By Frank Wessling
This is the season of anticipating a closer walk with God. It also seems to be a time when some Christians develop a persecution complex.
“They’re taking Christ out of Christmas,” is the usual complaint. This year the fear seems to have spread beyond a sense of loss about owning the month of December. Catholics high and low are feeling persecution from all sides: the government is squeezing our freedom to practice our faith, we are driven out of the Holy Land, a Vatican official says we need “an international day against persecution and discrimination of Christians,” and an English bishop claims this is the hardest time to be Catholic since the “days of persecution.”
That last reference was to the 16th-century time in Britain when Catholics had to hide their faith and priests caught ministering were tortured, then hanged and torn apart, sometimes also disembowled before the killing. The Bishop of Shrewsbury was carried away in his rhetoric. Whatever we’re feeling today, it’s not a fear of physical pain and death – although there is some of that in Egypt, Iraq and other hot spots of tension in the Islamic world.
It’s clear enough here in the United States that we do not own the December “holiday” season as we once did. It’s also clear that we can’t simply impose a moral code on our legal system. Along with atheists, Hindus, Jews, and the indifferent, we must show a rational basis related to the common good for the freedoms we claim and the rules we want established in law.
The United States is no longer a place where the King James Bible could be used for teaching religion in public schools, and town squares featured large Christmas cribs. We didn’t change because Christians were suddenly hated. We changed because it was unjust to make our symbols and our rules dominate the public space of an increasingly pluralist society.
We haven’t figured out yet how to make the public space perfectly fair for everybody. We never will. But that’s the direction we’re aiming, and it’s a good one.
Pope Benedict XVI offered something to keep in mind when we worry about losing out to secularism in the public square. Speaking last week he asked for faith that “the light and strength of God” is working in us when we seek the healthy unity of our communities.
“The only danger the Church can and should fear is the sin of her members,” the pope said. Trials and threats from elsewhere are opportunities to show how we are “the presence, the guarantee, of God’s love against all ideologies of hatred and selfishness.”
The greeting “Happy Holidays” is not nearly as warming as “Merry Christmas,” but we should not begrudge its place in an uncertain, confused, struggling world. Accept it and reciprocate as one of those opportunities to be the presence of God’s love. Peace on earth won’t be realized in our somewhat selfish desire to own the greeting of this season.
The real danger we should fear is elsewhere, as Pope Benedict reminds us.
Besides, almost any high school choral concert for Christmas – or whatever substitute name this seasonal event might have where you live – will be reassuring. There is music from other traditions, and from the pop culture of seasonal tunes, but the classics inspired by the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth still provide some of the best musical experience. Handel’s “Messiah” may not be well understood by all of the students who sing it, but they do enjoy the full-throated exultation of doing it.
We all should keep our focus on that feast we anticipate, on all that it means, and smile so that others will wonder what secret lights up those Christians.