Rebirthing Christmas In a World hard to Christianize!

Posted: November 25, 2020 in Uncategorized

Rebirthing Christmas In a World hard to Christianize!

A hope-filled look.

Will Christmas survive the demise of Christendom? Will Christendom survive the decline in credibility of institutions? Will there be such a thing as church? What will the world look like in the future? All questions that covid-19 has heightened around the Western World that remind us of an age-old question. How can we sing in a strange land… when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead – 38 degrees celsius and rising?  Or when the Spring festival of new life called Easter ‘down under’, comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown? Our strange land is linked to the nature we experience day by day and the metaphor and story are linked as well.

Shaping a distinctive liturgical theology is and has been a recurring problem for us in Australia and New Zealand.  Because it is not as simple as it sounds.  The question has been shelved a little by the survival of some trees in the colder regions, where our national fore mothers and fathers were keen to replicate the English/European countryside.  So the thousands of imported trees do indeed change their colours in some glorious autumn seasons, and after a cold snap or two, lose their leaves by the millions.  But not every tree.  Not the native trees of Australia and New Zealand!

And while there is frost, and sometimes snow in some parts, there is no general closing down of the land. Climate change is also leveling out the differences. Spring, for instance, is not the land celebrating life from a winter-induced death, but rather the beginning of an intensification of colour. An all year round production seems nearer. 

So, as we begin our look at both Advent and Christmas we might think about the Christmas cards we used to send and in some cases still do. Today marks the beginning of the church season that comes before Christmas that we call Advent. It starts again and needs all the encouragement it can get because as with all  myths, stories and metaphor they need to touch ground with today’s cultural norms and the season needs to be Re-Birthed because of the many counter claims for attention in our world in these days.

So what is the ‘spirit’ of this season?  Well! listening to the storyteller we call Mark, the season is inviting all of us to ‘stay alert’, ‘keep awake!’—ears tuned, eyes open—but the question remains; to what?  Is it being awake to the presence of the sacred (or that which we name God) and is the awareness about that sacredness being in the ordinary.

Our text has Jesus saying to the disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. Here the task is being awake to something not realized, something new, something that is not expected. He goes on, talking to the servants left to mind the property; ‘It is like someone traveling abroad, who has gone from home, and left servants in charge, all with their own task, and has told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Here the event is part of the ordinary life patterns of the wealthy taking holidays and the servants left to be security guards looking after the assets. The punch line is then; ‘So stay awake, because you do not know when the owner of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. ‘If the owner comes unexpectedly, you must not be found asleep. What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ Here the return is not unexpected but the need is to be ready to carry on the ordinary servant tasks.

The challenge here is not looking for some so-called spectacular and mythical supernatural end times with a new beginning. The Re-Birthing is of the ordinary in the ordinary and the awareness is to be found in the ordinary as Re-Birthed. Nor is it in some ‘Frosty the Snowman’ pop song imagination.  But it is rather by Re-Birthing the God-given ‘incognito’ moments, in the ordinary. In the ordinary, as in flowering bushes or Pohutukawa. In the ordinary… like the sound of tree branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind. In the ordinary… like the summer rain, and the realisation it is not a singular thing this is a complex age. But rather rain is made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing. Complex is ordinary. In the ordinary… like a young woman called Mary or a bloke called Yeshua in his ordinary human-ness living an ordinary life in his part of the world. It was his ordinariness that contrasted with what impact he had on his world and the radical challenge he brought to his situation, So, much was this challenge about being aware in the ordinary of what he was saying and doing with his life.

In the ordinary… like the lovemaking songs of the cicadas, and the beckoning songs of the native birds we are being challenged to consider the need for a fresh awareness of our creative capacity. Be aware that inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings. The human creative mind continues to explore the boundaries of the ordinary in search of the new and discovering that it is always in the ordinary. In the ordinary we are being asked to be aware of what actually is available. How is one infected or inspired by hope. And not just an optimistic hope, but rather the more rugged hope that sayseven if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right “we will endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us  This call from the ordinary to watch and listen for the ordinary is a kind of hope that requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready outcome.

