Commentary: Christmas big enough to include dual values

Though Dec. 25 is the date on which we commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is widely agreed that no one really knows the date on which he was born. As the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, it sometimes appropriated pagan holidays for Christian purposes. Many believe that the post-winter solstice date was selected to coincide with a pagan holiday that celebrated the time when solar days stopped becoming shorter and started becoming longer again – in effect celebrating the fact that the darkness would not swallow the light. In choosing metaphors, the Romans certainly could have done worse.

In early Christian days, the onset of winter did not inspire Rockwell-esque visions of warm fires and family togetherness. For many, winter meant scarcity of food and abundance of disease. People at that time did not have the same guarantees of warmth and plenty that we have today. For such people, the concept of salvation both in this life and thereafter had a particular immediacy to it.

Our modern Christmas – or at least the secular celebration of it – emphasizes feelings of well-being. Food and drink; lights and decorations; presents and celebrations; giving to charity and the drawing together of loved ones – these are all received as blessings by the largely comfortable society in which we live. It is hard to call that a bad thing.

However, much as the Romans appropriated pagan holidays for Christianity, the church of consumerism can readily appropriate Christian holidays for the benefits of their own high clergy on Madison Avenue. In this, we can almost come to believe that, rather than marking a holiday, the gifts and celebrations are the holiday, and that people who can’t or don’t give and receive the right gifts, attend the right parties, feel appropriately surrounded by loved ones, etc. are somehow lacking in their seasonal observation. Of course, this ideal is unachievable by design; if anyone ever achieved it, they would stop spending money, and in the church of consumerism, that is the only cardinal sin. But to many of us, the pressure toward that false ideal can leave us feeling like a bit of a wreck.

The thing is, feeling like a wreck is far more appropriate to the true Christian meaning of Christmas. Salvation exists only for people who need saving. People who have everything they want or need (to the extent they exist) aren’t likely to look to Bethlehem or anywhere else for salvation. Whatever our current circumstances might be, in the end, we are all a wreck. Our parties will end; our presents will be forgotten; some of our friends and family will move on, and all of them will ultimately die. At some point we will all confront the unyielding reality of our own mortality.

For myself, I think Christmas is big enough to accommodate both the more benign versions of its secular trappings as well as (for those of us who believe) the transcendent reality behind its sacred meaning. We find such tensions in Jesus’ own life: between the ascetic who fasted in the desert and the merry guest at the wedding at Cana; between his harsh condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and his gentle forgiveness of the adulteress about to be stoned. These are not contradictions or inconsistencies; they are just evidence that Jesus’ character had dimensions to it – probably far more than we understand.

I think the holiday that celebrates his birth can similarly accommodate different dimensions. All of us – believers and otherwise – can count our blessings; show affection through gifts; celebrate our friendships and be generous to others. Christians must also recognize the precarious and fleeting nature of our time in this world, and never forget our need for salvation. In counting our blessings, the greatest of them is the hope that, as with the season, the darkness will not swallow the light and that love can be stronger than death – hope that was found two thousand years ago in a manger in Bethlehem.