In the last post, I came down pretty hard on the more profane elements of Christmas. With those things said, the next question is this: should we, as Christians, celebrate Christmas at all? Uhm . . . I do.
But how then is this not flagrant hypocrisy; condemning Christmas as something profane with the one hand, and yet advocating its celebration with the other?! Well, to answer that, here’s where we need to talk about that second key idea, “the common”.
For the purposes of this, ahem, discourse, let’s start off by defining the key terms;
“Holy”: something sacred, and set apart by God.
“Profane”: that which is sinful (opposite of holy).
“Common”: Something neither holy nor profane. In this sense it is common to both the sacred and secular realms.
Now, keep in mind that there is a ton more to say about each of these terms. But this should be enough to keep us tracking for the moment. And then, just before we get to using these terms, let’s make sure that the whole ‘pagan origin’ thing is not throwing us off any more than it needs to. I’ve already alluded to that fallacy of logic (the genetic fallacy) that seeks to prohibit a current practice based on its origin. So, to finish our collection of definitions, here’s a quick and dirty cut-and-paste for you (from an unquestionably trusted source: Wikipedia);
The genetic fallacy (also known as the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue) is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context.
This problematic logic often surfaces in attempts at Christian discernment (and this, on a wide variety of different issues). But, put as simply as possible, it does not work. If I want to go, and let’s say. . . snowboard (?!), it should not matter what the origin of the snowboard is; neither should the origin of the practice of snowboarding matter in coming to a conclusion as to whether snowboarding is permissible. And that’s really good news, because it means that I don’t have to lay the board down if it is suddenly uncovered that the snowboard was first used as a form of pagan revelry. That’s irrelevant. Rather, the question I need to ask myself is this: what is it currently used for. Or, how is the practice currently understood? If, it’s still about witchcraft and sexual debauchery, by all means, lay the board down my friend. However, if it’s just about going out there and catching some slopes. Well, that’s the end of it. You go get’em tiger.
Now, bring this same idea over to Christmas. Because, albeit a tad more complex, it’s more or less the same sort of deal. That’s why I feel that way too much time and effort is invested into searching out the origin of Christmas. The better question is this: What does the cultural experience of Christmas mean for us now? How is it understood now? How is it practiced now? Now . . . capish?
In consideration then of the current practice, here’s the rub: for all that we might say about the various non-Christian themes running through the Santa story, the whole thing is basically a super fun, friendly…and kind-of-humanistic story for kids (and by kids, I mean both child and adult kids). But, no matter how we look at it, the contemporary Christmas practice is a bit of an insult to its pagan religious forbearer. And maybe I do need to get out more, but in all my days on this green earth, I’ve never come across any person/family that bows down before their Christmas tree on the 25th of Dec to celebrate the rebirth of a demi-god during the glorious winter solstice. Never seen it. I have noticed, however, that the kinds of people most likely to celebrate this sort of thing, are wearing hemp shoes and mocking first-world suburbia for its blind participation in this the utterly “unspiritual” practice of giving and receiving gifts (largely manufactured and produced by little children in China). And hey, maybe they have a point. But more to our particular topic, I think it’s safe to say that we can take “pagan practice”, in any rootsy sense at least, right off of the table.
As I tried to point out in the last post, beyond the greed oriented sins of the silly-season, the real profanity of Christmas lies in its desecration of the regulative principle, and unbridled Christian syncretism that goes along with it. As freaky as new-age spiritualists can be, the only ones who might actually bow down to the tree are Christians who have come up with a jolly-seasonal way to worship Jesus. I mean, after all, they must have had a tree in the stable, right? There was certainly a star at the top (of the tree?), and everyone was giving lots of oriental (China?) pressies. Yikes. What can I say, this is the stuff that Christians truly need to reject and stand against. This is where we need to be truly cautious and discerning.
I’ll say more about that tomorrow when we look at “the holy”. But for now, let’s appreciate that, greed-sin and Christian-syncretism excluded, much of what we find at Christmas is in the realm of the common. And aside the extreme cornball often associated, there are many things to be genuinely glad about. If even the shopping malls want to do their bit to promote goodwill among men, I’m all for it. I mean, FREE gift-wrapping. Are you kidding me? Yes please. If general virtues, like peace, joy, love and generosity are free flowing from otherwise narly-hearts during this time of year, then seriously, who am I do stand in the way? As Paul would say, against such things there is no law.
But isn’t the whole thing just a big marketing campaign? Who knows? Probably. But aren’t these “virtues” advocated in light of a glaring inconsistency with the unbeliever’s worldview? Yup. Definitely. But hey, that’s the whole deal with common grace (some have even argued that the grace is the inconsistency itself). But whatever the case, as tolerated sojourners, we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. Instead, we celebrate the toleration, and we ourselves tolerate. Nay, more than tolerate, we use the opportunity to love our neighbour! You see, there we go. Now you’re feeling it.
So, stop being such a Grinch. If you want to celebrate Christmas with your family, go right ahead; just keep the ideas of the “the profane”, “the common”, and “the holy” nice and distinct in your mind. What hath “Jingle Bells” to do with “Silent Night”? Nothing at all. So don’t confuse the issue.
I love what McMahon said in this regard, “I’m all for Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, winter wonderlands, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, exchanging presents, eating candy canes, enjoying really good egg-nog, stuffing stockings, watching “Elf” with James Caan and Will Ferrel, or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer classically sung by Burl Ives, as well as all the other holiday festivities. Why? Well, they have nothing, in the way I am explaining here, to do with Jesus Christ and the birth story, or the incarnation. They do not violate, in any way, the Regulative Principle.”
So, understand that when trying to distinguish between the common and the profane, your efforts to merge Bible stories with Christmas trees is the only problem here. If you’re into eggnog, Christmas trees and shopping, go for it! And be my guest: tell your kids pretend-stories about Santa, just the way you tell them about Teddy-bears-having-picnics. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t merge the Santa-story, with the nativity. Rather, teach your kids that they should want to worship the one true God of heaven and earth; and that they should love to celebrate the birth of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. But they also need to know that the Lord of all glory has prescribed the exact means through which to do this. And this great God tolerates no strange fire.
So, here’s the bottom-line then: stay away from sin, love your neighbour, and celebrate the fun of a western first-world shopping mall Christmas. But, when it comes to worshipping God, do it as you ought: go to church, celebrate in Word and Sacrament. Do it on the Lord’s day. And by all means use that time to delve deep into the unfathomably rich theology of Christ’s incarnation. But let me stop here, because we are crossing over into the territory of “the holy”. And indeed, this is what we hope to talk about tomorrow.