Skip to comments.The Crisis of Christmas
Posted on 12/14/2004 1:24:05 PM PST by Alex Murphy
Christmas comes in many different wrappings. There's pagan Christmas, with holly and mistletoe and the other reminders of our Druidic past. There's sentimental Christian Christmas, with gold, frankincense and fluffy sheep. And there's commercialized Christmas for the feelgood generation. Andrew Walker gets through the wrapping paper to discover the true meaning of it all the crisis of God entering the world to win it back to himself.
MOST OF US KNOW that in significant ways Christmas is a pagan invention. European "Father Christmas" can perhaps claim a longer life than the American "Santa Claus", but both these jolly creatures are a bastardization of 4th-century St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whom legend has it gave gifts to children and also contended for the full divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicea in AD325. Christmas trees are a 19th-century recreation of German pagan tradition, and mistletoe and holly harp back to the folk fertility of Druidic religion.
We tend to accept such pagan importations into the Christmas story because they all seem to be part of the "spirit of Christmas" a time of giving, family, merriment and mulled wine, carols, decorations and snowflakes. This is "quality time" for us that is conjured up by residual images of a Victorian Christmas strained through repeats and rehashes of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is a world of humanitarian decency which allows a sanitized and sentimental baby Jesus to slip-in with barely a rustle of discomfort from either the religiously indifferent masses or the cohorts of interfaith watchdogs.
Indeed, Jesus is welcomed into the festive season not so much because it is his birthday but because he is a symbol of the Christmas spirit. Witness the tableau of the holy family with adoring mother fawning over adorable child while an elderly Joseph looks on, pleased as punch. See the gift-bearing kings from exotic lands. Watch rough hewn shepherds with their fleecy baby sheep. Add cows and donkeys for good measure, perhaps a hovering angel or two, and together it all adds colour to the Christmas spirit, which is arguably not even Dickens any more but a hazy warm feeling an "atmosphere" created by market forces and unrestrained hedonism.
IF WE ARE COMMITTED Christians we are quick to blame the corruption of Christmas on pagan innovations not to mention commercial interests but we are slow to concede that we too have corroded the Christmas story through the sugary acids of sentimentality. And sad to say it may have begun in the 14th century with Francis of Assisi.
A great preacher and popularizer, as well as self-elected pauper, St Francis embellished the Gospel stories in order to make them fresh and vivid to ordinary people: the dark cave of the outcast God-child, for example, took on the glow of a rural idyll as sweet hay and wooden manger turned the landlord's outhouse into country stable. Franciscan spirituality was also expressed through homely iconography so that the stories were imaged in frescoes and church windows. By the time of the Renaissance, 100 years later, Christmas scenes were skilfully animated by artists who increasingly saw religious art as a triumph of technical flair and imaginative creation over dogmatic content.
Lest Protestants lay all blame at the pierced feet of St Francis, or the decadence of Italian art, we should perhaps recall Martin Luther's carol, "Away in a manger", where lowing cattle and the laid-down oh so sweet head of Jesus almost switches off the true light which has come into the world.
All of this is perhaps the more sobering when we realize that we don't even know if the early Church celebrated Christmas at all. We do know that by the 3rd century the Eastern Churches had added Epiphany to the great liturgical feasts of Easter and Pentecost. This great theophany this public announcement of God's intentions remains to this day in the Orthodox Church as an event as important as Christmas. Epiphany is not understood as the celebration of the Magi, as it has become in the West, but a celebration of the baptism of Jesus, some 30 years after his birth. The Eastern Epiphany is seen as a trinitarian declaration on the banks of the river Jordan that in Jesus what you see is none other than the revelation of God to the world.
THE CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION ITSELF emerges from the shadow of Easter in Western Christianity sometime after the imperial edict of toleration in AD311, when the of December 25th was chosen as the official birthday of Jesus. In itself this date is quite arbitrary, as the Bible gives no hint as to what time of year Jesus was born. The scholarly consensus is that December was chosen to celebrate the birth of the "sun of righteousness" as an evangelistic marker against the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.
