He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! You’d better watch out. You’d better not cry. You’d better not pout. I’m telling you why; someone is coming to town!
This could almost sound like a scary sermon about the return of Christ. But no, it’s a song about Santa Claus. Santa’s a bit of a controversial figure these days among Christians. Some happily embrace this tradition, some do so cautiously. Some reject Santa as an ungodly worldly invention, some reject him simply as a fanciful distraction. This situation faced by Christian parents – to tell the Santa stories or not – is part of a larger situation in our culture today. Because we like to be dramatic, we’ve called it The War on Christmas. So let’s take a look at this; what is the war on Christmas? Who are the Grinches of this world that we have to deal with?
Our Fourfold Enemy: the War on Christmas
I’d say we have four enemies fighting “the war on Christmas.” There are anti-christs, radical puritans, sentimentalists or moralists, and commercialists. In the graphic in your bulletin (pictured below) I’ve lined them up as opposite extremes. Anti-christs reject the reason for the season, while radical puritans reject the season for the reason. Sentimentalism and Moralism redefine the season to be all about others; and Commercialism redefines the season to be all about you.
#1 Anti-christs reject the reason for the season.
You may think that the word “anti-christ” or “anti-christian” is a bit strong. But let’s look at 1 John 4:1-3.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
Popular Christianity today reserves the title of “antichrist” to a future figure at the end of the world who will vigorously persecute the Church. But what St. John is pointing out here is that everyone who rejects Christ is against Christ, or anti-christ. This rejection of the reality of Jesus is the heart of anti-Christianity, and is the clearest opponent of Christmas as we understand it.
#2 Radical Puritans reject the season for the reason.
In 1649, the English monarchy was overthrown by Oliver Cromwell and his heavily-stacked Parliament. The King was beheaded, all Bishops were defrocked, and the Prayer Book was declared illegal. The Church had to purified, and the Church of England hadn’t gone far enough, according to these radical puritans. Along with the Prayer Book went vestments, the liturgy, hymns that weren’t close paraphrases of the psalms, and even holidays. All that Popery had to be purged! Puritan Massachusetts colony rejoiced.
That harsh regime lasted hardly twelve years, thanks be to God. But the radical rejection of outward expressions of faith and religion that they espoused is an attitude that reappears in various forms throughout history. Sometimes people just get so fed up with the problems they see around them, that they decide it’s time to throw it all out and start over. No more Santa, no more tree! No more presents for you or me! Instead we’re all going to sit down and read the first couple chapters of each of the Gospel books, and remember Jesus’ birth.
The trouble is, it’s hard to celebrate something without doing anything about. I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible to celebrate something without doing anything about it! That’s the wisdom of holidays, and why God went so far as to require the universal celebration of several holidays in the Old Testament. Sure, in this New Covenant, God did not dictate what to celebrate or how, but the Church has taken her cues from the biblical witness: when God does something big that defines our history and identity, it is just and right so to celebrate.
#3 Sentimentalism / Moralism redefine the season to be about others.
In the wake of that draining struggle between people attacking Christmas because “Jesus didn’t exist” and people attacking Christmas because “holidays aren’t in the Bible,” a common response has been to redefine exactly what Christmas is all about. That’s where the moralist and the commercialist come in. A lot of our beloved holiday music, and basically all our Santa songs, fall into the category of sentimentalism and moralism. Take for example this beautiful song:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Is this a bad song? No, it’s beautiful! What a lovely sentiment it has, directing our attention to family, togetherness, and a cheerful disposition toward one another. But, when you think about it, sentiment is all it has. Christmas is a time to be nice, be happy. Combine this with the song I quoted at the beginning, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” and you get a message of sentimental feelings and moralistic teachings for the sake of feeling sentimental and acting moral. There’s actually nothing about the Gospel, nothing even about Jesus in this sort of portrayal of Christmas.
This past month, some particularly grumpy young Christians got all up in a huff because Starbucks discontinued their Christmas coffee cups, producing only red cups instead of cups with festive snowflakes. And guess what happened a couple weeks later? Dunkin Donuts pulled out the cups with festive snowflakes and the word “joy” on them. Hooray for Dunk’s, right? Then again, what do snowflakes have to do with the birth of our Savior? It’s a sentimental rendition of the Christmas holiday and season.
Even one of my favorite seasonal stories falls into this trap of sentimentalism and moralism. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge. The moral of the story is that Christmas is a time to be kind to others. The spirit of Christmas, to be keep all the year round, is one of kindness toward one’s fellow man. There’s a hint of Gospel truth here; the proclamation of “peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” but no mention of Christ is made at all. In fact, if I recall, Dickens wasn’t much a fan of Christianity. So these sentimental and moralistic Christmas traditions can be quite insidious distractions from the real reason for the season.
