One would rightly expect calls for peace in Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermons offered by Christianity’s most visible leaders – heads of the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
And one would not have been disappointed.
Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called for peace.
Prayers for Israelis and Palestinians were offered. Countries that needed prayers were named – Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, and the People’s Republic of China.
But the messages also contained something else – a defense of Christianity.
Pope Benedict developed the theme of “no room in the inn” in his Christmas Eve sermon.
“The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension: do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him?” asked the pope.
He continued: “The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking?”
Having no room for God, we have no room for the vulnerable – the poor, the stranger. When we deny space for or ignore God, peace is missing, argued Benedict.
The pope noted the “widespread currents” that blame monotheism for violence and war. He readily acknowledged that monotheism has been “a pretext for intolerance and violence.”
“While there is no denying a certain misuse of religion in history, yet it is not true that denial of God would lead to peace. If God’s light is extinguished, man’s divine dignity is also extinguished,” argued Benedict.
He then added, “while there has been misuse of religion, it is also true that forces of reconciliation and goodness have constantly sprung up from faith in the God who became man.”
As Pope Benedict challenged those who dismissed faith and who blame faith for war and violence, the archbishop of Canterbury spoke directly to the secularists.
Noting that some delighted in the recent census numbers that showed fewer British people identifying themselves as Christians, Williams cautioned against too much excitement.
“Should we conclude that faith in general and Christian faith in particular has had its day and that we should give up on it?” Williams asked. “The answer has to be a resounding, ‘No: we might feel that we had made a poor job of communicating it, we might regret the enormous loss to public life and public service involved in the weakening of faith. But we simply could not conclude that faith had suddenly become impossible or incredible.'”
He declared that “Jesus is what the entire human race really longs to see” and that Jesus continues to create the possibilities of reconciliation.
“If people hesitate to call themselves Christian, perhaps this is a sort of backhanded recognition that there is a strangeness and a toughness to what Christian faith claims that should not be taken lightly,” said the leader of the Church of England.
Williams said: “We can and should try as hard and imaginatively as we can to share the faith, but we must not lose heart if it doesn’t immediately take root as we might want. We are, after all, doing something rather outrageous, asking men and women to stop and look and turn around, and learn how to keep company with a figure whose outlines we often see only dimly.”
What are we to make of the two most significant Christian leaders offering a defense of Christianity in two of the most media-covered sermons of the year?
What does their challenge to the secularists and those who blame faith for war say about the church’s engagement in culture in 2013?
One ought to give their perception and argument serious consideration.
The census numbers in Britain are troublesome. The growing hostility or indifference to Christianity in the United States offers the church a significant challenge.
The secular charge that Christianity is the source of all that’s wrong in the world – war, violence, intolerance, racism – is intellectually false.
When falsehood goes unchecked, some regrettably believe the falsehoods to be true. A hearty challenge to falsehood is required. But more is needed.
Going forward in 2013, we need a positive and robust presentation of Christianity, one that inspires hope and offers constructive paths to social engagement.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.