Little is said of the real meaning of Christmas - Catholic Courier

Little is said of the real meaning of Christmas

One of the greatest threats to the credibility of religious claims is the boilerplate banality that emanates from some religious figures and pundits, especially at Christmastime.

There has been much fulminating on cable television this month about perceived assaults upon cherished Christmas traditions in the United States, including nativity scenes and Christmas trees.

As the nation becomes more pluralistic — far beyond Will Herberg’s 1955 vision of a tri-colored religious landscape populated by Protestants, Catholics and Jews — it has, in fact, become increasingly difficult to sustain those longstanding traditions against closer legal scrutiny.

But the standard defense of those traditions never seems to get beyond the assertion that this is a “Christian” nation (“Christian,” that is, in the evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Protestant sense of the word) and that it was founded as such.

How dare these non-Christian late-comers to our shores question, much less challenge, our existing arrangements. Their options, it would seem, are either to adapt and accept, or go elsewhere, reminiscent of the love-it-or-leave-it defiance of the Vietnam-war era.

Little or nothing is said, however, about the real meaning of Christmas, or about the values and issues that were at the heart of the preaching and ministry of the one whom Christians call, especially at this time of the year, the Prince of Peace.

Jesus said that his father in heaven anointed him to “bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. …” (Luke 4:18-19).

He often couched this message in parables, as in the story of the Good Samaritan who comes alongside a man robbed and beaten and tends to his wounds, and then finds him a safe place to stay, after various Israelites had passed the man by (Luke 10:30-37).

Jesus’ point was not simply to underscore the importance of neighborliness and concern for others. If that was all there was to the story, Jesus would have made the Samaritan the injured party and the Israelite priest the one who comes to his aid.

As it was, no Jew would have expected hospitality from a Samaritan (see Luke 9:52-56). Thus, the parable challenged Jesus’ listeners to conceive the inconceivable, namely, that the despised Samaritan was “good.” This would require them to re-examine their most basic attitudes and values. The parable, therefore, was not merely instruction; it was a form of proclamation about the moral demands of human relationships.

Jesus drove home yet another point in his parable of the prodigal son, which was a direct attack on the kind of smug self-righteousness and unforgiving hardheartedness that too often characterizes his modern-day followers(Luke 15:25-30).

He repudiated not only the elder brother who resented his father’s benevolent reaction to the prodigal son’s return, but also the proud Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) and the discontented laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).

The hated publicans and prostitutes, he said, would enter the Kingdom of God before any of the self-righteous would (Matthew 21:31-32). Indeed, he condemned the latter for trying to shut the doors of the kingdom (Matthew 23:13), while failing to recognize that everyone is an “unprofitable servant” (Luke 17:10). God, he insisted, would exalt the humble and bring down the proud (Luke 14:11; 18:14).

Jesus made himself the friend of outcasts (Matthew 11:19) and did not avoid their company (Mark 2:16).

He urged the rich young man to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, and only then to follow him (Mark 10:21). It would be more difficult, he warned, for rich people to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25).

The call to discipleship was a call to the imitation of Christ (John 13:15). The disciple is to act as Jesus himself: with compassion, humility, generosity and self-sacrifice, and always in the service of those in need (Mark 9:33-50; 10:42-45). The disciple is to be marked by love for others (John 13:34-35).

For Jesus, following the spirit of the law was always more important than fulfilling its letter (Mark 7:1-16). “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

The father’s will is summarized for us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

No mention there of nativity scenes and Christmas trees.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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