Diversity’s Mark on Christmas   4 comments

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So I said I feel no guidance from God not to celebrate His birth as Jesus. Despite that, I do feel guidance from God to celebrate His birth in some ways and not in others.

While it might surprise some observers, cultural diversity is built into the DNA of the Christian churches. Read the description of Pentecost in Acts and you see a lot of cultures. Study the Jerusalem Council in Acts 14 and you see the churches coming to grips with that reality. We should expect the churches to take different forms to connect with different people and to, within Biblical boundaries, to develop a variety of doctrines in response to the various cultures Christianity enters.

Many of the doctrines we take for granted – the Trinity for example – were developed in response to questions that arose during the early centuries of Christianity – sticking points, if you will, that occurred as Christianity encountered different cultures and needed to explain itself better. This does not mean Christianity is becoming syncretic. That’s the theory of people who truly do not understand Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity was always understood within the early church (see Philippians 2), but by stating it clearly, the church was (attempting) to make itself clearly understood. Many other doctrines are evidence that the church adapted to cultural differences while remaining faithful to the word of God. When cultural influences steered the Roman Catholic Church seriously off track, Bible believing Christians attempted to reverse the syncretism and that became known as the Reformation.

A church needs to be immersed in a particular culture in order to serve people of that culture. Christianity is God working through people, after all. While some ecclesiastic bodies have tried to impose hegemony on Christians living within diverse cultures, that is not God’s way at all. At Pentecost, Peter and the other apostles spoke their own language, but the crowd heard them in their own languages. They then took the gospel they learned that day to their home territories.

I am personally leery of churches that are made up of a homogeneous culture because I was spiritually born in a racially and ethnically diverse church. Still, within that heterogeneous church culture, homogeneous groups formed because those sub-groups shared common language and cultural experiences. There is nothing wrong with that so long as those sub-groups do not become inclusive, and at that particularly church they did not. I learned to eat with chopsticks from Koreans. I am offered seal oil by Native folks (and take a requisite no-thank-you taste as often as it is offered). I know how to make agudiq and tamales (badly). I learned these things from my fellow Christians who are of other cultures than mine.

So, the idea that different churches in the early Christian era practiced Christianity in somewhat different ways, appropriate to their culture, does not surprise or alarm me. I don’t have an issue with early Gentile Christians practicing Christianity in Gentile ways and early Jewish Christians practicing Christianity in Jewish ways. It doesn’t bother me that the church at Rome, surrounded by Saturnalia worshippers, chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25. What bothers me is that the Roman Catholic Church later required all Christians to do it the same way.

The Roman pagans lit candles as an offering to Saturn to convince this god to reverse the track of the sun and bring back summer. When the days lengthened, they had a big drunken party to celebrate.

Christians in that society were probably also praying to God that the days would lengthen and when they saw God’s patterns turning toward spring, they might have gotten together for a Lord’s Supper and a fellowship feast. Maybe someone reflecting on the starry night was reminded of Christ’s birth and, viola, we now use the solstice celebration to remember Jesus’ birthday.

My Celtic ancestors dragged evergreens into their houses midwinter and also offered sacrifices to pagan gods in hopes that the sun would not continue its downward descent. Their worship included building great bonfires, decorating with evergreen plants such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, and making representations of summer birds as house decorations. It is sometimes hard to separate those who became Christians because they believed the gospel story and those who became Christians because the power of Rome required it, but recognize that the church in Rome had very little to do with the Celtic churches, which grew up separately by the work of missionaries and remained largely on their own for several hundred years during the Dark Ages when the Roman Catholic Church was imposing its hegemony on the rest of Europe. There remained an emphasis in the Celtic churches for a personal commitment to faith that included an examination of your life practices. To assume that pagans simply remained pagans and brought their pagan practices into the churches is not to understand how Biblical Christianity works.

Are the Celtic and Germanic elements of Christmas signs of syncretism or are they simply the adoption of cultural elements into the practice of Christianity? If I love the smell of evergreens in my home midwinter, why would God refuse me that practice if I’m not using the evergreens in worship of a pagan god?

None of us alive today can be really certain of what was in the minds of the  new Celtic Christians since we weren’t there. But what we do know is that in AD 49, there was a gathering of Christian leaders at the church in Jerusalem and a letter was transmitted that basically said “Gentiles do not have to become Jewish to become Christians.” So for almost 2000 years, it’s been okay for Christians to not circumcise their children, to eat seafood and pork, to kindle a fire on Saturday (or turn on an electric light, which amounts to the same thing). The 613 rules that the Pharisees strove to keep in order to be in line with God do not apply to Gentile Christians … they don’t even apply to Messianic Jews … because they were never God’s law, but cultural practices some Jews adopted in a wasted effort to make themselves perfect. Christians are held instead to Paul’s guidance in 1 Corinthians – it’s okay to eat meat offered to idols because what goes in the mouth does not make a man unclean, but what comes out of his heart does, but … if you’re with another Christian whose conscience is bothered by eating meat sacrificed to idols, you should abstain rather than cause your Christian brother to violate his own conscience.

The vast majority of practicing Biblical Christians are comfortable with the trappings of Christmas. They don’t worship Santa, but they aren’t offended by the fictional character. They don’t see themselves as participating in a syncretic religion because they have some formerly pagan trappings mixed in with their religious observance. The decorations are pretty and nothing more.

Some practicing Biblical Christians are offended by Christmas. And, I can certainly understand feeling that the Savior is being ignored if you live in North Pole Alaska with its candy cane light poles and its Santa Claus House. I know some Christians who will not celebrate Christmas with any traditional trappings, though they may honor Christ’s birth through a religious observance.

That is their choice. There is no reason to argue about it. The Christmas-enjoying Christians are not likely to grow any closer to God by discontinuing the practice of Christmas. The Santa-haters are also not likely to be uplifted by joining in the practice of Christmas.

But hey, the atheists who hate Christmas and want to see it ended (or at least see the religious part of it hidden behind closed doors) love to see us argue because they see such in-fighting for what it is – a lack of understanding unity.

We are fighting over a dust mote in our eyes when we have much greater things to face and overcome as churches.

4 responses to “Diversity’s Mark on Christmas

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  1. Really enjoying this topic!


  2. Pingback: Christmas Wars | aurorawatcherak

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