As we wait in Advent anticipation of the night of nights—that of our Savior’s birth and the beginning of our redemption—I want to share a few thoughts, particularly on the effort to take Christ from Christmas or to banish Him from the public eye..
This year the secular world has exceeded its previous attempts to eliminate the mere mention of the Holy Name of Christ and to stifle or eradicate from public view the very reason for our celebration—His coming among us as one of us. This has been grist for endless news commentaries, blog entries and the stuff of boycotts of merchants who, while happily profiting from this Holy season, have tried to effectively banish Him whose birth we celebrate. These include retail powerhouses such as Barnes & Noble, Pet Smart, Foot Locker, and Office Depot where there are bans on anything referring to Christmas, while others such as Best Buy, CVS and Whole Foods grudgingly acknowledge, but do not “promote” Christmas. (One of the nice things about of a free market is the ability to shop from non-bigoted merchants.)
Again this year, we have seen lawsuits and threats of legal action, as well as aggressive moves by many school districts targeted against Christianity itself, never mind the signs and symbols of the Nativity. For example, boys and girls in Frisco, Texas, who attend the Nichols Elementary School “Winter Party” will not be able to make any reference to Christmas. Christmas trees also are banned, along with the colors red and green. On Long Island, Students United in Faith, a service-oriented Christian club, was refused permission even to meet, while in one California school district, all Christian books, those by Christian authors and those released by Christian publishers, including Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Heaven forbid some impressionable youth gets their hands on St. Augustine’s Confessions Dante’s Divine Comedy or anything by C.S. Lewis. Not to be outdone, the law society of Canada’s largest province voted against admitting among their ranks graduates of Trinity Western University, for the sole reason that the school’s Christian community covenant, which students (and teachers) voluntarily sign upon admission or hiring, reserves sexual intimacy for heterosexual marriage. And the list goes on and on.
Let us be clear as we approach the Feast of the Nativity. Our Lord Himself tells us that no one will be able to take us away from God. (St. John 10:28) The language is similar to that of St. Paul in Romans 8:39 when he says that nothing in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Faith cannot be taken from God’s people, nor can the hope of the poor be taken away.
Quite simply, the secular world’s desire to relegate the King of Kings to an unobtrusive place or to remove Him entirely from our lives will prove fruitless. Many have attempted to still the voice of the Christ Child over the last two millennia. As recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Herod’s effort to silence our Redeemer bore tragic consequences for the innocent children of Bethlehem. And this has been a pattern from the start of our new beginning in Christ Jesus.
At this time of year, my thoughts inevitably turn to St. Stephen, whose feast we celebrate the day after Christmas. St. Stephen, full of faith and power, had done great wonders and miracles among the people. (Acts vi.8). For proclaiming Christ in the public square, St. Stephen became the first martyr, suffering death by stoning, in the presence of Saul of Tarsus, later St. Paul. The first wave of anti-Christian persecution had begun, in part at the hands of Saul who would later himself suffer a martyr’s death for his life and work as an Apostle. Yet, despite the torture and killing of Christ’s own Apostles, the word of the babe of Bethlehem, the One who became incarnate for our salvation, spread.
As they do in our own day, knocks came upon doors in the dead of night. Entire families suffered death for the sake of Him who came to save us all from sin and eternal death. We do well to think on St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna about A.D. 155, as he faced a body of men who came to arrest him one Friday evening.
Escape was still possible, but the old bishop refused to flee, saying, “the will of God be done.” He came down to meet his pursuers, conversed affably, and ordered food to be set before them. While they were eating he prayed, “remembering all, high and low, who at any time had come in his way, and the Catholic Church throughout the world.” He was then led away, like so many others, to his death. Despite the efficiency of the then-greatest civil government, that of the Roman Empire, the work of Christ was not halted. Indeed, the pace of the spread of the Gospel only accelerated.
By about 325 A.D., Rome’s official persecutions of the Faith had ended. Yet, over the years down to this day, to the instant you read this message, in thousands of places, men have sought to still the voice of His cry from the creche. Look well this next year upon those days marked in red to commemorate the martyrs of the Church. Their names ring out over the centuries-Agnes, Valentine, Matthias, Mark, Stanislas, Alban, Ignatius, and on and on. These are just the representatives of those untold thousands who have given all for Christ.
The twentieth century saw more martyrs than all of the previous centuries. At least 100,000 Christians fled the Plain of Nineveh since last summer. The Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group has since invaded northern Iraq and has occupied or destroyed both the churches and homes of Christians. In the nation of Eritrea, more than 1,990 Christians are in prison for their faith. Magnify this by each country where there is open persecution of the Christian faithful and the picture truly is stunning.
In 1945, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred for the Faith at the hands of a dying Nazi regime. In speaking of the problem of “cheap grace”, Bonhoeffer reached to the question of real proclamation of the truth of Christ in the world. Cheap grace is grace that has become so watered down that it no longer resembles the grace of the New Testament, the costly grace of the Gospels. It is the intellectual assent to a doctrine without a real transformation in the sinner’s life. It is the justification of the sinner without the works that should accompany the new birth.
In the words of Bonhoeffer,
[It] is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (emphasis added)
St. Athanasius in his work On the Incarnation pointed out that it is not an idea but the Incarnate Christ, the living Jesus, the Christ of the Nativity and of the Cross who is our Savior. This is the voice that cannot be stilled even by the inhuman efficiency of Nazism, Communism, secularism or any other “-ism”.
At the end of the day, the babe in swaddling clothes cannot be hidden. The Light which has come into the world cannot be extinguished. The cry of the Christ who suffered death upon the Cross for our sakes cannot be silenced. He remains with us always, and will come again in glory.
As Abp. Fulton Sheen said in his wonderful book The Life of Christ, “Bethlehem became a link between heaven and earth; God and man met here and looked each other in the face…Now man need not hide from God as Adam did…God in His perfect nature became manifest to those who saw Him and heard Him and touched Him.”
So, this Christmas let us come anew to the Christmas crib and marvel at the mere babe who is Emmanuel, God Incarnate, God with us-the Living Jesus. Let us wait upon the cry that cannot be stilled—the cry of that child in a chilly desert night, the cry that shatters sin and death.
Let us hear Him and see Him and touch Him in. Then let us with angelic hosts fearlessly and joyfully proclaim the one, only and true reason for Christmas, that Christ is born in Bethlehem!
With Advent Blessings,