This article is adapted from a talk given at Reformation Fellowship on December 18, 2005.
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Listening to a radio talk show recently, I heard a young Jewish woman defending the public celebration of Christmas on the grounds that, even though she was a Jew, she had always found the Christmas season so delightfully “magical.” She got me thinking. That’s my experience, too. As I child, I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas—everything about it. The music was joyous, the smells were wonderful, the environments were cozy and comforting, the sights were enchanting, the tastes were delicious, and the significance of the season was profound. And that significance was acknowledged throughout the culture—in stores and schools and churches, by parties and decorations and the ritual of Christmas cards. In a word, the whole season and everything about it was magical, and the magic was connected to God sending his Son into the world.
There are other significant events in the life of Jesus and in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. But for some reason—at least in my experience—the celebration of what God has done with respect to us sinful human beings is focused on Christmas. The resurrection is hugely significant, but Easter has never had the magical quality surrounding it that Christmas does. No other time of the year can come even close to reaching the thoroughly enchanting heights of Christmas.
In the opening of his Gospel, John describes the profoundly important ramification of Jesus having come. Because of Jesus, he says, “the light is shining in the darkness.” It is important to reflect on what John is saying here. It is not that, because of Jesus, the light has obliterated the darkness. That simply is not so. Rather, because of Jesus, the light now shines in the midst of the darkness.
One of the biggest errors of modern Christendom, I fear, is to deny the reality of the darkness. All human beings (believers and unbelievers alike) are affected by the ignorance and folly—and evil and rebellion—that characterize life in this world. To pretend otherwise is to choose ignorance and self-delusion. We did not “use to be” ignorant and foolish until we came to Jesus. No, we are ignorant and foolish—and evil and rebellious—even now. Christians though we are, we are broken people living in a broken world. Because of Jesus, we have hope. The way to wholeness has been prepared. The promise of true life has been made. But that way, that promise, is a light shining in the darkness. It is not an out-and-out negation of the darkness itself.
C. S. Lewis sought to capture something of this light-in-the-darkness idea in his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Narnia, under the spell of the white witch, always experienced winter, but never Christmas. It is one thing to endure the bitterness of a hard winter if, in the midst of its chill, there is something to celebrate. But it is quite another thing to endure endless days of bitterness with no hope of them ending—and with nothing to remind us of something good beyond the chill. Jesus is our reminder. He is the Christmas in the midst of winter. He is our hope for the warmth of life and shalom in the midst of the bitter chill of human existence.
While Jesus is no less than that reminder, neither is he more than that—not yet anyway. We make a huge and evil mistake if we pretend to ourselves—and proclaim to others—that Jesus brings life and shalom to us here and now. Modern Christendom makes this mistake far too often. Modern Christendom says, “Come to Jesus, and He will make it always Christmas, never winter.” That is false. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness—not the light eclipsing the darkness. He is the hope for life—not life itself. He is Christmas, smack dab in the midst of winter, bringing the joy of hope where otherwise there would be none.
The white witch of modern secularism is seeking, very aggressively, to remove any vestige of Christmas from American culture today. We can ask two questions about this: First, what would it mean if the secularists were to succeed? And, second, how should we as believers respond to the onslaught?
What if the secularists succeed?
If I am right, the “magical” quality of Christmas in our culture has been good and beneficial. At least in my experience (and I know not everyone shares my experience), Christmas seems to be a hint, an intimation buried deep within the cultural psyche, that no matter how bitter the winter of human existence might be, there is a good we can celebrate that is more powerful than the bitterness. If that “magical” message, communicated in so many “magical” ways, were to be silenced, it would be a significant loss to our culture. The message of Christmas as received by our culture may be quite confused; it may be fragmentary; it may be downright false and invalid at times. But one truth comes through loud and clear to all but the most persistent scrooge: all is not darkness and bitter chill; there is a hope worth celebrating—the promise of a warmth that will replace the chill.
Should we defend Christmas?
Recently I was moderating a discussion panel on the role of religious belief in politics. The panel consisted of a Muslim man, a history professor who seemed to be a classical liberal, an English professor who was definitively anti-religious-right, and a pastor from a rather conservative Bible-believing church. The pastor worked quite hard to distance himself from the religious right. The perspective he took went roughly like this:
Christianity is not a political stance. Christianity is not fundamentally concerned with social-political issues. Jesus came to seek out and offer salvation to individuals. Accordingly, as His servants, our mission is beside the point of politics. We are not concerned with the structures and values of our culture; we are concerned with bringing individuals to a saving relationship with Jesus.
If I rightly understood him, this pastor would counsel believers not to worry about what happens to public Christmas celebration in America.
There is a profound germ of truth in the pastor’s perspective. We are not primarily called to transform our society. And more importantly, if Christmas disappears in America, that doesn’t mean the white witch has won. An end is still coming, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
On the other hand, however, I fear that this pastor’s perspective was a little naïve and a little too simplistic. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to live our lives in obedience to our Lord. And we are called to do so courageously—not because we are seeking the transformation of our culture, but because we must be obedient to what is right and good and true.
Does that mean we should fight to protect Christmas? I don’t know. The calling to courageous obedience probably means different things to different ones of us at different times and in different contexts. But we should not therefore conclude that Christmas going away is of no consequence. For increasing numbers of Americans, Christmas is the only even remotely accurate intimation of the True Light to which they will ever be exposed. If even that intimation goes away, where will they be? They will remain under the spell of the modern secularist white witch, with no comprehension that there exists anything other than the unending bitterness of human existence—always winter, never Christmas.
May we rejoice that the True Light has shone into our eyes—that, seeing the light shining in the darkness, we confidently look forward to the Life and Shalom that will be ours in the age to come. It makes these cold winter days feel just a little warmer.