For those of us living in colder climes, the solstice is now so intertwined with Christmas that the festive season is a veritable Yuletide with all the gloss of chocolate logs, snowmen, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, reindeer, frosted window panes, Santa and elves in Lapland, and even shepherds wrapped up against the cold on a billion Xmas cards. In the United States, you can even visit Christmas shops in the Deep South at the height of summer, and as you walk in you stumble on a winter wonderland like Lucy pushing through the coats of the wardrobe only to find her feet scrunching in the snows of Narnia.
The pagan accoutrements of the Christmas story of Santa, trees, red berries, and winter pleasures are not evil in themselves and are, in their own way, delightful. The problem lies elsewhere. The true meaning of Christmas has been buried beneath an avalanche of nostalgia for a "feel good" experience remembrances of a childhood past, of magic, of reconstituted joy.
Christmas should be the season when the Church calls us to remember the inauguration of God's rescue mission for humankind. Jesus the Word of God, Son of the Father, in obedience to the divine love, divested himself of his power and glory, and in the power of the Spirit joined himself irrevocably to human flesh. The at-one-ment of God with the world may have culminated at Calvary, but it began in Nazareth with God's wooing of Mary through the angelic messenger, and her voluntary acceptance of the divine proposal. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was God's initiative, but one that was in full co-operation with the chosen maiden of Israel.
Christmas, in other words, is the recollection and retelling of salvation history: it is the crisis event in the story of the world that changes it for ever. Time itself, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, turned a corner with the incarnation. Let us, by all means, buy our family presents, eat our mince pies, wallow in sentiment if we must, and even sail close to the pagan winter wind. But let us, by no means, fail to announce to the world that Jesus the son of Mary is none other than Immanuel God with us.
Always appreciate my Orthodox brothers' perspective on things. Even though I am not Orthodox, your understanding of this coincides with mine. Regrettably, there are many Christians on FR who appear to insist that sort of thing must be observed alongside of the Incarnation...
"Regrettably, there are many Christians on FR who appear to insist that sort of thing must be observed alongside of the Incarnation..."
Well, you know, the secular Christmas traditions are fun, even for old curmudgeons like me. The important thing is to remember what we are celebrating and why. It is a failing of the churches that the faithful are not better educated in this and thus are prone to confuse the fun secular holiday with the very important, indeed second only to Pascha, holyday.
The icon always has an ox and an ass, as Kolo mentions. These are not randomly chosen animals, but rather represent a direct reference to the words of Isaiah 1:3, where the Prophet writes -- "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib..."
Unlike Western artistic portrayals of the Nativity, traditional Orthodox iconography has the Virgin and Christ at the very center of the icon, whereas St. Joseph the Betrothed is off in the lower left hand corner of the icon. It is thereby made clear that he is not the father of the child. In addition, he looks troubled, and there is the figure of an old man standing in front of him, representing Satan, who tempted Joseph to doubt the words of the angel that had told him that the child was of God.
The characters at the lower right of the icon are usually of women midwives, who are washing Jesus, adding yet another layer of emphasis to the reality that Jesus was born physically -- and that his arrival on earth wasn't something merely mystical and symbolic.
There is usually a tree beneath Christ, which both signifies that He is the one prophesied to arise from the root of Jesse, and also is a prefiguring of the Cross.
The wise men, who arrived later, are off in the distance, while the simple shepherds, to whom the birth was first announced, are closer -- as well as being a reflection of the Gospel account, it also shows that the "common and simple folk" often have an easier and more direct route to being close to God than do the "wealthy and wise."
This is truly one of the richest icons in all of Orthodox iconography. And there is truly nothing sentimental about it...
The cosmic implications of the Nativity are also reflected in the hymnology of the Feast. The Troparion/Apolytikion of the Feast goes:
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shown to the world the light of wisdom. For by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Son of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee."
The Kontakion of the Feast:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One. Angels and shepherds glorify Him, and the magi journey with the star. For our sake, the pre-eternal God is born as a little Child."
