Good news. Death is on defense this week. That’s a big reason for the excitement about Christmas and Hanukkah.
It should make these holidays welcome even among people who don’t share the biblical beliefs they represent. And it should humble the believers themselves. Civil harmony would benefit.
In Denver where I live, “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth” are still annually proclaimed in lights on the City and County Building, after the mayor was dissuaded from substituting something generic. Following a similar bout of hesitation, suburban Golden has a menorah display alongside the town Christmas tree. We all ought to cheer if we love life.
The Christian faith, along with the Jewish tradition from which it grew, has enlivened our civilization through the centuries with a message of unshakable hope for the human future. The Old and New Testaments argue for an eternal reality in which the grave is not the last word. America as we know it is more humane, dynamic, and purposeful as a result. That’s well worth a celebration every December.
Long before Jesus or Moses, of course, rituals of rebirth were observed at this time of year as the life-giving sun starts its comeback and the days lengthen. So if you prefer a winter solstice festival, fine. Solar cycles will always be with us. But they don’t put death on defense as Christmas and Hanukkah do.
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” says the fatalism that believes bodily existence is all there is. Scripture contradicts it. Economic guru John Maynard Keynes gave the modernist version when he shrugged, “In the long run, we’re all dead." Don’t be so sure, say the faithful.
Hope of immortality through their descendants was already a given for the Jews among whom Jesus was born. Many also believed in a bodily resurrection. Christ’s followers were sure of it. Correct or not, that meant conducting themselves in this world so as to be worthy of the next. Moral seriousness grew. All of society felt the gentling effect.
If death cancels life, period, why shouldn’t might make right? Why shouldn’t ethics begin and end with “if it feels good, do it”? It’s different if eternal punishment awaits brutality and tyranny. New incentives come with expecting we’ll have to live forever with the consequences of how we treat each other. This was the awesome force of good that arrived with the baby in the manger.
The Romans who ruled Bethlehem, like the Magi who brought gifts, idealized justice but never knew its author. Knowledge of “the Supreme Judge of the World,” as the Declaration of Independence calls him, is uniquely the Judeo-Christian contribution to history. The result was a vast increase in motivation for achieving peace on earth through goodwill to men.
Peace and justice are far from realized, as today’s paper attests. But infanticide, genocide, slavery, and the subjugation of women, once accepted, are now condemned. Freedom and democracy, once rare, are spreading. Heartless death-dealing and all kinds of living death are lessening in our world because of the Hebrew girl’s son who was “born that man no more may die.”
Think about it. Every news story about economic relief or homeless shelters or animal rescue bespeaks a life-affirming ethos that is the very opposite of Lord Keynes’s “dead in the long run” callousness. We’re that way partly because of a faith tradition that sees past death.
As for the so-called Christmas wars, isn’t governmental or commercial sanction of Jesus’ birthday a false issue? He asked for nothing of the kind. He did ask us who follow him to be more childlike, less demanding. Faithful and unfaithful alike need to lighten up. After all, many believe the light of the world is here – and they don’t just mean the solstice.