By Robin Allan Jones
I heard on the radio the other day—on NPR, as a matter of fact--that someone went to a school Christmas concert, and all the carols had to do with snowmen, and bells and what not, but utterly no mention of the birth of Jesus, because the school didn’t want to offend anyone by utterance of anything religious—and the very people who might think this was a good idea were wondering why it wasn’t really a very good concert.
Switch your radio to AM talk, and you can hear from the religious right: For them saying “Merry Christmas” or erecting a nativity scene is a political statement. “Jesus is the reason for the season,” they say.
When someone says “Jesus is the reason for the season,” it usually comes out with the kind of condescension that makes you want to go home and take a bath in culture. Generally speaking, however, the best Christmas carols are the ones that do mention or have to do with the birth of Jesus. They were written by accomplished composers, they’ve stood the test of time, and they seem to all contain a needed sense of hope. A concert that’s all winter imagery and jingle-bell rock is like a banquet of Big Macs: All bloat and no nourishment. And gee, I hate to be the one to break it to all the mavens of political correctness, but you can’t completely escape, expunge, or censor religious symbolism. Sleigh bells and silver bells hearken to church bells, and snowmen are ancient religious symbols. They’re pagan symbols, but much of our Christmas imagery is.
On the other hand, the baby Jesus as a political statement? Who needs it?
As Episcopalians, we honor and respect with compassion followers of other faiths and people who don’t profess faith or follow mainstream religion, but in attempting to put that ecumenism into practice, many of us fall in to the trap of uttering “Happy Holidays.” Saying “Happy Holidays” is about like saying “Have a nice day.” Silence would be preferable.
Here’s the good news: Jesus spoke to all humankind. He wasn’t speaking just to Jews, and Christians hadn’t been invented when he was around. Christmas isn’t just for Christians. Christmas is a joyous time for all of us to remember our humanity. It’s a time of special generosity, and for Christians it’s a time of hospitality. Around Christmas, people who otherwise don’t attend church often become curious about what goes on in churches; they become intrigued by the mysteries that have become commonplace for us, and the rich symbolism of Christmas is inviting—even tantalizing. And so Christmas is a time for us as Christians to throw our doors and our hearts open in welcome, not with the intent of conversion but in the spirit of brotherhood and in sharing the joys that we have found in faith.
When we say “Merry Christmas” we sincerely mean “Joy to the World.”
Robin Allan Jones is a stagehand, scenic artist, and theatrical designer in Seattle. A member of St. Paul’s since 2005, he serves the parish as a liturgical minister.