Sunday, 10 November 2013

Christmas: not only for the religious

In 1981, the Tasmanian department store chain Fitzgerald’s (now part of Harris Scarfe) had an advertising campaign that featured the slogan: “Christmas is Fitzgerald’s”.   Justifiably, many people were annoyed. People wrote letters to the editor of all three Tasmanian papers.   Highly critical statements were issued by various church bodies. Fitzgerald’s business began to suffer.   Finally, they withdrew the ads and, in their new ads, apologised for any distress they caused.
A priest I knew was shopping in a supermarket.   He wasn’t wearing his clerical collar.   (It was about the time when most Catholic priests were starting to wear civilian clothes most of the time.)   He overheard a conversation between two shoppers about the Fitzgerald’s advert.   He decided to eavesdrop on the conversation, and he heard one woman say:
“Imagine that, Mavis; the flaming churches are even trying to take over Christmas!”
In many cases, there is a sense of frustration at this time of year on the part of those of us within the churches.
On the one hand, there is much happening that we can celebrate.
  • The same carols we sing in church are played over the loudspeakers of supermarkets and shopping malls.
  • The same lessons we read in church are read at Carols by Candlelight events sponsored by local government bodies.
  • Nativity scenes are seen in all sorts of non-churchy settings.
  • There is a general sense of generosity, tolerance, and goodwill in the air, reflecting (if incompletely) the extravagant generosity of God whose self-giving we celebrate at this season.
On the other hand, there is much of which we can, should, and must be critical.   The worse of it is a certain manipulation on the part of advertisers that tries to say that the one, effective way of showing love at this season is by spending frantically.   Often, the people who have the least money to spend are also those who are emotionally least resistant to this manipulation.
There always has been a certain ambivalence within the Christian church to our celebrations of this season.  Frequently, this ambivalence has been strongest among the more intensely “religious” sort of Christian.   At its most extreme, the English Puritans refused to celebrate Christmas.   And, in fact, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas was banned in England.
But, even at the beginning of the Christmas celebration, there was a certain ambivalence on the part of the church.   It was only about four centuries after the time of Christ that Christmas began to be observed.   It was soon after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire.   There was a popular pagan Roman holiday called Saturnalia at this time of the year.   The Christian church was concerned that some Christians (particularly those who were less-committed) may be tempted to lapse into pagan worship if there was no Christian competition for Saturnalia.   So, a celebration of the birth of Christ was established at the time we do so now.   (Before then, Easter and Pentecost were the only major Christian festivals.)   Celebrating Christmas gave Christians an opportunity to celebrate at the same time as their pagan neighbours.   The idea worked.   It worked well.  From the beginning of the Christmas celebration, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.
And in our gospel lessons about the birth of Jesus, we also see people who were not so “religious”, people who were outside the community of faith (or at least the active community of faith), playing important roles in the church’s retelling of the birth of Jesus.
  • In Matthew’s gospel, we find the wise men.  Now, the wise men weren’t Jewish.  They were Persian scholars, ... members of the Zoroastrian faith, ... exotic foreign intellectuals.  In fact, the wise men did the highly un-Jewish thing of practising astrology.  These exotic foreign intellectuals were among those who followed the star and paid tribute to the infant Jesus.
  • In Luke’s gospel, we have shepherds.  Now, the shepherds were Jewish but they wouldn’t have been considered very good Jews.  For one thing, they couldn’t go to the temple all that often.  It went with the job.  Working with animals, they came into constant contact with the blood and the faeces of animals.  As a result, they were ritually unclean and would have to take a number of days off work for ritual baths before they could go to the Temple.  Thus, a religiously-minded Jew didn’t think of becoming a shepherd.  It was a job for your basic secular, working-class bloke.  But it was these secular, working-class blokes to whom the angels gave the news about Jesus’ birth.  
In the gospel accounts of the first Christmas, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.   Matthew’s exotic foreign intellectuals and Luke’s secular, working-class blokes were there as well.   From its very beginning, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.
But I’ll conclude this article with a story from an English Methodist minister named Jack Burton.   For a number of decades, Jack Burton earned his living as a bus driver in the city of Norwich, so that he could engage in a deliberate ministry with people for whom the churches - for whom any churches - are unfamiliar territory.   One day, a few days before Christmas Day, Jack entered Norwich Cathedral, with Tony, his bus conductor.   Like the shepherds in Luke’s gospel, Tony was a secular, working-class bloke; one of these people for whom any church is unknown territory.  Jack Burton tells the story:
“Inside the great building, decorated for Christmas, Tony looked round and said, ‘Is this for everyone?’   I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant: ‘Can anyone walk round here at any time?’ ‘Can anyone come to the services here?’   But I didn’t stop to ask - I answered immediately and emphatically, ‘Yes, of course.’   It was a good question.”            (Jack Burton, Transport of Delight, SCM, p. 61.)

“‘Is this for everyone?’ … ‘ Yes, of course.’”
From its very beginning, and continuing to our own day, Christmas was not only for the “religious”.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


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