Reflecting on Christmas

If this is the first time that you’re tuning in, welcome! I trust you’ve had (or are still having) a great Christmas break. And it’s that very subject (Christmas) that we’ve been reflecting on for the last five posts. In that regard, just in case you wanted to check it out, let me go ahead and group it all together for your convenience.

Part 1 – It’s Christmas, It’s Christmas!

Part 2 – What hath Jingle Bells to do with Silent Night?

Part 3 – Profane Christmas.

Part 4 – Christmas and the Common

Part 5 – Taking Christ out of Christmas and Talking about “the Holy”

So, that’s a wrap. A nicely wrapped-up-blog-Christmas-pressie, just for you. Ha! Get it?! Wrap?. . . pressie?!. . .

Ok whatever. Anyway. . .at this point then, I’d like to change gears. I want to go from a sustained reflection on Christmas, to a sustained devotional meditation on the incarnation itself: a central part of any sojourner’s Christology, no matter the season. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll join me as we walk along together, having our hearts filled to the brim with that high mystery which before no eye had seen, nor heart imagined; but which now has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

 

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Taking Christ out of Christmas and Talking about “the Holy”

First things first: Merry Christmas! Yes, it is Christmas day, and I’m blogging. Wow.  I’m pretty amazed at my commitment right now. But following on from the last post then, I hope you see where I’m coming from with this gesture. When you get right down to it, it’s a seasonal greeting. Much like saying, “happy Queen’s birthday!”, or something like . . . that. Except, no one actually says: “happy Queen’s birthday”. So, on second thought, a simple, “Happy Holidays” might work better to illustrate this point. Bottom line: by “Merry Christmas”, I’m wishing you a “happy holiday”. Oookay then, rough start. Moving on.

Essentially, I’m advocating that, as tolerated sojourners, we need to divide asunder those categories that have become horribly muddled over the last two millennia. The worst part is that this muddling has happened, and continues to happen, as a result of good intent; whenever well-meaning Christians of any age, start trying to redeem things. That’s definitely the first problem. We should not be redeeming things. Ever. That is always Jesus’ job.

The second problem is that our efforts to merge sacred and secular end up in religious syncretism. The whole thing kind of reminds me of a somewhat (but not actually) related issue: the ancient heresy of Eutychianism. If you happen to be familiar with this heresy, you’ll remember the way that, in trying to figure out how Jesus’ divine and human natures worked together, Eutychius ended up throwing it all into one big bucket. I.e., He ended up with a version of Christ that was neither God nor man, and was therefore no good to anyone. Not good. So much for the ‘blend’ method. In fact, the blend method never works, especially when Christology is in view. Thus the somewhat forced overlap with this topic: When it comes to the great-big-Christendom-Christmas-hand-me-down, Christology is definitely in view, and the ‘blend’ problem once again rears its ugly head.

So, even today then, here we are: trying to keep things from blending. We’re trying to keep Jingle Bells separate from Silent Night. Good, rightly so. To state it more provocatively, we’re trying to keep Christ out of Christmas. Gulp. Are we even allowed to say that? Yes we are, but keep reading.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me, untangling the cultural-theological spaghetti of Christmas is not as easy as we might have hoped. Indeed, a whole host of questions come to mind. Firstly, in thinking about Christ-mass (viz., going to the mass on the 25th of December for the purposes of celebrating the birth of Christ; and yup. . . that is where the name comes from), perhaps the first question is this: Am I meant to go to church today?

Well, I’ll start by giving you a fair warning here. I’m a confessionally reformed kind of guy. So, maybe that’s a clue as to how I might approach this. “What saith the Scriptures” is always going to be the all important settler, in any topic under discussion. And maybe you picked that up in the last post, when I pretty much begged you (on the basis of the regulative principle) to stop merging the Santa-story with the nativity. But then, even beyond getting those Santa-hat’s off of the worship leaders, and beyond getting those blasted Christmas trees out of the church sanctuary, I would strongly advocate teaching your kids that when it comes to celebrating the birth of Christ, Christ himself has prescribed the exact means through which to do this: Church; Word; Sacrament; Lord’s day. Certainly not the 25th of December mass, any protestant rendition of it . . . or any other homestay version for that matter.

