Christmas

The Birth of Jesus Is Not a Sweet Story

Photo via udra11 / Shutterstock.com

Photo via udra11 / Shutterstock.com

I had just started as pastor of a large church when a key leader took me aside and said I was free to preach about anything I wanted, except homosexuality.

He didn’t want to hear any sermons addressing the issue then dominating many conversations among Christians. Keep the topic in the closet.

Sixteen years before, in a town once governed by the Klan, a leader told me not to preach about race. Too many people remembered signs saying, “Negroes must be out of town by sundown.”

Many clergy have been told, in terms ranging from kindly counsel to peremptory demand, to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”

Many a mainline pastor will attest: The one topic that Jesus addressed more than any other — wealth and power — was declared off-limits in congregations that hoped to attract wealthy constituents and their budget-saving pledges.

Many churches gave up their ethical voice in exchange for money, the very trade Jesus warned us against. The issue wasn’t partisan campaigning or endorsing specific candidates — a clear violation — but any mention at all of race, sexuality, warfare or economic injustice.

As a reader recently wrote me: “I hear enough about blacks on TV.”

So it is that Christmas becomes a sweet story and a centerpiece for family love. 

Sierra Leone Bans Christmas, New Year’s Celebrations to Prevent Spread of Ebola

The Rev. Pauline Njiru, of Kenya displays a poster showing how Ebola can be tran

The Rev. Pauline Njiru, of Kenya displays a poster showing how Ebola can be transmitted. Photo via Fredrick Nzwili / RNS

The government of Sierra Leone banned public Christmas and New Year’s celebrations because they may exacerbate efforts to eradicate the Ebola virus.

President Ernest Bai Koroma said that despite immense help from the international community, the number of people infected with the virus continues to rise.

Ebola infections in Sierra Leone recently surpassed those of Liberia and Guinea.

“The illness started at the border and now is in the cities and close to 2,000 people have died from the outbreak,” Koroma told reporters. He asked traditional leaders and tribal chiefs to quit performing rituals in hopes that will help curb Ebola.

The majority of Sierra Leone’s 6 million people are Muslim, but Christmas is widely celebrated among the 27 percent of people who are Christian.

Officials said soldiers will be deployed on the streets and people are advised to stay at home with their families.

Why Are Manger Scenes So Weird?

A typical Christmas manger scene. Image courtesy nomadCro/shutterstock.com

A typical Christmas manger scene. Image courtesy nomadCro/shutterstock.com

Figures in nativity scenes are pretty weird, aren't they? This is true of most manger scenes, whether we’re talking about the ceramic one under a tree or the statuesque one in a church or the plastic one on a lawn. First off, there’s Mary, always looking very fresh and calm and full of reflection — which is quite impressive considering that she just gave birth without any sedative. Then there’s Joseph, doing some kind of man-thing off to the side — holding a lantern or a large stick. He looks totally composed, too.

And there’s the baby Jesus with a full head of hair, wide-open eyes and arms outstretched like he’s ready to belt out a song.

Not to ruin anyone’s Christmas spirit here, but what the heck?

If our manger scenes were realistic, Mary would be recovering from a painful labor full of sweat and blood, with a look on her face that’s anything but serene. And Joseph — wouldn’t he be a nervous wreck, too? His hand too shaky to hold a lantern?

And about that newborn. Shouldn’t he be red-faced and screaming? Eyes clenched closed and wisps of hair stuck to the top of a head that‘s still odd-shaped from all the squeezing?

Instead, we’ve sanitized and romanticized it. We’ve removed all the blood and sweat and tears and pain and goo. It’s no longer something real. We’ve left out all the messy parts. The oh-my-God-what-now parts. The I’m-screaming-as-loud-as-I-can-because-it-really-hurts parts. The oh-no-I’ve-stepped-in-the-animal-droppings parts. 

The real parts.

Bright Morning Star A-Rising

IF WE FOLLOWED the church calendar and celebrated Epiphany in January, we wouldn’t have to cram the wise men into the crèche to compete with the shepherds. We could save all the “Star of Bethlehem” songs to brighten the cold days of January. Obviously, the magi needed a few weeks to prepare and then travel “from the East.”

A new bright object in the sky was certainly an “epiphany,” but it was not totally unexpected. These magi were astrologers, the ancient astronomers of their day. To the east of Jerusalem lay Babylon, birthplace of astrology and location of a large Jewish community. The discovery of two astrological books among the Dead Sea scrolls showed that the sign of Aries the Ram in the zodiac represented the reign of Herod the Great in Judea. Since Herod was aging, it is not surprising that Jewish astrologers were watching this royal constellation.

