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A Christmas post-mortem

Howard Gregory

Sunday, December 30, 2012    

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So, here we are on this Christmas Sunday, a few days into the season of Christmas, a day when most Christians — committed or nominal — make every effort to be present at church.

If your home is like that of many Jamaican homes, characterised by a measure of material prosperity, and you were in a position to purchase some of the things which have become associated with the Christmas festivities, then the ham is probably now almost down to the bone, the sorrel is almost finished, and there are probably a lot of crumbs where the nicely baked cakes once rested. The relatives have already returned home or will be on their way shortly.

If your home was not among the fortunate ones, then perhaps you may be left asking what was all the celebration about? So my questions to all of us are these: What say you about Christmas? What is the testimony that you offered concerning the meaning of Christmas in your life by the way in which you have gone about your celebration of Christmas?

In an article published in the Sunday Gleaner a week ago, journalist and minister of a Christian denomination, Ian Boyne, suggested that we should "take Christ totally out of Christmas and make it an entirely secular festival!" He lays the foundation for his argument by positing that "Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with biblical Christianity and is a pagan-derived festival adopted for strategic and political reasons, when there is a legitimate biblical festival that could commemorate the birth of Jesus".

He continues to build his argument by citing what he considers "the raw, incontestable historical facts", namely, that "Christians up to nearly 200 years after Jesus' birth exhibited absolutely no interest in celebrating His birth, and there is no record whatsoever of any Christians observing His birthday".

What Boyne is here doing is nothing new, that is, trying to make of the early church, its emerging scripture and traditions, a systematic presentation of the matters of interest to 21st century minds. It is clear that the writers of the New Testament had as a primary interest the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to what was understood to be "the ends of the earth".

It is for that reason that we know the Acts of the Apostles take us through the spread of the gospel to Rome, the then centre of civilisation, and leave us wondering about the fate of the imprisoned Paul while he was there. At the same time, to posit that the Christians had no interest in the birth of Jesus for nearly 200 years is a fallacy, for the reason that the three synoptic gospels present us with the narrative of the birth of Jesus, the earliest of them, St Mark, being attributed to a date of 68 AD.

If there was no interest in the birth of Jesus, why would the evangelists bother to present us with the birth narratives? Furthermore, John's gospel — which constitutes more of a philosophical reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — begins with a reflection on the birth of Jesus in John 1:1-18.

Boyne attributes the origin of the celebration of Christmas to anti-semitic sentiments in the Gentile church which emerged in Rome and which was consolidated by the Roman Catholic Church.

So he argues: "But the early Gentile Christians were fiercely anti-Semitic, and especially among Roman Christians, there was a deep antipathy towards the Jews and a concerted attempt — which was successful — to eradicate every strain of Jewish influence on Christianity. The Roman church has done a thorough job of de-Judaising the Church and pulling it from its Hebraic roots. That's why you have Christmas and Easter — the latter of which was a substitute for the Passover, which continued to be kept by Eastern Christians at the same date as the Jews (Nisan 14) for 400 years after Christ. That was so until the Roman church stamped it out and imposed its ecclesiastical authority to enforce that ban. I could quote you chilling passages from church fathers which demonstrated such raw hate and antagonism towards the Jewish people and their religious practices."

Not only is this position misguided, but it demonstrates an antagonistic and prejudicial approach to the Roman Catholic Church, the very thing which he attributes to them in the first place. One cannot read the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and not see the evidence of Jewish/Christian conflicts and tensions which were not a one-sided affair.

Indeed, the evidence is there of persecution of Christians by Jewish elements after the destruction of the temple by Roman forces in 70 AD. Additionally, there was no Roman Catholic Church with universal jurisdiction as we know it today in the first 200 years of the life of the Church. There was one undivided Church and, therefore, the prejudicial actions attributed to the Roman Church belong to the whole Church at that time.

Additionally, Boyne's claim that Christmas is an adoption of a pagan festival demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of evangelisation of non-Christian people through the ages, a good example of which may be found in the gospel of John in his reflection on the Incarnation.

In writing his gospel, St John was writing to a non-Jewish audience and wanted to draw on ideas which the pagan Greeks already understood as a way of creating a bridge to the Jewish world of thought in which the event of the birth of Jesus was being told.

In the text, the symbol and person of the logos (word) is used to talk about God's continuing activity in the world and on behalf of human beings from the time of creation. Here we have the meeting of the Greek and Jewish cultures. The word "logos" in Greek thought had come to mean the "truth, reason, and nature". In Jewish/Hebrew thought the logos was used to speak of the activity of God.

