Several years ago, while working in London, I heard the Queen say something extraordinary. The English love tradition, and a long-standing tradition is that each year during the Christmas season the monarch gives a brief radio address (now also televised), while everybody stops to listen. It has the same effect on a visitor as the English tradition that causes everybody to abruptly rise during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus.

My reaction in both cases was probably typical: initial surprise and a tinge of embarrassment as I looked around me and wondered what was going on, followed by a sense of gratification for such demonstrations of respect and solidarity.

On the occasion of that memorable Christmas speech I was visiting with friends when our conversation was interrupted by someone looking at the clock over the mantelpiece and declaring, “It’s time for the Queen!”

A hush fell over the room as we listened to the usual recitation of pleasantries that followed. Then I was stunned to hear Her Majesty say that the most important thing about Christmas was not the celebration of a divine baby born in a manger in Bethlehem, but that we should understand the underlying message of God’s desire to be born in the humble manger that is every human heart.

To hear such a concise and accurate description of the meaning of Christmas from a head of state arrayed in such pomp and ceremony was entirely unexpected. The Queen is of course also head of the Anglican Church (of which the Episcopal Church is a part), and England (unlike the U.S.) is happy to declare itself a Christian nation. Alas, the Christianity there is generally bound by dead formality today, but that fact added weight to what the Queen said.

In America we’re doing our best to eradicate any links to Christianity. It seems an entire industry has grown up here to confuse the idea of separation of church and state, which means simply that the government should not discriminate against a particular religion while favoring another. It does not mean that God should be banished!

Anybody with even a limited grasp of U.S. history would know that most of our early citizens – and particularly our Founders – were religious, Christianity was the religion, and God was universally venerated.

Now we’re at the point where Christmas itself is being stripped of any possible link to Christianity. It would be funny if it was not so sad, given that the very name tells us it is a uniquely Christian festival!

At the University of Minnesota this year Christmas trees and the colors red and green are discouraged. Decorations, music and food should all be neutral to “celebrate religious diversity” and not offend anyone.

How about just banning the holiday altogether and forgetting there ever was such a thing as “Christmas”? That may be where we are headed. Yet a wonderful truth would be lost, that at this time of year Christians celebrate God coming to us – all of us! He did not come as a King to be revered and feared, for men will bow to a king whom they fear but still remain rebels at heart. Instead, God came meekly to be born in a stable because He wanted to make clear that He desires to be born in every humble human heart, where He can transform us from within.

This is the all-important central message of Christianity that sets it apart from all other religious systems: it is possible to enjoy the manifest presence of God! All religions (even atheism) have a belief system, rules, commitment, certainty, and passion, but lack this one vital component: religions may seek after God, try to explain God, and labor to impress God, while Bible-believing Christians simply receive God.

Religion is speculative; Christianity is experiential. Or it should be, for when Christians lose sight of what makes them different they become merely religious.

The manifest presence of God should change us and bring great joy.

Every Christian should be able to say: “Because of my relationship with the resurrected Jesus Christ, God is not merely the Creator, not just a god or even the God, He is my God! His Life sustains me and empowers me.”

This is what was made possible by that first Christmas, when our Creator took on human form and came to live amongst us so that we ultimately could live with Him. If we forget this we forget what makes Christmas worth celebrating.

edward thal is a Georgetown resident.

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