It is time to recognize that a new tradition has been added to Christmas. As surely as trees and lights and reindeer, December now brings Christian complaints about the secularization of the holiday. T-shirts and posters and preachers declare, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,” but their protests are drowned in the commercial deluge.
Christmas is ruled not from Jerusalem or Rome or Wheaton or any other religious center, but from Madison Avenue and Wall Street. In a revealing symbolic act, President George Bush two years ago inaugurated the season not, mind you, in a church, but in a shopping mall. There he bought some socks and reminded Americans their true Christmas responsibility is not veneration but consumption.
To some, Christmas also seems less Christian because many of the nation’s institutions are less and less willing to prop up the church. So some disgruntled believers—misguidedly, by my estimate—do battle with various courthouses that no longer allow creches on their lawns.
Sometimes outsiders glimpse our own dilemma more acutely than we can. Last Christmas, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman wrote an article in Cross Currents entitled, “Being a Jew at Christmas Time.” In it he observed, “There is nothing wrong with sleigh bells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas becomes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.” He went on: “In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine any more than Christmas itself is. The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back into the religious sphere once again.”
The rabbi is right on both counts. For Christians, Christmas definitely loses something—in fact, loses its core—as it gets more and more secular. But the solution is not to worry over courthouse creches: The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians. The church and not city hall is charged with witnessing to the gospel and remembering to the world the birth of Jesus Christ.
Here I want to suggest that Christians may best reclaim Christmas, indirectly, by first reclaiming Easter. Ours is an ironic faith, one that trains its adherents to see strength in weakness. The irony at hand could be that a secularizing culture has shown us something important by devaluing Christmas. In a way, Christians have valued Christmas too much and in the wrong way. I defer again to Hoffman, who writes,
Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas. Only in the consumer-conscious nineteenth century did Christmas overtake Easter, becoming the centerpiece of popular piety. Madison Avenue marketed the change, and then colluded with the entertainment industry to boost Christmas to its current calendrical prominence.
The Bible, of course, knows nothing of the designated holidays we call Easter or Christmas. But each holiday celebrates particular events, and there can be no doubt which set of events receives the most scriptural emphasis.
It is well known that all four Gospels build toward and focus on the events leading up to and including what we commemorate at Easter. One-quarter to one-half the chapters in each of the four Gospels deal with Easter events. Clearly, the gospel traditions see these as the crucial episodes, the events that identify and ratify Jesus as God’s Messiah. In fact, two of the four Gospels (Mark and John) have no birth, or Christmas, narratives. This means certain of the earliest Christian communities knew no Christmas (at least, not from their basic texts). To put it another way, we could be Christians without the stories of Christmas, but not without the stories of Easter.
The rest of the New Testament does not deviate from this pattern. The earliest recorded Christian sermon (in Acts 2) proclaims the Easter message of the world’s Savior crucified and then raised by Israel’s God. And what can we say of Paul, who nowhere speaks of Jesus’ birth, but everywhere heralds “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) and warns that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (15:14)?
To this day, Christian worship is marked by Easter more than by Christmas. Consider the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer). Baptism is baptism into Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Paul writes, “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4, NRSV). Celebrating the Eucharist, or Communion, includes rich themes drawing both from Christ’s passion and his resurrection. And of course, we gather to worship on the day of the Lord’s rising, so that Christians for centuries have thought of each Sunday as a “little Easter.”
The recovery of Easter as our pivotal holy day may best be served by a recovery of the Christian calendar, complete with the cycle of seasons that recall the gospel from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter and Pentecost. The calendar, like the gospel narrative, builds toward and pivots around the focal events of Christ’s passion and Easter. Recognizing the liturgical year is a large step toward seeing Easter as the main Christian holiday.
In calling Christians to return to the Christian calendar and return Easter to its rightful prominence, I am not implying that the events of Christmas are trivial or untrue. The nativity stories help us to remember key and glorious truths, such as the Incarnation. But surely Easter, and not the Christmas on which we modern Western Christians focus most of our attention, is the “fulcrum that balances Christian life.”
Christmas celebrated without the events of Easter overshadowing is too easily sentimentalized and secularized. A baby in a manger, angels hovering overhead, cattle lowing nearby—surely this idyllic world needs no redemption. A dechristianized Christmas is the ultimate Pelagian holiday; for at what other time of the year can we seem so certain that, merely with good feelings and good will, humanity can save itself? Annually, in fact, newspaper editorials and television commentators say exactly that, pleading that all the world needs is to spread Christmas cheer through the year.
But Easter—Easter is on the other side of a cross with nails, of confrontation and beatings and death, and then, only then, resurrection and new life. Christmas we can too easily teach to our kids (and ourselves) without blinking, free of strain or discomfort (provided we gloss, as we usually do, such details as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents). Easter is harder, for it requires facing death, the shortcomings of the disciples, the bloody lengths God must go to in order to rescue a confused, hateful world from itself.
All of this is to say we have worried about Christmas too much. Christians in an indifferent and even hostile society need to learn cultural jujitsu—to sometimes let the culture push at points where it wants to, and there collapse of its own momentum. This is especially important in our cultural situation, where resistance is so easily itself turned into a marketable commodity. T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” make the message itself into a consumer item.
So let the pagans have Christmas as their most significant holiday. Easter is the central Christian holiday. And when we are known for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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