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Does Christmas Matter?

Does Christmas matter?  Someone shared a comment about a recent blog I did that I really wanted to agree with.  They picked up on something I said in that blog about the centrality of love and emphasized that, with all that is happening in the World today, it is more important than ever to focus on loving one another.  But not just loving one another.  Loving one another with a radical love, meaning even loving our enemies.  We should love so radically, so unconditionally, they said, that we don’t allow anyone else to define someone or some group as our enemies.  We should love so radically, so unconditionally that we no longer see anyone as our enemy.  They punctuated their remarks with the thing I really wanted to agree with. 

If we love this radically, this unconditionally, they concluded, it will really turn us toward the Divine, whatever Name you give it.  In other words, if we love this way, we will open ourselves to the Divine because this is the way God loves: Radically.  Unconditionally.  This is the Divine Nature.      

Personally, I find this sentiment incredibly attractive.  In fact, it happens to be my bias, my confirmation bias, if you will.  With all my heart I want to believe that this is ultimate reality.  That it doesn’t matter what Name we give to the Divine so long as we are really turning toward this kind of a God.  That, deep down, this is what the different religions of the World are all pointing toward, and thus, there is no need to argue about which one is true because all of them reflect, albeit in different ways, this same divine reality of unconditional love.

And I would believe it with all my heart—if I could.  But I can’t.  Here’s why: Imbedded in this comment, imbedded in this sentiment, which is widespread in our culture, is a huge assumption.  The assumption is that it is perfectly self-evident that the Divine, whatever Name you give Him/Her/It, loves this way—unconditionally.  I can’t count the number of social media posts I’ve seen religiously repeating this very sentiment as if it should become instantly obvious to any old dolt who doesn’t realize this truth already the moment they read said post.  Even most people who aren’t sure whether there’s a God—Agnostics—along with most of those who are sure there isn’t a God—Atheists—are sure that if by chance it does turn out that there is a God, then the Divine Nature can be nothing less than this kind of all-embracing, all-accepting, all-inclusive love. 

The assumption isn’t just that it’s self-evident that all religions ultimately point to this kind of an unconditionally loving God.  The assumption is that it is perfectly self-evident that this is the Divine Nature.  But it’s not.  Not by a longshot.  It’s not self-evident at all. 

But don’t take my word for it, a person who happens to be Christian.  Take an Agnostic’s word for it, someone who thinks the supernatural claims of Christianity are a myth.  Someone who also happens to be a highly regarded historian, specializing in ancient history.  Tom Holland, the author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, is no Christian apologist.  But in this book, he demonstrates that, purely as a matter of historical record, the values we prize most in our modern American culture, values that we assume are perfectly self-evident, values that have worked their way into our consciousness and our constitution, with language to this effect, values like the intrinsic dignity, worth, and fundamental equality of each and every person, with their corollary absolutes of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion, and the preeminence of virtues like charity, mercy, championing the underdog and protecting the weakest and most vulnerable in society, aren’t self-evident at all.  They never have been. 

They only appear self-evident to us because of the way the “Christian Revolution”, as Holland terms it, remade the world, indelibly shaping the way any culture that has been influenced by Christianity thinks.  So indelibly that, even long after we have forgotten their source, they have left their mark.  By the way, Holland is quite critical of Christianity, even harsh, where it has fallen short of these values—which is a good indication of his objectivity.

As Holland so brilliantly lays out, these values are unique to Christianity.  They are based squarely on the conviction that, on that first Christmas day, God became human—even if Jesus’ birth wasn’t actually on December 25th!  (It probably took place in the Spring)  These values, which compel us to view unconditional love as the highest good, are based squarely on the conviction that the Word became flesh.  That the Lord of all Creation walked among us, clothed with stunning humility, not seeking to be served but to serve.  That the Source of the Universe, the Power behind it all, sought out the most marginalized.  That the Most High identified Himself with “the least”.  That the Holy One showered mercy and grace on the most undeserving of sinners.  And that, in the end, the Living God died the death of a common criminal to give His life as a ransom for all, rich and poor alike. 

