The real meaning of the War on Christmas
Of course Christmas is at war — but Starbucks has nothing to do with it
The Gospel of Mark begins innocuously enough: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
Innocuously enough — to our ears. The Greek word for "gospel," evangelion, means "good news" and was well known throughout the Greco-Roman world: Whenever the Roman Emperor won a smashing new military victory, his heralds would fan out across the empire and announce the evangelion. Starting with Caesar and Augustus, Roman emperors were typically deified — declared to have become gods — upon their deaths, and so the emperors bore the title of "divii filius," son of the the divinized one — shortened in Greek to "huios theou," son of god. This royal title was embossed on most coins, the mass media of the Mediterranean world.
So take a look again at "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
This innocuous line was nothing short of a declaration of war. There's a new boss in town, this Jesus, and not only is he not the Roman Emperor, but he has won a great victory. The Gospel of Mark was most likely written by John Mark based on the teachings of Peter, leader of the early Church, after the latter was crucified during Nero's persecutions of Christians in Rome. Peter most likely died in Rome's Circus of Nero, and the last thing he saw might have been the Egyptian obelisk that stood in its center; this obelisk now stands in the center of St Peter's Square, a reminder to popes that they are committed to martyrdom if need be, and a reminder to the world that the Church of Christ, then and always, is the graveyard of empires.
So, is there a war on Christmas? Of course there is a war on Christmas — Christmas is a declaration of war.
This is how Luke's Gospel describes the nativity, with a "heavenly host" of angels greeting the new king of the world. "You think you have an army?" Luke is saying to the Roman Empire, like Crocodile Dundee with his machete, "No, this is an army." In John's Gospel, Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection as "throwing out the prince of this world." The Apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer, speaks of Jesus "putting [the forces of evil] under his feet" and parading them, as a Roman Emperor would during a triumph, or victory parade. The New Testament is unapologetic in talking of Jesus' arrival on Earth, and his work, as the decisive act in a cosmic spiritual war.
Christmas — the commemoration of the event when the Lord of all that is became a helpless child to save us — is a declaration of war against all falsity, all violence, all hatred, all dominion, all empires, all shallowness.
All of which is to say — we're talking about red Starbucks cups? Really?
Saying there's a "War on Christmas" is like saying that there's a "War on D-Day." The expression is either redundant or nonsensical. Of course there's a war on; Christmas is an act of war.
But — and this is where my fellow Christians go wrong — the battlefield isn't in Starbucks, or in holiday greetings, or in whatever else. Today, at least in the West, the means of warfare against the Church are no longer lions and crosses. Today, the means are appropriation and condescension.
Yes, Christmas is being secularized into a fake festival of consumerism and, maybe, goody-goody warm fuzzy feelings, as society itself is becoming secularized. And yes, as always, as Pope Francis would remind us, the forces behind this are always ultimately dark spiritual forces.
Of course, when Christians object to greeters saying "Happy Holidays," what they are objecting to is not an attack on Christmas itself, they are objecting to an attack on the social standing of Christmas. "Merry Christmas" in stores instead of "Happy Holidays" and manger scenes instead of Santa and reindeer are social cues meant to reinforce the social standing of the Christian message. These may be good insofar as they bring people's attention to the meaning of Christmas itself, but they may also be bad insofar as they turn Christianity into a peaceful, bourgeois religion, equating it with something everyone does for social standing, rather than the sword of the Gospel that cuts through all our pretensions.
One thing is certain: Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the idea that Christians are entitled to social standing. Quite the opposite, in fact. "The truth shall set you free," Jesus said; "the truth shall make you odd," Flannery O'Connor added.
We Christians have no entitlement to social standing, only to God's love and grace. A lot of people, quite understandably, also don't like being told "Merry Christmas" when they don't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and don't see any good reason to. A lot of baristas are just trying to do their jobs and deserve charity first and foremost (like everyone else). The more we whine about this nonsense, the more we behave in ways the New Testament says we shouldn't — like entitled people defensive of their privileges. Like people who are losing the war, even though the Gospel says the war has been won.
The New Testament says that Jesus came here to bring the sword and to fight a war, but it is also quite explicit about the means for war: faith, hope, and love.
The fake War on Christmas, such as it is, wouldn't be going on if society wasn't secularizing fast, a problem that speaks to Christianity's apparent lack of appeal. So how do you make Christianity more attractive? History shows us it's the love that Christians have for one another, and for everyone else.
This is how the war has always been won, is won, and will be won. Not by stamping cartoon baby Jesus on a Frappucino.