Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Bidden or Unbidden, God is Present" or "A Christian Defense of a Secular Christmas"

This winter, people across the country will gather together, exchange gifts, eat dinner with their families, and celebrate Christmas.

For a distressingly large portion of the population, this celebration will include no trip to any church, no reading of Luke, and no acknowledgment of the spiritual reason behind this holiday so near and dear to so many. They won’t hear a choir sing “Once in Royal David’s City” by candlelight. They won’t take communion with their family. They won’t have the good fortune of hearing a compelling message of peace on earth and the story of the birth of one who came to reconcile us to God.

It would seem that their Christmas would lack any presence of the Divine.

But bidden or unbidden, God is present.

There are those who say Happy Holidays to us, rather than Merry Christmas. Those who get a bit too into decorating the house with lights, or perhaps over-doing it with presents. Maybe they worry too much about having a massive spread on the table and are stressed about the looming credit card bills. They may seem to focus solely on the material aspects of this holiday.

But bidden or unbidden, God is present.

There has for several years, at least according to our friends at Fox News, a so-called “War on Christmas” has allegedly been raging. Legions of secularists have supposedly been shunning all spiritual associations of the holiday and have been returning to some form of modern Saturnalia. I haven’t noticed anything of the sort, but I’ll accept for arguments sake that they’re out there. These people who are “secularizing” Christmas are out shopping for presents and food to spend a special time with their families. While it may be true they do not intend to go to church or celebrate along side us as we welcome Jesus, are they not gathering in their own way with love in their midst?

And bidden or unbidden, God is present.

Around this time of year, it is not just devout Christians who increase their charitable donations. Many will give to Toys for Tots. The Salvation Army collects millions of dollars through their bell-ringers. People will gather with those they see only once a year and break bread together as a family. Good Cheer and generosity are commonplace. Tens of millions will give presents, living for the look of joy on the recipients face when just the right gift is given. People will gather together in an atmosphere of palpable love, a once a year ritual that offers comfort and joy.

And bidden or unbidden, God is present.

There are times of the church year that, while conducive to introspection and deep theological thought, can cause us to get caught up in the significance of worship and ritual and cause us to forget the importance of the presence of God in simple and everyday interactions. When a family gathers together and share their stories of the past year over dinner, laughing and loving, remembering those ties that bind them together, God, who is but love, is there. When a single mother who works two jobs plows through another 16 hour day to give her child the present he so desperately wants, God is there. When someone volunteers to distribute meals at the soup kitchen on Christmas Eve, God is there. When the troops in WWI stopped shooting at each other long enough to play a Christmas Eve soccer game, God was there.

It is easy to declare that the reason for the season is to have rears in the pews for an hour on Christmas Eve to sing carols and nod off through a sermon. It’s easy to demand that everyone say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” What is perhaps more difficult is to recognize the presence of God in these seemingly secular situations.

It is impossible to deny that at this time of year, people are more generous, more hopeful, more loving. Maybe it’s the scent of evergreen in houses, the presents people receive or the smiles that abound, but for a month people are happier. They more often think of others, serve more, and love more and for this I am especially grateful. Though this isn’t bumping up church attendance, it is showing people God's love, whether they know it or not. While many would condemn these rather secular celebrations as missing the point of the holiday, I am wonderfully happy that for a little while, people put the better angels of their nature on display, and can experience the presence and love of God, bidden or unbidden.

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