Acton Institute Powerblog

Christmas Sacred and Secular

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“Christians obtain grace from reflecting on the miracle of the Incarnation but they have given the event called Christmas as a glorious gift to the world,” Rev. Sirico writes. “This is why this holiday can be so secular and yet remain so sacred. There is a distinction between the two but not always a battle between the two.”

Read the full commentary here.

Jonathan Spalink


  • Bill Haymin

    What could one say except wonderful and so true.

  • Jim Boushay

    Fr. Sirico,

    Thank you for "Christmas Sacred and Secular." It is wonderful.

    It comforted me also when you said, "So let us put aside our tendency to dismiss and put down our culture’s embrace of this holiday. Let us participate with joy and generosity, bringing gifts to others just as we have been given so much by awesome fact that Eternity became Time to dwell among us." Thank you for saying that.

    Our culture’s observance and celebration of this holiday, for me, means embracing the idea of peace its complexities.

    To my way of thinking, it is the very breath of God that put together last Sunday, Christmas, December 25, with two earlier dates of critical impact: September 11 of Year 2001 and February 15 of Year 2003. The connection has to do with peace and peace making grounded in realism…and in prayer. Always the prayer is for peace in the here and now, and peace in each now of the future.

    I was recently part of a peace delegation visiting the offices of my state’s U.S. senators. In the words of the lead delegate, "The meteing brought a wide smile to my face. Our delegation presented itself well and I think we got their attention. But even if we didn’t, it’s critical that we do this sort of thing because our elected leaders have to hear from us. We have to do our part no matter what."

    Fr. Sirico, we must continue to do what we can—now certainly, and also always in each now of the future. Thank you for the Acton Institute. Take some reassurance that your peace making efforts are now part of an international peace movement. You may remember that national leaders and citizens of the nations witnessed peace and peace-making in a new way on February 15, 2003.

    What happened that day was no less than a modern-day miracle, an extraordinary global/local event of colossal proportions. From around the world peace demonstrators—if you prefer, antiwar protesters—in city after city after city, including at home and involving altogether millions and millions of citizens—stood up for peace. The event was colossal because it was unprecedented in use of the media’s peak capacity to engage blanket-coverage of an internationally historic happening.

    For the first time in the history of the world that we know, the whole world knew at the same time that the whole world did not want war.

    In some ways that happening may one day overshadow September 11, a day that terrorism hit the American consciousness in an unprecedented way. That is my hope, perhaps yours too. September 11 in Year 2001 happened to us, from foreign enemies. Some 17 months later, February 15 in Year 2003 happened by us, when groups of domestic and foreign friends everywhere united to demonstrate solidarity in the name of peace.

    In poetical terms a touch mystical, the event gave new hope in a hopeless time, when despair had come to believe that dark cynicism and disempowerment could not be overcome with a miracle of brightest light speaking truth to power. Out of darkness came a miracle—tender at first yet eventually robust new life.

    Using the more secular terms of business and industry, we have media mogul Ted Turner largely to thank for the miracle. Imagine! Reporters laughed at Turner’s genius—dismissed him—at the news conference 25 years ago in 1980 when he announced the beginnings of 24-hour news around the world. From him came an incredibly simple, therefore genius, idea of a shared mission through a world of shared information and purpose. It could be argued, and has been, that the status quo media authorities and others observing from skyscraper temples, couldn’t see into the significance of the vision of bringing together the people of the world in a new way.

    Our observant bosses upstairs didn’t, or couldn’t, see the future possibilities of communicating a new awareness of the increased complexity and pluralism downstairs. Some dismissed Turner’s idea outright, called it muddled, outlandish, impossible. Other laughed aloud and said no way. A few offered quiet grudging respect for a truly compelling, because leading, innovation of radical inclusion. Those thought to be in the know were moved to express comments of negation—disparaging remarks—including oppressive and nuanced forms of both dismissal and denial.

    A few saw the genius idea for what it was, but stayed quiet in a form of reticence and fear known as the politics of group-think resentment. Through it all Turner remained a leader, believed in his idea and kept it out in front. He continued building. Today CNN, now accessible 24-7, shows live images of citizens from all corners of the earth. That’s one form of leadership writ large—specifically, the capacity to envision and execute a new visual sense of world solidarity through communications media.

    In almost any field of endeavor, any place, I think we pretty much know that it’s really not unusual for the status quo to oppress by speaking a seemingly automatic or knee-jerk no to the new and creative. There are plenty of stories of different psychologies deployed as mechanisms for disparagement and dismissal. Happens every day, sadly, whether you think it should or shouldn’t.

    In more complicated and dramatic terms, we’ve all seen leaders—and leadership styles—whose expression is similar to someone lying down to stop a parade. We’ve witnessed examples of moral and political leadership that unfairly discriminates, separates out: "Well, let’s just put a hold on that for now." It’ll happen that leadership will isolate something important and, then in a moment we least expect, judge or dismiss that something as no more than a trifle, an impertinence.

