“Have a nice holiday,” the nurse kindly told me as I was leaving my annual checkup. I’m not one who gets upset when someone wishes me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” (some even get upset when Advent is skipped — but we lost that battle long ago) and, indeed, I did not this time.
I did find myself wondering: “A nice holiday?” What does that mean? A little etymological research showed that “holiday” derives from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. As words change meanings over time, so, too, did the meaning of this one. Today, we all interpret the meaning to be more “a protracted time away from work or school” than “a holy day”.
It occurred to me that there is a profound difference between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays,” but not in the way people usually say. One of the things I notice is how exhausted people are. Is it because people work harder than they used to? People have always worked hard (Gen. 3:17-19): what has changed is that there once were protracted times of pause, of waiting between periods of intense labor. Today we have the technology and the tools to work around the clock — and the expectation that we will. If we do not, there is always someone else who will.
To boot, there has always been a tendency to define oneself by one’s output. “You are the sum of your actions,” said Aristotle in the fourth century before Christ. We — at least in the Christian West — have had the church to tell us something different: “By the grace of God, you actually are defined as ‘Beloved of God in Christ’.” But now that Christianity is receding from the shores of the West, there is little counter to this message of earned self-worth. Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson said it brilliantly, “The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides.”
We take so much upon our shoulders Monday through Friday! In fact, we are killing ourselves in order to make ourselves. It is madness, really. A holiday is oh, so welcome! A break from the incessant weight of life and frenetic activity is so nice; but isn’t it also just a way to rest up before jumping back into the same old cycle? This is not a new idea: “there is nothing new under the sun,” said the Preacher in the Old Testament (Eccl. 1:1-11) but we have a new, efficient intensity to it: a mechanized, relentless intensity.
The answer to the question posed by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes — “See, is this new?” — is “Merry Christmas”. “What is new under the sun?” indeed! What is new under the sun is The Son. Oh, that the Church — that I — could adequately describe the novelty of this news and its radical break from our relentless cycles of activity. The Son of Man stepped into the flesh — into your own human existence — and broke the curse of Genesis 3. Now, there is a seat waiting for you at the Great Wedding Feast of the Lamb, a feast so succulent and rich that it can only be described in analogy.
“Merry Christmas” is not a pause followed by re-engagement. “Merry Christmas” is the merry-making that the curse has been broken. It is a greeting that lasts far past December because it communicates the heart of the Gospel itself. “Merry Christmas” lifts the heart and sears it with divine love just as much in June as it does in December. My fervent prayer for you and your family is a very Merry Christmas — every day of your life!