Since the early 2000’s there have been significant culture wars raging about a “war on Christmas” that works to undermine and eliminate any vestiges of Christmas from the public sphere. The story goes that any use of “Happy Holidays” on a coffee cup or a public school bulletin board in place of the phrase “Merry Christmas” is a subtle but insidious affront to Christianity. That the liberal media and Jewish owned corporations around the nation are attempting to wipe out the spirit of Christmas from everyone’s hearts. I’m sure you’ve heard about it at some point or another if you’ve been in the United States during the holidays. As you can imagine, this argument is highly polarized and marked by partisan politics, a movement that has plagued the American church since Reagan’s presidency and continues to not only divide the nation but the church as well. And I’m really not all that interested on what side of the debate that you fall. What I believe, and what I believe scripture teaches us, is that both are true. That there is, in a sense, both a secular war against Christmas and also a pharisaical, self-righteous, para-religious movement that seeks to push Christmas traditions down the thoats of the rest of the culture. Here we have both liberal and conservative views and beliefs of Christmas that mar the gospel of Christ and completely miss the mark. Both work to make God in their own image. Both undermine Christmas.
What God gave us at Christmas was not just his Son. He gave us truth and an invitation to faith- all of which transforms us when we take it in for ourselves. When we read and meditate on the nativity from Luke 1:26-38, we see the angel Gabriel visiting the virgin Mary. He startles her very unexpectedly and tells her “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And what was her response? Does she tell him that this cannot be? That he had the wrong virgin? No. She asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Notice that she didn’t question whether there would be a messiah or whether God was right for choosing her. From the words of the angel she was given God’s truth of his coming Son and was invited to faith. And she believed. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Had Mary not believed, she never would have conceived. And out of this faith she was transformed into the virgin mother of Christ, renewed in faith and in heart. As her heart was changed, so too did her womb grow, and God’s Son was given to the world.
A few verses later, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, says “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” Here Elizabeth is telling Mary, and us, that those who truly believe what the angel said about this baby, if they accept the invitation to faith about the coming messiah, that they will be blessed. What type of blessing is Elizabeth speaking about? The blessing of everlasting life, peace, and completely changed. The blessing of Christmas is one of transformation. If we believe in the incarnation of Christ, if it enters our hearts and becomes central to who we are, we are blessed and forever transformed.
The real war on this gift of Christmas, the gift of the omnipotent God becoming a baby to transform us into new creatures, is unbelief. Had Mary not believed, Jesus would not have been conceived. She would not have been transformed and the world would not have been given its Son. The same is true for us. Unbelief in the truth of who Jesus is, the incarnate Son of the Most High, assails the throne of God and prevents any transformation of the heart.
And the truth is that the world will always be hostile to the message of the gospel. There isn’t a single place in scripture that says Christians who proclaim the gospel will be accepted and treated with respect, so why would we expect it? However, do not misplace the gospel for being platitudes of “Merry Christmas!” The truth and invitation to faith is more than Starbucks cups adorned with Christmas trees and school bulletin boards with Santa on them. Because what we must remember is that the war on Christmas does not come from outside of ourselves and from the secular world. No, the war on Christmas in inside of us. Christians are constantly battling with belief in the truth of Christ’s incarnation and invitation to faith. We struggle to believe that we are to be free from struggling, that we should be granted acceptance and a comfortable life, that all of the world should believe like we do and bow to our cultural and religious preferences without concerning ourselves with God’s truth: that the gift of Christmas is not one of material comfort and acceptance. Rather, the gift of Christmas, the coming of God’s incarnate Son, is the promise of suffering and the resources – both comfort and consolation from God – for dealing with it. Christmas is the manifestation of suffering; God becoming fragile and weak. Constrained to a human body. And it should put an end to thinking that we are better than other people.
The heart of unbelief judges others for not believing like them. If you want to look at the fruit of your faith, look to how you talk about others, especially those who are not like you. To you slander them? Tell lies? Are you harsh? Unsympathetic? Mean spirited? Unloving? What Christmas is telling us is that we can never get to heaven on our own. God had to come here to us. And it should keep us from thinking that we’re better than others. The war on Christmas actually lies in the heart of the Christian: it’s in our perpetual unbelief that we need a savior to redeem us; that it is our own ability that gets us to heaven. This is why we shove Christmas platitudes and traditions down other’s throats through culture wars. It’s why we incessantly think that we’re better than others. And what Christmas ought to bring out of the Christian, what God’s incarnation should do to our hearts, is transformation. We should look at ourselves and ask how our prejudice, snobbery, moralism, and legalism can and should be changed by Christ. Who do you look down on? Who do you scorn at Christmastime? Is it yourself? Do you see your own unbelief and need for the incarnate Son of God? That’s the great gift that you’re given and invited to at Christmas: Jesus. Who’s in the business of redeeming and transforming. And those who believe will be blessed.