Preaching Immanuel among Cynics

Star of Wonder. Image by Colin Campbell via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I recently came across a survey asking respondents’ attitudes toward Christmas. The vast majority of those surveyed disagreed with the sentiment that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Roughly half gave the equivalent of a shrug, saying that “it’s OK.” More than 20 percent responded that they do not like Christmas, or that they hate it. They actually hate the season of “peace on earth, good will to all.”

I am wondering what this says about the way we proclaim the coming of Immanuel — “God with us.”

Granted, Christians have not always celebrated Christmas in a formal way. As The Man Who Invented Christmas [2017] conveys, our present celebration is largely a product of evolution over the past century and a half, combining the religious with the secular. The church has shown that it can survive without it.

Nonetheless, the Christmas season, along with Easter, should be the pinnacle of our proclamation to the world. Many of the trappings of the season are tailor-made to facilitate that. Christmas virtually tees up the Christian message for proclamation to those who otherwise are not receptive to it.

Look at the generosity of spirit that shines during the Christmas season; in the dramatic increase of charitable giving among people of all religions, and no religion. When else do we spend so much time with longstanding traditions and contemplate the mystery of God coming to earth?

What’s not to like about a time when we eagerly give gifts to each other, when widely scattered families make a great effort to gather for this season, and when complete strangers exchange holiday wishes, whether it be “Blessed Christmas, Merry Christmas, or Season’s Greetings?”

I haven’t seen any in-depth explanation of why so many people are turned off by Christmas. But it seems that if, in spite of all the many assets surrounding this holiday, so many people are turned off by the celebration of the coming of Christ, we must be doing something wrong, or inadequately in our proclamation.

  • Are we floating too shallowly and contentedly on the season as a time of general good will and thereby being complicit in the traditions that obscure or cheapen the coming of Christ?
  • Are we too frustrated trying to figure out what to do with those who claim some marginal Christian belief but only show up in church on Christmas and Easter?
  • Are we too angry and defensive in trying to preserve Christmas as a strictly religious holiday, for Christians only?

Given all the pressures on us, it’s hard to strike the right tone in proclaiming Christmas from a pulpit — especially in view of the fact that Christmas sermons can be some of the hardest to write (how do you preach on this for the 20th time?).

We have no control over what others may do to commercialize or overstress the Christmas season. Pastors know what it is like to be tired and even overwhelmed at Christmas.

But if a pastor gives in to fatigue, routine, and even cynicism on Christmas, we not only waste a great opportunity, but we are likely to contribute to the negative feelings that arise at Christmas.

Christmas is an exciting time. In our present culture, it is a rare forum for proclaiming the love of God, and the making of all things new. God grant all of us the childlike wonder in the Christmas season that will rekindle in others, as well as ourselves, the mystery of Immanuel.

In Nathan Aaseng’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Preaching Life,” a writer and preacher reflects on the rhythms of preaching in a parish in central Wisconsin.