The Exapostilarion sung at the Vigil:
From on high our Savior, the Dayspring of the East, hath visited us, and we who are in darkness and shadow have truly found Him: for the Lord hath been born of the Virgin."
And finally, a beautiful sticheron from the Praises of the Vigil:
Today Christ is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem. Today He who knows no beginning now begins to be, and the Word is made flesh. The powers of heaven greatly rejoice, and the earth with mankind makes glad. The Magi offer gifts, the shepherds proclaim the marvel, and we cry aloud without ceasing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.
Of course, all of it is even more beautiful when sung.
Wishing all a blessed preparation for the Nativity...
Thanks! Kala Christougenna!
I always appreciate you too, Alex, here on the religion forum. Thank you for this thread.
Great learning stuff here for us. Thought you might like to come read.
Ok they're not going to bring down the house. :-)
While I was singing to them and with them, I kept having to fight choking up on the line "Glories stream from heaven afar".
Thank you so much for reminding me about the symbolism of the ass and ox, so I can make sure to bring that into the lesson tomorrow with my children.
it also shows that the "common and simple folk" often have an easier and more direct route to being close to God than do the "wealthy and wise."
Thanks for pointing this out as well.
"it also shows that the "common and simple folk" often have an easier and more direct route to being close to God than do the "wealthy and wise."
This is one of the most important lessons to learn and one which many of us, myself as the chief, should be regularly reminded of.
Your post dovetails nicely with the comments I made on the companion thread to this one. Quoting from that post, "If own nation can't keep the story straight, why should we expect others to do any better?"
Some of the other comments on that thread are pretty noteworthy, too, for other reasons....
""It's very simple," says Finster, "When Christ called his disciples, he called fishermen, he didn't call nobody from a qualified university."
Forgive me if you find him to be a hoosier. I think he is delightful. We raise goats and listen to country music after church, so I cannot call anyone a hoosier. :-)
Oops, meant to ping you to the above post as well. It didn't work for whatever reason.
About the continuity of the Old and the New Testaments
By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. (Heb 7,13)
Here Jesus directly invalidates the OT verses Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21 and reinterprets them as something we should not follow:
Kolokotronis is absolutely on the mark when he says that Orthodox Christmas is not commercialized, always staying focused on Christ.
Thus, rather than wishing someone "Merry Christmas" we greet each other with "Christ is born!" and instead of "Marry Christmas to you too" we respond "Indeed, He is born!" This is not our personal holiday of merrymaking, but a celebration of the birth of our Saviour. It's not about us, Santa or sales.
Thus Christmas to the Orthodox has a different name and a different meaning: it is simply and always "The Birth of Christ."
Likewise, Orthodox Easter is not even called that, but "Resurrection." It is the central feast of the Church, eclipsing even His Birth. And, consistent with the focus on our Saviour, we do not wish each other "Happy Easter" (the word Easter is pagan), but rather exclaim "Christ is risen!" to which we reply "Indeed, He is risen!"
Nice post. Thanks Kosta. I am going to ping you to the other thread I am on in case you are up for awhile.
I like goats. :)
And terrific entertainment.
Anyway, they had these bowls of pretzels on all the tables and after it was all over, we just naturally started helping to clean up. Like you do in Orthodox church halls.
I asked if I could have the pretzels that were leftover after I had dumped a few bowls, for our goats. And suddenly I was surrounded by everyone there.
"You have goats?" They were all brimming with huge smiles.
Now usually, you have to understand, people think we are hoosiers with a goat on top of the car or something. But always in Greek churches, we get lots of smiles on that one.
"... we went to a dinner for a mission church out here, Greek. It was great! Crab and spaghetti."
Crab and spaghetti?! What kind of Greeks do they have out West?
As for goats, they are among the most noble of beasts; brave and affectionate at the same time. They give us milk and wool and are real good to eat in a stew, nice and lean!
I have a neutered buck who is very big and also sweet, named Panteleimon, whom I am training to pack for our Boy Scout troop. We call him Leemon for short.