By The Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith, Bishop of Arizona
Did you know that many of the customs and practices that we Americans associate with Christmas came from the Church of England, and in this country, the Episcopal Church?
The New England Puritan settlers were very distrustful of any celebrations of Christmas, which they associated with the excesses of the Church of England that they were fleeing from. In some New England colonies, it was even illegal to celebrate Christmas. This attitude began to change in the early 19th Century when the enormously popular writer Washington Irving took a trip to England. In his Sketchbook (1820), he reported back to his American readers how the English kept the holiday, with their traditions of caroling, Christmas trees, Yule Logs, and Christmas church services. The stage was set for the famous poem The Night Before Christmas (1823), written by Clement Moore, who was a theology professor at General Seminary in New York.
But the emphasis on Christmas in the Episcopal tradition is based on more than just a love for custom and pageantry. Anglican theologians have always been particularly interested in the doctrine of the Incarnation, the proclamation that God came among us as one of us. The English Reformation theologians were greatly influenced in this regard by the early fathers of the church, who wrote on this subject in the 4th and 5th Centuries. A good example of this is Lancelot Andrews, Bishop of Winchester (1589-1605), whose 50 Christmas sermons are still inspiring hundreds of years later. It is no wonder that even today, Americans tune into King’s College Cambridge broadcasts of Lessons and Carols or to Christmas morning at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. We Anglicans/Episcopalians know how to do Christmas right!
Which is a reason as people of the Incarnation, we need to be clear in rejecting the reactionary rhetoric we have been hearing lately which claims that “God is no longer present in our schools” or that the government is waging a “War on Christmas.” If we believe that God comes to us, “sets up his tent among us” (in the language of the Gospel of John), then the idea that we can exclude God from his creation, or that there are places where God is “not allowed,” is both nonsensical, and actually borders on heresy. God is everywhere in God’s creation. We might ignore this fact (and often do), but there is no way we can keep God out. God is with us whether we deserve or not, whether we respond to it or not, whether we like or not! God is just as present to those carolers in Washington National Cathedral as He is to those grieving parents in Newtown, Connecticut. That is what Incarnation is all about. God is with us, Emmanuel. To do Christmas right is – above all – to remember that the Christmas message is for everyone, everywhere. It is “glad tidings, peace on earth, and good will towards all.”