In today’s ordinary it is what we might call a Serendipitous Creating God who is creator, creation and the creating energy all in motion and it acts in and through the ordinary in other words us and others who receive our actions. The call is to consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful presence  of a sacredness event in the ordinary, in the every-day, in the outsider, in the new. Advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic invitation to re-imagine the world.

The Christmas we celebrate today might seem like a timeless weaving of customs and feelings; however we need to remember that the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that defines Christmas is little more than 130 years old. There has to have been a reason for the season and there still needs to be.

As a ‘pre-Christian’ festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations.  As a Christian celebration, the ‘Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until sometime in the 4th century and then only as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals, political expediency, and the removal of thinking tagged ‘heresy’.

The ordinary seemed to have got lost in this development and the institutionalisation of Christendom got swallowed up in the need to control and hold sway over the collective conscious. The ordinary had to be sidelined so that a single movement of the collective could be sustained.

In the history of Australia and New Zealand the Christendom movement struggled and Mission from the North was required to tell the story. It as we know forgot about the ordinary and imported Northern cultural symbols and practices which were out of sinc with the natural seasons and thus the ordinary. In reality, Christianity was in the main rejected by the locals and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.  This is born out by what is written of the history. There was a need to celebrate the victories over the ordinary and matters like the Treaty settlements were celebrations over the ordinary. Which has led some to conclude that in Australia and New Zealand, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair.  At best, “the Australian nation was only ever superficially christianised” (Wilson 1982:6).  By contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but rather was a gaol for criminals and social outcasts—an ordeal of exile. New Zealand may have had more religious focus in its settlement perhaps induced by its size, and population and its people’s tribal culture.

In early days of the Australian colony at least Christmas held little importance.  Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, a holiday was not declared.  The day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican Church parade.  If punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.  Indeed, it would appear that on the first Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150!  At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the Australian colony, in the latter part of the 1800s, like of the movement in New Zealand it appears to have been mostly through ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.  Old customs and symbols were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.  These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and New Zealandised and became increasingly nationalistic.

While American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s some enterprising Australian artists a few years later attempted a re-birthing by giving him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh. An attempt at defining the ordinary perhaps?

In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories by the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Bible.  That is, people of early Christendom felt something novel had occurred with the birth of Jesus. 

Two stories that are very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content

Luke 2:1-7 (Inclusive Text)

Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census

of the whole world to be taken.

This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,

and everyone went to their own town to be registered.

So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee

and travelled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem,

since he was of David’s House and line,

in order to be registered with Mary,

his betrothed, who was with child.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,

and she gave birth to a son, her first-born.

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger

because there was no place for them at the inn…

Matthew 2:1-3 (Scholars Edition)

Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king.

Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then.

“Tell us,” they said, “where the newborn king of the Judeans is.

We have observed his star in the east

and have come to pay him homage.”

When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken,

and all Jerusalem with him…

Both came rather later in the biblical tradition—probably anything from around 85 CE – 125 CE.  And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale, they are very different.  As a theological seminary professor once wrote:

“… Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background.  The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded.  Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale.  Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting” (Griffin 1982:55).

Of these two stories (or “fairytales” as another calls them (Ranke-Heinemann 1994)), one, Luke’s birth story of Yeshua bar Yosef has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story.  The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus, lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven—all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home.  The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners are to make sense of this story.

Again we find the story being told in the setting of the ordinary of the day but why these stories?  Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories. 

To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.  Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:

(i)  a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,

(ii)  an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,

(iii)  an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,

(iv)  a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and

(v)  praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor (McGaughy 1992).

