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What is the message of Christmas?


What is the message of Christmas?

In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel released a song entitled “7 O’clock News/Silent Night”.  As they were singing “Silent Night”, the news was broadcast in the background, slowly getting louder and eventually became louder than the song.  I don’t know if either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel commented on the song, but it was clear that the message of Christ’s birth was getting drown out by the news of the world.

Along the same vein, someone might record the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?”  But the message of Christmas that we might hear will be a similar one, a message of the trouble, the violence, the hatred, the greed and commercialism that seems to dominate the world today.  And what I fear is that for many people, if they hear the message of Christmas at all, this will be the message of Christmas.

Some people, of course, do not hear the message of Christmas but, then again, they are not listening for it.  They have their own faith traditions and stories and Christmas is not a part of that story.  And it would be wrong for those who hear the message of Christmas to expect others to listen, for respect for all people was and should still be part of the message of Christmas.

To hear the message of Christmas, you must, at some point, believe in Christ.  There are those who don’t hear the message because they don’t believe in God, no matter what the faith story may be.  For these individuals, Christmas is merely another name for Saturnalia, a pagan festival at the time of the winter solstice, which the early church co-opted in the name of Christ.

If one studies the history of the early church and the history of Christmas, we know that the story of Christmas did not occur in the darkness of the winter solstice but more likely in the early Spring.  The selection of the time of the winter solstice may have been to distract many people from other celebrations but it was also just as important to not distract from Easter (which is my hypothesis).

But many of those who deny the existence of any god still celebrate Christmas but what message are they hearing?  But while they may not believe in God, Christmas, or what it truly means, they do, I believe, get upset when they do not get their fair share of the presents given out.  Some of these individuals have created their own quasi-Christmas to justify the need for presents, gifts and celebration.  This is a one-day message, a message that has no meaning tomorrow or the day after; there will a new message to take its place.

But the message of Christmas was never about the presents one receives or a measure of one’s worth in terms of presents received.  It is about understanding why presents were given to the baby Jesus in the first place and what those presents foretold for Jesus’ life and later mission to us.

So, what is the message of Christmas?  Sadly, many people today who proclaim themselves to be Christian cannot tell you what that message is.  The message they hear in church is a combination of many distinctly different messages, designed by individuals who either do not want others to learn or do not want to learn themselves.

The message of Christmas given by so many is one that speaks highly of material gain and personal power.

It is a message of convenience, it is a message that echoes the words of Gordon Gecko, that “greed is good”.  It is a message that says Christ’s birth is a triumph of rich over poor and power over weakness.  It is a message that proclaims exclusiveness and hatred, and that only certain people are entitled to the riches and the power that comes from following Christ.  It is a message that say one must and can only say “Merry Christmas” during this season of many holidays and celebrations.  And if you do not accept this message as the one true message, then you must be opposed to Christmas and you must be defeated in this peculiar “war on Christmas.”

To hear the true message of Christmas, we must open our minds as well as our hearts.  We have all grown up and we teach the Bible in such a way as to believe there is one Christmas story when there are two (one in Matthew, where the Magi are the focus) and one in Luke (where we hear of the shepherds).

This is a simple story but as we grow in age, we must also grow in wisdom as well.  We must at some point in our life understand the world into which Jesus was born.  We must understand why it was that the shepherds were first to be told and why the Magi, no matter when they arrived, are also part of the story (I discussed this a few years ago in “A Personal Evolution of Christmas”).

The shepherds were the first to hear the message of Christmas because they were not the rich or powerful.  Rather, the shepherds of Jesus’ day were among the lowest of society.  Their work made them virtual outcasts in society and kept them barred from the Temple.  The religious, political, and economic elite then would never have imagined that the lowest of society would be the first, expect the news of the Messiah to be given to them first (even when the prophecies told otherwise).

The arrival of the Magi (and we really don’t know how many there were; we use three because of the gifts mentioned in Matthew’s story) tells us several things.  For Matthew, the gifts of frankincense and myrrh spoke of Christ’s death to come, for Matthew was writing his Gospel after the fact and not while it was occurring.  That the Magi came was also a statement that the message of Christmas was going to be for the whole world and not just the people of Israel.  I would like to think that Matthew was also making a subtle statement that the message of Christmas was about the mind as much as it was about the heart.

