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Church and Gospel Christmas

Posted on: December 15, 2019

Category: Theology

Church and Gospel Christmas

Quest Thoughts: Church and Gospel Christmas

In the Christian tradition, this time of year is Advent. Blue and purple are colours often associated with Advent, with blue becoming more popular today. Blue represents the coldness of winter and anticipation of the dawning of the light in Christ.

I am not going to write about Christian liturgical colours, but I start here because tradition and history, especially at Christmas time, often clash. The Christian gospels do not indicate any particular time of year for the birth of Jesus, and there is no record outside the Bible of the birth of Jesus. How did December 25 become the birth of Jesus, and how did Advent blue become a season of anticipation? Could it be that later customs obscure earlier biblical intentions?

No one knows for sure, but it seems that two Roman festivals were adopted or revised in Christianity to become Advent and Christmas. The two Roman festivals were Saturnalia and Sol Invictus (the latter not really being a festival so much as an observance).
Saturnalia was the older Roman tradition of winter celebration starting on December 17. It featured, amidst all the revelry, a reversal of status. Masters would serve their slaves. The reversed order was supposed to remind people of the ancient days when the order of Saturn, the sun god, ruled over the earth. It is not impossible to see a similar idea in Jesus’ “Kingdom” or “Empire of God.” In the parables, the Empire of God is like an alternative world under a different order; of course, there is no way to know if Saturnalia directly or indirectly influenced Jesus or ancient Judaism.

The other possible Roman influence on the development of Christmas arose later in the third century with the observance of Sol Invictus on December 25. There is lots of debate about Sol Invictus (the invincible or unconquered sun), but the emperor Aurelius (CE 274) turned this deity into a cult, and then Constantine (CE 325) made Sunday (the day of Sol) a sabbath day. It is often stated that when Christianity became the imperial religion of Rome (at the end of the fourth century), December 25 was turned from Sol Invictus day into the birth of Jesus day. If you place Saturnalia into the mix, you have the festivals of Christmas and the twenty-fifth of December as Christmas Day. Somehow, blue gets into this picture, too. The colour blue was expensive, in ancient times, so purple was substituted (or so I’ve been told).

You can see the point: Christmas Day, blue or purple, festivities, and gift-giving were unknown to the gospel writers. They did not see or interpret the birth of Jesus as a festival or an observance. Later Christian customs were foreign to the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Their versions of the birth of Jesus were written centuries before the church warmed up to Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. What, then, did Matthew and Luke think the birth of Jesus was about?

For Matthew it’s simple. The birth of Jesus is about a threat to the ruling powers of the day. Jesus is such a threat that the family is forced into exile. They become refugees. Jesus is born as a refugee not because he was homeless or orphaned but because he was a threat to power. That simple, straightforward, Matthew theology should stir us and inspire us. In the church, it should light the clarion call for solidarity with refugees. It is remarkable that the church prefers to emphasize the colour blue or talk about a coming salvation on Christmas rather than talk about what Matthew talks about: the abuses of government and the fate of refugees.

For Luke, the birth story is a little bit less clear. That Luke features shepherds is interesting, for shepherds represent the socially poor and outcast, but to them the announcement of the birth is made. The other element Luke has is the song of Mary, which calls for the elevation of the poor and the turning away of the wealthy. Finally, Luke has Jesus, found by shepherds, lying in a feeding trough. They see Jesus in a feeding trough and leave glorifying and praising God. What is so glorious about this remarkable picture of poverty? Though Luke’s point is scattered in several images, there is one thing to observe: the birth of Jesus is about the “good news” coming at us in and through poverty.

For many people, Christmas is the most difficult time of year because we are accustomed to seeing it as family celebrations, wealth, food, gifts, and being at home. The church also can be inclined to make Christmas about family and about salvation specially delivered to our comfortable pews. For the homeless, the refugees, and for those who have lost family members and feel alone, Christmas can be a most forlorn season. It does not change circumstances, but it might help or inspire to understand that the gospel writers also saw the birth of Jesus in a forlorn way. His birth is a threat to comfort and a voice in (not to) poverty.

The best way for the church or any community centre to celebrate Christmas, in my imagination, would be to enact the parable of the banquet: open all the doors, let in the homeless, the refugees, the forlorn, and throw a banquet where the wealthiest and most privileged among us are servants. That act would be Christmas in a way that is close to Saturnalia and to Luke, though still not as radical as Matthew, but getting there. That would be a Christmas statement, but I know (and I include myself) that privilege gets in the way of compassion and building upkeep gets in the way of open doors.

©By David Galston

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