always does (most of all when it agrees with my fancy). But if Christ is truly “in the heart”, then one would have a deep desire to gather and worship Him within the community of His Church, at least this has been the Christian practice for 2,000 years. A person will give preeminence to that which is the true treasure of the heart. As Someone once said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also." And yes this treasure costs us something.
On Nativity morning, the day when the birth of the Incarnate God-Man is celebrated (and just in case you missed that, it is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is both fully God and fully man; together with the whole mystery of God Himself entering into the human arena in such a physical manner) it has become common and, indeed, even the expected practice of many Christians to just stay at home. Again who is, as it were, removing Christ from Christmas?
But that's what services on Christmas Eve are for, right?
A service on Christmas is just bothersome (I can't sit around in my PJ's). Why would we go to church on Christmas morning when we can ooh and awe over baby Jesus the night before? When it comes down to it service on Nativity morning interferes with the other (seemingly) important things we have to do, like presents and food. And we do not want that! And then we wonder why the world does not take Christmas seriously, and why it is so eager to exclude Christ from the feast!? He becomes a nice guest to whom we give a corner seat and occasionally turn and say, “Cheers Jesus!” The world is simply secularizing common “Christian” (American) practice. The jolly old guy who gives out stuff is more important than the Son of God made the son of man.
Now, this may seem harsh, and indeed it may well be. But as Christians, and most of all Orthodox Christians, why would we want to be in any other place but God's Temple on the incredibly awesome day of the Nativity? As the sun rises on the “Today” of Christ's birth, and the very air seems to tremble with the mystery, and that which was veiled even to the eyes of angels is revealed on earth, “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One … for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child!” Yet, we cannot hear the mysterious silence because we insist on giving preeminence to a din of our own creation. If we cannot hear the mystery how then do we expect the world to? If we have not prepared our hearts to receive the Lord on the day of His birth according to the flesh, how will they then contain the grace of God? If we are not willing to make that effort to come and fall down before the Eternal One, Only Begotten of the Father, now begotten in time by the Most-Pure Virgin, then how can we expect the world to even care? Should we be surprised that many are eager to keep Christ out of Christmas?
Christmas loses its meaning devoid of worship. Presents, meals, and even family become hollow shells of nicety when the marrow of worship on Christmas day is removed. The seemingly simple action of ignoring worship on Christmas preaches a very clear message - these other things mean more to us; thus the world has taken hold of that message and has run with it. Christmas is about things, Christmas is about food, Christmas is about get-togethers. Christ? Well, those who claim to follow Him don't want the journey to honor Him to interfere with these things, so why would we? Christ? Those who claim to be His followers were the first ones to replaced Him with all these things. If His own do not really want worship of Him to disrupt Christmas festivities, then why should we?
Granted, thankfully, this practice of staying at home has no origins whatsoever in the Orthodox Christian Faith, but it sure can influence those of us who are among the “faithful.” And we must actively resist its falseness. There is only one place for us as Orthodox Christians on Christmas morning and that is greeting Our Incarnate Lord of Glory, falling down with the hosts of heavenly ranks, and chanting “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Nothing else matters. Corruption is overthrown, death is crumbling, sin is dethroned, Christ is born, glorify Him! The Sun of Righteousness has risen, The Orient from on high has dawned, glorify Him!
Thus this mysterious tragedy of Christ being removed from Christmas is not an exterior happening. It cannot be fixed by public manger scenes (as nice as they are), nor billboards and bumper stickers. These are simply external band-aids on an internal malady.
Would we see “Christ in Christmas?” Then we must begin by removing the world and materialism from the manger of our own hearts, and there enshrine Christ. Thus on Christmas morning, wake up and come to the Temple of God, the Church, and there offer a gift of sacrifice and praise for the unfathomable mercy He has performed on our behalf; then go and enjoy presents, meals, family, and friends. Then these things will be filled with Christ Jesus our Lord because they will be spinning on the axis of worship, the worship of God Incarnate. Then everything will truly matter, and everything will shine with the light of Christ.