I love Christmas !

A dialogue about the origins of various Christmas traditions, written by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, December 2020

What are you looking so pleased about?

It’s Christmas! I love Christmas! It is a time when we remember the old, old story, from centuries ago, when we do all sorts of things that people have done each Christmas for years and years—hundreds, even thousands, of years. All those wonderful traditions, stretching all the way back. It all reminds us of that very first Christmas, doesn’t it?

Well, I am not so sure about that.

But I love Christmas! It’s all about the presents, isn’t it?

Well, actually, it seems that Christmas presents in the way we give them—to family members and close friends—have only been around for 200 years.

It started in New York in the early years of the 19th century with donations in the streets to the poor. Even then Americans worried about socialism, so this Christmas tradition moved from the streets into homes. One of these benefactors decided to celebrate Christmas by giving family gifts to promote his enormously popular poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”.

So Christmas presents as we know them are just a modern American commercialisation of the season.

But weren’t there presents given long ago?

Well, kind of. The story of Nicholas of Myra who was Bishop there (in Turkey) in the 4th century says that he rescued three young girls from prostitution by providing them with a dowry. Nicholas secretly dropped a sack of gold coins through the window in the dead of night—one sack for each of the three girls, three nights in a row. That meant their father could marry them off instead of selling them. 

But didn’t the Wise Men give presents?

They took gifts that matched prophecies in the scriptures. Hardly the gift fest of modern times.

Anyway, I was telling you about Nicholas of Myra. He became Saint Nicholas. He is known as Sinterklaas in Holland, Miklavz in Lovenia, and much later onhe became jolly old St Nick, and then Father Christmas in Britain, and Santa Claus in America.

Ah—Santa Claus! Christmas is all about Santa Claus, isn’t it?

Santa Claus is really only 150 years old. During the 1860s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast created an image of Santa Claus that portrayed him as a warm, grandfatherly character who appeared with his arms full of toys. 

The familiar red suit and long white beard appeared only in 1931, when Coca Cola commissioned Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their Christmas ads. Sundblom based his portrayal of Santa on the 1822 poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In Coca Cola’s colours, of course.

Well I still love Christmas!. It’s all about the cards and carols and Christmas cheer, then.

Cards. Actually, the first Christmas card was invented only in the 1840s, by Sir Henry Cole—best remembered today as the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was a way of encouraging people to use the newly-formed postal service.

Well what about carols, then? The carols that we have sung for centuries and centuries.

Sure. There are lots of Christmas carols. And that is an old tradition. But I reckon you don’t actually sing the really old Christmas carols. Sung “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus illuminates all”) lately? St. Hilary of Poitiers composed it in Latin in 368. Another carol from the 4th century was written by the Roman poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. Prudentius composed “Cordenatus ex Parentis”, which was subsequently translated into English as “Of the Father’s love begotten”. That’s in the hymn book, but I don’t think you will hear it in the Christmas muzak when you shop in the stores!

Most of the carols we sing were written in the late 19th or early 20th century. So they are old-ish, but not really ancient. And people today are still writing new carols. We should be singing some of those!

But how good is Christmas. It’s all about putting up the Christmas tree. And the Christmas lights. I love Christmas! Lots of spectacle. It’s a great time. Christmas tree and Christmas lights, just like people have always done.

Yes, there is an old, old connection with light shining in the darkness at this time of the year. From an oil lamp, presumably and not electricity! Christmas Day is right near the Winter Solstice—the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It hardly applies here in the Southern Hemisphere, as there is an abundance of light, but we still celebrate Christmas in December.

There was a pagan festival at this time, to celebrate that light will come despite it being winter. The early Christian missionaries just took this festival and Christianised it, and made it their festival. Clever tactics, really.

And the Christmas tree?

The honour of establishing this tradition belongs to ‘good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800.

Legend has it that Martin Luther, the religious reformer, invented the Christmas tree. One winter’s night in 1536, so the story goes, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.

So the Christmas tree is around 500 years old. Hardly biblical, is it?

OK, I still love Christmas! It’s all about celebrating with family and eating lots of food and drinking lots of booze. Turkey and ham and prawns and pudding and mince pies and eggnog and wine.

What? No beer?

Well, yes, beer—of course! In the Aussie summer, you must drink beer at Christmas!