Let me offer you a paragraph from the Spurge himself, a brother who felt my pain on this:

“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons.Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition,because not of divine authority.” –Charles Spurgeon [1]

I don’t think I could say it any better than that. So, I’ll just go ahead and put the point down right there. But what does this actually mean for those who really want to honour the Lord and make best use of the current seasonal inclination to think upon Christ? Well, as I bridge into this and some of the other questions like it, here’s one more quote, again from Spurgeon:

We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Savior was born, it is the 25th of December….Regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give thanks to God for the gift of His dear Son.”[2] 

Two things there;

1) We really don’t know the day of Christ’s birth. And the closest reckonings leave us in and around the month of Sep, during the feast of Tabernacles. Moreover, there is an incredible scriptural resonance with this conclusion, bearing in mind that John begins his gospel by reporting that he ‘tabernacled’ in our midst.

2) “regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give thanks to God for the gift of His dear Son.” And this is absolutely key: For a Christian, the only thing wrong with doing this, is if we are only doing it once a year. Perish the thought! Every day and hour we are rejoicing in the gift of the Saviour. And the gift(!), not merely the birth. Jesus is the Saviour because of his birth, death, resurrection and second coming. This, together, is the gift. This is the gospel!

When we worship as a church in response to this gospel, we do it in the scripturally prescribed manner. But of course, we are also to worship God (in response to the gospel) in ways that go beyond corporate worship. Certainly, we give thanks for the gospel in our own homes, as individual families of the church (once again, ideally these times of family devotion are going to be more than just once a year!). And then obviously, we are also to give thanks during our personal times of prayer. In fact there is something severely wrong with our personal time, if this is not the case. And so, when we look at the 25th of Dec from this perspective (and surely this is how we should look at it), any routines and rhythms of devotion on this day are entirely appropriate. Evangelism even? You betcha. Why the heck not. However, this is so, not because it’s Christmas, but rather because it’s (drum roll please) Christianity!

So, by all means then, use the season’s inclination as a time to either evangelize; or to delve deep into the rich theology of Christ’s incarnation; or both! As tolerated sojourners, we know the sacred and we pursue it with all of our hearts. Together with this, we know the secular, and the liberties that we are allowed along the way. We don’t ever conflate these, just as surely as there is an all important difference between the journey and the destination. But finally then, we also know the limits; and we adamantly refuse to partake in the profane. So . . . on this day, the day of December the 25th, we–the tolerated sojourners–stand together: We’re taking the Christ out of Christmas; and we’re putting that sacred name back where it should be.

Notes;

  1. Sermon on Dec. 24, 1871
  2. Ibid.

Christmas and the Common

In the last post, I came down pretty hard on the more profane elements of Christmas. With those things said, the next question is this: should we, as Christians, celebrate Christmas at all? Uhm . . . I do.

But how then is this not flagrant hypocrisy; condemning Christmas as something profane with the one hand, and yet advocating its celebration with the other?! Well, to answer that, here’s where we need to talk about that second key idea, “the common”.

For the purposes of this, ahem, discourse, let’s start off by defining the key terms;

“Holy”: something sacred, and set apart by God.

“Profane”: that which is sinful (opposite of holy).

“Common”: Something neither holy nor profane. In this sense it is common to both the sacred and secular realms.

Now, keep in mind that there is a ton more to say about each of these terms. But this should be enough to keep us tracking for the moment.  And then, just before we get to using these terms, let’s make sure that the whole ‘pagan origin’ thing is not throwing us off any more than it needs to. I’ve already alluded to that fallacy of logic (the genetic fallacy) that seeks to prohibit a current practice based on its origin. So, to finish our collection of definitions, here’s a quick and dirty cut-and-paste for you (from an unquestionably trusted source: Wikipedia);

The genetic fallacy (also known as the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue) is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context.

