An atheist group put up a billboard near Philadelphia with the message “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.”
It was their anemic attempt to fuel the “war on Christmas” by countering a billboard sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, which read “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

And yes, it suggests that this atheist group is really more anti-Christian, than anti-deity.

After all, they apparently feel comfortable with Saturn, a pagan Roman god. Since atheists by definition believe in no deity, but these atheists want to recognize a pagan deity, one wonders about what their agenda really is.

Agendas are often not what advocates claim their agendas are.

Take the accepted cultural narrative among liberal Christians and secularists that it is conservative Christians who feed the so-called “war on Christmas.” But here is an example of an anti-Christian group adding fodder to the fire.

It is surely a mistake to assume that only one ideological group is to blame for our culture’s seasonal clash over the role of religion. has long sought to address this seasonal clash, in which some seek to banish Christian expressions and others see Christianity as a commercial tool for economic gain.

We’ve had a substantive focus this year on Advent as a way to encourage Christians to think more theologically and practically about how to observe a season that so many of us treasure.

We’ve touched on Mary, asked what happened to the wise men’s gift of gold, and remembered that Christ really was a threat to the Roman Empire. We’ve offered suggestions for introducing Advent in congregations without the Advent tradition and to teach children about Advent.

On the eve of Christmas, here is one more thought. One of the best ways to “keep Christ in Christmas” is to think more about what we can mine from the biblical story that enriches our understanding of who Jesus was and why that should shape our living when we walk into the new year.

Rarely have many of us thought much about how Joseph might have shaped Jesus’ moral character – for example.

In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, Mary “was greatly troubled” and “considered in her mind” the greeting of the divine messenger. She questioned the message before accepting her assignment.

After Jesus’ birth, Mary pondered the meaning of the shepherds’ message. She later “kept all these things in her heart” related to Jesus dialoguing as a child with the teachers in the temple.

One might conclude that Mary was the more discerning of the two parents, the reflective one.

In Matthew’s account, Joseph was identified as a “just man.” He had a strong sense of right and wrong – and doing the right thing the right way.

After a dream encounter with a divine messenger about Mary’s conception, Joseph awoke and “did as … commanded.”

In a second dream, a divine messenger warned Joseph about what Herod planned to do and what Joseph ought to do. Again, he acted. He took Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.

In a third dream, the one in Egypt, Joseph again did what he was instructed. He acted. He returned to Israel.

In a fourth dream, Joseph heard and obeyed. He moved to the village of Nazareth in Galilee.

Traces of Joseph’s moral character appear in Matthew’s account.

Joseph was no idle dreamer. He was decisive. He was not one to second-guess his divine encounters. He heard and responded. He suffered not from ambiguity about the direction in his life. He marked a straight course.

If Joseph maintained these character patterns later in life, did Jesus witness them? Did Joseph’s moral character influence Jesus? We don’t know for sure. We can only speculate.

We do know that Jesus was obedient to his divine calling, not an idle dreamer. We know he was decisive, never suffering from the “paralysis of analysis.” We know that he had a strong sense of direction. We know that he acted with determination.

To really keep Christ in Christmas, we must learn from and live out of the story.

We draw from the story a note about the potential moral influence of one generation on the next.

Fathers do play a profound role in shaping their children, something badly missing in America’s increasingly fatherless culture.

Restoring fatherhood is regrettably rejected in some anti-male quarters. Yet within houses of faith, we need more conversations in 2014 about male responsibility, the positive role of fathers.

We also draw from the story a word about a just man, Joseph, who modeled obedience, decisiveness and action.

Christian faith is an action faith. Yet too many churches wallow in a low-grade depression of introspection, seldom doing much of earthly good.

In 2014, we need a robust Christian witness – moral engagement and evangelism, mission action and moral education, faith formation and numerical church growth.

Additionally, we see in the story the politics of Herod, one who would snuff out human life to retain power.

Herod represents the deceptive nature of those who accumulate power and their pattern of using those of good will and using violence to achieve their ends.

Like the wise men, who discerned Herod’s real nature, we need faith leaders in 2014 who see through the political manipulation and avoid being used by politicians. Like Joseph, we need faith leaders who know when to retreat and when to engage.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is a far cry from seasonal sentimentality. It calls for a living faith – all year long.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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