Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Happy Incarnation Day!

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days (Revelation 12:1-6, NIV).

I wonder how many Christmas Eve services will be using this as their text tonight? Think about that the next time you hear O Holy Night. Seriously. I wanted a cosmic nativity scene complete with a dragon.

If we're to take the angels' encounter with the shepherds seriously, then this is no "silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright." On the contrary, it is a night of supreme rejoicing: "Glory to God in the highest!" We interrupt this existence of suffering, restlessness and death to bring you the news that the all-powerful God of the universe has infiltrated time and space on a solo reconaissance mission of humankind in the form of a helpless, powerless baby. This is the day the tide turns. The fool's hope is born. The promise to Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to David will be fulfilled. The longing of all creation will be satisfied. Death will indeed be broken. The dragon is conquered.

Forget 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, when I have kids, they're getting Elliott's Three Magi on Christmas Eve. Then again, I could just be a little strange. Those last four lines make me all tingly.

Ezra Boggs has written a column called 'Tis the Season for Superstitions that appears in this week's newsletter from Relevant Magazine. I can't find a permanent link on their website, so I'll just highlight the pertinent bits.
Eighty-five percent of Americans endorse public display of nativity scenes, while only 9 percent disagree.

But to that 9 percent, the site of a baby savior in a manger is enough to make them lose their eggnog. Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation told RELEVANT, "Did it ever occur to you that many of us do not rejoice at the sight of the nativity? We are deeply and morally offended by the implication that we are all corrupt sinners deserving eternal torment, needing a savior. The baby in the manger suggests that we have wounded the unstable vanity of a megalomaniacal Creator and that our only hope is to submit to this vindictive Master. This is rudeness of the highest degree!"

Well, excuse me, Mr. Barker. I'm just excercising my freedom of speech. He he. On a serious note, I'm deeply relieved at the sight of the baby in the manger. I guess that's just me. Unlike Mr. Barker, I take a look around me and come to the conclusion that this world is a pretty crummy place to be, and unlike a fine wine, this world isn't getting any better with age. I'm a bit fond of the idea that there is hope for something more than this. But that's another tangent all together.

Boggs then surveys a cross-section of atheists on the internet to find out what they do for Christmas. Some responses are more offended than others at the very question by an innocently inquisitive Christian, but they all revolved around the central idea of celebrating the Winter Solstice.
There is a theological contradiction in many of the responses. Historically, the Winter Solstice, also known as Saturnalia, celebrated the longest night of winter, after which each of the days grow increasingly longer until the Summer Solstice. The contradiction is found in the key aspect of the traditional worship of multiple deities around the Winter Solstice time: Saturn, God of Agriculture; merged with the Greek Cronos, Ops, Goddess of Plenty; Mother Earth; partner to Saturn and Consus, Sol Invicta, Sun God; connected with the Persian Mithra, honored by Roman soldiers, Consus, God of Storebin of Harvested Grain, Juventas, Goddess of Young Manhood; related to Greek Hebe of Youthful Beauty, and Janus, God of Beginnings and Gates; Solar God of Daybreak; Creator God. Not just one god, but six! It is therefore, doctrinally impossible to confess yourself as an atheist (one who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods), and subscribe to participating in the Winter Solstice at Christmas.

But hold on to your judgment seats, Christians. If you trace the history of Christmas, you'll find that this cultural celebration isn't just about a Savior in a manger. It's a celebration just as filled with superstition and folklore as Halloween.

During the first three centuries after Jesus' birth, Christmas wasn't in December. It wasn't even on the calendar at all! The birth of Jesus was originally celebrated along with Epiphany, one of the earliest established feasts. However, many church leaders opposed the idea of a birthday celebration at all because the culture celebrated birthdays of pagan gods and rulers like Pharaoh and Herod.

It was only after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire's favored religion that Christmas was celebrated on Dec. 25, in the year 336, according to That date also played host to two festivals surrounding the worship of the sun, including the winter solstice.

The winter solstice was seen as an especially evil time, so as centuries passed, people would gather in one another's homes for protection, according to Folklore and superstition would develop over the years, as people would participate in a number of charms and rituals thought to ward away evil spirits, including bringing in holly and mistletoe, which were protection against witches and lightning.

Now I have no problem with a critical demythologization of Christmas. Personally, I'm fascinated learning where things come from. Any things. It's pretty well agreed upon in scholarly circles that the Christmas story, the events of Luke chapter 2, did not happen as depicted in the film Ben-Hur. Jesus wasn't born on December 25. The shepherds weren't on some snowy hill. The three wise men didn't show up that night. We'd probably be quite shocked were we to see an honest depiction of what really happened at the birth of Jesus. I imagine it was a real mess. I imagine Joseph and Mary didn't have sentimental memories of that night. I imagine they were probably on their last fumes of energy and hope, with nothing to go on but the words of an angel months earlier: "Was that a dream? Did that happen? Was it all my imagination?" But I digress.

I do have a problem with trashing Christmas for the sake of its pagan roots. And I believe the misconception comes in our cultural semantic understanding of the word "pagan." We equate "pagan" with "evil"--witches and black cats and magic and Halloween, Stonehenge and heavy metal and Harry Potter. We equate the "pagan" with the rejection of all things sacred and Christian. On the contrary, when we talk about pagan, about the Greeks, the Romans, we're talking about pre-Christian cultures. We're talking about cultures that don't know any better, cultures that are seeking to answer the question of their existence in whatever means they can find.

I have no problem celebrating Christmas December 25. I'm not shocked by the pagan roots of Christmas tradition. I celebrate God becoming a man. I celebrate God entering human history. I celebrate the Incarnation. Because that's what Christmas is all about. Yes, it's about peace and love and goodwill toward men, too, but it's first about Jesus, about the grand God of the universe and his ridiculous love for all of us. Big deal if it's not Jesus's birthday. What better day of the year than the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year, when the day shines longer tomorrow.

So Happy Incarnation Day.

posted by Peter at 3:50 PM
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