Unnecessary Impoverishments Part 5: Our Own War on Christmas

When it came to decorating the outside of our house for Christmas, I don’t think my dad even qualified for the label “minimalist.” Our front door had lights on either side of it, and come December he’d change one to a red bulb and the other to a green bulb. When I was in high school and suggested we string lights around the two windows at the front of the house, he told me I could go buy some lights with the money I was earning as an organist, and put them up. I did just that, while he changed those two bulbs.

In late November this year, I was driving past a Roman Catholic parish campus, and noticed on their outdoor sign that they were having Breakfast with Santa—on the First Sunday of Advent, running simultaneously with the Sunday morning Masses.

I found myself wondering if this wasn’t a sign of being in the middle of a very long-term and large-scale reversal of inculturation, in which the symbols and values of ecclesial Christmas that had flowed into the surrounding culture were now flowing back in, though in an altered form. Or maybe this was the next of any number of extra-ecclesial things (Sol invictus, evergreen and trees, and others) that have been baptized for ecclesial use at Christmas. While Santa does, indeed, have origins inside the church, I don’t believe that most folks at that breakfast were making a connection to a fourth-century bishop any more than they were connecting the SUVs they drove to the mall with Judah Ben-Hur’s chariot and horses.

However, this secular infiltration isn’t the biggest “war on Christmas” (or Advent) being waged. The really impoverishing war on Christmas that we wage is, I believe, connected to an increasing tendency to celebrate mostly the surface details of the holiday, as the surrounding culture does. We focus largely on texts that re-present the details of Luke 2—with occasional incursions by the star or magi—to the extent that other Gospel lections are consistently censored (I know this is permitted, but that doesn’t make it a good thing), and proper Gospel Acclamation verses ignored. The true raw poverty of the manger and the scandal it was meant to be have been sanitized. (Go spend an hour next to the hay trough in a barn, and imagine a baby lying there.)

For all the expense and exuberance of our liturgical Christmas celebrations, in my view a true, challenging, and deep plumbing of the depths of the mystery of the Incarnation doesn’t occur all that much. Aside from passing references to the Passion (born that we no more will die), direct and sustained correlations between the Incarnation and Passion are rare. Hymnals have suppressed “nails, spear shall pierce him through” in the original text of What Child Is This, and unless you go to Mass on a December 28 weekday, you won’t hear the account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

To celebrate only the external and the exceedingly familiar is a minimalism nearly on the order of my dad’s two light bulbs. No matter how bright, or loud, or shiny, or sweet, or comfy we make a celebration that remains largely at the surface details, it will be a river “a mile wide and an inch deep” (an expression from George Bernard Shaw I’ve come to love).

I realize that there are large networks of pressure placed on parishes (especially those with schools) during December, and the enormity of the holidays in the surrounding culture can be suffocating. Even though these days have origins in Christianity, there are aspects of them that should inspire us to stand up and be as counter-cultural as we may be at other times of the year.

While I’m not proposing a replacement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (cause for dismissal in most places I’ve been a musician) or other beloved carols outright, a look at some of the other texts provided for us by the Church in the Lectionary, Missal, and Graduals will provide a rich source for truly helping those we serve look beneath the externals and encounter the profundity of the mystery we celebrate.

We can empower a new discovery of the indignity God endured in a birthplace, the uncertainty of a refugee’s life in Egypt, the fully human facet of a divine Word who became flesh to grow, who got hungry and tired, who needed to be changed like all babies, whose divinity in flesh learned to walk and run, fell down, got bruised, cut, scraped and healed, who came to wrap his tongue around food, laughter, words, and prayer. If we truly believe that this is a Magnum Mysterium, now might be the time to start looking at fresh approaches to incorporate when and where we can, to begin enlarging the experience of this wonder next Christmas.

Lest we forget—when we celebrate the Magnum Mysterium of Holy Week, Triduum, and Easter, we can begin searching therein for bridges to be built during our next season of Incarnation.

I learned long ago that to question or challenge the way we’ve always done Christmas quickly causes the monikers “Grinch” or “Scrooge” to be bestowed on you—showing not only the outsize influence of Dickens and Dr. Suess (and their stories with little or no direct connection to Christ) on the Christmas imagination, but also our increased tendency to mistake some sort of good feelings for belief in the Incarnation or faith in Christ.

At the outset of this series, I made mention of having learned the term “unnecessary impoverishment” from Fr. Lucien Deiss. Like Fr. Deiss, my use of the term, and the critique of the behaviors causing it is driven by a belief that the vast riches and treasures (two terms used by Vatican II in the liturgy constitution) of our heritage continually await our ongoing search for them, and our addition to them. They are there for our use, waiting to be discovered.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for drawing our attention to the texts of Christmas carols–both past and present versions! I have been reflecting on the texts of some of our carols–in particular the verses we don’t often sing together congregationally–and rediscovering the deeper and wider “Christmas lexicon” as you describe, which includes frightening suffering, dirty mangers, and the difficulties of simply being human. Thanks for this reflection on the Incarnation.

  2. I appreciate this piece. We continue to carry the baggage of the old Roman war on Christmas that netted us four liturgies for the feast. What to do with some delicious Scriptures for proclamation and song (I think mostly of John 1:1-18 which falls on far fewer ears that last Mass on Christmas morning.) that we never have time to explore with our whole communities.

    Your comment on “passing references” echoed something of a social media discussion I seem to have every year with my hard-core Catholic friends who complain about the Lowry/Greene composition so often requested, and worse, enjoyed. At least our Protestant friends didn’t shy away from connecting a singer seeking a relationship with the Blessed Mother with the public ministry, miracles, and Passion of the Lord. Sadly, what gets noticed too much is the suspect theology–how dare those heretics pretend Mary was totally ignorant of the future. Like Luke 1:46-55 never happened.

    I suspect we, even some of the seasonal celebrants, would welcome more depth in the Church’s texts on Christmas. The question many of us confront: Since I have to pick one set of words and music, which one is best?

  3. Dear Alan. Thank you for your contribution to the Christmastide repertoire “Come, Sing a Home and Family” (Worship 4th Edition, #439). It is didactic, inspiring, and definitely challenging — “Her journeys to the well foretold / to Christ the reign of heav’n” made me stop over this dense meeting place of scripture and theology.

  4. As John Shea has shown, Scrooge and the Grinch and other “secular” Christmas themes can be used for spiritual and religious purposes.

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