Well I guess you must! It’s the Victorians who really gave birth to the traditional Christmas dinner as we know it. Actually, Charles Dickens was the one who spread the idea of a table filled to overflowing with food, with a roast bird in the middle, surrounded by all the trimmings and a pudding. 

Legend has it that Henry VIII was the first person to eat a turkey on Christmas Day, but it wasn’t until Victorian times that it became more common. 

The Christmas cake we all know and love today originates from a cake made for and eaten on Twelfth Night (5 January), which was when the three wise men supposedly arrived in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus. The use of spices was supposed to symbolise the gifts the three men brought with them, whilealmonds and dried fruit were a rare sweet treat in the colder months. 

However, in the 1640s Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned feasting of any kind on Twelfth Night, so people started to make it on Christmas Day instead. 

What about Christmas pudding? It’s an ancient custom, surely.

You think the wise men turned up with it as well? Christmas pudding began life as something called plum porridge (first referenced in 1573), a pretty unappetising sounding dish made from beef shin, spices, sugar and fruit, boiled in a broth and reduced until gelatinous. It was eaten on Christmas Eve after fasting, and then stored for weeks afterwards (back then people believed if something jellified it was good to eat for a long time). It wasn’t in the form of the delicious Christmas pudding that we know until—once again, the Victorian times. No biblical joy here!

Well, seafood, then—what about Christmas prawns and oysters?

Prawns and seafood are a special downunder addition to the menu. They reflect that our Christmas is right in the middle of summer, days are long and hot, having the oven going full pelt for hours is not really sensible, so cold seafood is a good alternative. Again, not in the Bible (unless you eat sardines—they are caught in the Sea of Galilee).

I love Christmas!. It’s all about the sales, isn’t it? Bargains!!

Yes: Christmas has been completely turned into a commercial event by these sales. Before Christmas is bad enough; but Boxing Day is another thing. This comes from the ancient practice of giving boxes of money at the midwinter holiday season to all those who had given good service throughout the year. Boxing Day, December 26, was the day the boxes were opened. 

Later, it was the day on which the alms boxes, located in the churches on Christmas Day, were opened and the contents given to the poor. We don’t have alms boxes at churches any more. And the sales in the shops only really came into being in the last two decades or so. Another commercial element introduced by America! And this is distinctively anti-biblical, where Jesus tells us to give our possessions away—not buy more and more!

I still love Christmas!. Because it must be all about the holidays. Days at the beach. Lazing around and sleeping in and doing nothing.

And travelling to get there. Stuck in the Boxing Day traffic snarls. Polluting the atmosphere with exhaust fumes and particulates and poisons. Good one. All very recent additions to the celebrations. Nothing ancient here as in biblical times they walked everywhere.

I still love Christmas!. It’s all about the nativity scene when the wise men came with the shepherds to give the newborn baby gifts.

True that every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three exotic blokes stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s as historical as the Little Drummer Boy is and not a particularly accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born.

The traditional scene that we see today was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist because it wasn’t very biblical!

Besides, it is only in Luke’s story that we have the shepherds in the field, listening to the angels. And it is only in Matthew’s account that we have the wise visitors from the East, travelling long distances to bring their gifts to the child. Shepherds in one story, wise ones in the other; not there at the same time, despite all the nativity scenes we see!

I still love Christmas!. It’s all about celebrating the birth of Jesus on his real birthday, December 25.

What? In the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere? When the ground was covered with snow and all the animals like the sheep should have been under cover—not out in the fields listening to the angels! When no one travelled anywhere?

No one knows the real birthday of Jesus. No date is given in the Bible. The early Christians had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated.Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1 but slightly earlier, probably in 4 BCE.

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). I’ve already told you it was a pagan festival that the early Christians stole, could even have been from the Roman Saturnalia.

Christmas was actually celebrated by the very early Church on January 6th, when they also celebrated the Epiphany, which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s son. In Eastern Orthodox churches, they still do this.

I love Christmas!. It’s all about Christ. Let’s keep Christ in Christmas.

Finally! The name Christmas comes from the Mass of Christ. A Roman Catholic Mass service (which is similar to our Communion) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas, and for many centuries it was celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas morning.

Oh well: Happy Christmas, anyway!  

And Happy Christmas to you, too!

Advent Greetings from Canberra Region Presbytery

The Canberra Region Presbytery Co-Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers offer these greetings as Advent draws to a close and we enter the Christmas season.

