On Advent and the Secularization of Christmas

It’s that time of year when Christianity makes headlines by decrying the lack of Jesus on things like coffee cups and resenting anyone who says, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The secularization of Christmas is, for many, yet another sign of the declining importance of church in the United States. With membership and participation generally down in many denominations (e.g., mainline Protestants), church leaders are constantly facing the reality that Christianity is loosing its place in mainstream American society.

Yet Christmas is the one time of year when you do hear a tiny bit more about Jesus in mainstream discourse. The loudest parts of such discourse are the demands to put Christ back in Christmas and remember that Jesus is the reason for the season. This need to center Jesus into the mainstream is one reason why that Starbucks article went viral several weeks ago.

Other than the fact that Starbucks has never had explicitly Christ-mas themed holiday cups, I do understand on some level where the offense comes from. The thinking goes something like this: thousands and thousands of people buy Starbucks coffee–imagine how many people would be reached by seeing an image of Jesus on the cup. Imagine how much it would speak to our culture, reminding people that Jesus is there–that Jesus is the most important part of Christmas.

This is why we have shirts with “Jesus Christ” written in Coca-Cola font. Take the existing piece of culture, put Jesus in it, and it becomes a tool for evangelism. That’s the hope, at least, so that Christianity becomes relevant again.

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The part of me that infinitely enjoys bad puns loves this.

And that’s more or less how the Christmas season began centuries ago. Once Christianity became the dominant faith (or those in power determined that it should be dominant), the church overlaid Jesus on top of existing feasts and practices. Christ likely was not born on 12/25, nor did he initially have anything to do with this season. Christmas gradually blended with and replaced pagan holidays. In that sense, calling for Christ to be put back into Christmas seems arbitrary since he was never in it to begin with.

That said, it’s possible–and in fact preferable–if Christians recognize this bit of history, not to swing the other way and utterly reject Christmas because of its pagan roots (though some may choose to), but to actually have a deeper appreciation for the tradition that the Christmas season passes down to us. We talk a lot in churches about God meeting people where they are. Centuries ago, how did God meet people where they were in their existing cultural feast times? The obvious flipside is that a lot of Christianity’s pervasiveness in Western culture is the result of forceful, sometimes violent implementations. However, Christians ought to be willing to look that tangled history in the face and know just what exactly was passed down to us.

The Last Shall Be First

10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” –Matthew 20:10-16

The secularization of Christmas as the mainstream holiday we’re all familiar with is, on the one hand, a deeply maddening phenomenon in which consumerism and greed run rampant. It’s supposed to be about Jesus (specifically, waiting for Jesus and then finally celebrating the Incarnation), but it’s really not–and it’s really not. Even so, one can make the argument that secularism has co-opted what Christmas initially set out be when it became “Christmas,” which makes Christians uncomfortable as non-religion becomes the new norm. If Christmas becomes totally secular, what’s left? This is why some people raise alarms over a lack of Jesus on coffee cups. Wider culture needs to be redeemed, and what could be more relevant than coffee cup Jesus?

But why do we need Jesus on a coffee cup–especially one from a giant company like Starbucks? If Jesus absolutely had to be associated with a company, it would probably be one that ran like vineyard he talks about in Matthew 20:1-16. I get that notion from the Jesus I have encountered through regular worship and deep study of scripture, both academically and spiritually. Where do I have most of those encounters? In a church that hasn’t utterly thrown away tradition with the aim of becoming more relevant. We follow the liturgical calendar, which gives us not a season of Christmas necessarily, but a season of advent.

Yes, Christmas is a part of advent, but the season of “advent” hasn’t been blended into secularism and hasn’t lost its deep ties with Christianity like the season of “Christmas” has. If the concern is about an increasing, mainstream turn toward secularism, then Christians can simply look back at the names and meanings of seasons that have been part of the liturgical calendar for centuries. For better or for worse, Christianity has 2,000 years of history and traditions that all get tossed to the side because no one thinks they’re compelling enough to draw people into church (especially millennials). Yet where secularism strips Christmas of its meaning and turns it into a time of rushing and materialism, advent refocuses the significance of the season. Advent isn’t as easy to secularize because it’s about waiting and anticipating the Incarnation. Our culture isn’t that great at waiting, especially around Christmas time.