The Magi represented science in its beginning forms and to exclude the search for knowledge would be to limit the message of Christmas.

So, the true message of Christmas is more than a simple story and it is certainly not about power, greed, or exclusiveness.  Rather it is just the opposite of what so many hear.

And when we speak of those who hear the message of Christmas, we must remember that many people do not want to hear a message that speaks in those terms for the darkness of the season only amplifies the pain and loss in their soul.  Messages that speak of personal triumph merely remind many of what they do not have.

The true message of Christmas is one that brings a new light into the world, a light that will grow in time and will encompass the world.  It speaks of hope, at a time when the world needed hope and needs hope today. It is not a message limited to one individual or one group but to all individuals, even if they do not believe or want to believe.  And while there may not be many proclaiming this message, there are a few who do.  And as they tell this message of Christmas to their friends, and lead a life that exemplifies the meaning of the message and the story of Christmas, others will hear it.

And just as the message grew from the back roads of the Galilee through the efforts of the early church, so too will the message grow today.

The true message of Christmas is that in the darkness and despair of the world around us, in a world of hatred and violence, in a world where many are excluded, a child was born.  And with the birth of the Christ Child, a light that can never be extinguished began to shine.  It was and is a light that brings hope and promise to all mankind.

 

The Past Can Never Be Our Future


A couple of things about this piece – I am posting this on Boy Scout Sunday, which has a special meaning for me.  This is also Evolution Weekend, the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birth (see Evolution Weekend for a list of my posts.) That this is the same weekend as Boy Scout Sunday is also of special significance for me.

Please note that this post will not be a debate on “nature versus nurture.”  But if we are to have a vision for our future, we must first understand our past; I know it is a cliché but one must remember what the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (“Reason in Common Sense”, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason).

The other day I watching the last part of a show on Public Television dealing with genealogy and DNA.  This, coupled with some other shows that I have watched on this topic and similar television stations, prompted the following thoughts.

First, if you have your DNA tested, you will be surprised by the results.  Because, as it turns out, our DNA contains elements of the past that we would have never imagined.  For example, many people with European backgrounds will be surprised to know that some 20% of their DNA is from Neanderthals (At least 20% of Neanderthal DNA Is in Humans).  This research points out, that genetically, we are a diverse population.  And this will be very disturbing for some people because the purest strands of DNA, the ones with the least number of sources come from Africa.  As I said, some people will have problems processing that tidbit of information.

Now, if it were affordable, I would like to take advantage of that testing, if for no other reason than to prove or disprove some thoughts about my own heritage and ancestry.

When you look at my family tree, there are four branches.  The most dominant one is probably the one that extends back to Germany in the 16th century.  It would appear from the records that were discovered that constructed this branch that we, as a family, may have known Martin Luther personally for the records indicated that some twelve of my ancestors were or are Lutheran ministers.  Perhaps it was this hidden genealogy that played a part in my choosing to be involved in lay ministry through the United Methodist Church.

But I came to this ministry through the Evangelical United Brethren Church instead of the Lutheran Church.  And even though there is a shared German heritage in these denominations, there are those in the Lutheran Church who would view me as something of heretic for choosing a different path.  But that, as you will see in the coming paragraphs, is perhaps one marker of my life today.

The other dominant, though shorter, branch on the family tree leads to the hills and hollows of Appalachia.  I don’t know as much about this branch as I do the German branch but the signs on this second branch say that I am of the Scotch-Irish tradition.

The Scotch-Irish of America are among those whose families moved from Scotland to Ireland because English authorities encouraged Scottish families to move to Ireland, in part because of conditions in Scotland and in part because the English authorities wanted more of a presence in Ireland.  Later, the English authorities decided that to be in a position of authority one had to be a member of the Anglican Church, which many of those Scots living in Ireland were not.  From this began the move to America, a move to escape religious persecution where a government felt it had the right to tell others how and what to believe.  And again, I can see in my past another strain of rebellion.

I would like to write more about the other two branches of this tree but those branches end rather abruptly, clothed in a seemingly impenetrable darkness.  It may be with modern technology and perseverance along with society’s penchant for record keeping that this darkness can be removed and that my siblings and cousin will come to know more about what is for the moment, “familia incognito”.

