(First posted last year [12/28/08], and now the subject of a skit in a local church [is there a movie in the offing?], this popular reflection seems timely once again. I am posting it before Christmas this year in the hope that some churches may do something with it.)
A growing number of churches have begun the practice of using Christmas as a time to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. They do this by singing Happy Birthday to Jesus (even in worship services) and having birthday parties for Jesus. Trouble is, Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday. It is the celebration of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity; it is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God. But it is not Jesus’ birthday.
I think I grasp the motive behind this trend: including children in Christmas and making Jesus seem like one of us/them (children). But even from this perspective, is there any child who is not already spellbound by the Christmas story told in Scripture, with its array of interesting characters, its tension and intrigue, its sheer beauty?
The theological and spiritual dangers of trivializing and sentimentalizing the incarnation—and Jesus—are far greater than any supposed benefits of further including children and making them feel part of the celebration.
Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus would not seem to engender devotion to the One we are called to follow so fully that it might lead to death—yet the Church remembers Stephen, the first martyr, on December 26, the day after Christmas. Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus reflects an understanding of Jesus as a cute little baby or little boy who could cause no trouble and do no harm. But that is not what Herod thought, so the Church remembers his slaughter of the innocents on December 28. In other words, the shadow of the cross is present in the Scriptural Christmas narrative, and in the Church’s way of framing its celebration, but it is absent from the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” mindset.
We do not need any more Christmas customs that further divorce Christmas from discipleship. Let’s get rid of this theological error before it does more spiritual harm.