Christmas in General

“Peace on earth! Good will towards men!” is a common greeting to be found on cards during this season of the Nativity. These are, of course, the words sung by the angels the night Christ was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:14). It is also a phrase which admits of several interpretations.

The possibility of various meanings is very likely the reason for its popularity on greeting cards. Who could be opposed to peace on earth and good will towards men (especially if the “men” is translated in a more “gender-friendly” way)? The difficulty with Christmas, for many, is that it introduces what is characteristically known as the “scandal of particularity.” The scandal, or “stumbling-block,” is the specific claim made by Christians that the child born in Bethlehem is the incarnate Son of God, the One through whom salvation alone may be found. Everyone likes peace. Most people like Jesus. Not everyone likes Christ, the Son of the Eternal God, the God made flesh.

And so the feast of Christmas becomes the great Gnostic Temptation for modern culture. Modernity wants to admit that Jesus was an important figure in history but does not want to grant that He is the Lord of history. Modernity wants to advance the cause of peace but does not want to admit that Christ alone is the Prince of Peace.

The Christian faith rightly and properly rejects gnosticism as a heresy. It is not peace and good will nor even love that Christianity properly confesses. These words, when stated without a context, have no meaning whatsoever. They become symbols of the banal and empty quality of modern life. Peace as the absence of conflict has no positive content. Good will without a reference becomes nothing more than a smile. Love without the brutal sacrifice of self-emptying is nothing more than sentiment.

Sentimentality is the content of modern idolatry. We worship feelings and those things which produce the feelings we worship. It is for this reason that entertainment and its purveyors are the “icons” of the modern world. Those whom the world holds in esteem are pictures without content – feelings without reason. And so the indiscretions of our icons (whether golf legends or the idols of our matinees) face the unrelenting judgment of the media whenever they stray from the pre-defined content of their image. Our sentiments must not be offended.

Sentimentality requires generality. Those things which we perceive in a “general” manner, lack content. Things in general have no specificity nor particularity. Their general character allows us to project our own wishes and dreams upon them without contradiction. Modernity prefers a general God for the same reason. A general God has little or nt content – little or nothing than can offer contradiction or offense to the culture god of sentimentality.

The incarnate Son of God is full of contradiction and offense. The claim to be the Incarnation of the only true God stands as a stumbling-block for the demands of sentimentality. Peace on earth and good-will towards men receive a very specific content in the incarnation of Christ. The angels sing because Christ is born. Without His birth, there is no peace nor good-will. His birth proclaims the beginnings of God’s peace on earth, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. His birth proclaims good-will – God’s good will towards men (the only good-will that matters).

The contradictions inherent between Christ the God-Man and the empty sentiments of peace on earth, good will towards men, form the content of modern culture wars between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” A Christmas which does not offend is not a Christmas that can save. My sin is offended by the love of God. Without such offense there can never be repentance. My sin is an offense against Christmas itself – though the true Christmas has taken my offense into itself and forgiven me everything: a forgiveness that can only have meaning if the child of Bethlehem is none other than God.

Better than “Merry Christmas” is the traditional Orthodox greeting: Christ is born! Glorify Him!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





23 responses to “Christmas in General”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fabio Leite and Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο, Veronica du Bruyn. Veronica du Bruyn said: Christmas in General – "Peace on earth! Good will towards men!" is a common greeting to be found on cards during th… […]

  2. Yannis Avatar

    Father Stephen wrote:
    “And so the feast of Christmas becomes the great Gnostic Temptation for modern culture. Modernity wants to admit that Jesus was an important figure in history but does not want to grant that He is the Lord of history. Modernity wants to advance the cause of peace but does not want to admit that Christ alone is the Prince of Peace.”

    This is perfectly understandable because of the level of interaction in the modern world, among other things; religious doctrines are perceived as weak since they “evidently” contradict between them and with each other.

    This, in many ways, is a good hint for believers too; because it precisely points out to the fact that the realities doctrines contain are of a transcendental, and not of a literal, nature.

