In these somewhat-more-informed times, it’s easy to meet someone who views Christmas as a repackaged pagan feast, whether Saturnalia, the Day of the Unconquered Sun or the birth of Mithras, from the Romans; or aligned with the winter solstice as marked by the old ethnic religions of Europe. “It’s so obvious, isn’t it?” The point being that Christmas is derivative, and thus so must be Christianity: neither unique nor divinely inspired, so undeserving of its place of honor either in the world or in the Christian heart. I used to try to refute this argument: bits of Saturnalia look only superficially like Christmas, and the Day of the Unconquered Sun (which didn’t catch on) may well have been a response to the popularity of Christmas itself. But people who have made up their minds won’t readily be convinced otherwise, and so seems a waste of time. Better to enjoy the day than to convince others of its provenance. It’s not like I’ll be asked to sing Mithras carols. The world can enjoy a pluralist December.
But that leaves the Christian heart. Will this refution leave it shaken, or simply stirred? The “shepherds keeping watch” has long ruled out a December date, and that wasn’t been a problem to past generations. We act like the ancients were stupid; they did not know about DNA, but they knew how long it took for a child to be conceived and born. They could make connections of thought and meaning. One such connection – I’ve long lost the citation, I’m afraid – is that Jesus’ rebirth at Easter is akin to his conception, putting his birth around where we celebrate Christmas. The Christian heart understands the cycles of birth, and death, and birth again. And so with new birth comes new life, and that does extend to the whole world.
Christmas, thus, is only partly about the past and even less about its cultural dressing. It is one date – it could have been otherwise – to kindle that joy not of what was, but what necessarily must be. Look to the action of God in the world, regenerating lifelessness into life, so that God may be All in All! We are born this day!
Merry Christmas to you.
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells