Well, we are coming up on another Christmas when emotions run high – both good and bad. Add to that the same old argument that it is a pagan holiday and the world has been duped into something that is fiercely promoted by the department stores.
You history buffs know that the tradition all started after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity at the Milvian Bridge in 312, he sought to combine the worship of the sun god with worship of Christ. Christian leaders accepted Constantine’s conversion in a positive light and saw the “Christ-mass” celebration as a vital part of the process of converting the pagan world.
Long before Constantine, Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage elements in those cultures that naturally pointed to Christ, whether Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Roman. They denounced inhumane pagan practices, but at the same time took over pagan temples and converted them to churches. They replaced the old gods in popular devotion with heroic martyrs of the persecutions. And they replaced the holy days of paganism with festivals of the Christian year.
Everybody’s got someone like Santa Claus. He’s primarily based on St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey. Ol’ Nicky wasn’t a bad guy. One story says that he met a kind, impoverished man who had three daughters. St. Nick presented all three of them with dowries so that they weren’t forced into a life of prostitution, as dowries were expected to “pay off” families to take on the daughters.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch figure and Odin is the Norse god that Santa resembles. It wasn’t just Santa or men who did the gift-giving in those myths. There’s also the legend of La Befana, a kind Italian woman who leaves treats for children on the “Good” list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.
For Christians there’s no direct biblical commandment to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. There’s nothing in the Bible that would even indicate that Jesus was born on December 25. In fact, there’s much in the New Testament narratives that would indicate that it didn’t occur during that time of year, more likely in the spring.
You can’t open your web browser, look at a newspaper or talk to someone in a coffee shop without feeling the mixed emotions that the holiday season hands us. Whether we are looking at our contemporary political climate, or the much-needed examination of cultural misogyny, today’s news leads are not for the faint of heart. These are tense and highly-charged times.
But wait. At the very same time, it’s the Christmas season. We hear the familiar bells ringing outside stores and on street corners. We see people wearing red and green, not to mention the hilarious ugly sweaters. We find ourselves enjoying more parties and events than normal.
So how do these two paradoxical realities coexist? How do we reconcile both the sadness and disillusionment of our contemporary society with the merriment and joy of the holidays? It might seem difficult at first glance. But we often forget the Bible’s account of Christmas tells the same story, a story that tells us how beauty can exist in the middle of our most trying times.
Jesus was born at a time of incredible civil, social and political unrest. The Roman Empire had assumed global power from the Greeks, and modern-day Israel was in a continual state of upheaval. The Jewish people were in conflict with the Romans and with each other. There were all kinds of political wranglings, social upheaval over how people should live in the new era, and cultural clashes between people from differing faith traditions. So even though some of the details have changed, the problems today remain the same as in Jesus’ day.
In the midst of their turmoil, something beautiful was happening. A young virgin was pregnant with the long-awaited Deliverer of the Jewish people. Very few people knew her, and even less knew that she was expecting a child, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Even though the world was about to change forever, strife and sadness was everywhere.
Then, right before Jesus was due to be born, the ruler of the Roman Empire decided to take inventory of his kingdom. He created more upheaval than anyone could have imagined when he asked everyone to return to their birth cities and report in for a kingdom-wide census. Even though Mary was almost at her due date, she had to travel some seventy miles on the back of an animal, from Nazareth (where she lived) to Bethlehem (where Jesus was foretold to be born). Talk about issues and frustration! On top of everything they were already experiencing, can you imagine the rumblings throughout ancient Israel when they heard about this new chain of events?
Things went from bad to worse when they arrived in Nazareth and found every available room was taken. So Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus in what we would think of as a stable, where farm animals were kept.
Then Jesus was born. And God let more people in on the secret: Something beautiful was bubbling up. First it was a few wise men from the East. Then a bunch of shepherds in a field. Then an elderly widow and a gentlemen. None of them were very importance to their society, but they were brought in on something extraordinary that the world would only find out about later.
What does that part of the Christmas story teach us? Never judge the outcome by the beginning..