    In the case of February 15, I participated in an extraordinary demonstration of citizens around the world clearly saying no to war, yes to peace. Yet the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did occur months later but, significantly, without citizen agreement and cooperation. So the destruction that is war began at the direction of duty-bound leaders without the consent of citizens equally duty-bound to influence the thinking and actions of leadership.

    In confusing and tumultuous times like these, it’s hard for leaders always to see their way clear to truth. It’s not easy in cynical times of mistrust and distrust for leaders to acknowledge their debt to the many resurgent and prophetic voices calling for change, reform, and renewal. These are times of brutally painful upheaval in the face of an uncertain economic and social future, with a destination point that is troubling at least and challenging at best.

    At the same time it is only fair to reason that one regrettable circumstance of leadership is that leaders often don’t get the decisive moral and political help they, in fact, need from the citizens. For the last ten years in the U.S., the citizenry off and on has been less than forthcoming with support. The citizenry has been widely viewed as disengaged.

    Civic commissions and other kinds of task forces have ascribed some of the disengagement to the prevailing cultural stresses and anxieties about what’s really going on in our circus-like, fast-moving, future-directed age of uncertainties. We’re just not sure what’s coming at us next. Worried about what might happen at work and home, cumulative anxiety leads to deficits of confidence and to fear, to a feeling of not wanting to engage, not feeling safe.

    There is the sense that things are not quite right. No one nation and no one people seems to have the one proverbial answer to fix the mess, as if one such thing, going it alone, was possible in a threatening world of sustained empire rattling. No matter, part of the citizenry’s job in these messy times is to help leaders do the right thing on behalf of the common good. Citizens need to comfort the leaders, and at the same time to embolden them. We have to keep insisting and not give up.

    I’ve always understood from the time I was eight, as well as from a lifetime of experience and reading, that Jesus of Nazareth is underrated as a peacemaker and as a leader. I am referring to the Jesus before the early stages of Christianity as a religion. Through the centuries and up to now, there have been considerable forces of influence who think of him as little more than a good teacher of religious truth.

    Jesus was a man of incredible independence, authenticity unparalleled, and immense courage by dint of the risks he took. That’s one way to characterize leadership, showing what it looks like. His insight pretty much defied explanation, and that truth is still largely with us today.

    His insight was that people—meaning, individuals one by one—are the preferred option over and over again, the alternative not only to structures of disenablement, but also to dysfunctional systems and laws that confuse. Too often, it seems frameworks of planning historically devolve soon into unresponsive bureaucracies. There are rare and creative exceptions. Jesus changed things. Based on what he did, his preference always was to get individuals to think and judge for themselves by taking ownership of their own good individual effort—to have faith in it and the outcomes.

    Having faith, believing in, the power of the truly present moment is an abiding leadership lesson of the Jesus of history.

    Our culture seems always focused on the future, on what will and can be, rather than what is. We need always to be alert to the human wonder of this moment in the now, alert to the God-given marvel of human ingenuity standing before us—contradictions and all notwithstanding. Time and again we see people thinking that the meaning of their lives—its purposes and the prevailing issues of peace and safety—is to be found only in planning.

    The thinking is that anything really important ought to be done through organizations and organizing, or to be worked out through things organizational by definition and character. In some ways, I don’t argue with that given order of reality, if it stays reasonably consistent with what it says it is.

    Still, the thing to remember is that planning and organizing are important givens, yet they have meaning that is radically different from the actions of engaging persons one by one in the moment. That is the reality of working with and perhaps embracing what is standing immediately before our eyes in the human person.

    The Jesus of history differed radically from everyone else in an age when group conformity, like in our own bedeviled age, was just about the only measure of truth and virtue. It’s a brutal thing of social and political evil that unless you have institutional frameworks of affiliation behind what you’re doing, then you’re nothing.

    To me, Jesus contravened things, turned them upside down and inside out. He gave the lie to the falsehood that is at the extreme of dutiful affiliation. He was an exception, saying and doing things profoundly new and improved. For example, the knowledge and accumulated wisdom of the experts did not scare him from saying what had to be said. He differed from them without hesitation, even disagreeing with some eminences who had earned the legitimate esteem and power derived from honors awarded from everywhere.

    No tradition was too sacred. It was as though Jesus stood completely in his own bright light. He did that because his God of justice and mercy gave him that capacity to stand up for himself as a birthright, as it is ours. In a way that birthright is made up of three self-evident truths: real life, true liberty, honest pursuit of happiness.

