Epiphany–in my opinion–has always had the edge on Christmas. Sure, I like the Christ child and the manger and the ox and ass and St Joseph, and the Blessed Virgin, and the angels and shepherds and, “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.”
But I think I like the wise men better. I like their humble wisdom, and the way they outfoxed that old fox Herod. I like the way they set out to follow the star not really knowing where they were going, and I like the poem by that other wise man T.S. Eliot, who mused, “A cold coming they had of it, the worst time of the year for a journey–the ways deep and the weather sharp.” I like the fact that the three wise men left their foreign philosophies and opened their hearts and minds in wonder at the miraculous child of Bethlehem.
Epiphany is the summit of the Christmas season for me, but alas, members of our society are increasingly enchanted not by the story of a star, the magic of the magi, the opening out of an intellectual mind, and the sacrifice of a long, hard journey. Instead they are sated by the easy cynicism not of three wise men, but three stooges. I am not referring literally to Larry, Moe and Curly, but to three idiotic mindsets that undermine the spirit of Christmas–making these anti-magi not only three stooges, but three scrooges.
The first is the openly grumpy group of atheists and politically correct activists who are doing everything they can to rip Christmas from the public square. So for example, this year the stooges in Santa Monica, California won the right to get rid of a nativity scene that had been in the public park every Christmas for decades. They hung up a sophomoric display with Satan, Santa, and Jesus with the slogan, “37 million Americans know a myth when they see one…”
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Dr.Tim Stanley quotes Bill Donohue from the Catholic League, who reports more mindless three scroogery:
“In a South Carolina cancer center, a 67-year-old volunteer Santa was evicted because of the ‘different cultures and beliefs of the patients we care for’ … In an elementary school in Stockton, California, poinsettias were banned but somehow snowmen were permitted; they justified their censorship by saying there was a Sikh temple in the city … A skeleton St. Nick was found hanging from a cross on the grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg, Virginia.”
This sort of slapstick atheism is not too hard to dispose of. To be blunt, it’s about as shallow and stupid as Larry poking Curly in the eye. Anyone with a bit of knowledge, culture, learning, heart and even a smidgen of faith, will see through it, shake their head with sad dismay and maybe even laugh at the corny anger and silly self-importance of it all.
The second of the three stooges is the secular commercialism of the season. I don’t just mean the non-stop Christmas shopping–going out spending money we don’t have to buy presents we don’t need for people we don’t like. I mean the whole ridiculous cultural phenomenon of secular Christmas music about snowmen and reindeer and winter wonderlands and “Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” From Thanksgiving onward, Americans trip out like some hyper kid on a sugar induced high through the sickening sentimentality of Bing or Nat or Doris or Judy or Frank crooning on about city sidewalks, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and Santa Claus coming to town.
Am I being a scrooge myself? No. I like Christmas carols and Advent carol services and decorating the tree and giving presents and having a feast, but it’s about the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Santa (or is it Satan?) has been having a heyday, making Christmas about anything but Christ and Mass. The “shop until you drop” atmosphere from Black Friday to Christmas Eve is only a sick secular sacramental of our true beliefs–that we worship not Almighty God, but the Almighty dollar and all the trinkets the great god Mammon can offer.
And that brings me to the third stooge. The other two jokers were not too subtle. This one is not a wise man, but a wise guy. He doesn’t want to get rid of Christmas. He actually likes the celebration. In fact, he agrees that the aggressive atheists are stooges. With the Christians he laments the secularization and commercialization of the holiday. He wants a tasteful, relaxed, and traditional Christmas.
An example of this third stooge is none other than famous British atheist Richard Dawkins. Dr Stanley quotes Dawkins’ article in the New Statesman, where the atheist claims to be a “cultural Anglican,” and writes with typical North Oxford snobbery, “I recoil from secular carols such as ‘White Christmas’, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells’, but I’m happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I’ll gladly oblige–only from the King James Version, of course.” Stanley rightly observes, “The world Richard Dawkins wants to live in is a little like the dinosaur room in a museum: full of the bare bones of old ideas, stripped of their flesh and devoid of life.”
This third stooge is a joker like no other. He sips sherry and nibbles a mince pie, attends the carol concert in the village church, comes home and opens his Christmas cards and appreciates the tasteful prints of fine art Nativity scenes, and may even ponder the beauty of the ancient fairy tale of a god come to earth heralded by angel songs to simple poor shepherds asleep where they lay.
This third sort of Christmas stooge (to quote St Paul) has the form of religion but denies the power thereof. Even worse is the fact that Dawkins’ atheistic celebration of a ‘cultural Christmas’ is pretty much the same as the majority of modern clergy. Right across the mainstream Protestant churches (and sadly among many Catholics as well) any real belief in the supernatural historicity of the Christmas story has been long dead.
This manner of stooge is alive and well amongst the clergy themselves, and they are even more dishonest than Dawkins. At least he admits to being an atheist. The modernist clergy person stands up on Christmas day with a moist eye and spout words of belief about the Virgin Birth–but what he really means is that Mary was a “good Jewish girl” who unfortunately became pregnant, but did a good job as a single mother! As for all those words about “God from God light from light, very God of Very God” and “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”? The modernist priest smiles condescendingly and says, “We all now know don’t we, that what those beautiful words mean is that in some wonderful and mysterious way the man Jesus Christ shows us the fullness of what it means to be human and therefore he also shows us what it means to be divine.”
So which came first–the atheistic, secular consumerist Christmas, or the denial of the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God? In fact, modernist theologians have been “re-interpreting” the Christmas story–weeding out the supernatural and treating it as a charming Semitic legend– for well over sixty years now.
Every argument is a theological argument, and I reckon we have the modernist theologians to blame for turning the three wise men into the three stooges of the secular Epiphany. If so, the real way to put Christ and the Mass back into Christmas is not to rail against the commercialism and secularism and atheism, but to re-affirm with all our hearts and minds and wills the stunning beauty and truth of the old, old story: that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, took human flesh of his Virgin Mother, and that he did so for the redemption of the world; and it is this marvelous miracle– this incarnation of Almighty God as a vulnerable infant that makes us wise and makes us worship and adore like the three kings who travelled so far.
Rev. Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish and chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.