When I was sixteen years old, I worked in a grocery store. My parents were divorced, money was tight, and I needed the job to pay for my car and insurance. So when my manager told me I was working on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t put up much fuss.
“Son, I know full well it’s a holiday,” this good Oklahoma Southern Baptist told me when I asked about the schedule. “But people still got to eat.”
Last week, Senators John Kyl (R) of Arizona and Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina expressed their indignation that the US Senate would be working during the days leading up to Christmas – what they consider to be part of the Christmas holidays.
Sen. Kyl argued that Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada was offering disrespect to “one of the two holiest days for Christians,” and Sen. DeMint called it “sacrilegious” to vote on a spending bill and nuclear arms control treaty during Christmastime. Sen. Reid, for his part, argued that many of his constituents would be working during the holidays. Why shouldn’t the Senate finish its work?
Although America is not a theocracy, Christianity is still culturally dominant, and, this time of year, especially, culturally prominent, so the question is worth exploring: Is it sacrilegious for the United States Senate to work during the Christmas holidays?
What does the good book say?
Theologians seek to understand ethical and religious questions by looking first at holy scriptures, then at the Christian tradition and shared experience. In many cases this time of year (as with whether or not public Christmas displays should be allowed, or whether saying “Merry Christmas” is a holier alternative that “Happy Holidays”) the scriptural record has little to say about knotty cultural problems. In the case of holy days, however, the Bible actually speaks up, although what it says requires interpretation.
If Senators DeMint and Kyl are sincere in their concern, they seem to be referring to a tradition originating in the Hebrew Bible (called by many Christians the Old Testament), wherein the Sabbath was set aside as a day holy to God and on which no work should be done. For Jews and Christians alike the Hebrew Bible has authority, but for Christians, a more authoritative question has to be, What did Jesus have to say about this question?
In the Christian Testament (called by many Christians the New Testament), Jesus is represented as constantly at odds with religious leaders who argued for the absolute sanctity of God’s holy day.
Holiness mattered to Jesus – but human life and dignity mattered more.
True Christian values
When Jesus’ hungry disciples plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, for example, Jesus responded to outraged observers by reminding them that a hungry King David once ate bread consecrated on the high altar. The followers of Jesus were likewise picking grain to preserve their own lives, something of even higher value to God than observing rules about sanctity. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of human beings, Jesus told his detractors, not the other way around (Mark 2: 26-27).
On another occasion recorded in the Gospels, Jesus prepared to heal a man with a withered hand, although scribes and Pharisees stood watching closely, ready to condemn him for laboring on the Sabbath. Jesus healed the man after asking his opponents this leading question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9, NRSV) As Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, the time is always right to do what is right.
When Jesus boils down his ethical teachings in the Gospels, it is consistently about caring for others. The Christian tradition bears out that people are always more important than rituals or holy days. Saint Augustine spoke often about the two-fold commandment of love for God and love for our neighbors, and he argued that we demonstrate our love of God most powerfully through loving our neighbors. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, remarked that “when a human act does not conform to the standard of love, then it is not right, nor good, nor perfect.”
And how can it be loving to fail to care for our neighbors because of Christmas?
No, holding Christmas sacred is less important than holding sacred the values that underlie it. For Christians, love and care for others are the primary values, and so complaints about being forced to debate and vote on legislation over Christmas thus seem specious. Christmas does represent a season in which we elevate our desires for peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, but still, for better or worse, politics is the means by which nations seek those goals.
Goodwill through legislation
Of the specific bills being considered this Christmas, the impulse behind the new START arms control treaty (supported, incidentally, by the last five Republican Secretaries of State) is to make the world more peaceful. And 9/11 first responders await the fate of a bill extending health care benefits and compensation to all those ill or injured because they tried to rescue others.
Whether or not these bills are perfect bills (and all legislation represents compromise), they constitute legislation that should be discussed, amended if necessary, and voted up or down, since this is what legislators do.
Although it is the holiday season, we are fighting two costly and devastating wars; Americans are still hungry, sick, and being turned out of their homes; our economy has yet to recover from the greatest economic collapse in half a century; those of us who are working, are working harder – including during the holidays.
Jon Stewart argued repeatedly last week that to constantly invoke 9/11 without caring for the people who endured it is political theater (or hypocrisy). It might also be said that invoking the sanctity of Christmas without reckoning that the greatest sacrilege at Christmas is leaving people hungry, desperate, sick, or frightened is, likewise, bankrupt.
Christmas may be a holiday, and for many of us it is a holy day.
But people still got to eat.
Greg Garrett is a professor of English at Baylor University, an author of several books, and a columnist at Patheos. This article is part of the Patheos Expert Series at Patheos.com. Reprinted with permission.