    In many ways the “conclusions” that modernity has reached via the “enlightment” are due to the direction western spirituality took after the 15th century. What is today perceived as a “western worldview” began as a divorce of Christianity from the transcendental and embrace by the same of the literal. This has already culminated with the various atheistic worldviews that want everyone to be his own god.

    Such worldviews may indeed have problems comprehending what is hinted by the words “Christ, Son of God”, and this is not surprising.

    Best Regards


  3. Michael N Avatar
    Michael N

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

  4. boehadden Avatar

    Father, bless!

    I used an idea of yours in my blog– I mentioned your name and provided a link to your blog site.

    If you are not okay with his, please let me know.

    My blog is:

    Thank you!


  5. Steve Avatar

    Glorify HIM indeed!

  6. Дејан Avatar


    To a silent tongue and a contemplative mind You draw near, O All-Holy Spirit, bridegroom of my soul. You avoid a talkative tongue as a swan avoids a stormy lake. Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.

    Desist from your wordly wisdom, my neighbors. Wisdom is begotten, not made. As Wisdom is begotten in God, so is it begotten on earth. Begotten wisdom creates, but is not created.

    So, you braggarts brag about your intellect! What is your intellect except remembering many facts? And if you remem­ber so much, how could you have forgotten the moments of the wondrous begetting of wisdom within you? Sometimes I hear you talking about great thoughts that were born to you unexpectedly without any effort. Who bore these thoughts to you, intellectuals? How were they begotten without a father, if you admit that you did not father them?

    Truly I say to you: the father of these thoughts is the All-Holy Spirit, and their mother survives as the virgin corner of your soul, where the All-Holy Spirit still dares to enter.

    Thus every wisdom in heaven and on earth is begotten of the Virgin and the All-Holy Spirit. The All-Holy Spirit hovered over the chastity of the first hypostasis, and the Ultimate Man, the Wisdom of God, was begotten.

    What the chastity of the Father is in heaven, the virginity of the Mother is on earth. What the action of the Holy Spirit is in heaven, His action is on earth. What the begetting of wisdom is in heaven, the begetting of wisdom is on earth.

    O my soul, my eternal surprise! What happened once in heaven and once on earth must happen to you. You must become a virgin, so that you can conceive the Wisdom of God. You must be a virgin, so that the Spirit of God may fall in love with you. All the miracles in heaven and on earth originate from the Virgin and the Spirit.

    A virgin gives birth to creative wisdom. A wanton woman creates barren knowledge. Only a Virgin can see truth, while a wanton woman can only recognize things.

    O triune Lord, cleanse the vision of my soul, and bow down Your face over her, so that my soul may glisten with the glory of her Lord, so that the wondrous history of heaven and earth may be unsealed in her, so that she may be filled with glittering like my lake, when the sun hovers above it at noon.

    St. Nikolai of Zhicha – Prayers by the Lake, X

    I am standing in awe in front of this description – that there is difference between knowledge that is created, and wisdom that is begotten. Wisdom that is begotten in purity of the heart is alone capable to lead all nations to true brotherhood. If there is no purity in the heart, how could possibly one truly love his enemies? Only in very rare moments when I feel purity in my heart I can honestly love my enemies, because only then I have genuine hope that their hearts might become pure too one day, and that would be a practical solution worth of infinite patience and forgiveness.

    There is a good reason why even the slightest impurity leads to sentimentality. Because sentimentality is created, not begotten. And sentimentality is like a beautiful painting that cannot see the painter. But, son of the painter can see his father.

    Only when heart shines in purity like a sun (is not sun an icon which reminds us of lofty ideal of selflessness?), only then I can sincerely understand that “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (St. Matthew 5:45). But how I would wish that I remember that wisdom always, and not only in those rare moments!

    Holy Mother of God pray for us all that our hearts may become pure.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks! May Christ be with you in this holy season!

  8. Yannis Avatar

    Дејан wrote:
    “…because only then I have genuine hope that their hearts might become pure too one day, and that would be a practical solution worth of infinite patience and forgiveness.”

    I personally very much doubt that this line of thought is itself practical.

    With all due respect it sounds more like wishful thinking rather than anything else.

