Three Christmases

American Christians can celebrate three Christmases. The most obvious is secular Christmas. In Pittsburgh secular Christmas has been officially dubbed "Sparkle Season." Sparkle Christmas begins soon after Halloween. Unless you become a hermit or find another way to escape the world, this Christmas is impossible to avoid.

Like a fish in water, our society is immersed in its sights and sounds.

Sparkle Christmas is mistletoe and holly. It is chestnuts roasting on an open fire and stockings hung by the chimney with care. It is eggnog and fruitcakes. It is office parties and too much eating and too much drinking. It is “White Christmas” and “Deck the Halls.” It is Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Ultimately, Sparkle Christmas is measured by sales and profits. Join the shopping frenzy at your local mall and it is easy to see why it can lead to physical and psychological exhaustion. Its upside is that it can be fun and bring pleasure. Its downside is that it can distract us and keep us from something better. Like a narcotic, it numbs us to our deeper needs. Sadly, this is the only Christmas some ever know.

The second Christmas we might call the “Christmas of Faith and Family.” This is the Christmas of candlelight, “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” It’s the Christmas of caroling and cantatas and children’s pageants where often everything that can go wrong does. It’s the Christmas of family gatherings and traditions.

This Christmas is rooted in the story of stories, the one about the angel Gabriel visiting the young peasant girl named Mary. This is the story of Caesar’s decree, and a virgin great with child who journeyed with Joseph to Bethlehem. This is the story about the manger where the Christ Child was laid; about shepherds keeping watch over flocks by night; about a heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will to all”; about the wise men from the East bringing their gifts. Its theme is love and its purpose is hope.

This is the Christmas that probably means most to us. This is the Christmas we long for, the one that stirs memories of former times, and the one we want to pass on to our children. Yet, as good as it is, even this Christmas is incomplete unless it leads us to the still larger truth toward which it points.

That brings us to the third Christmas, the “Christmas of Mary and Messiah.” In contrast to the warm feelings evoked by the Christmas of Faith and Family, the Christmas of Mary and Messiah is unsettling. This Christmas confronts us with the awesome meaning of God’s advent into our world. It wasn’t all sweetness and light. It provoked King Herod to slaughter the innocents.

We can imagine how those Judean mothers felt about that — those Rachels weeping for their children and refusing to be consoled. It is not only the Herods and Hitlers who despise Heaven come down, not only history’s despots who prefer a God who doesn’t meddle in human affairs. The truth is every one of us has reason to be unnerved by thoughts of standing in the presence of this deity — a refiner’s fire. Why? Because Heaven challenges our injustices. Heaven wars against our sins. Heaven intends to establish goodness and we are often standing in the way.

Mary’s son stirs fear in this world’s rich and powerful. That’s why one Central American government forbade the reading of Mary’s Song in public. Earthly tyranny cannot coexist with the God of Mary’s Song. Nor can anyone’s indifference toward those who suffer. The Christmas of Mary and Messiah turns commonly accepted religious assumptions inside out because God “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”

The Christmas of Mary and Messiah unmasks common political assumptions because God “puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of low degree.” The God of Mary and Messiah is no respecter of titles. Those invited to share his rule are not presidents, kings and prime ministers. They are the poor, the passed-over and powerless, the forgotten.

The Christmas of Mary and Messiah also reverses economic and social assumptions because God “fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends empty away.” God is the enemy of those who have wealth and hoard it, those who have food and will not share it, those who have influence and will not use it for all.

To celebrate the Christmas of Mary and Messiah is to work for a world where the hungry are fed, the oppressed are freed from their bondage, where everyone is blessed and protected, where everyone, born and unborn, is wanted and loved.

This, too, is what the Christmas season is about. The birth, life, death and resurrection of the Babe of Bethlehem give substance to our faith that Mary’s child is the Messiah who will come again. Then it will not be as “Infant holy, infant lowly,” but as the triumphant Lord of lords and King of kings. That’s reason for hope in a world like ours.

As you celebrate Christ’s birth this season, be sure to include the Christmas of Mary and Messiah.


William M. Paul is an honorably retired member of Pittsburgh Presbytery.