has been more discussion than usual this year on keeping “Christ” in
“Christmas.” On the one
hand, among all the problems we face in the world, surely there are more
important things than the names we use for our holidays.
On the other, I am thrilled by much of what I hear and read as
not just the name but the meaning of Christmas is being debated on the
editorial pages of our newspapers and magazines.
I consider it
a very good thing, for instance, to read in Newsweek this insight from
columnist Anna Quindlen:
most truly religious people, observing the feast is not about shouting
“Merry Christmas” at passerby to show that you believe even if they
do not, … It is an interior process of considering the lessons the
child in the manger would teach once grown.
So if people are really worried about keeping Christ in
Christmas, they might personally exhibit tolerance and charity, kindness
and generosity.” Amen!
When we can
read that kind of theological depth in a secular news magazine, I
don’t think we need to worry too much about a few misguided attempts
to take religion out of public life or misunderstood attempts to make
public holidays more inclusive of other religions.
Heck, even the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel called me to wish me a
encourage all God-fearing Christian people to relax.
I really do not think that calling an office party or a holiday
concert “Christmas” is going to hasten the coming of the Savior of
the world. If observing the
birth of Jesus with an annual holiday is so important, why is it never
mentioned by the Gospels of Mark and John or the letters of Paul?
Why did Christmas not become an annual celebration until several
centuries after the event?
course, is one of the only two sources we have for the Christmas story. Matthew reveals the meaning of the first Christmas with a
quote from the prophet Isaiah, “Look, the
virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
In other words, the critical issue for people of faith is not
when or how we celebrate, but that we see in this birth, the presence of
God with us, with humanity.
is the meaning of Christmas. So
when we talk about putting Christ back in Christmas, what we really are
saying is that we need to put God back into the world, to make God
present among us once again, which, of course, is not for us to do.
We can no more put God in the world than we can put blue into the
sky or water into rain. God
already is present in the
world. Besides, God is not ours to put anywhere. What we can
do is find God in the world, affirm that God is indeed with us.
We can point to those places where God is tangible, present among
lived for three years in Germany, as many of you know, and spent a good
deal of time dealing with the impact of Nazism, the Holocaust and the
struggles of the church during that dark period of German history. That experience had a big impact on how I view the world and
was in Berlin 25 years ago that I first learned that German soldiers,
first in WWI, wore “Gott mit uns” or “God with us” on their belt
buckles. That is, of
course, the hope of soldiers everywhere, regardless of nationality, that
God is on their side. It
was Abraham Lincoln, however, who pointed out to us in the aftermath of
the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address that those who read the
same Bible and prayed to the same God each invoked God’s aid against
the other and thereby revealed the folly of such claims in war.
But as I
read and hear stories of another war-torn land far from our
shores—stories of soldiers singing Christmas carols in Baghdad
palaces, of Iraqi Christians afraid to observe Christmas themselves, of
families receiving devastating news of loved ones lost—I see another
meaning to the German belt buckles which I do want to affirm. It came to me in our Spiritual Formation Group when one of
our members said something that caused me to look up the German version
of Matthew. Sure enough, in
German, the translation of Immanuel is “Gott mit uns.”
I always took that to mean that God is on our side and not yours, I
suddenly realized that it can also simply mean, “God goes with us,
wherever we go". To
protect us, yes, and maybe even fight for us, but also to comfort us, to
console us, to affirm us and to challenge us.
God with us is something we should all carry on our belt buckles,
our label pins, our watches and the souls of our feet.
Not as some kind of smug assurance that we have God and others do
not, but as a reminder that wherever we go, we take God with us.
we go to the hospital, God is with us.
we walk down that dark street, God is with us.
we go into that business meeting, God is with us.
we take that test at school, God is with us.
When we bring a new child into the world, God is with us.
we hold the hand of a dying loved one, God is with us. And yes, when we go to war, God is with us.
But if God
is with us, then God is also with the person on the other side.
If God is with those innocent victims of 9/11 killed by the
terrorists, then God is with the innocent victims killed by our bombs
and bullets. If God is with our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, then God
is with the prisoners beaten by the same.
For these, too, are those for whom Christ was born and for whom
was the Christmas after Abraham Lincoln was killed with the echoes of
the last gunshot of that terrible war still ringing in his ears that the
Reverend Phillip Brooks rode into Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and wrote
of the hopes and fears of all the years met in O Little Town of
Bethlehem. Brooks concluded
his carol, now sung, if no longer in schools, certainly in Christian
communities and around the world, with these words:
“O come to us, abide with us, our God Immanuel.”
with us. This is the
meaning of Christmas that no one can take away, and when taken to heart,
changes us and our world, fulfilling the promise of angels of peace on
earth and goodwill to all.