ENGAGING THE DIVINE: Christmas acknowledges that God walked among us

The Rev. James J. Popham
The Rev. James J. Popham

My favorite day of the year is Dec. 23.

That is the day of maximum anticipation for Christmas. But out in the world and culture of the 21st century, anticipation started long before that. Even before Halloween, we were beginning to see shelves stacked with Christmas cards, decorations, candies, and gifts.

Countless catalogues deluged our mailboxes. Ads for Christmas presents clogged media of all sorts, including our email and social media. And even before the Thanksgiving turkey was thawed, our neighbors were cluttering their lawns with inflatable, brightly lit Santa’s and sleighs pulled by illuminated flamingos or dolphins, to say nothing of light displays that require small nuclear power plants to keep them shining.

What are we to do? Is there a way to navigate the cultural insistence on months and months of pre-Christmas Day celebration and remain faithful to Christmas as a religious celebration? Do we just plunge headlong into the premature celebration of Christmas and join in the commercialism and consumerism that seems to rob Christmas of its true meaning? Or to maintain our innocence and integrity, do we isolate ourselves from a culture that seems increasingly indifferent to religious traditions and values? Or, worse, do we risk becoming hypocrites by condemning what is going on around us, while we immersing ourselves in the excesses of the secular holiday celebration.

If we refuse to involve ourselves in the ongoing pre-mature celebration of Christmas, we may well become Scrooges and let Christmas pass us by altogether. Would our friends and family see any love in that? Would we be denying what Albert Camus’ called the “life-giving sweet pain of anticipation” that tells us we are really alive? Indeed, what could be wrong with anticipating the celebration of this essential chapter in the greatest story ever told?

Perhaps, it’s just a matter of keeping what is going on around us in perspective, while still finding joy in the celebration of Christmas. For those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, Christmas is not just a reason for a party. It is an acknowledgement that God has walked among us in the person of Jesus Christ. We should recall that Jesus never said to step out of the world around us. Jesus called us to be light in the darkness. And we do that by being faithful to our spiritual lives, our traditions, and our hopes, living not “of” the world, but “in” the world, shining the light of hope Christ offered into the darkness so many find so comfortable.

And for everyone, we just need to celebrate in moderation, avoiding the excesses of food and drink that can sully our merriments and even place our health and safety in peril. We also might set aside expectations, those visions of sugar plums that dance in our heads — and which so often are the seeds of frustration and disappointment. We could instead cultivate generous hearts that focus on what we can give rather than what we want Santa to bring us.

The Rev. James J. Popham is rector at St. Andrews By-the-Sea in Destin.