Last year, Kevin O’Brien, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, posted a video sharing his thoughts on the so-called “war on Christmas.”
The video is less than three minutes long, but I am going to focus almost exclusively on one paragraph.
Around the 0:20 mark, O’Brien claims, “I don’t think Jesus would care much about whether we say ‘Merry Christmas’ or not…” This seems to be a reasonable position. Granted, he leaves undefined whom he has in mind when he says “we,” whether he means Americans in general or Catholics/Christians in particular. But the larger point is understandable: in an increasingly secularized culture, identifying Christmas as the primary feature of the upcoming calendar may or may not reflect the broader opinions of our neighbors. (Indeed, Christians are never commanded in Scripture to celebrate Christmas.)
But the very first line of reasoning O’Brien uses to support his assertion is shockingly subversive of historic orthodox Christianity: “… because he was not concerned about promoting himself, but promoting what he called ‘the reign of God.’ This reign, this community of justice, peace, and love—that, to him, is more important than any title for himself.”
WHAT?!? Even from the mouth of a Catholic professor, I found myself stunned at the Biblical ignorance on display.
The foundational confession of the church is that Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, and since Christ means King and Jesus is God, then Jesus’ talk about the reign of God is about the reign of himself. Promoting the reign of God by definition means promoting himself.
By definition, only Christians recognize Jesus as Christ, which means that nonbelievers—so long as they remain nonbelievers—cannot recognize Jesus as Christ. To say “Merry Christmas” implies, at its most basic level, an acknowledgement that the Jesus whose birth we commemorate is the Christ. To say “Merry Christmas” is actually to make a claim unique to Christianity.
As fewer unbelievers say “Merry Christmas” even as a vestigial custom, this two-word phrase takes on a more distinctly Christian message than ever before. We need to realize that this seasonal greeting is our (still culturally acceptable) opportunity to confess Jesus as Lord. When Christians capitulate to the culture and automatically say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” in some small way we are cheating ourselves of an opportunity for evangelism. (Yes, I’m aware that the word “holiday” means holy day, but all different religions have their own holy days.)
The letter of 1 Peter is all about how Christians can thrive even in the midst of suffering and persecution for their faith. If we Christians in 21st-century USA cower in the face of a few sneers and snide remarks, how will we ever endure when actual persecution comes our way?!?
So this year, when someone says to me “Happy Holidays,” I will accept it as the polite greeting they intend it to be. But when I say “Merry Christmas,” I will not be merely offering a polite greeting.
Let us make the most of every opportunity we can to declare that Jesus is the Christ—at Christmas and every other time of the year.