Houses Built on Rock or Sand?

If a lack of an obvious Jesus symbol on a common product is cause for concerns about the very essence of a holy day falling apart, then I have to wonder if the way Christians understand Christmas is grounded in anything substantial. The person I was in high school would likely have had a much bigger problem with the secularization of Christmas. The church I went to back then did not emphasize or teach us much about the liturgical year, so I had nothing to attach Christmas to. I knew generally that some amount of weeks leading up to Christmas was called “advent,” but that was it.

I think what happens when we don’t connect in some fashion to tradition is that we can easily become swept up in the definitions our culture gives to holidays. In America, Christmas is on December 24th-25th and the few weeks beforehand are just generally called the Christmas season without any set guidance on what that really means. When churches don’t observe advent in any tangible way or teach people what it’s meant over the years, we hardly have anything that builds up to Christmas and that’s why we can fall into thinking that a lack of Jesus on a Starbucks cup spells the end of Christ’s significance at this time of year. Are we building our foundation on Christ himself, or on the notion that he needs to be explicitly depicted on mass-produced objects of everyday culture in order to have any power?

All of this makes it sound like I hate Christmas. I love Christmas, actually, not as much as some people, but I enjoy all the decorations and the music and the reruns of those 70s animated cartoons and the specialty drinks at Starbucks! A wise Tumblr user once reblogged a post that said you can like Things™ and still be critical of them.

Viral Christian Narratives

But there’s a whole other side to this that I haven’t touched on yet. Mainstream news loves stories like this Starbucks cup thing because it’s an easy way for progressives and other left-leaning folks to say, “Wow! Look at these Christians wasting their time being offended by coffee cups! Don’t they have anything better to do? Why don’t they care about the real issues like racism or poverty?” So, the story goes viral and perpetuates a false narrative that faith, Christianity especially, is never at the forefront of any real social change, but instead is stuck on arbitrary things. Progressive Christians in their criticisms also help spread this divide sometimes by participating in the reblog/repost/retweet chain. Honestly, I’ve seen more people mocking or getting pissy about people being offended by coffee cups than people being offended by coffee cups themselves. (I, in turn, have achieved meta status by remarking about the people who are pissy about the people offended by coffee cups.)

The coffee cups make it easy to point to Christians and state how out of touch we are with what matters and these stories make headlines because they’re so easy. Christians are offended by something trivial? Millions of shares. Christians acting as leaders in social justice movements? Their work is celebrated, but their faith is often hidden either because they don’t make it known or because of the way their story is presented.

Shaun King, a prominent #BlackLivesMatter activist, cites Christian faith as an important part of his life’s journey, even though his own beliefs are nuanced, as is the case with many progressive Christians.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the United Church of Christ (UCC) was involved in a high-stakes lawsuit to prevent a license renewal for a Mississippi TV station that was giving little to no air time for black issues, instead focusing only on the white perspective.

The UCC is involved in a number of other social justice matters. I personally know of a group of clergy that recently organized a protest at Governor Hogan’s office in Maryland regarding his rejection of the Syrian refugees. At General Synod this past summer, the UCC passed resolutions that included a call to dismantle the new Jim Crow and to end mass incarceration. One of the ordained members of my church is constantly involved in petitioning or lobbying our state politicians on such issues as a follow-up, or in some cases a precursor to Synod resolutions.

Do Christians ever do social justice perfectly? Of course not, nor are we always the start of any given movement; and of course on many issues, we’ve lagged behind the rest of the world. But the viral things in our news cycles that are most explicitly tied with Christianity are the things that spin a narrative which separates Christianity from substantial social change and instead make the faith seem like one of our primary battles is a coffee cup.

The Purity of Christmas is to be One Thing?

Ultimately, this time of year is full of multiple holidays and that doesn’t need to be a terrifying thing. There are a plurality of Christmas celebrations within Christianity itself, especially outside of the Western world. I think the concern about the secularization of Christmas stems from a notion that Christmas has only ever been one thing without taking a closer look. Advent/Christmas/Epiphany have much more staying power when considered theologically and spiritually rather than just literally and with slick catchphrases.

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