I’ve been thinking about things a bit this year. Same sex marriage has captured our attention quite a bit, and a lot of Christians are wondering what the implications are going to be for us, as we don’t believe God accepts or condones it. How are things going to go for us as these two values systems collide?
But to be perfectly honest, the way we work out how to manage that on our side of the issue is going to be decided by how we work out our side of other cultural divides.
And the biggest one of those is Christmas.
I’m not sure if you’ve thought about that.
That the biggest cultural divide Christians currently have with the rest of Australia is not same sex marriage, but Christmas.
Easter might run second, but it’s not that close a second.
So let me explain.
There are two completely separate cultural narratives that exist around Christmas.
The first is the Christian one.
That Christmas celebrates the incarnation — the point in history when God himself became a human being, born as the baby Jesus, with the deliberate purpose of living a life perfectly obedient to God, and yet dying for the sins of others so that we could be reconciled with God.
For Christians, the arrival of our LORD and SAVIOUR, his birth in a lowly situation, for our benefit, is what Christmas is all about.
Its why we sing carols about Jesus, his birth, the shepherds who witnessed the event, the wise men who travelled to worship the new-born king, the star which was the sign of birth, the night on which it happened, about Mary the woman who was chosen to bear and raise her Lord and Saviour. We sing of peace and good will to the world.
We exchange presents, and give to the poor and needy, in imitation of God sending us the gift of a Saviour, and the promise of eternal life, and peace with him.
We send cards, or we used to at least, celebrating this. We have a special church service on Christmas Day, no matter what day it falls on, to celebrate.
But there is a second, separate, cultural narrative about Christmas.
And this one has only tenuous links to the first.
This second cultural narratives says that Christmas is about getting together with family, about holidays, about summer fun with winter decorations. It’s about giving and receiving presents, it’s about a boost to the retail figures, buying large discounted items, and special packaging and flavouring for chocolates, biscuits, soft-drinks and custard.
Its about Santa Claus as the rewarder of good and the giver of gifts, where we have photos of the kids with him to put on the fridge or send to family and friends.
Its about eating, resting and eating again, about end of year parties, social functions, work functions, school functions, community functions, and the remaining evenings spent watching movies about snowy places where people dress in red coats and give presents.
If you go and talk to kids with no scripture program at school, they will have no idea that Christmas has anything to do with the church, or with Jesus. Because in this second cultural narrative, Jesus isn’t relevant. And, in fact, this second cultural narrative says that Christmas celebrations are actually an old pagan festival which Christians took over, and so it isn’t really Christian anyway.
If you look up the big carols events in Perth, or Sydney, or Melbourne, or any of the other big cities, these events represent the second cultural narrative. Yes, there are some songs still in them about Jesus, but there are less and less of them over time. And in all the advertising of them you won’t find any reference to the Christian story about Christmas.
It might still be there in some of the songs, but it’s only just there.
This represents quite a significant cultural divide, which is getting bigger and bigger.
And Christians need to think hard about how to deal with this divide.
At the moment, I think many Christians attempt to cover both, seeking to redeem the dominant cultural narrative by making explicit links to the Christian origins of the celebrations. Having Santa and Jesus, family gathering and Christmas services, church and community carols. Christmas trees and nativity scenes, church activities and holidays.
Some churches try to compete with the dominant cultural narrative, by adding all sorts of extra activities to their roster of events. Ginger-bread house making sessions, Christmas decoration making days, and the like. All the events you can do outside the church now done in the church.
Some Christians try to withdraw completely from anything linked to secular Christmas. No presents, no Santa, no decorations, and the like.
I’d like to suggest something different from all of these, although it contains elements of all of them.
First, as Christians, we need to recognise that there is this conflict, and not pretend that we can just claim back Christmas. There isn’t one version of Christmas which has just gone off track. There are two different versions of Christmas, and we don’t have the power to take the non-Christian version away or change it. That is out of our hands because it is not ours.
Second, we need to then decide to actively pursue a Christian version of Christmas for ourselves and our family.
This means that our mindset needs to be that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Our goal must be that our own personal Christmas celebrations are to be about Jesus. Our choices about what to do, what to be involved in, need to centre on that decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth, the incarnation, the presence of God on Earth as a human being.
It also means that we need to gear ourselves towards the idea that there may well be some things we just don’t get around to, which others might expect we would be a part of.
Before the Christmas season begins, we should be deciding the non-negotiable events for ourselves at Christmas.
I think that this should be a Christmas Eve/Christmas Day church service, and Church carols service. Whether we are at home or away on holidays.
These are really the only things that Christians do which celebrate the birth of Jesus, the arrival of our saviour.
Everything else we should consider optional, and should be worked around the essentials.
This may mean arriving late at a family gathering for lunch.
It might mean choosing an evening carols service instead of the sporting or social club activity.
It may mean inconveniencing others, or making them feel a little put out that we insist on being different.
But we need to make these choices to put Jesus first, and make being Christian first, over what expectations our culture places on us.
Third, we need to decide what else to include. There isn’t a whole lot that it isn’t possible for Christians to participate in with a clear conscience at Christmas.
Decorate a tree. Hang up lights. Buy presents. Buy fruit mince pies. Have a family get together at lunch.
There is no barrier to doing these things for a Christian, any more than there is in wearing an Australian flag hat or hanging a flag out the car window for Australia day, or going to an ANZAC Day parade or buying Anzac biscuits for ANZAC Day.
But our aim in doing those things at Christmas should be to remember Jesus’ birth, and that should be front and centre of what we do.
And it may be nice to do without some things that people expect some years, just to remind yourself, and your family, what is actually important.
And that is Jesus.
While the 25th of December isn’t actually the day Jesus was born — the weather at this time of year in Israel means you wouldn’t have shepherds out with sheep at night — it is the day we traditionally celebrate it.
And celebrate the incarnation we should.
God loved the world so much he sent his one and only begotten son to become a man and die for us.
The birth of Jesus reminds us that God can identify with, has experienced, all that we go through as human being.
Christmas is our reminder that we have a great high priest who advocates on our behalf, as one of us.
We need to clearly separate what Christmas is about for Christians from what Christmas is about for non-Christians.
By clearly focusing on Jesus’ birth — the incarnation — and being prepared to drop or reduce in importance the cultural expressions of Santa, Presents and Consumerism, and even Family Togetherness.
So that we are clearly know as followers of Jesus.