    Neither i believe that the “peace” that Christ will bestow on nations amounts to a theocentric political solution or something of that sort.

    It seems to me that the peace of Christ can take place even in the midst of actual war, as his love took place in the midst of very real hate.

    Wishing for an eventual world inhabited exclusively by cozy and nice saintly people would ridicule good and God himself, since He made the world the way it is.

    Best Regards


  9. Anna Lindsey Avatar

    I definitely lamented winter weather canceling services near me because I wanted to join in the festal shout with others who share the joy of anticipating the season. CHRIST IS BORN!!!!

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Glorify Him in word and deed.

  11. Дејан Avatar


    I deeply agree that any kind of expectation in love is wishful thinking. May I find enough sincerity that whenever I love, I do it without any expectations from the people I love, be them friends or enemies. Love with expectations is no love at all.

    Thank you for pointing out that error which I missed to see.

    I am trying to understand the message of St. Silouan on love for enemies. It seems practically difficult but feels inherently beautiful.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sentimentality is also the cloak for all kinds of venality from simple greed to tyrannical lust for power and hedonism.

  13. Yannis Avatar


    thank you for your words, posts and links, may God be with you.

    Best Regards


  14. […] ..Even so.. 2009 December 25 by a.lenore Christos gennatai! Doxasete! […]

  15. Sean Avatar


    Please forgive me for posting a comment highly irrelevant to your post but I felt I had to share this; The National Geographic magazine featured an article about the Holy Mountain on its latest issue (Dec 09) and I found a picture on NGM website, that, well, made me feel a bit jealous, in the good sense:

    It’s so inspiring, even more so knowing that there are still people out there who strengthen the Church by leaving the world behind in order to approach the Lord when I am so weak myself to do the same.

  16. Sean Avatar

    Btw, I am referring to the second from the end picture in the set I just posted…

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s a wonderful article with great pictures. It at least inspires a visit someday.

  18. NW Darla Avatar
    NW Darla

    I love the fourth from the end picture. My husband wants to take our son(s) some day ………….

  19. frontierorthodoxy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I enjoyed this post. I think, though, that although you are certainly on to something, here, with the “sentimentality” aspect, there is a commercialism that has been wedded to it. In addition, there is the third leg of the stool, the secular (maybe simply anti-Christian) component as well. You know, the non-Christian who celebrates “Christmas” anyhow, complete with the guy in the red suit and little elves. It is all wrapped together. Your insights are appreciated.

  20. Karen Avatar

    Blessed Feast to everyone!

    Sean, I enjoyed that “National Geographic” article (my dad subscribed us).

    Dejan said:

    “Only in very rare moments when I feel purity in my heart I can honestly love my enemies, because only then I have genuine hope that their hearts might become pure too one day, and that would be a practical solution worth of infinite patience and forgiveness.”

    His thoughts really resonate with me. My experience and hope is similar, but the “practical solution” he alludes to here is definitely something that transcends the world as we now know it and enters the Mystery of the Resurrection and Eternity itself–or so it seems to me. As Yannis rightly points out (if I am understanding his comment correctly), any purely human utopian dream is not in keeping with an Orthodox perspective, but I also didn’t understand Dejan’s post in that way. Rather his thoughts seemed to me to describe the hope I experience when we sing of “forgiving all by the Resurrection” at Pascha.

    Father, bless!

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Karen, Dejan, et al,
    I think the love of enemy must be based within the love of enemy and not in the hope that they might change. “God is kind to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). He is not kind because of what they might do or become. He is kind because He is kind. This is, of course, only a gift of grace and only possible by the gift of God. But it is this that which must long for and pray for. It is this that is an inherent part of “being conformed of the image of His beloved Son.” Christ says these things in Luke with the admonition that we should “be like God.”

  22. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, a very true and sobering point! I do still find that the joy the hope of the Resurrection gives is what provides strength for present obedience, just as Jesus “endured the Cross for the joy set before Him, despising the shame . . .” as Hebrews 12 says. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I love my enemy because I believe he may change. Rather it means that such selfless love is itself already a participation in Christ’s Resurrection, which participation is our joy.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Karen. Yes, I agree completely.

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