In general terms these elements can be found in the biblical infancy stories.  Yet it wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine “consciously chose Christianity as his Empire’s new civil religion” (Kennedy 2006:221) —in 313 CE—that there was a significant change in both attitude and authority surrounding Christianity, its stories and developing doctrines. The institutionalisation and the control of the ordinary as opposed to the control of the alternative story begins.

Having been oppressed and persecuted by Rome for some 300 years, Christianity suddenly came into imperial favour, even becoming the official religion of the empire:

“… bishops, of disparate schools of thought, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence” (Pagels 1988:xxv).

Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years later—in 325 CE, when Emperor Constantine stepped in to resolve an internal church dispute threatening civil strife.  Constantine took the unprecedented step of calling what was to be the first general council meeting of the church, in Nicea.

Representatives came from all over: Antioch, North Africa, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Northern Italy.  The Council of Nicea was about merging the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith—or as it has been called, implementing the ‘divinity test’.  It was also about solidifying or standardising the beliefs and liturgies of the church.  And of course, its flip side: excluding those who taught or believed or did, something different. The ordinary became contained and the evolution of thinking with it.

Also worth noting: the establishment of the Christmas feast first appears on the liturgical calendar in Rome in 336 CE, 10 years after Nicea.  Prior to that Epiphany (or ‘old Christmas’ celebrated on 6 January) was seen as more important than Nativity (celebrated on 25 December).  The conflict was finally smoothed over with a decision to combine Christmas with Epiphany, which liturgically became know as the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’.

So the development goes like this: from birth of a human person, a brother; to the transcendence and distance of God “modelled after an exalted royal emperor” (Roll 1995:177) —Jesus of history to Christ of faith.  Or as one of my mentors has put it: Jesus the iconoclast to Christ the icon (Funk 1996:44).  Now that has to be some shift!

The question we are left with is that as storytellers, interpreters, poets, composers, liturgists and artists, how can we approach the Re-Birthing of Christmas ‘down under’ in the 21st century?

In New Zealand we have been called by the creative genius of Shirley Erena Murray.

Carol Our Christmas

Carol our Christmas,

an upside down Christmas;

snow is not falling and

trees are not bare.

Carol the summer, and

welcome the Christ Child,

warm in our sunshine and

sweetness of air.

Sing of the gold and the

green and the sparkle,

water and river and lure

of the beach.

Sing in the happiness

of open spaces,

sing a nativity summer

can reach!

Shepherds and musterers

move over hillsides,

finding, not angels,

but sheep to be shorn;

wise ones make journeys

whatever the season,

searching for signs of the

truth to be born.

Right side up Christmas belongs

to the universe,

made in the moment

a woman gives birth;

hope is the Jesus gift,

love is the offering,

everywhere, anywhere,

here on the earth (SEMurray)

And:

Star-Child, Earth-Child

Star-Child, earth-Child

go-between of God,

love Child, Christ Child,

heaven’s lightning rod,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Street child, beat child

no place left to go,

hurt child, used child,

no one wants to know,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Grown child, old child,

mem’ry full of years,

sad child, lost child,

story told in tears,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Spared child, spoiled child,

having, wanting more,

wise child, faith child

knowing joy in store,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Hope-for-peace Child,

God’s stupendous sign,

down-to-earth Child,

star of stars that shine,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive! (SEMurray)

On the song ‘Star Child’ Shirley Murray writes:

“The whole thrust of ‘Star-Child’ is for the entire world to experience Christmas, from street kids to the forgotten elderly, and this has to be expressed in language we now relate to.  Hence [such language]… represents an attempt to make our imaginations work in the present world rather than the unreal past….

In the ordinary

And again:

“Maybe our re-awareness of the full humanity of Jesus, rather than his divinity, is the point which allows us to move from Church language to ‘secular’ language…  I’m thinking of the impact of the parables (people stuff, ‘everyday’ language), as well as the fierce arguments of Jesus with the religious lot in more ‘religious’ language.  ‘Telling the story’ is a ‘secular’ thing, while preaching the doctrine the Church thing”.

