“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14
It comes around every single year at this time. Well, yes, Christmas, but what I’m referring to is the regular litany about how the culture has so diminished the true meaning of Christmas. To that I simply ask, “Is anyone really surprised?”
That grousing came again in a CNN story by reporter Jeanne Moos, wherein she flipped through the advertisements in the New York Times. She noted that every ad, except one, promoted its event as a ‘Holiday’ sale. She noted the word, ‘Christmas’ was completely missing, kidnapped by a least common denominator culture that doesn’t want to offend anyone. Retailers especially want to make sure shoppers of all religious persuasions know their money is welcome and happily accepted. And so, ‘holiday’ works best in the overlap of religious seasons: Ramadan, Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza. Of course, this also includes not offending those of ‘no particular religious stripe’ who want to spend like it grows on trees.
Each Advent, I hear several conversations and read a few articles wherein Christians are upset (again!) and complain loudly about the loss of the language of Christmas in the culture.
Perhaps what we need is an historical and etymological (the study of words) checkup to help us realize that what the advertisers in-particular and the culture as a whole promote as safe terminology to protect market share and minimize offense is still, curiously, the language of the church!
Case in point: two of our favorite terms to dislike and dismiss are the afore mentioned ‘Holiday’ and the ever unpopular ‘X-mas’.
Try saying the first term slowly, h-o-l-i-d-a-y. Did you hear it? The word ‘holiday’ is simply a morphing of the church’s term for observing special days on the Christian calendar: Holidays, that is, Holy Days.
The second term of contention requires a brief journey into past. I was told as a child that ‘X-mas,’ was a sacrilegious way of referring to Christmas or worse, was an effort to cross-out Christ. I’ve heard plenty of well-intentioned Christians bemoan the phrase and I’ve sat through a few sermons deriding the thoughtless use of the term with the suggestion that we boycott merchants that use the ‘X’ word in their Christmas advertising. But they simply hadn’t checked the sources. ‘X-mas’ is a medieval Christian abbreviation for the holy day celebrated as Christ’s birthday. The first letter in the Greek word, Christos, is the ‘chi’ pronounced, ‘kie’ (as in ‘pie’). The Greek character looked like the Latin ‘X’ and thus the holy day celebration known as the ‘Christ Mass’ became ‘Christmas’ and was often indicated by the church as ‘X-mas.’ It is Christian tradition and an authentic way of referencing what we celebrate during this season.
Perhaps in the future, rather than bemoan the good old days when everyone (?) respected the traditions, we should look for the proverbial silver lining when we see what looks like a dark cloud. Even in a culture that thinks it has risen above or grown beyond its religious impulses, there still remain seeds of faith that need only a little watering by the people of faith to grow to fuller expressions.
Me, I’m not overly concerned about how Wal-Mart, Macy’s or Tractor Supply minimize the faith to maximize the profits. It’s what I expect from them. What I am concerned about is whether the Christians among us will share their experience and understanding of the God who clothed himself with flesh and became a human being—Emmanuel—God with us. This is the work of the people of God and the Word that should escape our lips during the X-mas Holiday.
Rev. Dr. Tom Stephenson
First Christian Church, Wilmington