    No assumption was too fundamental to be questioned. Every idea was to be scrutinized for the ways it disempowered and negated. No matter what the authorities called or labeled that truth, or no matter how they disparaged and dismissed, Jesus was not at all afraid to contradict the authorities. He was immensely controversial, so much so that today you and I can’t seem to get a handle on his kind of controversialist behavior and views.

    We live in fear of not having status, of being class-less, without prestige. Our rhetoric, reflecting our attitudes, is fraught with biased categories and with convenient and over-simplified labels. Jesus was a man of immense courage in avoiding categories of separation, and of course he was very lonely and isolated because of it.

    Sometimes I just get tired when I hear that Jesus was divine. That clearly weighty subject is unimportant to me right now, right here. Should it matter to someone else, I respect that choice here, and try to do that always and everywhere else. In saying those things to you, what is important to me at this moment is that Jesus was wholly human. In his humanity he provided a living model of service and care that, still today, we cannot talk about sufficiently or model enough. In the annals of history, Jesus is hero unprecedented and true.

    Jesus and his very small band of bedraggled down-and-outers were made up of assorted nothings who were disempowered: followers, partisan political agitators, the dispossessed, cheating tax collectors, lepers and the blind with HIV-like diseases of the immune and central nervous systems, those without jobs and homes, prostitutes, and criminals. They were routinely and publicly separated out, isolated from the rest.

    They were the worst: the most vulnerable and most poor and, so, the most threatening. Why were "those people" reviled and scorned?

    And why was it that ordinary folks like us were afraid of them, wanted nothing to do with them? One answer: Maybe because the poor literally had nothing…no possessions and no status…surviving only on the very breath that God had given them. And of course they were blamed—meaning, punished even more—for having the audacity, the gall, to be poor rubbish. Why, the nerve of them to have chosen poverty!

    So the very needy and the very poor had only The Breath of God.

    Fr. Sirico, think about those matters when you take time to reflect. The weak and poor, in other words, were the only ones—in effect—with Everything because it was God alone they had. That’s it, nothing else. That awesome reality turns the wonder of truth and justice on its head.

    In fact the reality contradicts truth. In the process, that contradiction of truth is gradually changed into a plenitudinous lexicon of new life and friendships. It shows out an unprecedented stock of new definitions and categories of thinking. In fact, the lexicon lays claim to, legitimates, human worthiness through human complexity.

    To ordinary folk perhaps, those kinds of baffling truths seem unreal, impossible, crazy, numinous. But wait, we say. What happened ultimately to Jesus because he turned things upside down? We know the answer: He got punished big time, dying nailed to an ignominious cross as an even more ignominious criminal. He was nothing, a bleeding piece of brutalized, scorned flesh.

    And yet in a yearly reminder of painful truth contravened, on December 25 the world will note, once again, the ways of observing (or not observing) his birthday. On that day he will be the main event, in both tender and robust ways. Historically this will be so, whether you mention his birth, death, divinity, or mention his humanity, or whether any of us tell stories about him, real everyday stories about him somehow coming back to life in order to stay with us. This observances were true in his time, and they are true in ours.

    Truth gets turned around again and again when we think about his life. Jesus hardly opposed or dissented in a manner that we might call a spirit of rebellion, or lawlessness, or the anarchy of violence. He would not, in any way, abide the disorder of manipulation and violence. Lacking resentment and bitterness, he did not have a grudge against the world. He confidently ventured into nearly every kind of space and gathering, welcomed or not. The parables he spoke were primarily stories to illustrate moral principles, stories deployed to capture the attention of the privileged.

    He loved the world. In the freedom of that love he spoke forthrightly. His bluntness was off-putting, scary. When somebody we know talks about having the courage of one’s convictions, it’s sometimes a limited kind of courage. Worse of course, it can turn into the "courage" to boldly spew dastardly harms or vicious personal attacks, both of which can bring people low—dismembering them mentally, or depressing them physically. Subtle or not, the harmful attacks dis-able, dismiss, pull the soul down, push the body away. Spiritually the attacks are world-wearying.

    Jesus was not afraid of lifting someone up, of reaching out his hand to help and heal on a holy day, and any day. He seemed not afraid of causing a scandal, or losing his position in life. He wasn’t afraid that he was thought crazy. He wasn’t afraid of doing something even his friends, never mind his adversaries, would disapprove. He said things thought socially impolite and unacceptable. He had a fearless, free way of speaking openly of God.

    Jesus hung around with people who, in our unthinking moments, you and I might categorize as sinners, as "less than." In doing that we show our dependence on a disparaging label of moral and social disdain. They were living less than the accepted norms. They weren’t observing the sumptuary laws: those unspoken rules of conduct regarding the accepted protocols of good behavior. Judgmentalized as unworthy, the people were shunned and isolated. They didn’t matter to most everybody else. These were very human indignities of his day, the very ones—each one—whose unique personhood Jesus dignified.