HOPE (John Squires)

During December, we have been in the season of Advent. It is a season of four weeks; a season marked by HOPE. The word “Advent” literally means “towards the coming”. It is what pregnant women do; they look with hope “towards the coming” of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look with hope “towards the coming” of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals. It is what we have been doing during these four weeks; to look with hope “towards the coming” of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

It was just over a year ago that the Presbytery elected Judy McKinlay to the position of Co-Chairperson. It was just ten months ago that Andrew Smith and I stood at the front of Canberra City Church, in a service where we were each inducted into our ministry placements as Presbytery Ministers. And it has only been four months since Ross Kingham was elected to fill the other position of Co-Chairperson. We all serve with a desire to encourage, support, equip, and sustain the mission of all the Congregations in this Presbytery.

What a year it has been, to maintain hope! A year ago, many communities were already coping with the immediate impacts of the bushfires; as the fires grew, our anxieties rose, and grief spread wide. Early this year, countries overseas were beginning to experience the devastating impact of a new viral pandemic; the effects of COVID-19 became all to apparent for us as the year proceeded. Fear flew in on top of grief and anxiety. Four months ago, we were just beginning to hope that life might move out of heavy restrictions, and some manner of COVID-normality might be achieved. Hope was knocking on the door, peeking through the curtains.

Hope invites us to stand firm in the midst of these challenges: hope based in who we are, as people of faith. Hope grounded in the resilience of humanity. Hope based on our relationship with a loving God, who extends to us divine Grace so that we might work for compassion and justice in society. Hope made manifest in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, whose coming we remember and celebrate at Christmas.

PEACE (Ross Kingham)

May the PEACE of Christ be yours this Christmas Season!

The following words of James McAuley have enriched the lives of many over the years:

Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives

Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives

Among us, those who walk within the fire

Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.

Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:

Distracted folk that sow their hopes in sand

Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense

Of questioning they do not know from whence.

  ……………………………………………………………….                                         

Scan (Mercator’s map) who will, with faithless eyes,

It will not yield…. its mysteries….

He shall not see Leviathan hunt the deep,

Nor Jacob’s ladder rise from stony sleep;

For him the serpent is not lifted up,

Nor Mystery poured red into the cup…

Open, eyes of the heart, begin to see

The tranquil, vast, created mystery,

In all its courts of being laid awake,

Flooded with uncreated light for mercy’s sake.

(James McAuley, Selected Poems, 1963

JOY (Andrew Smith)

JOY springs to my mind and heart when I read the Isaiah 40:1-11 passage that was part of the lectionary for the second Sunday in Advent. In verse 6: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” Part of the answer comes in verse 9. It overflows with joy. The one who cries out is the herald of good tidings. Another who cries out is again the herald of good tidings. They joyfully cry out, “Here is your God!”

There is great joy for the exiles in this passage as their expectancy is raised for the longed-for return of God. They cry out these good tidings to one another, “Here is your God”. When we apply this passage in Advent it raises our expectancy about the coming of Jesus Christ – “Here is your God”. These are good tidings of great joy. Here is forgiveness, restoration, and justice. Here is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

We cry this out to each other as we gather for worship through Advent and Christmas. And joyfully we will get to sing it as well! We also cry it out to the world as we gather with our local communities for Christmas Carol outdoors or indoors. We also experiment in finding ways to cry it out in the course of the whole year in connection with our loving service. In these notices see the article “On the Journey, Know Christ is Here” that touches on some of how Eurobodalla “cried out” in its card that accompanied gifts to fire affected people.

“What shall I cry?” We need help to be heralds of these good tidings. The Gospel Project of our church (running through Uniting Mission and Education) identifies that we need help with developing a clear understanding of the gospel that we can confidently share and speak into the public square. The project aims to develop a Uniting Church perspective on both the good news Jesus proclaimed and the good news about Jesus.

These are good tidings of great joy. Lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings. Lift it up, do not fear. Lift it up in Advent and Christmas. Lift it up all year.

LOVE (Judy McKinlay)

For most in our community, Christmas is primarily about love and family. It seems that’s one reason TV channels air Love Actually every Christmas season. Against the background of Christmas merriment and ritual, it touches on the complications of love and family relationships, and issues of commitment, faithfulness and trust. At the end, Great Britain’s bachelor Prime Minister and his young, sweet staffer publically declare their love. The viewer accepts their declared love as real. How it is actualized from that point on is left to our imagination.

