For some years now, each new Christmas season is greeted with further outrages and attacks. There are all the usual incidents: banning nativity scenes, refusing to sing Christmas carols, taking away any references to Christ in Christmas, etc. There have been plenty of such secular and atheist pogroms against Christmas this year as well.
As but one example from overseas, Governor Christine Gregoire has allowed a sign which reads, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” to be placed beside a traditional Nativity scene and Christmas tree inside the Washington state capitol building.
Here in Australia plenty of examples can also be mentioned. In Brisbane, a Catholic priest has banned midnight mass because of complaints by neighbours. One news item puts it this way: “Parish priest Fr John Dobson of Caloundra on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast has cancelled Midnight Mass for Christmas this year citing nuisance drunks, ageing priests and sleeping neighbours. Fr Dobson hopes his decision to stop Midnight Mass will have little impact on the festive celebrations, the Sunshine Coast Daily says.”
One Queensland commentator, John FG McMahon, remarks, “Meanwhile untold numbers of Catholics in the Middle East, various African countries, Indonesia, India attend midnight Mass at great personal risk from roadside bombs, terrorist attacks and threats to burn down Catholic Churches. Many priests have to travel, in disguise and at enormous risk, over huge distances to attend to the spiritual needs of their flocks.”
It is not surprising that a world that put Jesus to death on a cross would also want to suppress the real meaning of Christmas. And of course the Christmas story and the Easter story are intimately linked. You cannot have the one without the other.
The reason Jesus came in the first place was to die for our sins, and reconcile us to God. Jesus was born to die. That was his mission. He was quite clear about this. On many occasions he told others of his real purpose on earth. For example, in Luke 24:25-26 he had to rebuke his own disciples: “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’”
And in Matthew 20:17-19 we find these words: “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!’”
So the message of Christmas is the story of a saviour born to die. Jesus came because we are sinners who are estranged from God. He suffered on our behalf, taking upon himself the punishment we deserve, in order that we can be made right with our heavenly Father.
Any Christmas story that does not include these key concepts – the incarnation, sin, death, judgment, the cross, salvation, etc. – is missing out big time. Yet that is often the case. Even in good churches the gospel message can be watered down, even at Christmas.
Let me offer an example found in today’s Sunday Herald Sun. There was a small article titled, “Religious leaders say”. In it four short quotes about the meaning of Christmas were made by three Christian leaders and one Muslim leader. The Mufti of course could/would say nothing about Jesus. He offered the usual platitudes about Christmas being an “opportunity to spread friendliness and peaceful relations, based on dignity and mutual compassion and understanding”.
But of real concern was what the three Christian leaders – a Catholic, an Anglican and a leader from the Uniting Church – said, or didn’t say. Incredibly, not one of them even mentioned Jesus Christ! None mentioned the essentials of the Christmas story. It was mostly platitudes along the lines of what the Muslim leader had said.
For example, the Anglican leader simply talked about the need to get along with one another. He spoke about a “new future of more sustainable living” and the need to “seek fresh connection with each other”. This is not only something any New Ager or secularist might say, but not much different from what the Muslim said.
And the Uniting Church leader was no better. He said “God energises us and we in turn can energise others by being helpful, prayerful and caring for our neighbours”. At least the ‘G’ word gets a mention, but again it is all on a par with any New Age declaration. Jesus does not get a mention at all.
The Catholic leader came the closest. He at least talked about God’s involvement in human history: “God’s coming is an act of love…” So he spoke a bit about the incarnation, which of course is the heart of the Christmas story. But a bit more detail, including the name of Jesus, would have been preferred. Instead, he said that at least we “do have each other”. Yes, but…
So three Christian leaders, and not one of them was even game enough to mention the name of Jesus Christ. All resorted to sloppy sentimentalism and feel-goodism. But none came close to proclaiming the true Christian message.
Of course we must give these three the benefit of the doubt. Having been at the receiving end of the media for many years now, there are two possibilities we can consider. One, they may have said more, but this was just an edited and shortened version of their remarks. Two, they may have been seeking to be sensitive to their audience, which would be mostly secular Australians.
If the first point is the case, then hopefully some substantial Biblical content was in fact given, but was sadly chopped out. If not, then this is quite disappointing indeed. As to the second point, well yes, we must seek to contextualise our message, and try to reach our target audience.
But if a Christian leader cannot talk about Christ at Christmas, then we might as well give the game away. Even hardened secularists would expect a Christian to say something about Christ at Christmas. There is simply no excuse for shying away from the Biblical message at such an opportune moment.
But as I say, Christmas is coming under attack and being sidelined all the time. We expect such things from those who hate the church and the Christian faith. But we do not expect this from those who are our Christian leaders. They should be boldly standing up for the Christian gospel, and not watering it down or marginalising it. That helps no one.
Michael Horton deals with all this in his new book, Christless Christianity. He laments, “I think that the church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups.”
Quite right. And if the Christmas comments described here are anything to go by, then the church in Australia is not in much better shape. As long as we preach a Christless Christianity, even at Christmas time, we will get along just fine with everyone. But as soon as we preach Christ and him crucified, then we will see feathers being ruffled, people getting angry, and the world turned upside down. And that is just what the world needs.