- HOUSES OF WORSHIPDECEMBER 24, 2010
By JOHN WILSON One of the hallowed Christmas traditions is the Anti-Christmas Rant. It takes many forms, and anyone reading this newspaper will be familiar with most of them. But unless you routinely hang out with people who argue about theology the way many Americans argue about politics or football, you may not have encountered one variant of the Rant that has been gaining momentum in recent years.
It goes like this: Christmas isn't simply bad for all the usual reasons—the grotesque materialism that its celebration encourages, the assault of sentimentality and kitsch that somehow seems to grow worse every year, and the smarmy wrapping of it all in the most inflated spiritual rhetoric.
On top of all that, says the Ranter, there is a grievous theological error. In placing so much emphasis on Christmas, Christians fail to grasp the meaning of their own story—in which Easter clearly should take pride of place.
This complaint isn't new, but it's been voiced more frequently of late. And not from the fringes, where members of tiny sects patiently explain that Christmas and Easter are pagan holidays that conscientious Christians must boycott. Well-respected voices are making the argument.
There's Terry Mattingly of getreligion.org, for one, and N.T. Wright, a former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And Rodney Clapp, who presides over Brazos Press, a major Christian publisher.
"I have the cure for the Christmas blues," Mr. Clapp wrote this month in his column for the Christian Century. "It is called Easter. On occasion it takes an outsider to remind us what is central to the Christian faith. So I turn to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman for a salutary reminder. As Hoffman once wrote . . . 'Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas.'"
"The climax of the four Gospels is not Christmas," Mr. Clapp added, "but the events we celebrate as Easter."
Where to start with what's wrong with this analysis? Let's begin with Rabbi Hoffman's contention that Christmas never "really mattered." Such hyperbole reveals the false dichotomy at the heart of this particular Anti-Christmas Rant: the idea that Christmas is more important than Easter, or vice versa, and we must choose between them. That's no more cogent than suggesting that Revelation is more important than Genesis.
Christmas brings us face-to-face with the mystery of the Incarnation—the preposterous claim that the creator of the universe sent his son (but how could he have a "son"?) to be born of a virgin (what?), both fully man and fully God: "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness," as we read in Paul's letter to the Philippians.
This claim we call the Incarnation—and celebrate at Christmas—can't be separated from "the paschal mystery of death and resurrection." The babe in swaddling clothes comes with a mission to fulfill. And as we sing carols for his birth, we see him taken down from the cross, wrapped in "a clean linen cloth," and laid in the tomb of a friend. That's the cloth that is left behind in the empty tomb on Resurrection morning.
Easter is implicit in Christmas, and Christmas is implicit in Easter. When we celebrate the one, we celebrate the other, looking forward to the restoration of all things.
Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.