Whatever happened to Christmas? I mean, once Halloween is over, it seems as if every merchant, every shopping mall, every airport concourse is decorated with the politically correct “Happy Holidays” message. And what’s with the demise of the poor Christmas tree? Now they’re called holiday trees.

Now, truth be told, my brother lives in a very small town in New England just outside of Boston. And in each of those little towns we have what we call Commons. And they have been in existence ever since the British Occupation. A distant memory.

And last year he phoned me ready to gas up his chain saw and march down to that Common, to defoliate what for the first time in the history of that town was called “The Town’s Holiday Tree.”

I persuaded him to write a letter to the local newspaper instead and save his chain saw for something less physically taxing. And it worked! The letter provoked a cry from the old timers in that town who said, “Enough of this foolishness. Our Common will have a Christmas tree. And we’ll also put on our Common a Menorah. And that’s that.”

But you know I have no doubt that someone in that little town just outside of Boston, if not this year then next year, is going to sue that town about the use of public property for religious purposes. But I say, “Come on now, get a life!”

And Santa Claus. God bless Santa Claus. That veritable survivor of personal attacks on his credibility in the movie, Miracle on 34th Street, now appears on television selling Coke products, hand-crafted Mercedes-Benz automobiles with his own personal welding torch, and hiding behind a twenty-first-century leave-it-to-Beaver Ward and June Cleaver as husband gives wife a pair of diamond ear rings from Kay Jewelers, with the kids giggling about the whole thing on the stairway.

Now truth be told, Santa and his elves still hang out in big department stores as they did when I was a boy, a long time ago. But now, son or daughter can get a personalized, digitalized photo with the Big Guy for about five bucks. Last year there were even rumors that the Actors’ Guild was thinking of unionizing department store and mall Santa’s. Get over it!

What ever happened to Christmas? What ever happened to Christmas?

I’d like to try and begin to answer my own question. Have patience.

We have been at war with Iraq and Afghanistan for too long a time. Some say when all is said and done, the cost will well exceed over a trillion dollars. And too many of our young service men and women and our older Guardsmen have paid the ultimate price with war with their lives. And others will forever wear the scars of their sacrifices for all of us to see. May we not ever forget them.

And the cost of living continues to increase with heating oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices hitting all time highs. Every time the oil truck pulls up in front of the old home in Massachusetts where my brother still lives, fifty gallons, almost $400. Fifty gallons, $400.

Forty-eight million Americans live on the precipice of disaster each day in this country, having no health insurance.

And economists debate whether we’re in stagflation, inflation, or recession. And for anyone who travels internationally or trades with world markets, the dollar is tanking faster than a falling barometer before an approaching hurricane.

And even sadder than that, public confidence in key elements of our precious American democracy—namely the Congress of the United States and even the White House—are polling at near all-time lows.

The mortgage foreclosure disaster preceded by the unbridled greed of lenders and their proxies and their hope of many to live at that great American dream of owning their own home has created a massive financial crisis for millions. And no one, absolutely no one, knows how much of this iceberg is still hidden from view. But what is for sure is that lots of good folks in this country have lost their homes and that others struggle each month to hang on to the great American dream.

As one who travels in the Middle East, I can at least say with some certainty that the Middle East continues to dominate our worldview, and beyond Iraq and Afghanistan lays an emerging political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country.

Iran continues to present itself as a potential threat and a Persian puzzle that our country has yet to decipher.

And Syria was recently caught red-handed in developing a nuclear enrichment facility with the apparent support of our new ally, North Korea.

And so also as we gather together tonight, Christmas Eve 2007, we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The truth is that Palestinian Christians are an endangered species in the Holy Land. This Christmas, like so many others in the past, they are not able to enter Bethlehem. Pilgrims from other countries can, but not Palestinian Christians. They can’t enter the birthplace of Christ because of a terribly flawed Israeli-Palestinian policy that unfortunately too often has been ginned up by foreign policies of our European neighbors and our own government.

As I think about whatever happened to Christmas, I think maybe there is an answer. For all the commercial hype, the earlier time table for decorating, and the passion to engage in one way or another with that right jolly old elf Santa Claus, is because all of us know deep, deep, deep inside that regardless of how well we seem to have our life together, we are being buffeted by changes. Changes that are huge changes. And come at us from the domestic and global realities of our time.

Whether we’re looking at the draining of the American Treasury because of a war, the falling dollar, stagnation, inflation, or recession, foreclosures, the reality of global warming, it’s impact on the present and future generations yet to be born; or the horribly complex instability of the Middle East, there is, I believe a question on everyone’s mind about what will the future look like.

Will we ever again be what we once were, or thought we were, as a people and a great nation? Will our children and our grandchildren have a harder time than we had growing up? And will they have the resources to survive a rapidly changing world and a global economy?

I really believe this is the trigger for the need of folks to rally around a time of the year when the expectations of giving and receiving gifts becomes something more than just a commercial enterprise. There is the caring for another, the cementing of a relationship, the expression of affection and love, and the hope that what one gives will be received with the spirit and meaning for which it was given.

To be marginal believer or even a non-practicing Christian, when it comes to the birth of Jesus, those places of great doubt or dismissal are overlooked by the need to overcome the fear of rapid change in the unknown. To actually embracing the possibility, I mean the real possibility, and in fact I would say, the probability without a doubt that miracles do occur. And an unexpected miracle could in fact touch the core of their own life and change it for the better, or maybe even change it forever.

I think we’re jumping so much faster into getting our Christmas decorations up, our department stores stocked with Christmas must-haves, our willingness almost to eclipse Halloween and Thanksgiving with candy and pumpkin-spiced lattes, because we are in greater need now, more than ever, for seeking the hopeful in what seems to be the almost hopeless times of massive, overwhelming, and disruptive change. Fear and loss of what used to be have rapidly bred a deep human yearning for security and the assurance of the known.

The very heart of the Christmas story that you have heard is the annual retelling of, God forbid, a miracle, the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. A miracle of the incarnation of God, living and breathing among us in human form. Of all crazy things that our God would do! It’s a miracle.

And Jesus taught as he grew from this little child to a young man, he taught that no one had to be held captive by the unknown or imprisoned by fear. Christmas is the promise that through the miracle of Jesus’ birth, all things can and will become new.

And right now more than ever the world and each of us gathered in this great Cathedral tonight need to be reminded of what is not a myth or a dream, but the truth.

And so, whatever happened to Christmas?

Nothing. Other than we desperately want to be reminded of the power of its message and that we want it to become a greater part of our lives. More so than just on December 25 or the preceding four weeks of Advent, or the twelve days of Christmas. We want to be reminded as God’s people that miracles really do happen. And that the powerful message of Christmas needs to become a much larger part of our lives and that with God, it is truth that all things are possible.

Who knows? Maybe the decorations will go up after Labor Day next year?