Save Christmas from ourselves

Depiction of the Nativity at the birthplace of Christ now enshrined in the Basilica in Bethlehem

But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (Luke, 6.11)

It’s been going on for a long time.

I wonder if, by the time the Christmas edition of Position Papers gets to your newsagent’s shelf, hits your letterbox or your email inbox, will the secularist itching bug have made its annual appearance again?

Last year, among other locations, there was a laughable outbreak of it in the European Commission and the European Parliament, provoking a scratching frenzy, left, right and centre, in those very serious institutions.

It all began with a hamfisted attempt to keep references to Christmas out of the European Parliament. Apparently an email was sent some time in Autumn 2021, to the assistants of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from one, Adam Mouchtar, who is a special political advisor to the Parliament.

In the email titled “No Christmas greetings please,” Mouchtar asked the parliamentary assistants to persuade their MEPs not to send out Christmas greetings and wishes, describing such wishes as “spam” and  a “nuisance.”

Then, at the end of November, the European Commission itself released recommendations concerning Christmas. According to the proposal, EU officials were meant to avoid “assuming everyone was Christian.” The document’s authors explained that not everyone celebrated Christmas.

According to the EU Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, this was to ensure that everyone should feel appreciated in official EU materials regardless of  their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, faith, disability, age, and sexual orientation. How patronising can you get – and how ignorant can you be of the spirit of a celebration which has at its very heart a message of joy and good will to all?

But all this was enough to get a frenzy going and in the debate that followed no one covered themselves in glory with silly one-upmanship showing itself left, right and centre.  It was brought to an end mercifully when Margaritis Schinas, the Vice-President of the European Commission, took the floor and  said Dalli’s guidelines had been withdrawn. The email also sank without a  trace.

But Christmas is bigger and stronger and can resist the slings and arrows these minnows throw at it. It has been with us, we can imagine, since Mary and Joseph joyfully celebrated Jesus’s first birthday in Nazareth over two millennia ago.

One of the earliest recorded mentions of Christmas observance is from 129 AD when a Roman bishop decreed: “In the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall solemnly sing the Angels Hymn.” The war against it had already begun, of course, and in 274 AD, the emperor, Marcus Aurelius tried to blot it out with a rival festival – shades of our modern secularists’ efforts to institute a ‘Winterval’ for us. The Emperor’s feeble effort was to invent a Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, birthday of the Unconquered Sun in order to compete with the Christian feast of Christmas.

And so it went on  down through the centuries.

The English puritans, Cromwell and, the American puritans all tried to obliterate Christmas. We should be little surprised that the war against it persists right into our own time in the 21st century.

But are these paper tigers, straw men, decoys of the forces which have raged against the Christian faith since the Incarnation of the Son of God? Their destructive power is no greater than that of the destroyers of faith the poet William Blake wrote of in his wonderful three-stanza put-down of the scoffers of his time:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,

Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain;

You throw the sand against the wind

And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a gem

Reflected in the beams divine;

Blown back, they blind the mocking eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s particles of light

Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

The truth is that these battles may be a dangerous distraction from the real enemy of Christmas, our own shallow faith. As we look at the gross commercialisation, the hollowing out of everything that is important about Christmas, we should ask ourselves what we can do to save Christmas from ourselves?

Some of us may remember our parents helping us to cope with the real enemy of Christmas by bringing us to the crib in our local church and encouraging us to put our pennies, sixpences or shillings in the collection box which was placed there, reminding us that without giving, without that small sacrifice, our Christmas and the material gifts we were hoping to receive would be a sham.

Perhaps, in the face of the chipping away of the true meaning of Christmas in our culture – so much of which can really no longer be described as Christian – a new and genuine Christian response is needed if the miracle that it celebrates is to shine through again.

Pope Benedict XVI, while still the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, drew our attention to the response of the early Christians to the enemies of  their faith which they faced: when the first Christian community is confronted by dangers, difficulties, and threats, it does not attempt to work out how to react, find strategies to defend itself, or decide what measures to adopt; rather, where it is put to the test, the community starts to pray and make contact with God. 

They went to Sacred Scripture and, for example, he tells us, drew strength and resolution from the divinely inspired words of the second psalm, which celebrated the enthronement of the king of Judaea, but which also refers prophetically to the coming of the Messiah, against whom human rebellion, persecution, and abuse can do nothing:

“Why do the nations conspire, and the people plot in Vain? 

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Ps 2:1—2).

Ratzinger reminded us, and encourages us, where to look for a real understanding and the real value of what we celebrate and need to preserve:

“The psalm about the Messiah already stated this prophetically, and this uprising of the powerful against God’s power is characteristic throughout history. It is precisely by reading Sacred Scripture, which is the Word of God, that the community can say to God in prayer:

‘Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you did anoint, . . . to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place’ (Acts 4:27).”

We Christians, in addition to the treasures we find in Scripture, have the glories of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the miracle of Handel’s Messiah and the wonders enunciated in the simple but profound lyrics of something like the traditional Wexford Carol, to sustain us in our faith – not to mention the Mass of Christmas and the sacraments with which we surround it.

A desacralised society will never understand that because it has no understanding of, or commitment to, the sacred. The restoration of enlightenment through the sacred is the only way to rescue our world from the aberrations that are war and hatred, abortion and euthanasia, transgender lunacy and more.

When we look at the appalling choices made in our time by modern man, we see their painful corollary: strife, emptiness, suicide and murder. What the sacred and the eternal meaning of Christmas keeps reminding us of every year is that there is another choice and how beautiful it is. We must protect it from our own shallowness and drown the evils which seek to destroy it in the abundance of its goodness.

Perhaps we should just listen again to and contemplate the words of The Wexford Carol:

Good people all, this Christmas time

Consider well and bear in mind

What our good God for us has done

In sending his beloved son.

With Mary holy we should pray

To God with love this Christmas Day.

In Bethlehem upon that morn

There was a blessed Messiah born.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep

Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep

To whom God’s angels did appear

Which put the shepherds in great fear.

‘Prepare and go,’ the angels said

‘To Bethlehem, be not afraid

For there you’ll find, this happy morn

A princely babe, sweet Jesus born.

With thankful heart and joyful mind

The shepherds went, this babe to find

And as God’s angel had foretold

They did our saviour Christ behold.

Within a manger he was laid

And by his side the virgin maid

Attending on the Lord of life

Who came on earth to end all strife.

Good people all, this Christmas time

Consider well and bear in mind

What our good God for us has done

In sending his beloved Son.

With Mary holy we should pray

To God with love this Christmas day.

In Bethlehem upon that morn

There was a blessed Messiah born.

Originally published in the December issue of Position Papers.

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