Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Winter Solstice

Today is the shortest day of the year. Starting tomorrow, the days begin to get a little longer and a little bit brighter. Winter has not really even arrived yet in New England, but no matter how bad this winter gets, spring will come again. Yesterday I was driving through town and saw a bumper sticker that said, "Christianity has pagan DNA." I have no idea how the driver of the car feels about Christianity, but the bumper sticker made me smile. It is true of course. The question is, what does it mean?

My family has an annual tradition of attending The Christmas Revels, which is billed as a celebration of the winter solstice. It is a wonderful mix of music and dance and theater but it is also a recognition of the ways that the solstice is intertwined with Christian tradition. Or, if you will, of how Christianity has pagan DNA.

This is not an appealing thought to all Christians. The Puritans of New England certainly were not happy with Christmas reveling, which led them to ban Christmas in Boston when they had the chance. For the Puritans, Christmas was a bit too much "Church of England" and it carried with it way too much wassailing. But mostly they didn't consider December 25 to be the "birthday" of Jesus.

I remember one day when I was a young campus minister, a student knocked on my door. He had learned in one of his classes that Christians had taken over the Roman festival of Saturnalia and set December 25 as Christmas Day--and the professor had told the class that Jesus was not really born on that day. He couldn't believe that and came to me looking for reassurance. I told him that his professor was right, and that there was no evidence to support December 25 as Jesus' birthday. He was devastated. I didn't know what to say. But he found words before I did. "I cannot accept that," he told me before leaving my office, never to come by again. "I choose to believe that since Jesus had to be born on a certain day, that it could have been December 25 and that when the Church settled on that date they must have been guided by the Holy Spirit in setting it."

For my own part, what the Incarnation means is that God has come into the world, into a particular time and place. Choosing this time of year to celebrate that birth--of the Light coming into the world, makes great theological sense, even if it is not historically "accurate." (Although I have sometimes wondered how my theology of Christmas would be turned upside down if I lived in the southern hemisphere; but that is surely another post for another time!)

As the gospel spreads, it must take hold in different cultures or die. What I love about The Revels is that you see how this Christian story of the dear savior's birth is like a seed that grows differently in different soils: when the birth of Jesus encounters Russian Orthodox culture, or a French fishing village in the sixteenth century, or Victorian England or Appalachia  it births something new and wonderful. When that happens the story is told again, in song and dance and the birth of new "traditions." So, too, with us: as the birth we celebrate in just a few days takes hold in us. Our "traditions" are not merely rigid repetitions of an unchanging past, but joyful surprises of the gift of God-with-us--in this time and place.

My student friend, and the Puritans, may be right to have worried about wanting to keep their story "pure." There is always a danger of the gospel being consumed by or overwhelmed by the culture's own narratives. On the other hand, to keep the story as "our own" runs counter to the whole point; or so it seems to me. Christ comes into this world because God so loves the world  (not only the Church.) This birth is good news precisely because it leads to so many diverse traditions and customs as it takes hold in this great big world. The key is to be discerning, but if Christmas means anything at all it is that God has taken to the streets--not just our houses of worship.

For this Christian, at least, there is no shame in honoring our pagan DNA! It leads us, I think, to remember that many people are seeking the light in what oftentimes feels like a dark world. When the power goes out, you can curse the darkness or you can light a candle. You don't even need to be a person of faith to get that.

This month of December offers us a season of holy-days as many other people of faith celebrate festivals of light, including our Jewish friends lighting those miraculous Menorah candles this week. As a Christian, I embrace the many connections--past and present--that allow the story of Christ's Incarnation to be told in many different and creative ways. And am happy to tip the hat to our pagan roots on this day of the winter solstice.

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