Talk to me about the war on Christmas. How many of you are having a hard time finding Christmas decorations? How many of your family members have met you in back alleys to exchange cards, hoping to be undetected? Other than the icy roads, who was worried about coming here today? Has anyone been so deluged by Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa commercialism that they just felt unable to get a word in edgewise for the Christmas holiday? Anyone?
It is hard for me to listen to rhetoric about the “war on Christmas” and think about religious persecution around the world that happens today, both to Christians and non-Christians. It’s hard for me to listen to rants about the “war on Christmas” and to read about Daniel at the same time. Here is a story about real persecution and real faith. A story about a young Jewish exile, likely born in Babylon, never having seen Jerusalem… he serves under four kings, the first two of which change his name- not calling him by his Hebrew name Daniel, but by the Greek name- Belteshazzar. Daniel serves at the pleasure of the king and does not hold back from the obviousness of his true devotion to the one God.
Daniel maintains a strict diet (see Daniel 1), interprets dreams (Daniel 3-5), and finally refuses to cave to pressure from jealous rivals and does not stop worshipping God (Daniel 6). This story is almost intimidating in Daniel’s faithfulness. He has no guarantee that God will prevent the lions from destroying him. God didn’t prevent the exile into Babylon. Daniel’s only comfort is in trusting in God’s faithfulness above all else- above the desertion of exile, above the power of King Darius, above the ferocious nature of the lions.
When I think of what it means to live faithfully, under those kind of conditions, the much-discussed “war on Christmas” becomes unimpressive indeed. As we enter the season of Advent today, we are called to ponder what are the lions that face us? What is the exile we experience?
We know that Christmas, the holy day (as opposed to the holiday), is not for another 22 days, beginning the evening of 24 December. Believing that God-with-us, Emmanuel, has already been born into world once, is present with us still, and yet will come again, what are we waiting for? The exile we experience is the space between what we believe is true and what we observe around us.
We believe in the Prince of Peace and yet we do not see peace. We believe in the Spirit of Consolation and still we see many who are not consoled, grieving, anguished. We believe in the Creator of all that is seen and unseen and yet we see many who struggle- some because of their own decisions, some because of the actions of others. We believe a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, yet the darkness still seems very, very deep (and not just because it’s winter in Alaska).
The lions that slink around us in Advent are both obvious and subtle. There are showy lions of commercialism, decadence, and acquisition. Their roars tempt us to place our hope in things that are shiny and promising now. Then there are the subtle, hungry lions of hopelessness, frustration, depression, and isolation. Their sneak attacks undercut our ability to stand false brightness of the holiday and leave us unprepared for the holy day. The war on Christmas isn’t some outside entity, but a struggle that happens within us and around us to undercut our waiting hope- emphasized this time of year, but lived out every day of the year.
Our Advent exile- our time apart, waiting in hope- gives us the opportunity to fight off these lions, to dare to be a Daniel and to pray beyond the falseness of their promises. In this season of waiting, we are presented with the chance to exercise our faithfulness, our hope in God, our expectation of holiness, our trust in the promise of Emmanuel, God-with-us. And, like Daniel, our faithfulness only stands in the light- the undimmed light- of the One God who is the gifter, sustainer, and perfecter, who is Faithfulness itself.