Well, here we go again …
"And now a holiday song — ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.’" This from my favorite classical music station. Shall we listen in?
"God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day; to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray … " etc., etc., etc.
Oh, boy, didn’t we cover up that dogmatic theological treatise by billing the musical selection in question as a "holiday song" and not a "Christmas carol"? I guess it’s fine (by the standards of the time) to launch on the airwaves an affirmation of Jesus Christ’s salvational power — just so long as we call it something else. As I said: Oh, boy.
This isn’t one more disquisition on the emergence of "Happy Holidays" as a politically correct substitute for a quasi-theological salute like "Merry Christmas." This is a puzzled look at the puzzled state of the American mind and conscience in the Year of Our Lord — excuse me, excuse me — 2005.
Just what do we do with God in a society led for 40 years, by the U.S. Supreme Court and the American Civil Liberties Union, to at least seasonal rethinking of what might be called our public theology?
We’ve gotten so picky and prissy about religion in the public square that no one really knows what to say and do at times like Christmas. Our paper currency informs us that "In God We Trust," but try affirming that proposition at, say, a high school commencement. Or try praying it, if you want to see how long it takes an ACLU lawyer to get to the courthouse.
On the scientific front, we find things equally disordered and disputed. Courts these days seem designed for the purpose of adjudicating controversies between supporters of Darwinian evolution and pleaders for the teaching of intelligent design — the proposition that life didn’t just "happen."
Good old generic "religion" — the kind President Eisenhower commended to us without reproof from the New York Times (oh, but if Ike were alive to try it now!) — is today a reliable fight-starter. Even in these times of comfort and joy — whatever we elect to call them. When last I heard, Target was defending itself against an outcry over the in-store downgrading of "Christmas" — and the upgrading of "holiday."
The dispute makes no objective sense, of course. "Holiday" means "holy day." Holy for what reason? For the reason that Christ was born: absent which occasion the stores wouldn’t be bidding you, come max out your credit cards. You’d think we could have sailed on another 40 or 50 years serene in our Christian pan-denominationalism.
On the other hand …
Even pan-denominationalism isn’t a good fit in a world wary of spiritual entanglements. Free-market capitalism, God bless it (there I go again!) not only maximizes prosperity but encourages the personal autonomy and fragmentation that have become our moral hallmarks. In other words, our popular creed, instead of "Jesus Saves!" seems to be "Lemme Alone, Hear?" High expectations for human performance really don’t inform the new creed, which, unlike traditional Christianity, isn’t long on moral reasoning, with its encouragements, restraints and, indeed, prohibitions.
To the degree you suggest to someone else how life should rightly be lived, you invite the angry retort or the indifferent stare. Lemme alone! Outta my face!
But the nature of Christianity — the creed of Christmas — is about unpleasant realities like human deficiency and humbling ones like redemption: all in accordance with divine directives.
To be wished a Merry Christmas is to be wished a closer walk, a nearer relationship, with the God whose only begotten Son, as the story goes, came to earth at this season. The manger thing, you know — angels, shepherds, wise men. Oh, so entangling! As it was meant to be.
Oh, and, by the way, Merry Christmas.