Each year, the holiday season brings with it many historic traditions, like the red cups at Starbucks, the bad pop Christmas songs playing in every retail store in the country, and the revived rhetoric among certain Christians about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” Perhaps you have heard talk of this on the news or seen posts about it in your Facebook feed. I assume the underlying concern is that the removal of any religious references from the holiday might indicate a resistance against or stifling of Christianity in our country. I can appreciate that. But, first, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got multiple holidays happening in tandem rather than one religious holiday being continually corrupted. C.S. Lewis identified three Christmases in his essay “What Christmas Means to Me” from God in the Dock: there’s the “religious festival,” which is “important and obligatory for Christians,” and the “popular holiday,” which is “an occasion for merry-making and hospitality” for many, regardless of religion or background. Lewis calls the third Christmas the “commercial racket” that “has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers.” He elaborates in typical Lewis fashion—smart, concise, funny—if you’re interested in reading the entire essay, but I’ve shared enough to make my present point.
Second, if we want to talk about a “war” on Christianity, there are more important discussions to be had than whether our barista wishes us “Happy Holidays” or our city hall puts up a nativity scene on its lawn.
What does it actually look like, then, to “keep Christ in Christmas”?
A Facebook friend shared a meme a few days ago that said:
Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.
This meme references, in part, Matthew 25, in which Christ speaks of the final judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” the passage begins, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” And he tells the righteous that they will inherit the kingdom because they visited him when he was sick, they clothed him when he was naked, they went to him when he was in prison, and so on (25:31-40). Then he turns to the unrighteous. I’m only going to directly quote this portion because I think it’s more powerful:
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” (25:41-45)
In the past few months, some controversy has arisen as cities have begun implementing tighter restrictions on giving food to homeless people. A ninety-year-old man and two pastors in Fort Lauderdale were even arrested for feeding the homeless. Some argue that freely handing out cash does more harm than good, as certain statistics show that most of the cash is used for drugs, alcohol, or prostitution.
But I just can’t get away from Christ’s words: “As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” There are no loopholes. Christ is not ambiguous. Of the poor and needy, he doesn’t merely say, “I relate to that person.” He says, “I am that person.” Remembering this makes it harder for me to avert my eyes from the homeless man asking for change outside my subway stop.
“Give to him who begs from you,” Christ says in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:42). He does not say to only give to those who have pure motives for asking, or only to those who you’re sure aren’t going to use your gift for something bad. As I ignored that homeless man on the subway platform, I ignored God. As I did not give to that woman holding the cardboard sign at the stoplight, I did not give to God.
We should be doing things as a society to reduce homelessness long term and to help people find steady employment and recovery programs, if needed. Of course. But as a Christian, clinging to statistics feels too much like making excuses. After all, even if the statistics are accurate, I can’t know what the human being standing in front of me will do with that money. (I’m pretty sure I can guess what he’ll do with the food I give him, but I suppose I can’t know that for sure, either.) And more and more I find myself of the mindset that, on an important level, it really doesn’t matter. The two issues—programs to reduce homelessness in the long term and giving freely in the short term—feel almost separate to me, and they certainly don’t seem mutually exclusive. In the moment when someone in need asks me for something, my actions are between me and God, and God has said what he expects of me in no uncertain terms. It is a matter of human dignity and human duty.
Another friend recently shared (again, on Facebook; good for something, I guess) this quotation from St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris that also potently references Christ’s words in Matthew 25:
At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many bows I have made before the divine altar. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in his jail. That is all I will be asked.
So, are you wondering how to keep Christ in Christmas (and in your daily life, year-round)? Ask yourself: are you keeping Christ fed, and warm, and comforted, and loved? Are you giving to Christ when he begs of you? Because that is all we will be asked.
Image via Wikimedia Commons