Keep Saturn in Saturnalia– The Sixth Day of Christmas

A Pagan Rejoinder to “Keep Christ in Christmas”

The atheist/agnostic group Freedom from Religion Foundation bought this “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, in response to a “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner that hangs in town. Someone was offended, and tried to burn down the billboard. As the article below wryly notes, the steel support beams suffered minor charring.

The billboard and ensuing hubbub provoke a couple thoughts. First, in this particular example, the atheists have a better sense of humor than the dour Christians of misdirected earnestness.

Second, with regard to the wider culture: has anyone in Pitman noticed that Christ hasn’t been in Christmas since at least 1980? If he were in Christmas, we would be paying more attention to Isaiah’s prophetic vision: beating swords into plowshares (2:4), assuring the fearful (35:4), and dealing graciously with the poor and socially inferior (11:4).

The excerpt follows, with the link below:

A South Jersey billboard proclaiming “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia” was torched Tuesday night by two unidentified men who fled in a pickup truck after only charring the sign’s steel support beams.The billboard, erected as a cheeky counterpoint to a “Keep Christ in Christmas” banner in downtown Pitman, refers to the ancient pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, held in mid-December to honor the Roman god, Saturn.

The incendiary incident is only the latest to be sparked by the billboard, which was paid for by a national group of atheists. According to town officials, many Pitman residents lost their holiday cheer when they woke up Friday morning to see the message plastered at the intersection of two heavily trafficked roads….

via Attempt to burn down atheists’ Saturnalia billboard in South Jersey.

Violence on Christmas– Inhabiting the Same Space

Managing differences between people, and containing potential violence, is a challenge as old as clans and kinship. What’s new, is both the unprecedented proximity of very different people, and the distance that their violence can be projected. This is true of both state-sanctioned and “religion”-sanctioned violence. (For “religion”-sanctioned violence projected over a large distance, think 9/11; for state-sanctioned violence projected over a large distance, think US drone attacks in the tribal regions of Pakistan.)

This report of today’s violence [excerpted below] in Nigeria is getting some airtime in the mainstream American media, as it should. I think the only faithful response to people who kill others because of their Other-ness, is to continue to build the bridges that make our unprecedented proximity less threatening.

While the history of Christianity is littered with instances of shameful violence directed at “infidels,” the child of Bethlehem came to reveal both the humanity and the divinity of all victims. The Other is not a devil; we share a humanity. And the humanity we share is in the image of God.

In honesty, I remain unconvinced that non-violence is the best– or even the most faithful– response in all situations. However, if we take seriously the God who is revealed in Christ, then we need to think much more deeply than we do, before we kill.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI issued pleas for peace to reign across the world during his traditional Christmas address Sunday, a call marred by Muslim extremists who bombed a Catholic church in Nigeria, striking after worshippers celebrated Mass.

The assault on the Catholic church left 35 dead in Madalla, near the Nigerian capital. A failed bombing also occurred near a church in the city of Jos, followed by a shooting that killed a police officer. The blast came a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombs in Jos claimed by Islamist militants killed 32.

via Nigerian blasts mar pope’s Christmas peace appeal | cleveland.com.

Christmas in Bethlehem

Altar Servers at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The people who were looking for a savior in the time of Jesus were people who had suffered much. They needed deliverance. But whom should they look for? A new Moses? A prophet, like Elijah? Or were things so bad, that only God could make it right?

As the story goes, a baby is born to Mary. Herod gets some inkling that this baby won’t be good for business– his business being domination and coercive power– and so, in order to hedge his bets,  he orders all the babies to be killed. These are not the best conditions under which to raise a family, so Joseph scurries to Egypt with his wife and boy, until the danger passes. The cute manger scene does not last for long.

To sentimentalize and domesticate Christmas is to ignore what the story really says. What the story tells us, again and again, is that people are frightened at the reality of God’s coming into the world: Mary is scared, Joseph is scared, the shepherds are scared, and Herod– the king!– is scared. Why are they scared?

Because when God comes into the world, things change– and they don’t change  just a little. For those who have much, the risk of change is loss. For those who have nothing, the risk of change is hope. Either way, the Christmas story ends up revealing the truth of our vulnerability, kings and shepherds alike. But that’s not all the story does. This revelation of mutual vulnerability shines with the possibility for new life and restored relationships, because in the Christmas story, God is vulnerable too.

