By Elie Haddad
I have a confession to make. I don’t like the Christmas season. But how can someone who is supposed to be a mature Christian leader not like the Christmas season? Every year at this time I find myself having to reflect on this predicament and do a self-assessment. More so this year, having been asked to write the Christmas blog post, I am forced to do some serious reflections.
There are a few reasons why I do not like the Christmas season.
First, I do not like the way the season has been commercialized. It has become the season for shopping, for buying gifts, and for sales and discounts. You cannot even get to a shopping center without pushing crowds and fighting for a parking spot. It is a season that brings to the surface every bit of consumerism and materialism that is hidden within us. I find it interesting that the advertising for Christmas specials starts even before the advent season starts. It’s the advertisements that remind us first that Christmas is near.
As many people are coming to faith in Jesus Christ in our region from many different backgrounds, we are always asked the question about syncretism. Is there fear of syncretism when new followers of Christ try to maintain some aspects of their mother culture? This is a legitimate question. The ultimate challenge is to bring the Gospel message to the people where they are, in their cultural setting, without bringing foreign cultural forms with it, but at the same time without diluting it. But if syncretism is bringing together elements of different worldviews and mixing them together to the point of confusion, wouldn’t mixing together a worldly worldview and a biblical worldview be just as much syncretistic? Could it be that mixing consumerism and materialism with advent is simply syncretism?
Another reason why I do not like the Christmas season is the surge of social activity. I tend to be more of an introvert. I love being among people, but I prefer small gatherings where we can have meaningful conversations. Large public events drain me. During the Christmas season, instead of spending time in rest, restoration and reflection, we are expected to participate in so many “artificial” events. A Christmas celebration at church, a Christmas party at work, a Christmas gathering at home, and in every network of people that we belong to. We tend to attend these events not because they are meaningful but because of the social pressures. I find this to be daunting.
The third reason why I do not like the Christmas season is the symbolism that has come to define it. If we look around us, what is it that tells us that people are celebrating Christmas? What symbolizes Christmas? I grew up in a religiously-mixed neighborhood of Beirut. When our Muslim neighbors wanted to honor us they joined in our celebrations. They understood Christmas celebrations to consist of Christmas trees, Christmas lights and decorations, gifts and Santa, festive meals, and wishing us a Merry Christmas. This is how our neighbors thought that they were honoring us. This is what our neighbors thought was the most important thing to us in our Christmas celebrations. I find this to be a very sad reality.
Now, here is the paradox. If you walk into any of our evangelical churches in Lebanon during advent season, you get solid teaching on the meaning of Christmas, on Christ, and on the importance of the incarnation. Unfortunately, my Muslim neighbors do not go to church during advent season. The only way they can understand what Christmas means to us is by the way we live it and practice it at home. We go to our Sunday morning church service and sing Glory to God in the highest, and we come home and light up a tree. Then we go to the store in the afternoon and we are disturbed by the fact that we are greeted with Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. What does it matter anyway when our neighbors think that the reason for being happy or merry is merely food, drinks, and gifts? If all they see is empty symbols and activities, then that is what Christmas will mean to them. We all know that our actions speak much louder than our words. Yet living this out is always a challenge.
So, here are the big questions for me. What do we want our neighbors to know about Christmas, and how can we best demonstrate it? If Christmas is about the incarnation, about God becoming flesh, then how can we embody this in front of our neighbors? If Christmas is celebrating God with us, then how can we express that to our neighbors? If it’s about the lordship of Christ, about the birth of a savior, about a life lived to do the will of the Father and to serve and not be served, then how can we exemplify that?
Would it not be amazing if, as our Muslim neighbors watch us year after year, when they want to honor us during Christmas season and want to join in our celebrations then they would feed the poor and welcome the stranger instead of decorating a tree? Or if they would stand up for peace and justice rather than buy us a gift?
At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation. The Son of God “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (NIV John 1:14). We do not have to look far to find what that meant to Jesus. One of the passages where Jesus expressed the heart of his mission is found in Luke 4. Jesus read the following passage from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (NIV)
When Jesus finished reading this passage he turned to those around him and told them: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This is the passage that Jesus chose to introduce his ministry. It serves to demonstrate the radical inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God and the ministry of Jesus. And the Gospel narratives are rich in accounts exhibiting how Jesus lived out this fact, all the way to the cross. Could this be a good starting point for observing Christmas? Can these activities be at the center of our celebrations?
My prayer is that this Christmas will be a Merry Christmas, to the poor, and the prisoners, and the blind, and the oppressed. This Christmas can be merry because God’s in-breaking Kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus who wants to proclaim good news and freedom, to recover sight, and to set free, and because he chose to do so through his followers, those to whom he had given his Spirit.
May this be how our Christmas celebrations are recognized and remembered.