In a television series called Jesus: The Complete Story, astronomer Michael R. Molnar notes an unusual astrological conjunction on the night of April 17, in 6 B.C.E., the year Jesus was most likely born. At that time, both Saturn and the sun were in the constellation Aries, and then the moon eclipsed to reveal Jupiter, king of the planets, also in Aries. Jupiter shone into the dawn, another auspicious sign of royalty. It was confirmation enough to send these astrologers on their way.

Perhaps if we celebrated Epiphany after Christmas, we’d have more time to learn about this epiphany and its remarkable interpretation.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[January 4] 

Who Recieves the Blessing? 
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalms 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

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It's Time Again: Depression and the Holidays

Photo via hikrcn/Shutterstock.com.

Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:

           -the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;

          -the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)

          -the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?

Can we be as honest as the Bible?

Can Commerce and Religion Go Their Separate Ways This Christmas?

Photo courtesy of kurhan via Shutterstock/RNS.

I’ve decided not to worry about the earlier-than-ever start to Christmas commerce this year.

Shortly after Halloween, with hardly a nod to Thanksgiving, stores and advertisers began going full-bore on the supposed “Christmas package,” namely, gift-giving, family fun, decorating, and entertaining.

It’s sad — this annual effort to derive profits from a facsimile of a 1950s Christmas — but other things are a lot sadder: an elusive economic recovery, continuing gun violence, racial violence, religious extremism, mounting rage, and intolerance at home and echoes of the Cold War in Europe.

Let commerce tread the line between gauche and tacky — merchants have salaries and suppliers to pay, after all. We have a troubled world to care about.

The path to that care doesn’t go by way of Wal-Mart or Budweiser. It is God’s path, and it goes by way of anticipation, promises, prophetic vision, a birth, a life, a death, and over all of it a sustaining grace that cares little for our seasonal receipts but cares intensely about our lives.

Maybe it’s good that commerce has declared its independence from religion and decorum. That clears the way for faith to have its parallel season — not in competition with commerce, but as the deeper reality that commerce can never attain, the deeper meaning we yearn for.

When Decemberism Crucifies Christmas

Volodymyr Baleha / Shutterstock.com

Volodymyr Baleha / Shutterstock.com

One of the dominant dogmas of the season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to contribute toward economic growth.

This is what happens when Decemberism crucifies Christmas.

One may define “Decemberism” as a state in which the value of human life is determined exclusively by our personal rates of production and consumption. We notice this condition most often, of course, in December. Decemberism is the predominant religious tradition of the so-called “holiday shopping season,” and the significance of Christmas is consistently crucified as a result. As Victor Lebow states:

“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

In striking contrast to the Christmas ramifications of God’s incarnation, to be a human of any value in our current context is closely connected with supply and demand, even if it all leads to our personal and public self-destruction.

51.

Wizards! Caspar! Melchior! Balthasar!
Why fly straight to Fox Herod? Through
Unbounded night—! Bringing only news
Ripe for bloodletting. How black a star
You follow. Herod knows. How bizarre
A kingly claim. Will he oppose? Muse
Like Mary? Ha—! Mothers’ sons lose
Heads to swords & axes. Herod bars
The throne to Jesus. Who kills first?
Herod orders. Dash ’em every one—!
Every male child under two years old.
God’s son Jesus flees to Egypt. Thirst
For blood remains. Later he won’t run.
Soldiers spear his side. So God behold.

Marilyn Seven is an artist living in New York City. This sonnet is number 51 in an unpublished collection of 100.

Image: Three wise men looking towards the star,  / Shutterstock 

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To the Millennia and Beyond!

I CONFESS THAT I DO NOT often use the Revised Common Lectionary. As a Bible professor, I prefer to read texts in their larger literary and historical contexts. When a brief reading from one time period is lifted out of its context and juxtaposed with another written many centuries later, it can feel like an invisible hand is forcing me to compare apples and oranges—or even apples and mushrooms.

Nevertheless, I have been enriched by this year’s readings for Advent and Christmas. My “larger historical context” has become the sweep of a thousand years of Israelite history, from King David to the birth of the “son of David.”

For Christians, the coming of Jesus was a singularity. Though we focus on his birth in this season, that lower-class event was barely noticed at the time, and it is not mentioned by two of our gospel writers. It is his entire life, ministry, death, and resurrection that echoes throughout the ages and ushers in our hope of salvation. Our prophets and psalmists from the Hebrew Bible could not foresee details of the Christ-event from their perspectives centuries earlier. Yet their intuitions and hints and poetic expressions of joy over God’s in-breaking from their times are now borrowed to give voice to our exultation over Jesus’ coming today.

In a culture measured by quarterly profits and immediate gratification by credit card, we need a longer view to better understand what God is doing throughout human history. These Advent readings call us beyond the present to the millennia of the past and the hope of the future stretching to eternity.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at  http://www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[December 7]

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