By Greg Gelpi
Droves of customers flock to malls, outlets and other stores in a flurry of Christmas shopping, but local religious leaders hope to trump the secular message of the holiday with a religious message.
The Rev. Gregory Hartmayer, pastor of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro, said he makes no apologies for wishing everyone a "Merry Christmas," as opposed to "Happy holidays."
It's a "battle," one he admits to not fully understanding, to keep Christianity at the forefront of the Christian holiday, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.
"It's very difficult," Hartmayer said. "We, being the church, are in a competition. The emphasis of the Christmas season has shifted."
The message of the holiday focuses more on Christmas gifts than on the Christmas gift of God's Son, he said.
"Unfortunately, I think we're losing the battle to keep the dignity of the season," Hartmayer said. "The season of joy and love is becoming the season of buy and sell."
There's an Irish tradition of placing a light in the window as a welcoming sign to passers-by, Hartmayer said. The tradition reminds him of the "missed opportunity" of the innkeepers to welcome Mary and Joseph, who instead stayed in a manger.
"There are so many missed opportunities in our lives," he said, adding that he will urge his parishioners to resolve to be more open, tolerant and welcoming in the new year.
That's part of a minister's role - to remind people and "point them in the proper direction," said the Rev. Dean Haun, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jonesboro.
"Certainly, the holiday is going to mean a whole lot more to people who believe that Christ is our savior," Haun said. "Christ said it's more than what you wear or what you eat."
Throughout the month of December, Haun has been reminding his congregation of the way in which life can "entangle" and pull people away from the proper path.
Preaching a series of sermons entitled "Tangled in Tinsel," he said that he has provided a "twist" to his traditional message about the Christmas story, talking about how people become entangled in worry, grief, unforgiveness and hopelessness.
"Worry," for instance comes from the Greek word that means "torn apart" and "divided," Haun said. Each entanglement describes a separation from God, and each of his messages describes how reconnecting with God can free those who are entangled.
"We are redeemed, and we will be redeemed," said the Rev. Otis White, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Jonesboro. "The essence of the message is the same (each year)."
Christmas is about the "arrival" of Jesus and spreading the word that "he is personally coming down to redeem his people."
White said his sermon will talk of God's "personal touch" and way in which he cares for his people as described in the Old Testament.
Even with the secularization of the holiday, White said his congregation arrives in a "spiritual mindset," which only needs "reminding" and "reinforcing."
Christmas reminds everyone that God is present everywhere and present in people, said the Rev. Steve Austin, pastor of Riverdale Presbyterian Church.
"No matter how bad it looks, you have God around you," Austin said. "I'm just very aware that for a lot of people it's not a joyful time."
The holidays are a "good news/bad news story," he said. It's "festive" for many, but can bring back memories of loss to others.
The message is the same as Jesus' name Emmanuel, which means "God is with us," Austin said.
Austin, who also works as the chaplain at Rockdale Medical Center, said that as "God is with us," it's important that people are with each other.
He described his congregation as a "family," and said he gives the same closeness and support to those who are hospitalized during Christmas.
"I'm not going to give them clich?s or piddling little statements," Austin said of those in the hospital.
Instead, he'll be a "supportive presence to listen and be available."
The Rev. Beverly Casstevens, associate pastor of Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, said the "challenge" is the "day after tomorrow" after all of the "hoopla" of the holiday.
The challenge is carrying the "light of Christmas" throughout the year, Casstevens said, especially this year with the country employing violent tactics in efforts to bring about peace. Giving to charity must be done year-round, and change must come one person at a time, rather than "one fell swoop" or passing of a law or United Nations resolution.