For many of our contemporaries, Love Actually seems more about believable love than the story of a baby born millennia ago to a devout Jewish girl in a Palestinian village. They are wrong. The wonder once evoked by heraldic angels, quaking shepherds and wise men may have faded for 20th Century society, but the plot remains fully explained in 1 John 4, and summarized in John 3: 16. Take a moment to read them again. God leaves nothing to our imagination. He declares and actualizes his love synchronically, because Love is who he is. From the beginning, he has unceasingly, steadfastfully, faithfully, loved the world for which his Son died.

So I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw most certainly in this and in everything, that before God made us he loved us, and this love has never abated nor ever shall. And in this love he has done all his works; and in this love he has made everything for our benefit; and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had our beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen. (Julian of Norwhich).

“Beloved, we love because He first loved us.” In this Christmas time when God’s beloved world is so hurting, and so many are grieving, suffering and needing to be loved, may we make Love real in all our words and actions. And may the blessings of hope, peace, joy and love be with you all.

******

Christmas Greetings

The Moderator of our Synod, the Rev. Simon Hansford, has issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/485752056

The President of Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, has also issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/489203297 The President of Assembly has also issued a Pastoral Letter. The letter can be read at https://uniting.church/pastoral-letter-end-of-2020/

Advent Three: The witness of John (John 1)

Last week, the lectionary offered a Gospel passage from the beginning of the good news about Jesus, featuring the fiersome desert-dwelling prophet, John, known as the Baptiser (Mark 1:1-8). This week, we have a section from the book of signs in which the same person, John, figures. But he is quite a different person in this week’s text–and the way he is portrayed offers a glimpse into another world.

The book of signs introduces John as a much more domesticated figure, compared with the way that he appears at the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. In John’s account, he appears, all of a sudden, in the midst of the majestic poetic Prologue (1:1-18) which opens this Gospel. 

The Prologue is focussed on the eternal character of the Word of God (1:1-2), present at the moment of creation (1:3), shaping the world that we know and inhabit (1:14, 16-17). In the midst of this, the human figure of John appears—as somewhat of an anomaly in the midst of the ethereal poetic lines (1:6-8, 15).

The Prologue is followed by a more prosaic Prelude (1:19-51), which narrates a series of encounters involving John, Jesus, and their followers. These encounters establish the centrality of Jesus in the narrative, first through the testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-36), then by having various individuals “come and see” him (1:39, 46). 

Both John and these individual disciples confess the significance of Jesus through a variety of Christological titles. This Prelude ends with Jesus himself adopting a title to explain his significance (“Son of Man”, 1:51).

That John is a witness to Jesus is already indicated in the Prologue, through some prosaic narrative insertions into the grand poetic opening. The Lectionary this coming Sunday offers us both the initial prosaic comment (1:6-8), and the ensuing story relating what John said about Jesus (1:19-28).

But the John whom we meet in this gospel is a very different figure from the desert dwelling apocalyptic visionary whom we encountered in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The Johannine John does not frequent the desert, as in Mark 1; rather, his activity is located in Bethany, near the Jordan (1:28). 

The Johannine John does not issue a clarion call for repentance, as in Mark 1; rather, he bears witness to Jesus, “the one coming after me” (1:27), as the one “who ranks ahead of me” (1:30). As John, in this gospel, bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), he testifies that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:203:28).

What is the reason for this different portrayal of John the Baptist in this Gospel?

The Gospel of John includes some pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It offers us glimpses 

The early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, and other content such as the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, and even the way that the Logos (the Word) is portrayed in the Prologue, each point to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11). It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus.
A panel from the Isenheim altarpiece,
painted by Mattias Grünewald around 1515.

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers. This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different kind of Judaism on this Gospel, which led to the development of a different form of Christianity in the ensuing centuries.

Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel.  This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident. 

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. 

This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions. Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode; ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped.  The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world. 

That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world. 

The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Other signs, less immediately obvious, pointing to this influence, are claimed at various points throughout the gospel. Once again, we see that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Contemporary Mandaeans

So, the distinctive figure of John at the start of this distinctive Gospel, offers a keyhole through which we can gain a glimpse of a little-appreciated strand amongst the wide diversity of options in early Christianity.

See also John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John) – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html
What the Mandaeans know about John the Baptist | Bible and Beyond (earlychristiantexts.com)
and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/