Latin Patriarch of Palestine and Jordan Fuad Twal arrived at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem on Saturday, as thousands gathered to celebrate the annual Christmas mass.”We ask the baby of Bethlehem to give us the peace we really need, peace in all the countries of the Middle East. We demand peace in the Holy Land,” said Twal.

via Maan News Agency: Latin patriarch demands ‘peace in the Holy Land’.

Good Will and Peace

George Fox, Friend of the Truth: founder of the Quakers

John Howard Yoder traces the roots of Quaker non-violence to the 17th-century English puritan understanding of conversion: God doesn’t coerce belief; rather, we come to believe through a process of authentic inward change, wrought by the searching– and sometimes painful– presence of God’s Light within. In the same way, the transformation of enmity to amity cannot be brought by coercion. Enemies are conquered the same way that God conquers us– by the relentless willing of good for the other, even when all the evidence suggests that the other doesn’t give a damn.

That’s the condition– the seeming “not giving a damn” for the other– that marks the public stance of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government today, as we move toward the Christian holy day of Christmas. Bethlehem is in the West Bank. It’s behind a wall that Israel is building, one of the measures it takes to protect itself from violence.

Also behind the wall, north of Jerusalem, is the Friends International Center, in Ramallah. The Quakers have been in Ramallah since before Israel existed, founding schools there in the late-19th century. Today, the Friends International Center aims to be a place where people can worship in the Quaker tradition, can meet others who are committed to peace, and can support the local community in its desire for a more hopeful future.

The official stance of “not giving a damn” for the other, is not the stance of many, many people of genuine good will from both sides. May they all– including the Ramallah Friends and their supporters around the world– continue their work, strengthened in conviction for peace by the grace of Light: the power of God, so tender and mild, holy infant of Mary.

via George Fox.

The Phony “War on Christmas”

Rich Simpson has some cutting words for Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad, Fox News, and the so-called “war on Christmas” [an excerpt and link are below].

The “war” on Christmas is a pernicious off-shoot of what we have known, for decades, as the “culture wars.” What’s true, is that various factions in our society hold different ideas about important things. Two of the battlegrounds in these “culture wars” are:  morality (including, but not limited to, sexual morality); and patriotism (what does it mean to love America?). Religion is naturally brought into the fray, but please, don’t blame God for that.

Many of the differences and disagreements in our society are worth serious conversation, but serious conversation gets mocked in most (not all) public discourse today– especially when the public discourse gets highly politicized. Highly politicized public discourse is happening whenever the desire to “score points” for your side, trumps a disinterested, fair-minded love of the truth. No one can ever be totally disinterested, but it is possible to love truth enough to recognize one’s own biases, and to engage in humble self-reflection.

How we manage public language around this time of year does matter– and on that, at least, we might find initial agreement between those with differing ideas about whether the tree on the town square is a “Holiday Tree” or a “Christmas Tree.” Both sides agree that words matter.

And if we can agree that words matter, then that agreement can become a promising start for the kind of listening that is the precondition for “Peace on Earth.”

Here’s Rich:

In any event, I prefer to keep the Christmas greetings in church – not because I think faith can be segmented from real life but because I seek to build bridges and find common ground with all of God’s children who seek good will for all, and peace on earth in this time. Moreover, I’m not sure that a Christmas greeting at Walmart or the mall makes me somehow feel more special. At the very least it cheapens and distorts and commercializes what matters so deeply to me; the Incarnation. If I hear one more time about ABC-Family’s 25 days of Christmas I am going to scream! For the record, it’s still Advent, and there are twelve days of Christmas that culminate in Epiphany! I don’t expect ABC-Family to preach that. But I’d so much rather they call this the 25 days of Solstice than distort my tradition!

Happy Holidays!

via Rich’s Ruminations.

Relevant Christian Practice in this Time and Place

THIS IS WHAT RELEVANT CHRISTIAN PRACTICE LOOKS LIKE, IN THIS PARTICULAR TIME AND PLACE ! It’s called “The Advent Conspiracy,” and it offers an alternative to what has, by default, become our frenetic, anxiety-drenched, out-of-balance approach to Christmas. If Christian churches have any hope of re-occupying their rightful place as agents of the life- and society-changing Way of Jesus, it will be because of a renewal in proclaiming and acting the deep truths of the “good news”: that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst, and that we are called to the work of transforming lives and relationships– not in a time to come, but now.

