Pastor’s Perspective – December 2019
Winter is a time of darkness. The weather grows colder as our distance from the sun grows greater and our hours of sunlight diminish. The creeping darkness and plummeting temperatures restrict our activities and can cause seasonal depression in even the most ebullient of souls.
Winter is not just the evidence of our distance from the sun, it is also a reminder of our distance from God. The sun is the source of life on our planet, but it is not the first light of Creation. It is in fact a pale comparison to the eternal light of God that eternally illuminates the universe. Perhaps this was the reason that early Christians inserted the celebration of Jesus’ birth as an alternative to the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice.
Ancient pagans, for centuries before the rise of Christianity, patterned their lives after the movements of the sun, moon and stars. They saw in their movements the acts of the gods. It should not surprise us that they saw the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the calendar year, as the spiritual low point of the year. In the pervasive cold and dark they sought reasons to create grand celebrations as a buffer between the anxiety of the coming winter and the still distant joys of the spring. Instead of mourning the coldest and darkest day of the year, they determined that they would celebrate the day as the moment in which every subsequent day would be necessarily brighter. The winter solstice was a day to celebrate. A day to party. When everything seemed dark, they made sure that they worshipped, sang and prayed in protest to the darkness of the natural world and in recognition that soon the sun would return the warmth to the earth.
These celebrations became known in the western and northern territories of Europe as Yuletide. It is interesting that it was in the coldest and darkest places that the Yule traditions became most prevalent in these ancient cultures. Rome might occasionally get cold and dark, but Romans and Greeks had it easy compared to the Germanic tribes and the Norsemen who experienced significant depravations during the winter months. It is easy to understand why these glorious celebrations and traditions became an important way to remind each other that things would soon improve.
When the Church expanded beyond Rome and into the western and northern regions of Europe, they encountered these pagan traditions and celebrations. Christians initially rejected the Yuletide celebrations of their neighbors, but over time they began to adapt to their practices as a way to bridge the cultural gap between the ancient pagan world and the new worldview of Christianity. They used the Pauline arguments concerning food offered to false gods and determined it appropriate to co-opt the celebrations of Yuletide while reimagining them in a Christian context. This is how, in large part, the Winter Solstice celebrations (which typically began on Dec 21 and ended on the 24) were transformed into Christmas celebrations.
The Church knowingly transplanted the birth of Jesus from a Springtime story to a reflection on the darkness of winter. They did so with a nod toward poetry rather than history and they did so to communicate the Johannine inbreaking of God’s light into the darkness. The winter allows the Church to introduce a growing light that emerges from the worst of times and culminates in a kingdom yet to come. Winter Solstice is all about the blessings to come, exactly what the birth of Jesus Christ communicates to the shepherds and later is embraced by the magi.
The Yule celebrations served as a prelude to the gospel that the Church wished to share. A gospel that communicates to the world that when we embrace our emptiness and darkness, God will send to those in need of salvation God’s great light of joy and love. Christmas comes at just the right time. When the world is experiencing it’s greatest darkness, God reveals the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ. In many ways it was the perfect synthesis of Christ and culture and allowed the Church to seamlessly co-opt pagan traditions with a contextual Christian message straight from the gospel of John.
Of course, you realize that there is going to be a ‘but’ here.
Yuletide was established to give hope to people who were empty and removed from the light and the earth that gave them life. Christmas was established to reconnect people to the God that created the world and to save us from the darkness that human sin inserted into the goodness of divine creativity. But somewhere along the way, the narrative concerning Christmas changed.
A new set of missionaries began to co-opt Christmas. Instead of divine light casting out the darkness in our souls, Christmas began to be dominated by a carnal need to fill the holes in our soul with material possessions and signs of value and worth. Christmas has become a time in which we chronicle our worth based on the amount of gifts we receive or the value associated with those gifts. Our children measure our love for them based on the things that they receive from us and all too often we gauge our own value on our ability to fill their emptiness with new game systems or devices.
The old pagan ways of filling the darkness with carnality and revelry has clawed its way back and too many of us have fallen victim to its allure.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that the ancient Christians failed us, nor am I telling you not to give your children and grandchildren Christmas gifts. I am telling you not to mistake your gifts (what you give or receive) for the meaning or light of Christmas.
The light of Christmas is always and eternally: Jesus.
Only Jesus can answer the questions of our darkness and sin. Only Jesus can provide for us a light that is greater than the light of the Sun. Only Jesus can redeem the seasons and conquer the darkness. Only Jesus can transform our broken world and heal our wounded spirit. If ONLY Jesus can save us, then anything else we attempt to do to salve our fears will necessary fail.
Our modern crisis is that, like the pagan world before us, we have attempted to create our own light. In seeking to give our communities a bit of hope to endure through the darkness we have built an ever-increasing pit of desire, guilt, and consumption that never satisfies. Yet still we push forward. Seeking to prepare our children for the harshness of life by showering them with gifts and distractions. We convince ourselves that if we keep up with the Joneses, then our children will be happy and healthy and good. If we can only have a good Christmas, then everything will be alright.
Still the darkness descends.
The tragedy is that our dance with dishonesty, our creation of an artificial and attractive alternative to God’s light, has allowed us to mistake a bountiful life of darkness for life in the light. No matter how many times I received everything I wanted for Christmas, it never satisfied me. It never will. Fake light does not create true illumination. It is time for the Church to seek the light that only God provides. To step out of the shadowy illumination of our gaudy times and enter the pure light of Jesus Christ.
We live in dark times. This is true. But God shines God’s light in the darkness. It is Christmas time. Share the eternal and life changing light of Jesus Christ wherever you go.
Rise. Shine. For His light is come.