I find that as one ages, the passage of a year is marked less in months and dates than by events which, like clockwork, serve to mark the seasons more accurately than calendars ever could. The green returning to the grass, a first trip to the beach, leaves changing colors, the first snow, and of course, the inevitable New York Times article around Christmas that shows a profound misunderstanding of the holiday.
This year’s entry, entitled An Atheist’s Christmas Dream, finds its inspiration in the “Christmas Truce” of World War I, when for a day, peace broke out and the opposing soldiers played soccer, sang carols, and caught a fleeting glimpse of the future promised by Isaiah when men will finally beat their swords into plowshares. After the conventional shallow asides about God and violence (and some even less relevant ones about Socialiasm), Bittman finally gets to his burning question about what is it about Christmas that led to this unexpected peace. In his defense, Bittman doesn’t proffer his own answer, but instead cribs one from someone else, which is that it is found in the “golden rule” to love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others as you’d have done unto you. He then goes on to insist, despite all historical evidence to the contrary, that if we “properly love one another as best we can,” that “just and wonderful world can be ours.”
What’s most remarkable about the piece is that Bittman can waste so many words spouting nonsense without ever even answering his own question. After all, “the golden rule” comes from Jesus’ sermons, but appears nowhere in the Christmas narratives. Indeed, the Christmas accounts as offered in the Gospel are wholly devoid of any indication whatsoever as to how we ought to treat each other in order to create a “just and wonderful world.” Because the fundamental meaning of Christmas is emphatically NOT that we should love each other, be nice to each other, or otherwise try to create a beautiful world. Ironically, while a sober reflection on Christmas will lead to those results, it is only arrived at by realizing that the deep meaning of Christmas is precisely the opposite.
When the angels preached the good news to the shepherds in the field that night, it did not include a sermon on how to treat each other. Rather, it was that unto them was born that day a savior, who was Christ the Lord. In other words, the “good news” was that the shepherds–and everyone else for that matter–were so utterly lost and broken that they could not fix themselves, so God Himself had to save them by coming into the world as little baby, living the life we ought to live, and ultimately being tortured to death to satisfy the wrath that we deserve. The short, meaning of Christmas is found not in presents or Santa, but in Easter. If we could simply will ourselves to love each other perfectly, there would have been no need for Christ to come at all. But of course, we can’t, as anyone who soberly reflects on his own heart realizes.
Christmas is not a variation of the sermon on the mount; rather, it is a reminder that we cannot ever fully live the sermon, and so we desperately need a savior. Were Christianity merely another set of commands–even to love–it would be no different from any of the other commands that the WWI soldiers received from their commanders. Even worse, one would find an impossible set of rules and duties imposed on the heart that we have no hope of fulfilling. No, Christianity leads to love and self-sacrifice not by demanding it, but rather by confronting us with the cold truth that we once were utterly lost, but then while we were still in rebellion against God, He loved us and showed mercy to us, so much so that He sent His only son to die in our place. And He loved your neighbor–your enemy–that way, too. God loves you, even though you don’t deserve it. And that same God loves them, even though they don’t deserve it either. At Christmas we don’t celebrate a rule, but the historical truth that on all those who once were dwelling in the shadow of death, a Light has finally dawned. It is a truth that does not merely change your behavior, but rather changes your heart for your fellow broken, sinful neighbors around you. In other words, we find love and peace at Christmas not because of the Golden Rule, but by being reminded that God first loved us.