This problematic logic often surfaces in attempts at Christian discernment (and this, on a wide variety of different issues). But, put as simply as possible, it does not work. If I want to go, and let’s say. . . snowboard (?!), it should not matter what the origin of the snowboard is; neither should the origin of the practice of snowboarding matter in coming to a conclusion as to whether snowboarding is permissible. And that’s really good news, because it means that I don’t have to lay the board down if it is suddenly uncovered that the snowboard was first used as a form of pagan revelry. That’s irrelevant. Rather, the question I need to ask myself is this: what is it currently used for. Or, how is the practice currently understood? If, it’s still about witchcraft and sexual debauchery, by all means, lay the board down my friend. However, if it’s just about going out there and catching some slopes. Well,  that’s the end of it. You go get’em tiger.

Now, bring this same idea over to Christmas. Because, albeit a tad more complex, it’s more or less the same sort of deal. That’s why I feel that way too much time and effort is invested into searching out the origin of Christmas. The better question is this: What does the cultural experience of Christmas mean for us now? How is it understood now? How is it practiced now? Now . . . capish?

In consideration then of the current practice, here’s the rub: for all that we might say about the various non-Christian themes running through the Santa story, the whole thing is basically a super fun, friendly…and kind-of-humanistic story for kids (and by kids, I mean both child and adult kids). But, no matter how we look at it, the contemporary Christmas practice is a bit of an insult to its pagan religious forbearer. And maybe I do need to get out more, but in all my days on this green earth, I’ve never come across any person/family that bows down before their Christmas tree on the 25th of Dec to celebrate the rebirth of a demi-god during the glorious winter solstice. Never seen it. I have noticed, however, that the kinds of people most likely to celebrate this sort of thing, are wearing hemp shoes and mocking first-world suburbia for its blind participation in this the utterly “unspiritual” practice of giving and receiving gifts (largely manufactured and produced by little children in China). And hey, maybe they have a point. But more to our particular topic, I think it’s safe to say that we can take “pagan practice”, in any rootsy sense at least, right off of the table.

As I tried to point out in the last post, beyond the greed oriented sins of the silly-season, the real profanity of Christmas lies in its desecration of the regulative principle, and unbridled Christian syncretism that goes along with it. As freaky as new-age spiritualists can be, the only ones who might actually bow down to the tree are Christians who have come up with a jolly-seasonal way to worship Jesus. I mean, after all, they must have had a tree in the stable, right? There was certainly a star at the top (of the tree?), and everyone was giving lots of oriental (China?) pressies. Yikes. What can I say, this is the stuff that Christians truly need to reject and stand against. This is where we need to be truly cautious and discerning.

I’ll say more about that tomorrow when we look at “the holy”. But for now, let’s appreciate that, greed-sin and Christian-syncretism excluded, much of what we find at Christmas is in the realm of the common. And aside the extreme cornball often associated, there are many things to be genuinely glad about. If even the shopping malls want to do their bit to promote goodwill among men, I’m all for it. I mean, FREE gift-wrapping. Are you kidding me? Yes please. If general virtues, like peace, joy, love and generosity are free flowing from otherwise narly-hearts during this time of year, then seriously, who am I do stand in the way? As Paul would say, against such things there is no law.

But isn’t the whole thing just a big marketing campaign? Who knows? Probably. But aren’t these “virtues” advocated in light of a glaring inconsistency with the unbeliever’s worldview? Yup. Definitely. But hey, that’s the whole deal with common grace (some have even argued that the grace is the inconsistency itself). But whatever the case, as tolerated sojourners, we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. Instead, we celebrate the toleration, and we ourselves tolerate. Nay, more than tolerate, we use the opportunity to love our neighbour! You see, there we go. Now you’re feeling it.

So, stop being such a Grinch.  If you want to celebrate Christmas with your family, go right ahead; just keep the ideas of the “the profane”, “the common”, and “the holy” nice and distinct in your mind. What hath “Jingle Bells” to do with “Silent Night”? Nothing at all. So don’t confuse the issue.