    Prestige and position and privilege were not a part of The Jesus Game. He didn’t care about those things. His family thought he was nuts, and people tried to trick him into saying and doing things that he wouldn’t say or do. He was thought to be a sexual reprobate, somebody who drank too much, stayed out too late from frolicking at a feast and dancing. He wasn’t afraid of what people might—and did—say about him. And of course he said and did what he needed to say and do.

    So here we have a man grossly underrated in his time and certainly in our time as a leader. He’s a curiosity to some. In other quarters of benign neglect he holds a position of benign respect. He is often not really taken seriously, partly because of all the acculturated narratives—historical, religious, political—over the years. The stories, myths, slogans, the convenient labels and buzz words have stripped him of his realness, his human being-ness.

    He was so real that we often are exceedingly confused about, in particular, how to square the way we live today with the way he lived yesterday. So naturally we make things up and, inevitably, we add to the acculturation process. Like humanity in general and humans in particular, Jesus was, and is, too complicated for sound bytes. The more analysis there is, the more analysis there is. We are left, then, asking a lot of questions.

    Our too-easy descriptors of him and his complex realness let him off the hook about who he was and who we know he was. And by extending this idea of labeling and categorizing to all humanity, we ourselves get let off the hook too about who we are.

    Each complex one of us is worthy of celebration. Our incomparable human dignity demands it. We are, hold within us, the breath of God. Now that’s just divine!

    Many say our human worthiness is wholly a hallelujah gift from God Almighty—King of kings, Lord of lords, Holy of holies. Most have come to believe Sovereign God reigns forever.

    The liberating Jesus of history never claimed any kind of secular title or sacred divinity in his style of social and moral leadership. When he used the phrase "the Son of Man," that was in his day the way of saying in our day "I" or "me" or "a person." For instance, the sentence "I can tell you that my friend is wonderful" would have, in Aramaic, been spoken thus: "I tell you that the Son of Man has a friend who is wonderful." Son of Man isn’t a title; it’s mostly a self-referent pronoun. Jesus lived constantly in the God-given power and glory of being one’s self—his self—in the innate dignity of human being-ness.

    Thus Jesus is a wondrous manifestation of we human beings in our inherent diversity and complexity, our richness…and our perplexities. That’s the glory of a style and character of leadership that affirms the rich gifts and presents we are to each other. As we each best know how, altogether we make for a better, more thoughtful world of peace on earth and goodwill toward all whom we engage.

    To create and re-create that world we each have to stand up for ourselves, have faith in ourselves for who we are. Always I’ll try remembering that that is the gripping lesson of December 25.

    What’s the point here other than that Jesus is underrated? People of profound spirituality know that The Now is the only thing there is and will always be. In a certain way, that’s all there is to lay claim to. Jesus claimed only the authority given to him by his birthright, and from that he did what he did and said. He didn’t provide a list of sponsors and supporters to buttress his views. He stood in his own light, asking each unique person he engaged to stand in the light of the self that God created in the sovereign nature of personhood.

    Time and time again Jesus indicated that the quintessential part of an individual life is to support and affirm the inherent dignity of each person—in the moment. Sometime before next week. Or not merely when we have the time. Or once a vital law or ordinance passes. Or when I get back from vacation. Or only when I get around to planning it. Or just as soon as the war is finally over. Or once everything is aligned and just right. Or when we finally have peace.

    Yes in this moment, right now. Clearly that’s hard to do, given the world-wearying circumstances of obstruction. But does some joy to the world come in the morning?

    At the start of this message, I mentioned doing what we can to make things better. By that, I mean doing incrementally yet decisively what we each can, with each person as we each know how to do that, preferably now and not later, trying always to engage the deep realities of the present moment. Thank you for the creative and robust ways the Acton Institute does its work. I think it helps to bring peace.

    The goal here is not perfection; it is to engage by little and by little, one day at a time—in our families, at work, in community. In this season of many holidays and holy days across national, ethnic, and religious observances, I wish you, your family, and you every good.

    Forty years ago last October, when I was 17 and still in high school, Pope Paul VI spoke in New York to the United Nations. In French he exhorted that body: Jamais plus la guerre! Jamais plus la guerre! His pregnant outcry was the imperative of war never again. Perhaps missed in all that was the unequivocal call for a rebirthing of peace now, in this moment. He called for the work of uniting nations and people on behalf of this very expectant moment of peace on earth and goodwill toward all. He beseeched the world to extend the moment into thousands upon thousands upon thousands of present moments now. And into each now of the future.

    With the continued energy of media mogul Ted Turner and innovators like him, aided by those other very human mavens of media and communications and industry—and aided by peacemakers in city and village around the world—we may yet get peace, and maybe peace now.

    Jim Boushay


    We are all walking around shining like the sun

    "In Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate. The sorrows and stupidities of the human condition can no longer overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun." Thomas Merton, 1958