The Irony of the Domesticated Christmas


Have we domesticated Christmas?

In some ways we have and in others we have not. Yet the manners in which we have done this taming are intertwined and interrelated. Let me try to explain.

Yes, we have.

We have domesticated the Incarnation by turning Christmas into baby Jesus’ birthday.

Yes, Christmas is about Jesus’ day of birth. It is about a baby. (If you’re hearing Ricky Bobby, know you are not alone.) Yet when we leave things there, we stop ourselves short of the reality of Christmas. Namely, we divorce the fuller, deeper, truer reality of the Incarnation.

I love what Joan Chittister says:

But if our expectation of Christmas remains at this level, the birthday of the ‘baby Jesus’ becomes at best a pastoral attempt to make Jesus real. This Jesus is a child’s Jesus that, too often – if our definition of Christmas is simply a child’s story about the birth of a child – will remain just that. It is a simple, soothing story that makes few, if any, demands on the soul. (Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year, p. 65-66)

“Demands on the soul.” These are the things we – willfully or not – abandon when we rally around the birth of a mere baby. We can coo over a baby; we can set up a Nativity display centered on a baby; we can sing of his lack of crying. “But,” as Chittister again points out, “the birth date of this child is not one of the great mysteries of the faith.” The Incarnation is.

The demands of the soul are the very things Christmas is about. Within the domesticated Christmas story, we tend to skim right over them or past them as background points of lesser value. In this domesticated Christmas, we revel in joy and peace, but do so at the expense of justice and mercy – the demands of the soul. We love to sing of joy and peace, but often atomize them away from their partners: justice and mercy.

And not just general justice and mercy, but justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalized. The poor, the widowed, the weak; these are the recipients of justice and mercy in the Christmas account. Joy and peace are theirs; however, those who have worked towards justice through mercy know full well: the good news of great joy is for all. Justice and mercy are only real when they are real for everyone. As chains are broken and oppression ceased, great joy comes to all. Yet, the domesticated Christmas knows little of these things. Peace and joy are never able to cross the chasm to justice and mercy.

Much of this has occurred because we have ripped Christmas from its context. When we divorce Christmas from Advent (and then Epiphany, etc.) we don’t hear the voices of the prophets telling us of the justice, peace, and mercy the Savior would bring.

Deaf ears to the prophets’ cries halts the alternative way of life they are beckoning us towards. These things don’t make sense in the domesticated Christmas. Instead, platitudes and warm greetings replace them as pseudo-justices and quasi-mercies. Intentionality founded upon relationship is needed for justice and mercy. The Incarnation asks for our intentionality; a baby doesn’t.

Moreover, Christmas this way takes place in a vacuum. It is a general occurrence in a general locale among general people. Without the story of Israel as the overarching narrative in which we can place Christmas, justice and mercy are things that take place in our hearts, not between real people. Christmas gives us eyes that concrete places and people are at the forefront of God’s activity in the world.

Severing Jesus from the political, social, and economic context of Roman oppression is like removing Moses from the context of Jewish slavery under Pharaoh’s rule. – Adam Russell Taylor

And so we turn the wild story of God-with-us into a tame cuddly baby-with-us void of justice, peace, and mercy. We silence the voice of the boom of the Incarnation – God’s way of saying, “I know. Me too” – into a silent night. We miss the moving picture of the continuing story of God’s descent unto us in love and humiliation for a stand-alone picturesque episode.

No, we haven’t.

Ironically, our domestication of the Incarnation has prevented us from domesticating the Incarnation in our lives.

What I mean by this is that in our domestication of the Incarnation we have inadvertently failed to domesticate our own lives. We miss the very point of Christmas: small, overlooked, weak, impoverished, mundane and lowly are the revolutionary means by which God works. And it starts at home.

Domesticate shares its roots with domestic. Domestic is all about the home, household, family. It is about being within a particular household and understanding the affairs there within. Things that are domesticated are found within a domus, the Latin for home. And our homes are found in our neighborhoods.

In our blindness to the banal, we have developed a penchant towards the antithesis of these things. We think the big, obvious, powerful, grandiose, and extraordinary are the sole means of getting things done when Christmas – the entrance of God into our world as one of us – indicates otherwise.

More often that not, this inclination pushes us away from our domus and into the unknown. God’s activity is happening across the country, across the Atlantic, but hardly across the dining table or across the street. Mistakenly, we believe ease is found when we can enter into a place or people of whom we know little and have little to no actual presence. Rather than doing the difficult work of joining with God where we are rooted, we determine ourselves to lives of non-domesticity.

Justice, mercy and peace thus become realities absent from our everyday relationships.
Participation with those we work with, share a yard with, or eat our meals with gets neglected in the hopes of gaining an ounce of renown or celebrity or, in the opposite direction, anonymity. Even if it is only fleeting, many of us would rather be well known by those we don’t know over being known by those closest to us. Again, ironically, this usually leads to further anonymity.

Think about this: Jesus spent 30 years soaking in, ruminating among, and becoming a local. From there he was able to speak into the lives of others as one immersed in the stories, practices, and common rhythms of life. It was a slow, intentional, incremental process of life that he gave himself over to. Justice, mercy, and peace – all kingdom of God realities – were found the Incarnated One as he was/is the embodiment of them all.

And it started at Christmas.

What do you think? Am I way off?

Have you noticed an intertwining of the domestication of Christmas? Is there such a thing as the domesticated Christmas?