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Is There Really a Secular Christmas?

By Timothy P. O’Malley

A virtuous grumpiness has overtaken a certain kind of Christian. At least, we imagine that it’s virtuous. While the rest of the world has been consumed by a commercialized season, we Christians celebrate the true thing. We don’t just mark the 25th of December, the Nativity of the Lord. No! We commemorate St. Stephen’s Day, the feast of St. John the Evangelist, and the Epiphany. Christmas is 12 days of celebration, not the paltry 24 hours of peace after two months of endless ads featuring idiotic husbands and wives who buy their spouses a Lexus without asking.

We have the real thing.

Not so fast, says Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In a Christmas sermon he once gave, he warned his fellow Christians of thinking in this way. Yes, Christmas has been commercialized. We southerners would say, “No lie.” But be careful, he says. Remember that this urge to give gifts, even excessive gifts, captures something about the wonder of Christmas. The world shuts down to give gifts to one another! We say enough with consuming and producing. For at least one day, let us give.

For this reason, let me suggest a strategy of evangelization that might be more successful than decrying the decoration used on Starbucks cups or clenching our teeth against the ubiquity of wishing someone “Happy Holidays.”

Let us recognize that there’s no such thing as secular Christmas. Yes, there’s Christmas gone amuck. There’s Christmas that has been overtaken by a market economy more interested in profit and prestige.

But there’s not a secular Christmas. For at the heart of Christmas, no matter how bastardized, is a memory: we give gifts, because the Word became flesh. Because God dwelt among us.

God dwells among us.

Start here, I say. Rather than decry those Christmas-Easter attendees at our churches, welcome them with vigor. Instead of complaining that Christmas has become a hyper-commercialized event intended to generate profit for Lexus or Walmart or whatever corporation, let us invite people to remember that the primordial gift, the first gift, is a person.

Jesus Christ.

Yes, some folks may have forgotten this. Heck, we may forget this.

But at the heart of all Christmas celebrations is a wondrous mystery. You can see it, can’t you? If you look? We get together with our families, we give and receive. We eat, and we love one another (and fight too, but that’s the nature of families).

None of this is too far removed from the mystery of divine love revealed in that babbling babe born in Bethlehem. It’s the very human stuff that our Lord took up. He wanted us to know that the world is not a place of struggle, of violence or force, but a space where the totality of self-giving love is possible.

And here we are. In the late stages of capitalism. And still, for at least one day, the world pauses to remember (even when the world doesn’t remember) this birth. The mystery of the Incarnate Lord.

There is no secular Christmas. At least, if we continue to pause on this day, to shut it all down, and to spend at least 24 hours of the endless consumer cycle neither producing nor consuming.

But loving.

Here is where I would start a “new evangelization.” One that invited people to a deeper awareness that they’re already living the meaning of Christmas.

Now just dive deeper. Just a bit deeper.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

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