Last year, Pope Francis declared Christmas “a charade,” arguing that while the angels proclaimed peace on earth, there is no peace in the world today.
“We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes — all decked out — while the world continues to wage war,” Francis said during a mass in November 2015. “It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”
This led Christopher Jolly Hale, executive director of the liberal group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and a former Catholic outreach director for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, to say that Pope Francis is “waging a war on Christmas.”
Hale quoted Francis, who remarked, “We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it. God weeps; Jesus weeps.”
The pope’s remarks hit home, and indeed it seems odd to sing “Peace on earth and mercy mild/ God and sinners reconciled” in the wake of the Berlin truck attack and the frightening news that the Islamic State published a list of churches to attack on “Christian New Year.” Where is this peace on earth? Indeed, in Iraq and Syria, the entire world is at war.
But Hale, writing on Christmas Eve this year, drew the wrong lesson from this. He interpreted Pope Francis as launching a rebuke against the notion shared by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and President-elect Donald Trump that the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” in department stores — rather than “Happy Holidays” — is an important demonstration of Christian political power.
“The meaning of Christmas isn’t strength and visibility in the public square,” Hale argued. “The central claim of this holiday has always been that the rejected, crucified and executed Jesus Christ is still somehow Lord of the entire earth. In Trump’s world, those like Jesus Christ are the losers. In God’s world, these are the victors.”
In one sense, Hale was spot on. Christmas — and the birth of Jesus Christ — isn’t about a present and powerful earthly kingdom, but the once and future kingdom of God on earth.
Indeed, many Christmas carols emphasize the contrast between God’s promised righteousness for the oppressed and the current sin and injustice in the world. The third verse of “Joy to the World” implores worshipers to “no more let sins and sorrows grow/nor thorns infest the ground,” because Jesus “comes to make His blessings flow/far as the curse is found.”
Christmas — and Christianity in general — looks to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, when he will “rule the world with truth and grace.” But Christmas is not just about anticipation, it’s also about celebrating the very first inklings of that coming kingdom: the birth of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ birth is not just a miracle because Mary was a virgin — the biggest miracle involved is the actual presence of God, the creator of the universe, in human flesh. This miracle, which Christians call the Incarnation, reunited God with humankind. And while Jesus did not conquer and possess an earthly kingdom, the church He founded has proven more resilient and more lasting than any empire.
This was made abundantly clear on Christmas Eve, when Christians in the ancient Iraqi town of Bartella celebrated Christmas for the first time in two years, after being liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Christians had been forced to leave their homes after the town was overrun by ISIS fighters, but the town was liberated in late October, allowing Christians to come back. Hundreds of Christians made a pilgrimage in buses on a gray and rainy Christmas Eve, driving in from caps set up in the city of Irbil.
Bartella is a mere 12.5 miles east of the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, where coalition forces are still battling thousands of militants. As mass was celebrated Saturday, Iraqi and US security forces were on standby to protect worshipers at the historic Mart Shmony Church.
This celebration of Christmas after two years of ISIS occupation is exactly the kind of “visibility in the public square” which Christmas is about. These oppressed Christians who were forced from their homes and villages, now to return and celebrate the birth of the Savior, are a fitting symbol of God’s redemptive love and power first shown to shepherds, wise men, and Mary and Joseph.
This rebirth of hope in a dark place and time is exactly what Christmas is about. No, Bartella does not have peace. No, those Christians have not really received justice for what was done to them. No, the kingdom of Jesus Christ has not come on earth.
But Christmas in Bartella, like Christmas everywhere, is not only about celebrating what has happened — the virgin birth of the Lord God of Hosts in a lowly manger — but also looking forward to what will happen — the Second Coming when Jesus Christ will rule the earth with righteousness and peace.
Christians should work to make the earth more just and more peaceful, but ultimately only God will bring Heaven on Earth — because only the presence of God among us will satisfy the longings of every human heart.
Christmas is a time of joy and celebration because Jesus’s birth represented that fundamental reunion of God with human beings. When Jesus left the Holy Spirit to guide His church, that presence of God with men persisted to this day. But even that is just a taste of the coming kingdom.
Christmas celebrates what was, but it also looks forward to what will be. Pope Francis is right — justice and peace have not come to this world, and that truly is a pity. Christians must mourn with those who mourn. But we also must rejoice with those who rejoice. Let us remember the suffering in Aleppo, but let us also remember the joyous return of Christians to Bartella.
Let us mourn the sin of Adam and Eve — and all the pain and death which followed, in wars and pestilence, oppression and abuse — but let us rejoice that in Jesus Christ God Himself became incarnate among us. Let us rejoice that He will return to judge the oppressed and bring an era of peace and joy.
Christmas may well be a charade — but that doesn’t make it a sham. The joy of Christians in Bartella is real, as is the joy of those celebrating Christmas across the world today. Let us celebrate the once and future king, the “already here” and the “not yet.” For the dwelling place of God will be with men, and we will be His people, and He will be our God.