A thinking man's Christmas

Ross Douthat has a really good opinion column over at NYTimes.com:
A Tough Season for Believers.” His piece begins:

Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

If we take a step back and ponder our traffic jams, heightened stress, overspending, and ridiculous expectations of family members, we might well laugh a bit at ourselves — or be drawn to despair. How have we missed the essence of Christmas? (Is it really about if some one says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” to us while we by things we can hardly afford to impress people with gifts we haven’t given much thought about?)

I read Douthat’s column while waiting for a prayer meeting this morning that never materialized. Or should I say, four of us then gathered to pray — I was privileged to join the Father, Son, and Spirit in adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and intercession.

Here are some of the themes I prayed:

  • A Christmas Eve visit to a church gathering for the cultural or nominal “Christian” will turn into something more than “just another form of midwinter entertainment” for them. (Our church anticipates perhaps as many as 2,000 adults this Friday who will hear the Gospel proclaimed clearly and hopefully with the Spirit’s power. We seek grace to recognize the moment and embrace God’s work.)
  • True believers would be astonished by the Gospel. Christmas is a great reminder of Light breaking into the darkness.
  • We (I) would be enabled to live in some simple truths: God is Great (we don’t need to be in control), and Good (look nowhere else for the ‘good life’), and Gracious (run to Him!), and Glorious (live for His fame over ours).
  • True believers would live in the ‘happy tension’ we embrace in following Christ — as sojourners, resident aliens who neither clamor for the upper hand in the culture war, nor wallow in self-pity on how America is under seige.
  • Meditating on Christ would lead us to joyfully give our lives in the tiny subplots we are dealt as minor characters in the Big Story. To live as rescued people desiring others to know Christ, embracing His whole truth in our whole lives, being people of grace towards those who disagree or are wayward. To live as intentional missionaries, studying people to reach them by God’s grace.

Two books are mentioned by Douthat (American Grace, and To Change the World), written from differing perspectives, but which essentially argue the same point, when applied to the Christmas season: “this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation.”

The conclusion of Douthat’s article gives us something to contemplate:

The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.

No one but us can put the Christ back in Christmas.

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