Rhode Island Governor, Lincoln Chaffee, was met by vocal opposition this week at the tree lighting ceremony for his state’s official holiday tree. That is right; he called it a holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree. After he lit the tree, a few dozen protesters started singing “O Christmas Tree.” Their contention was, of course, that calling the tree a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree diminished the religious significance of the season. Yet, I wonder if it is possible for anyone to do anything that will diminish the religious significance of the season any more than it has already been diminished.
Governor Chaffee defended his actions by noting that his predecessor had referred to the tree as a holiday tree, and in that sense, he was just following precedent. He referred to his state’s founder, Roger Williams, who fled religious persecution in nearby Massachusetts, and founded the Rhode Island colony as a place where individuals could exercise freedom of conscience. At the unveiling of the statue of Roger Williams at the US Capitol in 1872, Rhode Island Senator William Sprague observed that Roger Williams, “successfully vindicated the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, and affected a moral and political revolution in all governments of the civilized world.” Williams was no antagonist toward religion. In fact, just the opposite was true. Shortly after founding the new colony, Williams organized what would become the First Baptist Church in the new World.
Ironically, Williams likely would have been at a loss for words regarding what to call a tree used to celebrate or commemorate the Christmas season. Why? Well there simply were no trees, Christmas or otherwise during William’s day. They are later additions to the way we observe Christmas, and likely did not appear in this country until the 1700s or early 1800s.
Therein, lies a deeper irony. Christmas, what it is and what it means, has become a muddled dispute about what to call a tree. Trees, wreaths, lights and lawn ornaments are, for some people, a helpful way to enter into the story of Christ’s birth. For others, they add no particular inspiration beyond the festive brightness they add to an otherwise barren winter landscape. To the extent that they are helpful, they ought to be encouraged. To the extent that they become a distraction, they ought to be set aside figuratively, if not literally.
God is coming. We as Christians have a hard time getting our minds around that reality. The very idea of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us is something we know as wonder and mystery. Our capacity to embrace it and celebrate it is a part of God’s gift of faith to us. How, then, can we expect an unrepentant world to celebrate what we ourselves only know of because of God’s gracious gift to us? Such expectations seem unreasonable, even as such disputes diminish our testimony and lessen the impact of that first Christmas on the world today.
There really is nothing about which to argue. Christmas has happened, is happening, and will happen. God is coming. There is nothing anyone can do or say that will change that reality. What is essential for us is to enter the story of God’s coming more fully, leaving behind whatever keeps that divine child from being born anew in our lives, and taking hold of whatever causes his presence to be more real in our lives and be more evident in our living.
The story of Christmas is a story of good news. It is a story to which we are not merely meant to listen to, but to enter. If all we ever do is listen to the story, the carols, and the sounds of the season, we have missed God’s intention for us. We are invited to join the story and to let our lives be shaped by it so we become a part of the good news God so wonderfully and miraculously proclaimed that night long ago in Bethlehem.