While the religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth may have come to provide the fundamental rationale for the festival within the Christian Church, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative.  Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own.  And for many people today Christmas is just that… Christmas!  Something to be entered into and enjoyed, if possible.

Christmas has always been an extremely difficult festival or holiday to christianise!  No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus, or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes,

“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment…  Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment” (Roll 1995:257, 269).

Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily the most popular, festival of the year involving nearly all the population.  It would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today

“unless it had struck deep folk roots… and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response” (Roll 1995:271).

Why?  Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and our modern popular culture celebrations are essentially life-affirming.  They say ‘yes’ to life.  For life is not a great ready-made thing out there.  Life is ourselves, and what we make it.  “Life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves.  It includes everything and excludes nothing” (Cupitt 2003).

It is our ordinary.

Such a view stands in shape contrast to many church-going Christians with their unchanging Sky God, and who still are “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value it only as a place of discipline for the life to come” (Miles 1912/76:25).  No wonder the ordinary gets a bad name!

At its best, Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be.  Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole evolving universe.  Not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also an invitation “to assume responsibility for this sacred birth happening in and through us” (Sanguin 2010: 18).

Likewise, I suggest, the problem with Christmas is not ‘commercialisation’.  The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. No longer stands out in the ordinary. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant.  There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety.  As one scholar has suggested:

“The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses.  Rarely do we experience beauty in depth.  Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).

Both Advent and Christmas through a southern hemisphere lens, are best seen as we are open and receptive to their simple mystery amongst the ordinary:  being sensitive to and surprised by, opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events.  When both are parables, in which everyday, ordinary events, take completely unexpected turns.

(As an aside… it is interesting that both Christmas and Easter are related to the cycles of the earth rather than to any actual dates of Jesus’ birth and death.  We do not know when in the year Jesus was born.  We do know when he died.  Christianity tied his birth to the northern hemisphere winter solstice, and his death to the northern hemisphere spring equinox, the latter being a ‘moveable feast’—anywhere between 22 March and 25 April—tied to the moon cycle as well as that of the earth.  Christianity is a latecomer to the elemental rituals and celebrations of humanity!)

It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history so maybe it’s time to Re-Birth Christmas.

Notes:

Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed.) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788. NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.

Breward, I. 1988. Australia. The Most Godless Place under Heaven. VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.

Cupitt, D. 2003. Life, Life. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Frazier, R. T. 1992. “Christmas should be softly spoken” in Quarterly Review 12, 4, 69-74.

Funk, R. W. 1996. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover (ed.). The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan.

Geering, L. G. 1998. Does Society Need Religion? NZ: Wellington, St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.

Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Griffin, G.  1982.  “The colour of joy” in Nigel Watson. (ed.) Jesus Christ for Us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ appropriate to Advent and Christmas. VIC: Melbourne. JBCE.

Inclusive Readings. Year C. 2007. QLD: Toombul. Inclusive Language Project. In private circulation.

Kaufman, G. D. 1993. In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. MA: Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

Kennedy, J. 2006. The Everything Jesus Book. His Life, his Teachings. MA: Avon. Adams Media.

McGaughy, L. 1992.  “Infancy narratives in the ancient world” in The Fourth R 5, 5, 1-3.

Miles, C. A. 1912/76. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. NY: New York. Dover Publications.

Pagels, E. 1988. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. NY: New York. Vintage Books/Random House.

Rank-Heinmann, U. 1994. Putting Away Childish Things. Translated by Peter Heinegg. NY: New York. HarperCollins.

Roll, S. K. 1995. Toward the Origins of Christmas. The Netherlands: Kampen. Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Sanguin, B. 2010. If Darwin Prayed. Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Canada: Vancouver. ESC Publishing.

Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed.) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. NSW: Homebush. Lancer Books.

rexae74@gmail.com

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