And while there may be a genealogical basis for my rebellious streak, one can also become a rebel despite one’s genetics or family history just as easily.  And in fact, it is probably easier to do it than one might think (see, for example, “I Am a Southern-born Evangelical Christian!  What Are You?”

My choice to become a member of the Evangelical United Brethren church was not so that my ancestors could call me a heretic; rather, it was a choice of convenience since 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora) was the closest church to where I lived and it fit into the pattern of church attendance my family followed at that time.

My choice to enter lay ministry of the United Methodist Church was made before I knew of my family’s ministerial history.  Perhaps the only part of my own past that directly influenced the path that I would walk was the decision in the summer of 1966 to become a chemistry major at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).  (This, by the way, was also an unconscious act of rebellion because it did not fit the pattern that my father would have preferred; but that is for another time and place.)

The point must be made, and I feel that this is true for everyone, it is not necessarily one’s past that determines one’s future.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

When you look at the river of time, you see a changing image; one that is not fixed in the past.  But what you see can determine what you do.

I grew up at a time of great creativity.  The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik spurred a demand for increased mathematics and science education.  As I noted in “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”, there was development of curriculum materials that focused on experimentation, rather than the traditional method of rote memorization.  It was a process that required the development of higher-level thinking skills.

653px-bloomscognitivedomainFigure 1 – Categories in the cognitive domain (Bloom’s Taxonomy) – Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001

And alongside this change in how science and mathematics were being taught came a similar expansion of what I shall call the creativity aspect of social relations.  No longer was there an acceptance of the traditional social status quo but a demand for an explanation of why people were treated equally in a world which proclaimed equality was the norm.  (Or as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “while all are equal, some are more equal than others.”)

I know that my questioning of Southern traditions began when I could see differences in the ways schools operated during the period from 1962 to 1966 when I moved from Alabama to Colorado to Missouri to Tennessee.

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.  Throughout that campaign, he used variations on the following George Bernard Shaw quote,

“You see things; and you will say, “Why?”  But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”

And in questioning some of those traditions, I began, in my own way, to ask “Why?” and “Why not?”

There are those today who would rather we not ask why but to simply take their word as the final authority on the matter, seemingly in both science and faith.

It should be noted that the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution is relatively modern.  At best, it arose because religious authorities, having accepted the primacy of the Bible, could not accepted a reasoned and developed idea about how life evolved on this planet.  But on at least one occasion in His ministry, Jesus told those around him to look at what they saw.  If we are not to look around us at the world in which we live, how will we ever be able to make this a better place?

And while many will say that it was the Catholic Church that was opposed to Galileo’s depiction of the cosmos (based on what he had observed), it was the academic establishment who opposed his ideas, simply because they were counter to what they were teaching.  This academic establishment pushed religious authorities to declare Galileo a heretic because that was the easiest way to get him out of the way.

It should also be noted that the notion of the “Big Bang”, confirmed by physical observations, was initially opposed by the scientific community because it was like the Creation story in Genesis.

If we are not teaching our children how to think and evaluate, how then can we even begin to envision the future?  And I am fully aware that in doing so, we are encouraging our children to think independently and without our input.  And this causes great concern for some because it brings into question what they have been teaching their children all these years.

My only response to this is that if you have been teaching your children through strict adherence to a set of guidelines and without explanation, you had better be willing to accept defiance and rebellion.  And you had better begin questioning just what it is that you believe.  Is your faith and belief system strong enough to withstand questioning?

My understanding of evolution and the “Big Bang” only enhances my belief in God, for when I see the wonders of His work, I can only begin to wonder how it all took place.  And, as it is written in Genesis, I was created in God’s image, then I was created to be a questioning and inquisitive individual.

I look at my heritage with an understanding that is where I come from.  But my heritage can never tell me where I am going.  Nothing from our past or our present can give us any insight into what our future will hold.  But it is what we do today that will allow there to be a future.

We must be working for a better understanding of the world around us, for a better understanding of the other people with whom we share this world, and for a better understanding of how we came to be on this planet.

The future will always be the last “great unknown” and getting there will not be easy but, with the tools and abilities that we have been given, it ought to be fun.