Last week, I wrote about Israel and the Middle East peace process. While writing that column, the Bible verse, “Peace, Peace; but there is no peace,” came to mind quite often. Everyone is talking about peace and the peace process, but they are far from finding peace in Israel.
This week, the phrase running through my head is similar: “Christmas, Christmas; but there is no Christmas.”
It’s amazing how much Christmas we are bombarded with each year. It’s great that people decorate their houses, that shops put up decorations and slash prices, that community groups hold events with Santa and that we enjoy fun movies like “Elf” and “The Santa Clause” with the family. But there’s so much Christmas going on that it’s easy to forget what it really means.
Christmas is a funny thing, really. While our culture treats it as the biggest religious holiday of the year, it really isn’t the biggest day in Christianity. Easter is the bigger deal. Christmas is important, to be sure, because Jesus’ birth fulfilled lots of Old Testament prophecy, including Isaiah’s prediction that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
But the Easter resurrection story is what Christianity revolves around and depends on, and it’s what makes Christianity different from all other religions – that God was the only one who could pay the price for our sins (through Jesus’ dying on the cross) and that no amount of good deeds or godly living or devout works could win us divine favor.
This is a foreign concept for many people. It’s no wonder that Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and all the other -isms preach works-based ways to salvation. They preach that we can please God through our own actions. But Christianity, which says salvation is a gift, requires a mind-blowing leap of faith to accept.
But while Easter is the greatest story ever told, the Christmas story, recounted in Chapter 2 of Luke, is a pretty amazing story, too. It involves crazy things like God impregnating a virgin girl. It involves a triumvirate from the Orient hiking their way across Middle Eastern deserts to Bethlehem to give a recently born child expensive presents like gold and incense and myrrh. It involves the son of the creator of the universe being born in a humble manger where beastly farm animals usually were born. It involves the paranoid king of Israel getting so freaked out by the threat of a new king rising up that he demands all boys under the age of 2 to be killed in an effort to head off his own demise. Yeah, the Christmas story is a cliffhanger.
But the way we celebrate Christmas has nothing to do with the Bible, except maybe the gift exchange on Christmas day, which symbolizes how Jesus was God’s gift to mankind. Other than that, Christmas has more to do with celebrating Santa Claus than anything else.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I like jolly ol’ St. Nick and his reindeer. I like the idea of chestnuts roasting over an open fire. I like sparkly Christmas trees in the living room. I like stockings and sleigh bells and blow-up figures on front lawns. But let us not confuse real Christmas with the culture’s version of Christmas. They’re two totally different things.
Christmas, as the history books tell us, was fairly inconsequential not too long ago. The day barely registered on the holiday scales until Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” brought it to the fore in 1843. To me, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts of Christmas is almost as good as the Christmas story in the Bible. It’s the best non-religious Christmas story ever told.
In it, Scrooge is us and we are Scrooge. We live our lives as if our work and daily chores are the only things that matter and then one day we wake up, as Scrooge did, and realize that we’ve just wasted years of our lives pursuing ultimately meaningless things. But even as an old man, Scrooge was able to turn his life around to focus on something better. He became more loving, more open and more attuned to the deeper meaning of life.
The Biblical Christmas story is similar. Receiving God’s gift to mankind wakes us up to real meaning of life. I hope you enjoy a merry and meaningful Christmas, and I bet it’ll be even better than the tax reform package that President Trump said would be the best gift we’d ever receive.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.