Saturday, December 1, 2012
Just Don't Slug Me
Christ is come! Christ is Risen! Christ will come again! If you're not immediately turned off, I hope you read on.
The above statements, in a time long gone by, were commonly used as salutations among early Christians. In fact, it's easy to imagine the very earliest of early Christians offering them to one another in hushed, nearly whispered tones, after sidelong looks over their shoulders to ascertain that no Roman authority overheard them.
Once the Roman Empire was under the rule of Constantine the Great, Christianity became the official religion of state. Not only did this have the effect of eliminating the hole-and-corner nature of Christian recognition, it had the effect of wholesale conversion to Christianity among those previous pagan citizens and leaders who found it a)expedient, b)desirable, or c)politic to share the same beliefs as the fellow in charge. After all, it was a place and time when pleasing the fellow in charge meant survival.
Now, despite the fact that we live in a place and time of religious plurality here in the United States, and by constitution have no state religion and no constraints on the freedom to practice or not practice as we see fit, in some ways we operate as if there were almost a social religion, a quasi-Christianity that we must embrace in order to be "good" Americans. Let's sort this idea out a bit.
To help us, let's go back to the language of greetings. Let's pretend.
If, during the pre-Constantinian times of the Empire, I had met you in the street I might very well offer you a surreptitious "Christ is come!" and you might have reasonably been expected to respond "Christ is Risen!" and we may have reassured each other "Christ will come again!".
Assuming we escaped being fed to lions and survived the intervening centuries to find ourselves in the New World, we might have wished each other a "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Christmas!" instead.
In a very divided red and blue, post-presidential election environment, many Christians have noticed, some with a sense of loss, and some with outrage, the use of greetings like "Happy Holidays!" or "Season's Greetings!" has all but replaced "Merry Christmas" in recent years as the United States' commonly used salutation. Some have grumbled that we've taken the concept of politically correct language too far. Others mount strident social media campaigns to "Keep the Christ in Christmas", taking umbrage at the most innocently wished "Season's Greetings." On the other hand atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and all the rest are subjected to acknowledgement rooted only in the social religion of the land.
Perhaps some folks haven't noticed, but Christmas was conscripted by culture a long, long time ago and has been as it is now a whole red and green season much larger, grander, and more filled with marshmallow and electronic toys than ever before. Consider this example of how it's manifest in the world: a couple of years ago a graduate student from Japan stayed with Sean and me while doing research at UCD. His wife and two children came to visit during the Christmas holiday, and the children were worried that Santa Claus wouldn't find them in America on Christmas Eve. He had me write them a letter (unknown handwriting, USA postmark) to reassure the kids that their Christmas would happen wherever their family was together.
Neither the man nor his wife are Christian.
People all over the world also put up trees, hang lights, visit family and friends, and do charitable works at this time of year in the name of Christmas even though they are not practicing Christians. I concede the argument could be made that if they're not into the whole "religion" thing, then why should they be celebrating the at all? Why should they share in the warm sentiment, the feasting, the bonhomie?
The same might be asked of those who want to keep Christ in Christmas but never darken the door of a church on any other day of the year. But that's another day's blog.
So if your hair isn't on fire by now, here's one more question: why should anyone want to miss an opportunity to convey goodwill and sincere well-wishes no matter what that other person practices or believes? As I hope we learned from this election, there is an amazing, beautiful diversity of people in the United States.
Can we not use this season, by whatever name it has become known, to share with our fellow humans the joy, peace, and overwhelming love that our Creator has for us all? It seems evident that in a world that suffers as much as ours does, where folks all across religious lines suffer the same deaths, the same wars, the same disease, the same defeats, the same alienation, we don't have the luxury to parse words. The gift of Christmas is far bigger than that.
So if someone meets you in the street and says "Happy Holidays", take it with a measure of grace. Know that the eternal divine is in both of you, and say whatever is real. Convey goodwill and sincere well-wishes if you mean them; you'll find the words.