No other religious tradition points to this kind of God, to a God who goes to this extent, to the most extreme measures, to such radical divine mercy and grace, to such unconditional love.  Where these ideas find their ways into other religious traditions or worldviews, such as the Bahai faith or New Age movement, they have been borrowed from Christianity, and they never retain the same radicality.  Nor can they.  Without the conviction that God Himself took on human flesh and gave Himself so completely in perfect love, the Divine Nature can’t be understood to approach the same breadth, or depth, or heights of love. 

Even if, like Holland, you think Christianity is largely a myth, it is a historical fact that, prior to Christianity, the understanding of God as unconditional love wasn’t self-evident.  It wasn’t evident at all.  We owe this understanding to the Christian revolution.  We owe it to Christmas.   

This past week, the Canadian Human Rights Commission argued that Christmas is “discriminatory against religious minorities”, declaring it to be evidence of Canada’s “colonialist” religious intolerance.  Whatever you make of this, I don’t doubt that the members of the commission’s motives are good.  I don’t doubt that they are seeking to protect groups that have historically been marginalized.  I don’t doubt that they are trying to insure that these vulnerable groups aren’t made anymore to feel excluded. 

But I wonder if the members of the Commission have any idea that the values of tolerance and inclusion they are so passionately preaching and promoting have their roots in the very holiday they are trying to outlaw.  I wonder if they have any idea that their impulse to be inclusive is profoundly rooted in values that are distinctly Christian.  Ironically, the very holiday they want to eliminate is the holiday responsible for the very values they are invoking.   

Where the Christmas holiday is allowed to be celebrated, many will hear the so-called Prologue to John’s Gospel read, John 1:1-18.  An often-overlooked verse in the Prologue is notoriously difficult to translate.  Verse 16 says: “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace.”  The second part of this verse, “grace in place of grace”, has the two Greek words for grace separated by the preposition “anti”, which, depending on the context, can have three different senses: replacement (normally interpreted as “in place of”), accumulation (“on top of”), or correspondence (“matching”).  Most interpreters today prefer the first sense, replacement, hence, grace “in place of” grace.  The reason this is the preferred translation is because of what follows in verse 17: “While the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  The contrast being drawn by John is between the Old Covenant and God’s supreme act of enduring love in Jesus.  The contrast is between the kind of conditional grace that comes through the Law, the Old Covenant, and the unconditional grace that comes uniquely through Jesus.  The contrast is between every other understanding of God and the supreme revelation of Divine Love in Jesus, the Word made Flesh.  The contrast is between every other notion of the divine nature and the utterly unique, mind-blowing, explosive love of the Incarnation. 

The contrast is exactly what Holland is pointing to as the spark that lit the Christian Revolution.

Prior to Christianity no one dared imagine a divine love so radical, so sublime.  The unconditional nature of God’s love only seems self-evident to us because we are so familiar with the Christmas story and all that follows it.  It only seems self-evident because we are so familiar with this unsurpassable expression of divine love and the way it has shaped all the cultures Christianity has touched.  It is not to be found elsewhere.       

Does Christmas matter?  Yes, yes, a million times yes.  Not only is the Christian conviction that God became human two thousand years ago responsible for the values we hold most dear.  It is also responsible for our assumption that the divine nature could be nothing less than unconditional love. 

As much as I might want it to be, this assumption is not self-evident.  Even though my bias is to believe that this way of love is self-evident, that it is, moreover, contained in every other religion, it is neither.  This understanding of the divine nature as unconditional love is not what every—or more accurately, any other—religious tradition is pointing to, at least not to the same radical and perfect degree.  It is only found in Christianity.  And, it is only because of Christmas that this impulse has become second nature for us, that these values and the understanding of God that undergirds them appear so self-evident. 

It is simply a matter of historical record that Christianity has revolutionized the World, so profoundly permeating the way you and I think that we are often unaware where the values we hold most dear come from, and introducing the World to a way of love that has become, self-evidently, the vastly superior way.  

That’s why Christmas matters.

So, why should you believe that Christianity is more than a myth?  In my next blog, my Christmas blog, I will point to something Jesus says, something no one to my knowledge has picked up on, that He could not have said if He wasn’t God Incarnate. 

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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