At the beginning of this Advent, someone handed me a batch of stickers which read: Keep Christ in Christmas. “Do something with these,” he lamented, “put them on your car, give them to people, whatever! We have to do something to fight all the commercialism which is destroying Christmas.”
I am rather agnostic about slogans, banners, and posters as a means of changing people’s lives and so the stickers lie untouched, collecting dust in my office. However, looking at them has sparked some thoughts about keeping Christ in Christmas. Generally, what is blamed for the absence of Christ in Christmas is, precisely, commercialism. Elaborate decorations appear by mid-November and the sales start. Santa Claus is in every store, carols speak more of ivy, holly, and sleigh bells than of Jesus, and Advent becomes a time for shopping and partying rather than a time for spiritual preparation.
Putting Christ back into Christmas is, then, connected mainly with protests against all the hoopla associated with Christmas decorations, Christmas sales, Christmas parties, and Santa. However valid these products might be, I suggest that they miss the main point. Putting Christ back into Christmas involves, first of all, creating a space for hospitality wherein Christ can be born. It involves avoiding doing what the innkeeper did at that first Christmas when he turned Mary and Joseph away.
Let me explain: I have always been struck, reading the Christmas story, at the seemingly unbelievable act of the innkeeper. Who could turn away someone pregnant with Christ? The story doesn’t suggest that the innkeeper was malicious or inhospitable. It says only that “there was no room in the inn.” In short, the man was booked up, full, there was no room for further guests, he already had all he could handle.
No room! No place for more guests! Booked up! No space for hospitality! In these expressions, I see the real reason why there is so little of Christ left in Christmas. It is not so much, I believe, our excesses in shopping, decorating, or partying that deprive Christ of a place, as it is our busyness, preoccupations, hurriedness, and agendae which fill the inn and leave no place for him. Our hearts and lives are too full for Christ to have a place.
That sounds like a harsh judgment, and it is. Looked at from the outside, our lives often do look selfish, inhospitable, idiosyncratic, and un-Christian. However, we are not bad people, nor are we, deep down, inhospitable. Beneath all the hurry, pressure, and preoccupations, our hearts are warm, unselfish and welcoming. Then why aren’t we more warm and hospitable? In brief, because we haven’t the time. There is not enough space within our lives for Christ.
Thomas Merton was once asked what he felt was the single worst problem confronting our civilization. He answered simply: “Efficiency!” Most of us attach no moral or religious connections whatever to that word, yet it is the real canker. Everywhere, from the monastery to the federal government, the plant must be kept running. We have jobs to do, deadlines to meet, tasks to complete. The mortgage must be paid, the papers must be written, the classes must be taught, the kids must be fed, the meetings must be run, the supper must be cooked, the bus needs to be caught, the shopping has to be done, the kids must be picked up, there are all these things to do. The show must go on.
In all this, in doing so many things which seemingly have to be done, Christ begins to disappear. It is not decorations, shopping, and excessive partying that have taken Christ out of Christmas, it’s blind efficiency. Christ, himself, told us that it is the poor, the unimportant, the helpless, and those with nothing important to do in their lives who accept him and welcome his kingdom. They are the blessed. Why? Isn’t it truer to say that the rich, the talented, the achievers, the important, the influential, those whose lives make a difference, are blessed? After all, they are the ones we all envy?
I have often pondered this question, precisely because nobody envies the poor, the helpless, the unimportant, and the uninfluential. What do we gain in being these things, and what do we lose when we become more important, influential, and less helpless? We always think that what we lose is humility. Perhaps that is true, though it is not always so obvious. What is obvious is that we lose the time and space to be hospitable, unselfish, and welcoming.
Simply put, to be these things takes real time and real space. Love and hospitality are not abstract. To have Christ in our lives, to put him back into Christmas, involves something much more than protesting commercialism. It involves creating time for him, time for the poor, time for hospitality, time for celebration, time for prayer, time for the itinerant couple who show up unannounced on a busy night. To make a holiday is to, ultimately, make a holy day. We must create some room in the inn!