It is commonplace at Christmas for some Christians to get uppity. You know the story,
- Keep “Christ” in Christmas.
- Jesus is the reason for the season.
- It’s not Xmas, it’s Christmas.
The worry is, of course, that Christ is being kept out of Christmas, that Jesus has somehow been forgotten. Or maybe it is that the otherwise hysteric commodification of this season is missing some sort of religious legitimation. (i.e. “Shop by all means but don’t forget the reason for all of this shopping.”)
In this paradigm the problem is, essentially, secularisation. The problem is the secular structure that exists, no longer needing this particular Christian understanding of Christ in its Christmas. It appears not to matter that this culture has no need for this deus ex machina or onto-theology – both of which no longer makes sense as a way of framing God. But more fool secular culture because there could never be, for this Christianity, a problem with the theology!
What then is interesting is that for these Christians, the wider culture’s way of celebrating Christmas is presented as utterly futile, if not worthless, because this onto-theology doesn’t make sense to it. The religious (or the cultic) is asserted as vital to any practicing of Christmas whatsoever (even if nothing changes except that Jesus gets his name recognised). What Western culture needs, or so this version of Christianity thinks, is a new temple curtain, as God and/or Jesus are/is presented as removed, distant, not present, or as requiring some vital degree of piety that is missing from people generally (except them).
As such, the solution to Western culture’s being on the wrong side of the curtain is to make everyone conform to this particular kind of Christian thinking. The thought being that all that is positive and good about Christmas – joy, peace, giving, cheer, gratuity, abundance – isn’t at all positive unless Jesus is present.
This is, perhaps, exactly what Bonhoeffer railed against when he spoke of a need for a “religionless Christianity,” or the need for “Christians to belong wholly to the world,” or “Christianity creating problems so it can present itself as the solution.” (Those last two are paraphrases.)
When these Christians want Christ back in Christmas, we could say that the incarnation is countered. God is presented as holed up in heaven (or wherever) with Jesus, a little bit bitter that Earth has forgotten them both again (silly Earth!).
The incarnation, by contrast, utterly shatters this paradigm.
John D. Caputo writes,
The commonplace complaint that the secular world has taken Christ out of Christmas and transcribed it into “Happy Holidays” is to be viewed as still another success on Christianity’s part. For now the Incarnation, a theological doctrine accepted in a strong and robust form only within confessional limits, has been translated into a popular secular holiday in the West, in which the spirit of generosity and goodwill among all people prevails. During the “holidays” this attenuated if wispy “spirit” of love becomes general among humankind, which is what in fact this doctrine actually “means,” its application in the concrete reality of lived experience. The tolerant, nonauthoritarian and pluralistic democratic societies in the West are the translation into real political structures of the Christian doctrine of neighbour love.
It seems rather accurate to claim that Western society is essentially “post-Christian” (or secular). Now this should not be confused with forgetting, abandoning, or ditching Christianity but with having been through it, having learnt from it, and having been changed by it (for good and bad). As such, our purportedly secular culture could rightly be seen as having learnt to generalise and open up the love, joy, peace, mercy and generosity at the centre of Christianity, and its Christ, to all.
As we see in the gospels the love, grace, acceptance, feasting, joy, peace, mercy, forgiveness that Jesus embodied to “sinners,” charlatans, Gentiles, people of disrepute, outcasts, is to be seen as the revelation of the posture of God incarnate to the world. God, then, does not affirm humanity’s pre-existing religiosity, piety, good behaviour or willingness to recognise deity in some way (particularly through keeping it “in” a season) but humanity’s very “secularity.” God affirms the world’s worldliness and demonstrates in Jesus that God belongs wholly to the world.
This is where the incarnation leads us. In a truly radical sense the incarnation is most testified to when those virtues at the core of Christianity are seen embodied in all people, regardless of creed.
The incarnation, God’s unconditional embrace of the world witnessed in Jesus’s very humanity, is arguably then the communication that Christ does not and is not concerned about keeping himself in Christmas! The point of the incarnation is that the world “gets,” understands, internalises, the embrace of God in itself and in turn learns to articulate and embody that embrace to others.
The God who identified in general with “all flesh”/sarx in the carne/meat/incarnation, in turn desires that that joy, peace and love be generalised in “all flesh”/sarx – and this divine desire solicits us through that carne/meat/incarnation, so that we may be “reincarnations” of it.
All of this in turn communicates the risk in seeing the incarnation as a single, isolated, event. Long after John’s prologue (John 1), John has Jesus speaking with the Disciples and has Jesus state that the Paraclete would come to the Disciples and that with this Paraclete present in them they would go on to do even greater things than Jesus ever did. Is this not another, or the telling of an ongoing, incarnation? The point of the incarnation is that all people become incarnations of God!
The incarnation, then, is not something true for Jesus alone, it is something God can be seen as desiring for all people, that they would incarnate God’s intentions and will for the world in their very own bodies. Christianity testifies to one, Jesus, who did this uniquely and has spent the last two millennia imbibing in the West a faithfulness to this person. Christmas then as it is practiced in the 21st century could be seen as one such example of when the incarnation (or a reincarnation) may be said to have been made general (taken place).
Perhaps then, in the most ironic sense, the “Keep Christ in Christmas” riff actually removes and abstracts Christ from Christmas. In this way of thinking Christ is detached from the world he loves and affirms, holed up and made to be lonely in misplaced religiosity and the world is deemed incapable of doing anything worthwhile.
Maybe it is in the very act of refusing to “Keep Christ in Christmas” that we actually maintain and share in Christ’s unconditional presence in and affirmation of Christmas and the world? May it be that this supposedly “secular” Christmas has internalised and made general some of the deepest and significant elements of what Jesus witnessed to – peace, joy, hope, and love?