The Rev. Adam J. Copeland teaches in the Religion Department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., where he serves as faculty director for faith and leadership. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.
A few days ago I wrote a bitter, snarky post about the supposed war on Christmas and submitted it for online publication. An editor quickly responded, apparently unimpressed with my talent for sarcasm.
"I yearn," he said, "for a straight-up defense of Christmas from one who doesn't want to see it either commercialized or exploited for political advantage."
Though I had failed to realize it, that Christmas, that faith, is also my deep longing this Christmas of 2012. The problem is that such a non-commercialized, unpoliticized Christmas makes me deeply uncomfortable, since it reminds me how far my sights have strayed from the odd, even scandalous, message of Christmas upon which my Christian faith rests.
It's easy to claim that Christmas is not ultimately about Santa Claus or reindeer, as lovely as their legends remain. Christmas is not about canned holiday music tracks playing at the mall. Christmas is not about pretty lights, or evergreen trees, or cookies, or gifts under the tree.
And yet there's a certain comfort in equating the Christmas season with our various December celebrations and gift-giving. After all, if I pretend my faith calls for it, I can justify buying another present, as if swiping my credit card were somehow a show of piety.
What is harder to admit is how far I have let myself become co-opted by our culture's commercialized notion of Christmas. I laugh when Jon Stewart takes on Fox News' coverage of the supposed "War on Christmas," but I don't reflect on the more subtle attacks — those that pretend Christmas is anything but an off-putting, difficult-to-understand Christian celebration God's incarnation.
The Christian story of Christmas revealed in Scripture is of a scared, unwed teenage girl, her confused fiance, and God who upends all expectations. Even so, the Christmas story, as we know it, is found only in the book of Luke, one of the four Gospels. St. Paul, whose letters predate the Gospels, never mentions Jesus' birth story or his mother, Mary. For Paul, there was no manger.
Yet, for the writer of Luke's Gospel, there was something essential about that now-famous nativity. God had become human, but not in the way we might have expected. Jesus' was an understated birth in a dirty stable with nobodies as parents. Somehow, this baby laid in a manger (which, honestly, seems like a horrible place for a baby) was to be called Immanuel, God-with-us, the prince of peace.
This Christmas season, in the wake of the devastating shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., I long for that surprising, scandalous notion of God more than ever.
Retail therapy won't cure our nation, or calm my heart. Snark and sarcasm may entertain, but they will not last. That baby Jesus, God himself as an innocent, vulnerable child with dirty diapers and earthly needs, as strange and unlikely as it sounds, is the very foundation of my faith.
This year, thanks to that editor, I will let the Christmas wars rage on, holding my sarcasm for another day. For I believe the story of that baby in a manger calls me to respond with love for my neighbor, and for prayers of peace and goodwill.