And when Christian churches are renewed in proclaiming and acting the deep truths of the gospel, The Advent Conspiracy is a model of what that will look like. It is unapologetic about loving Jesus, but it is neither doctrinaire nor fundamentalist. It raises concerns about our spiritual health, but does not resort to scare tactics. It recognizes that we are in the world, but provides suggestions about how to practically and faithfully not be of it– in other words, it’s realistic about both the world we live in, and how to engage that world without giving in to its life-draining logic.

Specifically, the Advent Conspiracy gives us four life-affirming things– not only to remember, but to do— in the weeks leading to Christmas: worship fully; spend less; give more; and love all. Each of these 4 is accompanied with practical suggestions so that, for example, “love all” doesn’t remain an unfulfilled sentimental abstraction, but gets bone and flesh through concrete action.

I highly recommend Advent Conspiracy. The website is http://ac.wcrossing.org/default.aspx?page=3684, and an excerpt and additional link are below.

Let’s re-claim Christmas for Jesus.

The concept behind Advent Conspiracy is simple…

Worship Fully It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

Spend Less Before you think we’re getting all Scrooge on you, let us explain what we mean. We like gifts. Our kids really like gifts. But consider this: America spends an average of $450 billion a year every Christmas. How often have you spent money on Christmas presents for no other reason than obligation? How many times have you received a gift out of that same obligation? Thanks, but no thanks, right? We’re asking people to consider buying ONE LESS GIFT this Christmas. Just one. Sounds insignificant, yet many who have taken this small sacrifice have experienced something nothing less than a miracle: They have been more available to celebrate Christ during the advent season.

Looking for ways to give gifts that don’t cost a lot of money? Have a few ideas you’d like to share? Head to rethinkingchristmas.com today.

Give More God’s gift to us was a relationship built on love. So it’s no wonder why we’re drawn to the idea that Christmas should be a time to love our friends and family in the most memorable ways possible. Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving. Sounds a lot better than getting a sweater two sizes too big, right?

Love All When Jesus loved, He loved in ways never imagined. Though rich, he became poor to love the poor, the forgotten, the overlooked and the sick. He played to the margins. By spending less at Christmas we have the opportunity to join Him in giving resources to those who need help the most. When Advent Conspiracy first began four churches challenged this simple concept to its congregations. The result raised more than a half million dollars to aid those in need. One less gift. One unbelievable present in the name of Christ.

via Advent Conspiracy – About [AC].

The Co-option of Christmas

Advent is coming, a beautiful season of reflection and preparation in the Christian liturgical calendar. In our time, however, a new religion is ascending. This new religion takes the old religion and appropriates its holy days for itself, subtly replacing new gods for the old. Instead of the first Sunday in Advent, we are about to have Black Friday. Those observing the latter will far outnumber those observing the former.

And you and I: we can’t have both– not all the way, not to our core. Black Friday and the first Sunday in Advent don’t go together. They are antithetical. To proclaim “shop and spend” is not reconcilable with “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” There may have been a time when our commercial life served our deeper commitment to the God of Love revealed in Jesus Christ, but that time is gone. Now, our lukewarm religious pablum serves our deeper commitment to the gods of ego, of money, of consumption.

It’s not Christmas we celebrate, but a material wealth unprecedented in the history of the world. Glory be to us in the highest.

The less we notice the substitution of the new gods for the old, the more nearly perfect is the co-option. For those few of us for whom following Jesus (or following another authentic spiritual path) is a matter of life, our job is to remember what the new religion would have us forget: that God is God, and we’re not.

(The following is an excerpt and a link to a reflection on the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent):

The disconnect between church and secular calendars may never be greater than on the first Sunday in Advent. The irony is that both ostensibly share the same goal: preparing the world for Christmas.

The commercial world is using every medium possible to hawk its urgent message. Our mailboxes, newspapers, television and radio stations, e-mail in-boxes and web pages overflow with one unanimous appeal: buy gifts now. Buy the gifts that your friends or your loved ones need or want. Buy gifts because you are expected to do so and to prove you love your family, admire your boss, appreciate your colleagues, are sensitive to your in-laws, generous toward your employees, and respect your children’s teachers. Buy to show your patriotism. I am no economist, but I suspect that the urgency of the commercial message is in inverse proportion to the health of the market.

It always feels like a lost cause for the church to try to compete with the sheer volume of advertising—especially on the first Sunday of Advent. The eschatological message of the gospel strikes a dark and utterly dissonant chord: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Matt. 13:24–25). It’s a hard sell when the malls are filled with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus….”

via Lectionary column for Sunday, November 27, 2011 | The Christian Century.