When I lived in Thailand, I occasionally visited a large department store a few blocks from my house. Down a small street running behind the store a Taoist shrine had been built by the department store owners to console the slum dwellers who had been evicted from the area earlier to make way for construction of the large building.
Like all Taoist shrines, it was ornate with colorful dragons wrapped around ornamental pillars and a gold and red ancestral table inside containing the flowers, incense and fruit offerings devotees brought each day. Also wrapped around the brightly colored pillars were blinking lights – the kind we decorate our houses with at Christmas time. As the lights blinked, electronic music emanated from small black boxes at the base of each strand.
Each time I walked past the shrine I found myself singing along with the electronic music as the little black boxes played “Silent Night, Holy Night” over and over again.
I found this to be a very interesting contrast. One of Christianity’s favorite Christmas carols being played all year long in a Taoist shrine. But I doubt that the many visitors coming to the shrine to meditate, give gifts of fruit and light incense saw the strangeness of this Christmas melody being play continuously day and night in their shrine.
In the years since leaving Thailand I have often thought of that small Taoist shrine and its electronic “Silent Night” serenade. For me, it is symbolic of the kind of Christmas we have exported to the world; a Christmas of beautiful music, but not the meaning of the songs, a Christmas of gift-giving but not a clear explanation of why gifts are given on this day, a day that was to bring peace and compassion but instead seems to bring disharmony and anger. For many people in Asia not familiar with the Biblical account of the first Christmas, the seasonal television shows, the movies and even the international news suggests to them that Christmas is a time of fighting over bargains during Black Friday, boisterous parties and excessive eating. Even those who do ask about the deeper meaning of Christmas sadly often listen with little interest because the holiday we have exported into their countries is much more interesting than hearing about a baby born in a stable.
This year we are hearing a lot about the “war on Christmas.” That one is even more difficult to try and explain to friends of other faiths. But then, I do believe that the war on Christmas does exist. It is not a war instigated by liberals, democrats or even people who claim to have no faith. Rather, I believe it is a war against the true meaning of Christmas by the powerful forces of consumerism which has led us to worship possessions rather than the Christ child, regale in decoration and parties rather than silently meditate on how to turn the true message of Christmas into a transformed world that reflects God’s community of peace, spend exorbitant amounts of money for gifts that may never be used instead of caring compassionately for the suffering of our world.
The war on Christmas has also resulted in unfortunate arguments about whether Jesus and Santa Clause are white men, or whether we should say Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. Are these the issues that really define the reason for the season, or is it more important how we live our lives each and every day that explains the value and purpose of an event that happened more than two thousand years ago? For those here in Asia seeking to understand why Christmas is such an important season, the bickering over words and skin color is of no meaning or importance. What will speak to them clearly and meaningfully are lives lived in such a way that the birth of Christ can be seen in our acts of compassion, love and commitment to justpeace. After Jesus healed the man with leprosy, he told him not to talk about it to anyone but to quietly show his healed body to the priest. According to “The Message” Jesus explained this by saying, “Your cleansed and obedient life, not your words, will bear witness to what I have done.
Don’t get me wrong. I do love the decorations, food, parties and gifts. But we must put them in their proper place so they do not block the view of a child sleeping in a manger in a cold and dark stable, a child who would transform the world. And we must stop the arguments over the trivial things that seem now to cause so much division and labeling in our society. After all the song of the angels “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to all people” was a unifying message of peace. Let us focus on that during this Christmas season and in the year that follows.