As anything else in our society, Christmas has lost its proper meaning. It has been uprooted from its religious terrain in the name of inclusion and pluralism, which is neither inclusive nor pluralistic as it denigrates at least one faith and culture: the Christian one. Of course, in a confused culture like ours, where faith and culture are intertwined in a marriage of convenience—that is, united as long as it is convenient—this becomes more complicated because it is not easy, even for Christians, to draw the line between what should and shouldn’t be done, what is the Christian spirit of Christmas and what is not.
The Christmas spirit of our age is encapsulated in the song “When a Child is born” which we are dumb enough to consider a Christian Christmas carol but which, in reality, speaks of the birth of any child, and moreover we forget that one of its verses says, “it’s all a dream and now”.
Thus, what I shall be trying to say boils down to the following: it is true that the world has lost the true meaning of Christmas, but, really and truly, we Christians are the ones to blame.
And, mind you, the problem is not simply because people sometimes use Xmas instead of the full world Christmas, arguing that, by doing so, we are removing Christ from the season. Let’s face it: the letter X has been used in reference to Christ as from time immemorial. I don’t think that our catacomb Christians can be accused of such atheism because they used the letter Chi in reference to Christ.
Nor is it simply because Santa and Frosty the Snowman are taking centre stage. I think it is subtler than that. Or, at least, they are no less guilty of our SWEET representations of the nativity scenes and Baby Jesus. And, with that, I come to the point: the problem is with the SWEET thing. “Isn’t it he sweet!” “Kemm hu ħelu l-Bambin!” (we have to say that in Maltese it sounds better). The problem with us Christians is that we have rendered Jesus sweet. We have made of him and his nativity something sweet. And, honestly, do you really think that there was anything sweet in that stable, except perhaps for the newly born baby, but than again, lying in a manger instead of in a sleeping cot? If anyone really thinks of this scene as sweet, he or she must be either a masochist or completely insane.
Of course, we may be excused because of our ignorance since most of us don’t know what it means to lie down on straw—most of us probably don’t even remember using straw mattresses—nor do we realise how unhygienic it must have been. And perhaps we haven’t been helped neither by the artists and cheap manufacturers who present a newly born smiling baby–don’t babies start smiling only after some weeks from their birth?—and with very unnatural postures—some of which even very uncomfortable.
Setting aside any artistic appreciation—of which, in all honesty, unfortunately I have none—by making sweet baby Jesuses, we have rendered him another Christmas character for children, and another useless decoration, and simply that. Whilst, in reality, when we contemplate the mystery of the incarnation, we should rather acknowledge the full horror of that scene in Bethlehem, as we contemplate the mystery of Christ crucified and lying with the dead on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Unless we stop looking at Baby Jesus as sweet and fall to our knees and adore that God who became man in everything like us, except for sin, and this means that he cried for hours upon end, needed to be cleaned and his diapers washed (no, there were no disposable ones, neither), needed breast feeding, a God who had to remain speechless for months and learn gradually how to communicate, a God who became a small babe in need of everything… Unless we realise all this, even we Christians would be losing the true meaning of Christmas and rendering it irrelevant even for others. Perhaps, like the Pharisees, we can be accused of shutting the kingdom of heaven against men for we neither enter ourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in (Mt 23:13).
Or even better, we can be accused that we are like Herod who wanted to keep the Son of God under his control because, let’s face it, although a baby cannot be controlled and its crying only to be endured, a baby Jesus would be easier to manipulate than an adult one who has no half measures and accepts no softening of his message. But there again, a controllable God cannot be a God worth believing in him. Or, as St Augustine puts it, si comprehendis, non est Deus.
And this misunderstanding of the Christmas mystery is also evident in many other ways. For example, we decorate windows and streets with fancy colours as the pagans do on festivals of light, without realising that these cannot be symbols of Christ, the light of the world, because he is a constant and bright light that sheds away all darkness.
Many workplaces are organising the secret Santa gift game, and we spend much of our energies in buying and giving out gifts, while forgetting that Christmas is less about giving and more about being open to receive: to receive God’s gift of his incarnate Son to humanity who, through his incarnation, death and resurrection, gave us freedom. This is the ultimate meaning of Christmas: freedom, salvation, new life, grace. It is only after we open our hearts to receive that we would be able to give. Otherwise we would have nothing really worthwhile to share, except for the usual useless things that people fake up to like and find useful.
We ourselves have made a parody of Christmas, so why should others take us and our Christmas seriously? We softened and sweetened Christmas so much that we rendered it irrelevant.
Faced with the secularisation of Christmas, we have been using slogans such as, “Jesus is the reason for the season”. But, as Hans Urs von Balthasar says when speaking about Rahner’s theory of the anonymous Christian, any “theology that develops from catchword principles is always a theology that levels out, mitigates and cheapens, and finally liquidates and sells out”, because there is no deepening of the truth. And maybe this has been our mistake: we emphasised too much the social and philanthropic aspect of Christmas at the cost of emptying Christmas of its theological meaning.