I love what McMahon said in this regard,  “I’m all for Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, winter wonderlands, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, exchanging presents, eating candy canes, enjoying really good egg-nog, stuffing stockings, watching “Elf” with James Caan and Will Ferrel, or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer classically sung by Burl Ives, as well as all the other holiday festivities. Why? Well, they have nothing, in the way I am explaining here, to do with Jesus Christ and the birth story, or the incarnation. They do not violate, in any way, the Regulative Principle.”

So, understand that when trying to distinguish between the common and the profane, your efforts to merge Bible stories with Christmas trees is the only problem here. If you’re into eggnog, Christmas trees and shopping, go for it! And be my guest: tell your kids pretend-stories about Santa, just the way you tell them about Teddy-bears-having-picnics. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t merge the Santa-story, with the nativity. Rather, teach your kids that they should want to worship the one true God of heaven and earth; and that they should love to celebrate the birth of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. But they also need to know that the Lord of all glory has prescribed the exact means through which to do this. And this great God tolerates no strange fire.

So, here’s the bottom-line then: stay away from sin, love your neighbour, and celebrate the fun of a western first-world shopping mall Christmas. But, when it comes to worshipping God, do it as you ought: go to church, celebrate in Word and Sacrament. Do it on the Lord’s day.  And by all means use that time to delve deep into the unfathomably rich theology of Christ’s incarnation. But let me stop here, because we are crossing over into the territory of  “the holy”. And indeed, this is what we hope to talk about tomorrow.

 

 

 

Profane Christmas

In the last two posts (here and here), I’ve been reflecting on Christmas. As promised, in this post, we are talking about Christmas’ more profane elements.

In this regard, usually the issue of pagan spirituality is of foremost concern to most hesitant Christians. For one thing, many are worried about the pagan origins of the festival. So we might well ask: Is this a legitimate concern?

Well, without trying to derail this post with what is better suited to a research paper, here’s what I would say. While there have indeed been debates back and forth on this issue, even a cursory glance at the research indicates a strong weightedness in favour of the thesis that Christmas does indeed have pagan roots (and, that this pagan festival was being practiced long before the birth of Christ). If you’re interested: most likely this was a festival dedicated to the celebration of the (re)birth of a baby-god to a mother-goddess during the time of the the winter solstice. . . and, well . . .we’ll just leave it at that I think.

Now, it is certainly true that from a scriptural standpoint, idolatry of this nature is in the realm of the profane. But that was then, and this is now. So, lest we fall prey to a genetic fallacy, we need to be weary of letting the matter of origins sway an honest evaluation of current practice. Indeed, even though pagan origin is often the first issue of concern, it is not what I primarily have in mind (when thinking about Christmas’ connection to pagan spirituality). In fact, at times, the issue of origin might even serve as a red herring to the real issues of contemporary practice, which seem to all but engulf some Christians who are otherwise merrily whistling along their way.

Beyond the contemporary humanistic and new-age spirituality that has come to be symbolized by the ubiquitous presence of Santa and his elves, most problematic of all is the syncretism that occurs when these ideas are mixed with Christian themes. Whether this mix oozes out at the level of Hollywood production (and examples that come to mind here are legion), or merely in the humble school nativity play; this mix of themes presents for us by far the biggest no-no, as it involves the outright mixing of the holy and the profane (which according to scripture, is never a good thing).

Of course, there is the whole Catholic-mass-at-Christmas debacle (a display of this problem, par excellence). But unfortunately this is such a big, historical target that the other equally problematic things go unnoticed in quarters much closer to home. As long as we’re not going to mass, we Protestants have no problem setting our longing eyes on Santa’s sled, reverently singing “Oh Holy Night”, while our hearts are deeply engaged, and downright appreciative, for the blessed and magical experience of Christmas. And if you think that this is a bit far fetched, I’d ask you to think again. That’s exactly what I was nearly lulled into (yes, lulled!) only the other day. Ugh. Creepy.