In this framework, the spoken word and the speaker are one. Thus, in Genesis when God said something it came to pass — God said...... and there was. The same God who was active in creation was now active in the birth and life of Jesus. And so the Word becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ -- something which is new and yet not new. The Word becomes flesh to reveal the very nature and glory of God, but also to reveal what God was doing for humanity.

Again, in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 17, Paul is in Athens and comes upon the worship attributed to "an unknown god" and uses the evangelising strategy of pointing to the fact that the being worshipped and represented as "unknown" is "the God who made the world and everything in it, He who is Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in shrines made by human hands".

The fact is that there are few Christian rituals and traditions which do not have some kind of pagan precursor which has been given a new interpretation and application in the light of Christian experience. That applies to those sacraments which are at the centre of Christianity, namely the sacrament of Holy Baptism (a rite of initiation) and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (a shared communal meal).

Boyne makes mention of those sections of Protestantism which claim to approach their Christian theological reflection on the basis of sola scriptura, and faults them for not dismissing Christmas which is observed on December 25 as a compromise of what they claim to affirm.

The fact is that in no historical and institutional expression of the Christian faith is fidelity to the principle of sola scriptura achieved, as there is no such thing as a single interpretation of the vast literature of Christian Scripture which is acceptable to every Christian. All expressions of biblical interpretation are subject to subjective interpretations, including those quoted by Boyne in support of his biblical and theological position.

Newer religious groups, such as that to which Ian Boyne is affiliated, have attempted to bridge centuries of church history as if they can start afresh and capture pristine Christianity with only a Bible and divine inspiration. This is not possible. Every approach undertaken by individuals is governed by personal interpretation of the text. Therefore, the attempt to discredit religious traditions within the Christian faith which appeal to the traditions and history of the church lacks honesty.

My own religious affiliation is one in which the integrity of what we do by way of theological reflection is approached on the basis of a three-pronged analytical methodology — scripture, tradition, and reason.

The vast majority of the Christian world rejects the interpretation which Boyne is trying to project as the true basis for celebrating and grounding Christmas, by locating it in the perpetuation of a Jewish Old Testament tradition of the feast of Tabernacles. For the Christian faith tradition, those observances and traditions not only pointed to the coming of the messiah, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, but they have found their fulfilment in the saving work achieved through His life, death, resurrection and ascension.

For those who have been troubled by Boyne's proposition, I would say that the first thing to do is to dismiss the kind of confusion which he is seeking to perpetuate. Christmas is not about the celebration of events that took place on a certain date, namely December 25. The Church does not claim that Jesus was born on December 25.

That date is chosen as the day we celebrate the Incarnation, when God became incarnate in the baby of Bethlehem. It could be any day in the year that is chosen. We know from our own experience that there are times when we have to shift the celebration of a birthday or anniversary to a different day or even a different month because it is not convenient to observe the specific date, but that does not nullify the significance of the event which we are celebrating.

In the same way, when it comes to the date for the celebration of Christmas, the date is neither here nor there, what matters is that we are celebrating an event within the movement of what Christians understand to be the saving/loving relationship between God and his people in which God's plan of salvation has been revealed.

And those Christian groups, which either do not observe Christmas or have special activities on that day, do so because they do not have a clear theological position that takes the Incarnation seriously as a significant moment in the salvation of God's people.

The permanent location of Christmas at December 25 is part of the Church's way of creating what has become the liturgical year which begins four Sundays before Christmas and runs the gamut of the ecclesiastical year, though not corresponding to the civil calendar year.

The liturgical year is a way of recounting through the various seasons the Christian story of salvation by God in Christ. A simple statement drawn from the Internet defines the liturgical year in the following terms: "The liturgical year, also known as the church year, consists of the cycle of liturgical seasons in Christian churches that determines when feast days, including celebrations of saints, are to be observed, and which portions of Scripture are to be read either in an annual cycle or in a cycle of several years. Distinct liturgical colours may appear in connection with different seasons of the liturgical year. The dates of the festivals vary somewhat between the different churches, though the sequence and logic is largely the same." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liturgical_year)

Finally, it would help if we all remind ourselves that Christmas is not about a date, the accuracy and historicity of which we need to have debates, neither is it just a one-day celebration, but a season which runs from December 25 to January 6 when the feast of the Epiphany begins.

So even if the trappings are all gone, or fast disappearing, and all you have left is the anticipation of the gungo peas soup cooked with the remnants of the ham bone, be not dismayed by Ian Boyne's utterances. Enjoy the soup, and give thanks to our God who became incarnate in the baby of Bethlehem, and celebrate the dawning of messianic salvation and of God's peace and favour toward humankind.

And furthermore, may we also enlist ourselves in this experience of salvation and become instruments of God's peace, light, hope, and favour toward humankind in what is a troubled and despairing world of 2012, and even as we anticipate the coming of 2013.

Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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