A hundred years ago this month, G.K. Chesterton wrote about the “new attack” on Christmas, comparing the “old Puritans,” who attacked “Christmas in its totality,” to the “new Puritans,” who attack it “in detail, and bit by bit.” His point, in part, was that while the old attacks came from real (if exaggerated and flawed) religious beliefs, the new attacks are more subtle, as most “modern liberality consists of finding irreligious excuses for religious bigotry.” Certain modern secularists are rabidly religious, even if their religious rites, so to speak, consist only of undermining or attacking the religious beliefs and expressions of others.
There are, as we know, plenty of cases in recent decades involving public and political battles over Christmas trees and Nativity sets and Christian hymns. Many of these cases consist of debates over church-state relations, as in the 2018 case of a Nativity scene in Woodland, Washington being removed from public land because someone complained about violations of “constitutional limits.” Such instances are often classic variations on “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” as most public officials are unwilling to fight a legal battle that is, for all intents and purposes, mostly lost.
Dig a level down and you find that church-state conflict, when it comes to individuals, is usually much more of a private-public divide; that is, almost all Americans are fine with Christmas, but an increasing number no longer connect “the most wonderful time of the year” with religious belief, nor do they care if that unraveling cord is further weakened. A 2017 Pew Research Center research survey found that while 90% of Americans — and 95% of self-identified Christians — say they celebrate Christmas, only “46% of Americans say they celebrate Christmas as primarily a religious (rather than cultural) holiday, down from 51% who said this in 2013…” Almost 60% say that “religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less in American society today than in the past, ”— and here is another layer to consider — “though relatively few are bothered by this trend.”
All that said, I have little interest here in decrying and analyzing the outside forces — the “new Puritans.” Rather, I want to reflect on how our own good intentions and perceptions of Christmas can sometimes become subtle (or even overt) obstacles to the radical and demanding truth about the Nativity of Jesus Christ. A number of surveys, as well as years of anecdotal observations — not to mention an occasional examination of my own many failings! — indicate that Christmas, for a vast majority of people, are about time with family, expressing love and affection for family and friends, and giving gifts to the same.
These are, I want to emphasize, wonderful things; these are necessary and worthy things. They are not, however, The Thing. Nor, in fact, would they exist or matter without The Greatest Good.
But, you say, isn’t that what we mean when we say, “He is the Reason for the Season?” Well, I would say the difference can be found in the response: “Yes, He is. But He is more. He Is the Season.” Ah, you say, but this is why we fight to “put Christ back into Christmas.” And a worthy battle it is. But I do wonder, leading up to what will be my 50th Christmas, if I myself really grasp that Christ Is Christmas? And that if I am not willing to ponder, contemplate, and grapple with the Heart of Christmas, my own heart will remain lukewarm and comfortably jaded?
The Heart of Christmas can be expressed in various, interwoven ways. Here are three of them, which get right to the heart of the Heart:
• “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
• “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
• “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
This is why the Word — the Second Persons of the Trinity — became man. This.
But … become God?! Make us sharers in his divinity? Make men gods? What sort of wild language is this? Is this pantheism? Polytheism? Mormonism? Something-other-than-Catholicism?
However, as some of you know, this is the language of Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy). Which is why these three quotes are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 460) and are, respectively, taken from St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas. This is the language of Scripture and the Fathers, for as we read in 2 Peter:
His [that is, Jesus Christ’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Pet 1:3-4; emphasis added)
This startling, astounding reality is described in various ways in the Eastern and Western traditions: as theosis, deification, divine sonship, divine adoption, and so forth. Thus, St. Paul tells the Galatians:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:4-6).
And St. John tells his readers, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1). This echoes what he writes in the Prologue to his Gospel, when he explains that the reason “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” was so that “all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:14, 12).
This is summed up wonderfully by Father John Saward in Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (Ignatius Press, 2002), who observes that “the saving purpose for which Christ the Lord is born among would seem to be threefold: … we might say that the Infant Word makes the truth manifest, makes the old new, and makes men divine.” (emphasis in original). Or, again, in the words of St. John: “And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:16-17).
Christmas makes the truth manifest, it makes the old new, it makes men divine. Or, at least it should! If we ponder it just for a moment, we see why Christmas must be dimmed, dented or damaged by the world, for the world — that is, those spiritual forces and those who serve them, unwittingly or otherwise — avoids truth, disdains the new life offered by Christ through the Holy Spirit, and wish to either ignore or warp what is divine.
Now, back to family, love and gifts. Again, these are all good things. But they all, in essential ways, point to the supernatural source and goal of all three, which is the greatest Good of all. Consider the very first paragraph of the Catechism:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life (No. 1).
The Triune God is the source of family; the Three Divine Persons exchange perfect and eternal love — and they call us into the Church, the divine family and household of God (1 Tim 3:15). We are made for both natural and supernatural families because we are made by and for God; we long for love because we are made by and for God, who is love (1 Jn 4:8); we enjoy the giving and getting of gifts because we are made to receive the greatest gift possible, which “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
Finally, having quoted from what I sometimes call “the most shocking paragraph” of the Catechism (No. 460), let’s finish with part of the (surprisingly) short section in the Catechism about Christmas:
To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little. Even more: to become “children of God” we must be “born from above” or “born of God.” Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us. Christmas is the mystery of this “marvelous exchange”: “O marvelous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity.”
Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us. Yes! There it is. I’m all for fighting political correctness and the dictatorship of relativism and the small-minded zealotry of overly sensitive skeptics. But, first and foremost, we must be partakers of the divine nature. We must embrace the fullness of being a child of God. We must let Christ form in us, so that the truth is manifest in us: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.