In the same vein then, otherwise normal protestant-evangelical churches will often be swept away in the cheer of the season to do all but totally desecrate the regulative principle of worship. You know the stories. They get bad…real bad. Like, preachers-in-santa-suits bad. To say the very least, that previous freedom of conscience that the Reformers gave their lives for, is hardly given a second thought by so many evangelical churches during this time. Instead, they mix the holy and the profane as if it was nothing more than a Christmas cocktail, shaken..not stirred.

But then, beyond the issue of religious syncretism (in itself a profane thing through and through), we have those issues of rampant greed and consumerism that manifest in unique and amazing ways during this time of year. In fact, perhaps more than any other point of the year, the Dec/Jan period serves as an expose on the problems of first world materialism. To say the least, spending is totally out of control. Holiday fever takes hold of us all, in a big way. This leads quickly to a whole host of other sins, all involving flagrant lack of self control. Let’s face it. They don’t call it the silly-season for nothing. It’s a crazy time. And in this way, there is indeed an uncanny resemblance to the ancient festival. For some or other reason, it’s been this way for centuries. And it’s kind of scary like that.

Here’s the bottom line then. While we might indeed feel the season’s cheer in the air, much of the talk and paraphernalia that goes with it is a cover up for the profane. And we, as tolerated sojourners, shouldn’t be naive at Christmas time. Moreover, we shouldn’t feel bad for feeling like it’s a time when extra caution is needed. Though this might well, at its worst, lead to mild forms of ostracization, it also means that we stay sober-minded during all the mayhem. Christians need to be discerning at all times. We don’t get to drop this guard simply because “it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas!”. That is a profane idea, not a holy one.

Now, here’s the thing: Despite the presence of the profane, my goal is not to condemn the cultural experience altogether. Quite the opposite, I actually embrace it, Christmas trees and all. So…what gives? Well, that is where “the common” comes in. So stay tuned. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

 

What Hath Jingle Bells to do with Silent Night?

Well, go ahead and grab some eggnog (or perhaps mulled wine if you prefer);  because, you guessed it, we are thinking about Christmas. A time that, lovely little treats aside, has major potential to be a vexed (rather than blessed) experience for the weary pilgrim. Now, beyond my perhaps slightly over-dramatic description of this vexation in the last post, the issue boils down to this: The Christmas season is a time when we will hear both Jingle Bells AND Silent Night on the same Christmas album.

Just so that we let this sink in properly, let’s start with a sampling of the lyrics in Silent Night:

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

Bear in mind, I could have picked almost any other hymn-carol instead of this one. My point being simply this: Christmas carols at this level, make up a profound part of the Church’s hymnody, and have some of the most theologically rich lyrics in existence.

Alright then. Next . . . a sampling from Jingle Bells:

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle all the way!
Oh, What fun it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle all the way!
Oh, What fun it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh.

Notice any difference in emphasis? I think so. Yet, as we know, one song is happily sung alongside the other at Christmas time. But, following Tertullian’s famous question (regarding Athens, Jerusalem and the mixing of philosophy with theology), we might well ask of this situation: What hath Jingle Bells to do with Silent Night, anyway?

Well, let me start by pointing out (once again) that Christmas time is a truly great example in showcasing the value of understanding a biblical distinction between the sacred and the secular. In order to answer the question then, we need to focus on three key ideas: 1) “the holy”, 2) “the common” and 3) “the profane”. In my hopes to offer you food-for-thought in the three day lead-up to Christmas morning itself, I’ll develop one of these ideas per day (in reverse order). Tomorrow we’ll talk about “the profane”. On the day before Christmas we’ll talk about “the common”. On Christmas day itself, we’ll talk about “the holy”.

So, if you find yourself with eggnog in hand and nothing much else to do, open up your ‘absolutely-favourite-favourite-must-read-blog’ bookmark list, and click on toleratedsojourner.com (you know, the one at the top of the list).