Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Testify to the Light”
Have you heard about the war on Christmas? It’s the idea that Western secular society is out to stop any religious celebration of Christmas by banning the use of the word itself in the public sphere, by calling “Christmas trees” “Holiday trees,” and making sure that the carols sung in public places are appropriately secular. Some particularly right-wing Christians are calling it a “war” on Christmas, and they’re actively engaged in the fight to keep Christ in Christmas.
All this controversy about Christmas is an interesting development in the last few years because religious celebrations of Christ’s birth have always been held side-by-side with secular or pagan customs. Even the choice of December 25th for Christmas was not because Christians knew the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but because it seemed appropriate to hold a Christian celebration while others were marking the Winter Solstice. Things like Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, and Yule logs were incorporated into Christian celebrations from the Winter Solstice holiday called, “Yule.”
Back in the 17th century, there was another controversy about Christmas. Puritan Christians in England wanted to purify Christianity by removing elements that they viewed as pagan because they were not biblical in origin. In 1647, the Puritan-led English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting. They considered Christmas, “a popish festival with no biblical justification,” and a time of wasteful and immoral behaviour.
Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebrations. In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church also discouraged observance of Christmas at that time.
In the 20th century, Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis noted a distinct split between the religious and secular observance of Christmas. Lewis wrote a book called, Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus, in which he gives a satire of the observance of two simultaneous holidays in a place called, “Niatirb” (which is “Britain” spelled backwards).
One of the holidays, “Exmas,” is observed by a flurry of compulsory commercial activity and expensive indulgence in alcoholic beverages. The other, “Chrissmas,” is observed in Niatirb’s temples. The two holidays happen simultaneously, and their names sound similar, but they are clearly not about the same thing.
When I looked up the recent Christmas controversy online, I was amazed to read that at least since 2005, religious conservative groups and media in the U.S. have called for boycotts of various prominent secular organizations, particularly retail giants like Sears, Wal-Mart, and Target. They have been fighting back in the supposed “war on Christmas” by demanding that they use the term “Christmas” rather than solely “holiday” in their marketing and advertising.
I must admit that I was disappointed a few weeks ago when I went searching through dollar stores to find Advent calendars. There were lots of them, of course, mostly the kind with the chocolates inside. But the pictures on them were all winter scenes, reindeer, and elves… not a nativity scene anywhere!
But I don’t think that getting angry or upset about it is going to help. And if our secular society completely stops associating the winter spending-spree with Christmas, isn’t that kind of a good thing? Because we know that Christmas is really about celebrating the birth of Christ. We can do it on December 25th when others are celebrating too, of course. But we can also do it every Sunday when we gather here to give thanks and praise to God for loving us, and for loving the world so much that God became flesh and lived among us.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent and the Sunday of Joy. And our readings from Scripture today certainly do not call to go out into the world and fight for Christmas! What they should inspire us to do, though, is to testify to the Light!
That’s what John the Baptist did when various leaders from Jerusalem started asking him about why he was baptizing people out in the wilderness. “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” they asked him. And he said, “No. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
As the Fourth Evangelist so poetically explains, “John came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light, but his mission was to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
I think that Christians get off track when we get caught up in a controversy over Christmas in secular society. I think we get off track when we start worrying about whether the decorated tree at the mall is a Christmas tree or a holiday tree. And I think we get really off track when the idea of a “war on Christmas” distracts us from the real point of our religious celebrations.
Following John’s example, we need to stay focussed on testifying to the Light. We are not the light. Our churches are not the light. Christmas is not the light. But our mission is to testify to the Light – to share the joy that we have experienced because God has come into the world to save us.
Our readings this morning are a celebration of God’s power and love for God’s people. God has come to us. God has helped us. God has saved us. And with thankfulness and joy, we celebrate.
And we don’t need Wal-Mart on board to do our celebration right. We just need to draw close to God, and tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and respond to the good news by sharing God’s love generously with those around us and especially with people who are in need in this season. That is how we will testify to the Light who is Christ Jesus, our Lord.
One of the ways that we can share the joy and testify to the Light of Christ is through music. And today, Gillian and the choir and musicians have prepared some special music for us to enjoy. We pray that as they testify to the Light of Christ through song, and as you listen to the music and reflect on the readings from Scripture, that your hearts will be filled to overflowing with the gift of Joy.