#4 Commercialism redefines the season to be about you.
I probably don’t really need to say anything about this. Even among non-religious people, Black Friday is becoming more and more reviled as an ugly spectacle of greed and hypocrisy. Literally, we give thanks for what we have one day, and then trample people the next morning to get more stuff. The beautiful gift-giving tradition of this season has been deeply tapped into by businesses large and small. The family with the most presents under the tree wins!
Even our enemies can be redeemed.
Now the temptation, when we’re faced with any of these four attackers upon our beloved Christmas, is to disassociate ourselves with them completely. The trouble is, though, that by rejecting one, we all too easily embrace a different one. We fight the commercialistic rush with Puritannical rejections of any outward celebration of Christmas. We respond to the anti-christian rejection of Christmas by settling for a sentimental middle ground that anyone could accept. This is a very classic mistake we make in our fallen nature: we identify a problem and then we run away to another extreme. Instead, let’s look at these armies in the War on Christmas with a mind to their redemption. We’ve been talking about the Kingship of Christ, and his arrival as King is the major Advent theme after all – how can we find all things in subjection under Christ?
First, the anti-christs: what do we do about people who reject Jesus? First, we are to discern truth from error. Our Collect and readings this morning emphasize the place and value of the Bible in the Christian life – this is how we know Christ! Without it, our sight is darkened. The more grounded we are in God’s truth, the more clearly we can see the misinformation and lies presented by the world. And then, once we know where we stand, and we see where others are coming from, then we can actually communicate with them. The Advent and Christmas seasons are great opportunities for evangelism, because the story of Jesus’ birth is still widely known in our culture. And even for the growing number of people who have honestly never heard of Jesus before, many still celebrate Christmas in some form, which gives us an easy conversation starter for telling the story of Jesus and planting those seeds of the Gospel.
Second, the radical puritan rejection of Christmas has a useful place in this situation. They provide us the healthy reminder of the central importance of the Scriptures and the Truth they proclaim. But if you feel criticized for celebrating Christmas in any way other than reading the Bible and going to church, consider the words of St. James: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead;” and “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” In this case we might get more specific: “show me your faith in Christ’s birth apart from your celebration of it, and I will show you my faith in His birth by my celebration!”
Third, what to do about the sentimental and moralistic traditions of Santa Claus and fun holiday music? Again, these have their uses. The original Santa was Saint Nicholas, a bishop in the Early Church. He attended the Council of Nicea, where the first draft of the Nicene Creed was written. He was a strong defender of the faith, particularly on the matter of Jesus being fully human and fully divine. Even though he was a bishop, he still remembered his diaconal calling by caring for the poor in his city, especially children. A lot of our gift-giving traditions around Christmastime stem from the man behind Santa: Saint Nicholas. His feast day is today, December 6th, which adds to the reason why he, in particular, plays such a visible role in Advent celebrations to this day. Remembering this man, be it through historical or legendary means, is a celebration of the Communion of Saints, and adds a layer of in-the-world context to the celebration of the Christmas story, not to mention promotes a healthy imagination which is so valuable to us who believe that there is more to this world than simply what we can see.
Finally, the enemy of commercialism has to be tamed as well. I could tell you that greed is one of the seven deadly sins. I could remind you of Jesus’ warning that “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.” I could remind you of Jesus’ teaching that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But in the midst of this we mustn’t rush to extremes. Saint Francis gave up all his worldly possessions not because possessions are evil, but because he was called to a life of voluntary poverty. We are not all called to be Franciscans. Wealth and possessions are blessings, too. And, as St. Paul reminds us, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
So as this Advent season races by, and various distractions tug at you in every which way, remember Jesus: the reason for the season. Remember Advent and Christmas: the season for the reason. And when you see Santa in the mall, or hear Bing Crosby singing on the radio, or see A Christmas Carol on television, think of them as ornaments on a tree. The tree is more beautiful with them than without them, but with too many ornaments it begins to droop and disappear. In the midst of all the preparation and the celebration, keep your heart fixed on Jesus. Even in the hustle and bustle of worldly affairs, it is only a short step from saying “Christmas can’t arrive soon enough!” to saying “Christ can’t return soon enough!” Our prayer again and again this season is “Come, Lord Jesus.” Let that prayer resound in your heart for the next 19 days, until we finally sing “Joy to the world: the Lord is come!”