By Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS
Christmas is a religious feast. When our forefathers came to this land, they celebrated Christmas in their churches long before they established America. Religious feasts play vital roles in the lives of people. People tend to form cultures and societies. Therefore, it is inevitable that Christmas has played various roles in the cultural and civic life of the society that our forefathers fashioned.
The relationship between religion and culture in which the religion lives, however, is highly complex. Both influence and are influenced by the other. Christmas infuses the culture with meanings and significances. It seeks to change the way people in the culture appreciate and act during their earthly journeys. The culture, on the other hand, adopts and adapts the feast for some of its non-religious ends. There is danger here. The feast is clearly religious in origin. The trustees of religion must carefully walk the delicate line of being "in the world, but not of the world." If they fail, then the religious meanings of the feast vanish, and a purely secular celebration ensues.
During my lifetime, I have witnessed at least three of these delicate dances between American culture and Christmas. Capitalism seeks to sell things. The American economy is often a direct reflection of the vibrancy of our consumer-oriented culture. One would not have to be a genius to see the expansive possibilities present within the Christmas story to market all kinds of items. It is clearly not the intent of the Christmas story to promote commercialism. Gifts and presents are only tangentially connected to the meanings of Christmas. But Americans have clearly adopted Christmas as a vehicle for celebrating the wonders of conspicuous consumption. This is an ambiguous and challenging entwining of the sacred and the secular.
American culture also loves to entertain. We are masters at creating spectacles that fascinate and intrigue us. The arts industries of our nation are second to none in their abilities to delight all the senses. The music, the literature, the dancing, the colors of our artists are a towering tribute to the genius of our people. Art has many levels and forms. Art is also susceptible to decay into pure sensationalism, exhibitionism, and commercialism. Christmas is almost always presented to us in artistic ways. It was first expressed as a story in the scriptures. Paintings and music attempt to capture a glimpse of the full meanings of this religious event. When art moves closer to its entertainment value and when entertainment is for a mass culture, Christmas is sometimes used in ridiculous ways. American culture came up with the chipmunks, the snowman, etc., all as ways to entertain a mass culture. This again is a cute but challenging mixture of the sacred and the secular.
Finally, we are now facing the extreme attempts of a culture that seeks to treat everyone in the same way. Each person must be respected as unique and of equal worth. Older notions of character, intelligence, and virtue are replaced by the single consideration of equality. Since individuality is seen as the distinguishing characteristic, diversity becomes the coin of the realm. This leads to peculiar notions of "political correctness." Religious people must now endure greetings of "Happy Holidays." Christmas cards feature pictures of buildings or cats. Everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or ethnicity, is entitled to a joyous celebration of whatever. The secular culture is slow to realize that when you celebrate everything, you are really celebrating nothing. The nihilism that is at the root of all these leveling ideologies is vaguely hidden from view by the virtuous veil of "equality for all."
Authentically religious people tend to take all of this in stride. Difficulties arise only when the religion tries to overwhelm culture (fanaticism) or when culture seeks to eliminate religion (secularity). In both cases, humanity suffers greatly. There are, of course, always romantic longings for purity. Many times the religious feasts seek to be quietly celebrated without much cultural focus. Sometimes religions leave the cultural world for periods of private religious festival behind closed doors or at remote monasteries.
Christians are especially blessed with Christmas. Reflection upon the meaning of Christmas itself serves as a powerful antidote to any utopian quest for purity. Jesus as God entered into the fabric of humanity. The sacred and the secular joined at a particular time and place in the history of this world. The very purpose of the religious feast is to highlight this mysterious commingling of religion and culture. An attempt to strip Christmas from its particular cultural embodiment would deny the very meaning of the event that we celebrate. For a Christian, it is always true that religion and culture entwine as one. Christianity must be "in the world, but not of the world." The Christian loves the world as it really is today, with all of its ambiguities and peculiarities. This is exactly what we celebrate in the Christmas story.
Let us then joyfully embrace the Christmas commercials for gadgets and toys, watch the films about reindeer and trains, open another card with smiling dogs, and enjoy the delight that our God finds in all this stuff. His unconditional love of our humanity is enough to redeem it all. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Rev. Bernard F. O'Connor, OSFS, is the third President of DeSales University and has served since July 1999. He joined the faculty of DeSales University, then known as Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, in 1974.
Press Release: Christmas by Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS | Posted on: 12/16/2004
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