What a great tool for promoting your religion — a mid-winter feast where everybody eats copious amounts of food, receives interesting gifts and hears or hums constantly your theological message.
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the Incarnate Deity,” is hardly street lingo, but repetition over the years lends familiarity and, conceivably, respect; besides which it was written by a great genius in terms of preaching through sing-able poetry — Charles Wesley.
Then think of the angels! A secret, sometimes public, affection for angels wells in every human breast.
Christmas, in short, affords Christianity a head start in evangelism and a sturdy position when it comes to retention of the mostly if not always entirely faithful. Multiplying rumors of Christianity’s 21st century slump take no account of the degree to which the spirit of Christmas — attested to in one way or another by practically the whole culture — is resistant to ouster.
A related reason for cheer concerning Christianity’s long-term prospects centers on less subjective factors. These factors can be hard to discern in an age given to celebrating the supposed triumph of Personal Opinion. The Christmas message, all the same – Christ the Savior is born — transcends Opinion. An opinion is, well, my view of things, not to mention yours. Here’s how life appears as I look around …
Which, according to the First Amendment, is my privilege, my American right. I pick, I choose. Even Christmas comes down to my choice of preoccupations, from shopping to prayer and fasting, or merely sitting by the fireside, thinking good thoughts.
As it happens, the assertion of choice, while theologically permissible, collides with the great reality of Christmas: a personal “Titanic” seeking to glide happily past an iceberg; failing to discern the massive dimensions of …
Of what? Nothing less than the human condition. We might want to revert to Mr. Wesley. He gave us (obedient to that which the Church had given him) not just “Godheads” and “Incarnate Deities,” but rather a sense of what all this matter was about. There was upfront, in his telling, some business about “God and sinners reconciled.” Then a verse or two later: “Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die.”
Something goes on here — something of which e-commerce and free shipping take no account; nor the eggnog recipe passed down through three generations. What goes on here at Christmas is a frank, unashamed portrayal of the human condition: that condition marked by deficiencies almost too deep and numerous to count, and yet addressed memorably — by God.
Human deficiencies (called sins in a more theological context) don’t seem at first blush to suit the picture of human independence we display on our walls with modern pride. Key to the future of Christmas is the deep reality of deficiency and need as built into the human condition, however richly decorated.
The contemporary definition of “need” has mostly to do with what we conceive government as eminently qualified to supply or guarantee — jobs, schooling, health care, pensions. On another level are the turmoils of heart and mind — pains, sorrows, things done wrongly, other things hardly done at all. A preference for government actions and measures makes sense in various contexts, and less so — infinitely less — in contexts where a man or a woman discovers within himself, or herself, shame or shards and fragments from a broken heart.
Christianity believes — knows — that the deep realities of life exceed anything that organized society, whatever its First Amendment opinions or think tank analyses, can address successfully. And because Christianity so knows and teaches, Christmas in all its commercial zaniness and confusion of purpose will never depart from our midst.
Cultural indifference or incredulity is not the measure of these things. Unthinkably vast realities are at work. They endure imperishably, such being the nature of realities as against opinions, fantasies, notions, theories.
“Hark! the herald angels sing/ Glory to the new-born King!” That would be the way of it, we may confidently affirm amid the joyous racket.