Several Years ago, while writing an op-ed column for the Lompoc Record, I wrote about the dilemma that faces so many in December, as Christmas dominated the horizon. It's a dilemma because many are not Christmas, and the month is experienced as one of exclusion. So, because the issues don't seem to go away, I re-share this piece for another season, so that our experience might be one of inclusion, rather than exclusion. I share this now, so we can have this in our minds as we enter this month.
Faith in the Public Square
December 4, 2005
December poses a dilemma for some, though this may come as a surprise to many. I find December to be a joyous and blessed season. I may complain occasionally about the commercialization of Christmas, but I still enjoy the lights, the trees, and the music, especially the carols. I really have no complaints.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus and it reminds me that God has drawn near to us in a baby born in a far off corner of the world. It is a festival that carries a message of peace and good will, of angel's songs and divine visits. Yes, for me, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
As joyous as December may be for me, I know that Jesus is not the reason for the season for all. There are those in our community whose history includes stories of persecution and even death at the hands of those who claim the name of Jesus. There are memories of exclusion and marginalization, especially among those who went through public schools in an earlier age. For Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is, and people of no religion, December isn't necessarily a moment of joy. Simply throwing a Hanukkah song into a mix of explicitly religious Christmas carols only seems to make the discomfort more obvious. Putting Rudolph in the crèche on the court house lawn does not make the crèche any less religious and therefore appropriate for a public square shared by all.
My Jewish friends have helped me understand how painful December can be. Yes, Jews celebrate Hanukkah during December, but this festival does not receive the same attention as Christmas, nor does it play the role in Judaism as Christmas does in Christianity. It is difficult to put on the shoes of the other person, but we who comprise the “majority” religious culture need to recognize the possibilities for exclusion. It is easy to say, well that's the way it is, so get over it. Such sentiment is neither compassionate nor in keeping with the message of peace and good will that Christmas is supposed to represent.
I have no intention of abandoning my celebration of Christmas - it is too important to my faith. I draw comfort from its promise that God came to dwell among us in the person of Jesus. I believe I am a better person because of the ways of God that are revealed in the person and teachings of Jesus. But then I am a Christian and that is how it should be.
Christianity remains the dominant religious movement in the United States and so it will be nigh impossible for Christmas, including its religious foundations, not to impact the month of December. That being said, it is possible for Christians to be sensitive to those who do not share this religion. We who are Christians can also take the opportunity to learn about the celebrations and festivals of our neighbors - from Yom Kippur to Ramadan, to Kwanzaa and beyond. By doing this we not only show sensitivity, we offer respect to those who are different.
If we who are Christian have allowed Jesus to be crowded out of Christmas, then we should make every effort to reclaim him as the reason for our celebration. We can make it a point to attend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. There we will sing the great carols of Christmas and we will celebrate the wondrous message of salvation and grace that is present in Christmas. At the same time, as a Christian, I hope that I will show my neighbor the respect I would want shown to me. If Christmas is about peace and good will (Luke 2:14), then it is incumbent on we who are Christians to live accordingly. If the greeting is happy holiday instead of merry Christmas, I know what is meant, and by showing respect and honor to those who do not share my religious faith I can offer a worthy gift to our community. The public square need not be naked, but it needs to be shared by all.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc.
December 4, 2005