Friday, December 22, 2006

How I was Converted to Christmas (Again)

I used to be one of those Christians who didn’t think much of Christmas. That might seem strange – a Christian less than enthusiastic about the festival of Christ’s birth. It might surprise you how many Christians feel that way. Sometimes it’s because of pagan associations with certain Christmas traditions, such as December 25th having once been in ancient times the birthday of the sun, or the Christmas tree being a pre-Christian European symbol of fertility. At other times it’s the materialism they object to – all the madness of the silly season, the commercialization and the singing of such theology-lite songs as Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. A third objection is an odd one for those concerned for mission, but some Christians complain about those who attend church only at Christmas and Easter and never at any other time of year. (Well, two days of the year is better than none!)

I used to feel this way too, but I was converted to Christmas. I was converted to Christmas by reading the Bible, by hearing the passages we read at this time every year - the promises of the ancient prophets and the story of the Nativity that fulfilled those promises. For me the fact that there are pre-Christian origins to some of our Christmas traditions, only tells me that the Christian faith overcame and sent into obscurity all of those inadequate belief systems that predated it. The good news of the love of God through Jesus Christ just has no competition.

The three wise men were pagan magicians – astrologers, magi, dabblers in the occult sciences. But when they saw the Christ child, they worshipped. So there will be many people in church on Monday who haven’t been to church since last Christmas. That’s fine by me – some will see the Christ child and worship him. So Carols by Candlelight will swing from the sublime to the ridiculous in its musical programme as it always does – from O Holy Night to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. That’s okay – Jesus came for the foolish as well as the wise - for the three stooges as well as the three wise men.

Perhaps the most famous Beatles album cover is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It depicts a large crowd of very famous people all standing in a group with the Beatles at the centre. It’s fun to see how many people you can identify correctly. I think a great Christmas card would be one modelled on the Sgt. Peppers cover but instead of people gathering around the Fab Four they would be gathered around the manger scene with the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the centre. Instead of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando and the Rolling Stones would stand many of the great Christians of history – some famous for having been Christian – Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley – as well as others perhaps not as well known for their Christian faith.

Along with the three wise men there may be some other threes. Perhaps the three stooges to represent the simple and “foolish” people who have a simple faith that needs no intellectual supports. Perhaps the three blind mice to represent the disabled people whom the world might disqualify but who find that they are as whole as anyone else and more whole than some because of Jesus. Each one would bring their gifts – perhaps not gold, frankincense or myrrh but precious things nonetheless, to show their love and gratitude to God for the giving of this child. Let everyone come to the manger this Christmas – pagan, Christian, Moslem, atheist – let them all look at this wonderful scene and marvel. We don’t have to control it. We don’t have to get everything theologically watertight. So there weren’t three wise men (the scripture just says "wise men' without giving a number), so Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th. There’s a time and a place for getting those factual details right but Christmas is a time to lay aside those scruples and welcome and rejoice with all who come to see this miracle baby.

Last Friday I drove by Como Park just down the road from where I live in Prahran, and saw a crowd of thousands leaving the annual Carols night, perhaps the biggest event on the City of Stonnington’s calendar. Some of these people were Christians, but I would say most were not. As I saw these people, young and old, single and married, straight and gay, coming away from their annual pilgrimage to carols on the lawn, touched once again by the mystery and the wonder of it all, I was converted to Christmas again.


K E Alexander said...

What a wonderful find! I stumbled upon your blog today, while searching for the perfect image for my post announcing my Historical Theology Google Group. I say stumbled upon, because I'm not a Calvinist, so I doubt it was predestined. But, happily, I cooperated with God and here I am!

I teach Historical Theology at the Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, TN. We are Wesleyan-Pentecostal so your references to Wesley, along with video of Dylan and pictures of Batman caught my attention.

My blog for my students is a little less eclectic (but you should see my husband's )!

I did a similar post on Christmas on my more general blog, "In My Life". I decided this year that I was not only tired of those who want to make sure Christmas is theologically correct but also with the Evangelical Scrooges who decry the commercialism. My feeling is at least, for the most part, we are giving and kind during this season. Similarly, the Christmas holidays and all their red and green "otherworldliness" provide for me a much-needed respite from the seriousness with which I take the world and the church. Please let me be sentimental and lighthearted for just a while! And I think Moltmann is right about this: where there is Life, the Spirit is at work and during the Christmas season I see many signs of life and therefore, signs of the Spirit.

I love the idea of the Sgt. Pepper/Nativity picture by the way. I'd include Susannah Wesley, Athanasius, MLK and Bono. In the less well-known group, there'd be a lot of Methodist and Pentecostal pioneers, men and women, who made it possible for you and me to have teaching posts....and blogs!

Ross said...

Interesting segue from Christmas to The Beatles. Have you seen or heard of the Rutles, who parody the Beatles? Their mockumentary, All You Need is Cash, which predates This is Spinal Tap by six years, is well worth a look if you haven't already.

Glen O'Brien said...

Good to hear from someone in Cleveland TN. I presetned a paper there back in 96 during the joint meeting of the Wesleyan Thelogical Society and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. I also visited the Hal Dixon Pentecostal Research centre there in 2001 doing research for my PhD dissertation "North American Wesleyan-Holiness Churches in Australia," in which I have a chapter on the COG (Cleveland) in Australia. So glad to be in touch with a colleague from that part of the Lord's Church. Imm on sick leave at present and not doing much by way of corresponding with people but when I'm back on deck I may be in touch again. Glad you like the blog.


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