This week I received via email the lamest holiday card ever produced: it was a government-issued, obligatory holiday card designed to not offend in the slightest way any of the residents of this community. The card features this picture -
... and a generic Season's Greetings in green-colored Comic Sans. And that's it. Carefully absent in this picture is anything religious: no menorah, no Christmas tree, no egg nog or light-up sweaters.
Now, I want to be clear: I'm not one who advocates for forcing businesses to say "Merry Christmas." In fact, I'm against it - read more about that here. I am no fan of farming out our evangelical witness to Wal-Mart. It is the job of the church to worship Christ at Christmas and to tell our neighbors about him in love. And in light of that, if you have a neighbor who does not celebrate Christmas, it might in fact be quite unloving to open with "Merry Christmas."
But I am also not a fan of efforts to avoid offending so much that we end up with this holiday card: a drab, uncommitted expression of merriment that says "I know we should say something, people are buzzing about for some reason... so let's acknowledge that there are things going on here without making any judgment or comment on them." But what we're left with is a lifeless lack of love and fear that we cannot get on together because we disagree.
And to be fair, this isn't an indictment on the ones who sent the card: it's just indicative of a fuller observation that is quite broad. Our neighbors (no matter who they are) have deeply held commitments, even if they are "non-religious" in nature. We do best to give dignity to those beliefs with listening ears and compassionate hearts, knowing as Christians do, that these are matters of life-and-death, not just commercialized preferences. We acknowledge that all people both reflect the image of God and the brokenness of the world in our very beings. And that's a messy reality but it's one that finds in comfort in the light of Christmas. And even when we engage with those who don't believe there is love to be found in the risk that it is to put yourself in their shoes, to listen to their stories, to share life and to share our homes. They know that kind of risk, too. We all take those kinds of risks all the time, putting our trust in others and giving of ourselves to loved ones. Faith is risky: but everyone around you is living out faith commitments that are deeply rooted, (even if by faith I have concluded that there is no God, or that there is no way to know anything about God, should he be there). Why not have those discussions with others in tremendous love and respect? Who knows what we might find?!
The whole Christmas story is rooted in the idea that God entered into this messiness. He sought not just to offend, but to bring the truth in love. That is offensive, of course, as it requires a response - either a big embrace or a big rejection - but he does so in love. He does so in embodied love, the kind of love that says, to quote Sufjan Stevens -
When you wear your clothes/ I wear them too/ I wear your shoes/ and your jacket, too.
Love came down at Christmas to take on a life - a hard life, just like your life. He now knows us, our temptations, our pains, and was willing despite his moral perfection, to suffer the penalty for sins on our behalf, so that we can be forgiven and so we could have life eternal, experiencing what we were made for all along: peace on earth & joy everlasting.