The real problem is that we are running out of Christians. And some of those who are left are having a hard time understanding what this means in a society of predominantly non-Christian people who continue to do strange things at certain times of year. Like Christmas. But it’s not really their fault. But when a culture that used to have lots of Christians starts to run out of Christians, the remaining Christians occasionally get confused about what’s ‘theirs’. Consequently, they occasionally embark upon crusades for Jesus that have very little to do with Jesus. Forcing people who don’t care about Jesus to bear witness to a festival that used to be about Jesus is not going to make those people care all that much about Jesus. It’s not as though we’re going to be flooded with testimonies of people falling to their knees in repentance over their toffee nut lattes because they saw a stable on the side of their cup. Neither are they likely to be converted by seeing the word ‘Christ’ instead of ‘X’ on their Christmas cards. True, there is power in the Name of Jesus, but it’s not a magic spell.
I presume we all know that.
This distinction is precisely true in how Christians should think of Christmas in our culture today. In actual fact, there really are two separate festivals going on at this time of year, and they have almost nothing to do with one another. Perhaps it was different once, but only because there were more Christians around to make it different. It’s not that the festivities of Exmas are to be despised in place of some holier, more pious festival. Exmas festivities – with all their delights – may still be delighted in by Christians, even as these festivities become increasingly ambiguous for the rest. It’s even ok to point to what these festivities used to mean when there were more Christians around to mean them. But they must remember that, for the majority who profess no living faith, Christmas simply isn’t about Christ anymore.
It’s not that he’s been totally banished. He might pop up for people here or there, perhaps in an occasional longing for tradition, perhaps in some vague thought that they really do want God to be real, perhaps in some childhood memory of a nativity play where they once played an innkeeper. But for the most part, for the majority of the culture, Jesus is no longer the star of Christmas. The Christness of Christmas is nothing more than a bare shell of a bygone era, the wrapping paper of a present long since opened, played-with, broken, and finally dumped in a black sack at the front of a charity shop. The charity shop, in fact, is quite an apt metaphor for how most people probably see the significance of Christ at Christmas today. The charity shop is there; it’s permitted to exist in the pantheon of the town centre, but it’s not quite there. It’s on the High St., but probably at the slightly dodgier end, nearer to the Ladbrokes and Poundland than the Jack Wills and Hollister, where all the ‘proper’ shopping occurs, in the cosy, caffeinated malls.
The message of Christmas was never meant to sit all that comfily in the coffee lounges of society anyway. If it was, the innkeeper would never have gotten his crucial role in the nativity play. If there had been room at the inn, nobody would remember the innkeeper (and he’d lose all his royalties for that famous line, quoted in the hundreds of thousands of nativities throughout the world ever since). If the birth of the Messiah had occurred in the inn, perhaps our latte-sipping, gun-wielding evangelist might have had a point. But the birth of the Messiah did not occur in the inn. There was no room for him there. And we shouldn’t be surprised when we find there is no room for him at Starbucks, or anywhere else in a public which does not profess faith in Christ. The rejection Christ faced at the inn was a foreshadow of the rejection he would face some thirty-three years later at the cross. We used to remember this. But every year the Church seems to think it can sneak him back in to the inn, through the back window or the cat flap, as though the innkeeper won’t notice. But if we know our nativity, then we know the innkeeper will always be saying his famous line, and there will always be no room at the inn for this Saviour. It was precisely because we made no room for him that he came in the first place. And though there are many today who still make no room for him, this only shows just how wonderful it is that he still makes room for them, if they would only put down their cups and hear his voice.
So let the world have its Exmas, let Starbucks paint their cups bright pink with devil horns if they like – it’s not going to change the fact that man cannot live on cups alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (cf. Matthew 4.4), and that man is not saved by cups alone, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
This is and always will be the central thing about whatever Christmas was ever supposed to mean.