Archives For Christmas

Rushing Christmas

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  November 30, 2018 — 2 Comments

What to do when your church doesn’t want to celebrate Advent? When they rush into Christmas?Christmas angel - transparent

Let me answer that question by posing another one. Spoiler alert: this is a curmudgeonly response.

Here’s my question: Is it really so bad to sing Christmas Carols for a whole month? After all, it’s one time of year that people are truly into a holiday. Why make them hold off?   There’s something a bit perverse about making people wait to express joyousness, to feel good about life, to bask in wonderful memories and to create new ones.

Maybe rushing into Christmas isn’t such a bad thing. Even the Sundays in Lent, throughout the whole seven weeks of repentance, are not for mourning; they’re mini-Easters.   Let’s remember that Advent and Christmas, while reflective of biblical themes, aren’t exactly Biblical. Jesus never commemorated either one.

So here’s what I have come to believe: if holding off on singing Christmas carols contributes to the spiritual life of you and your people, go for it. If it doesn’t seem to, maybe it’s time to strike a compromise. There are bigger mountains to die on than what hymns are sung.

Yes, highlight an Advent hymn or two each Sunday, but let the sounds of Christmas seep into your worship service. Set the doxology to the music of Christmas carols. Or try this: before you sing a Christmas carol, set the context that it’s a sneak preview of what is to come.

As for me, I’m with those ready to embrace good news now—with profligate abandon.   I know this flaunts tradition, but why not rush headlong into peace, joy, love and goodwill? And do it a whole four weeks early, as though Christ has already been born and lives among us. Because in a world that knows its share of bad news, it’s good to remember that, after all, he does.

In the meantime, if conflict around worship and other ministry matters are draining you, I invite you to join me for a four-hour online workshop called Mastering Conflict. You’ll learn how to interrupt knee-jerk reactions that don’t get you anywhere, and instead, how to approach conflict productively.

santaLast week, an interesting discussion broke open among a group of pastors I coach…would they stick to a safe, traditional telling of the Christmas story?  Or would they shake it up and include more challenging aspects of the story?

Rightly told, Christmas is a powerful story.  One full of hope and good news.  Not to mention power, justice and surprise.  It’s a story that has the power to set the world right, to unravel denial, to startle with its beauty.  It even has the power to call disciples.

On the other hand, Christmas services can be reduced to a rehearsal of seasonal cute:  a sentimental story about a guiding star, shepherds and angels, a precious baby, wise visitors bearing gifts from afar, and the personal comfort of individual salvation.

With both regulars and once- and twice-a- year visitors present, the opportunity is ripe.   Which story will you tell?

magi tapestryI remember the Epiphany sermon I preached that gave some interesting background to the story of the Magi.  Where they were from, what their culture was like, and when they actually arrived with those gifts.  I told them Jesus was already back home with his mother, no longer a newborn. That their encounter took place far from the shepherds and angels.  I’ll never forget what Hetta, a 70-something year old, said when she came through the line to shake my hand.  “I’ve been going to church all my life.  I actually learned something new today.  It’s been a while since I have.”

What I preached wasn’t exactly earth-shattering.  But some things we can say about the incarnation of God are.  At least for the church goer who is exposed only to the sentimental stories.

What might shake things up?   Try these biblical messages on for size:  Salvation, or communal well-being as its understood in the Hebrew Bible, is not just intended for Christians, but for all humanity. In fact, salvation is not just for human beings, but for all of creation.  That means ensuring each other’s well-being is a Kingdom value.  As is caring for the earth.  Or this:  Being a disciple of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, means to be an active peacemaker, rather than a captive to fear or suspicion.  That means we can’t kill our way to peace.  Or this:  Jesus, the very incarnation of God, and his family were soon to be refugees, fleeing from the mad tyranny of Herod.   That means shutting out strangers, aliens, and those in need is unbiblical.  Finally there’s this:  God risked all, placing God’s own self in the imperfect hands of mortals.  That means we, as bearers of the image of God, are called to risk ourselves for the Kingdom.

The upside of sticking with the safe, feel-good story is that people feel, well… safe and good.  At least for the moment.  The downside is that we don’t expose them to a narrative strong enough to equip them for the risk, fear, and change in our rapidly changing and complicated world.  That void makes them more susceptible to the fear-mongering and violence of the everpresent talking heads.

Fear-based violence has already given us a horrific year of domestic and international terrorism, a 14% rise in violence against Muslim Americans, the senseless killing of both young black men and cops, never-ending violence against both Israelis and Palestinians, the displacement of millions of innocent Syrian citizens, the cold-blooded killing of Planned Parenthood staff and patients, students and teachers, innocent Charleston SC church-goers and hundreds of others whose names and stories have now faded from the headlines.

What does the church, if anything, have to say about all this?

Yes, it’s safe to stick with the tried and true, the sentimental, the cute.  But it’s also a missed opportunity to preach a Christmas story that goes beyond cute.

Peter Sawtell writes:

The Christmas story is one of great good news when we tell it in the context of God who is with us to transform sin and evil, to overcome oppression and exploitation, to renew community and establish right relation. The Christmas story is relevant good news when it is put forth as an absolute contrast to money and markets, to a mechanical world of objects to be used, to a mysticism that allows us to ignore suffering — and even as a contrast to a distant patriarch who doesn’t really care about Earth and all of its life.

But that Christmas story — that transformational, liberating, joyous story — needs to be explicit. In a world seduced by wealth and power, a world where the “other” is feared or used, where individualism smothers community — in our world, the Christmas story loses meaning if we don’t push the challenging message.

The baby and the cute animals can just let us feel comfortable. The gifts of the magi can be warped to look like our excessive gift-giving to ourselves. Herod can look like an isolated bad guy, instead of the face of empire. The story can be sanitized, and its transformative power hidden and denied.

Peter goes on to say that he wonders which story he’ll hear in churches this week.  Me too.  As I worship in a variety of churches this week, I wonder what message I’ll hear.

Personally, I’m looking for a Christmas that goes beyond cute.  Like Hetta, I need to learn something new to stay engaged, to hear something new in order to grow.  I want to be challenged to live a new way, a Christ-like way this year.  I want to be called to wake up, to grow up, and to show up as a disciple in this complex world.  I want the prayers and the preaching to be a sign that the church cares about more than “just us” but also about “justice.”

Otherwise, Jesus himself is reduced to cute—a babe who never leaves the manger.  And the church loses one more opportunity to align itself with the essential Gospel message:  peace on earth, good will to all.

jesus in the templeJust as Christians celebrate Easter and Christmas every year, so Jesus and his family—along with their relatives and friends—celebrated Passover every year.

It was a big to-do.

Each spring in the Hebrew month of Nisan they trekked from their home in Nazareth up to Jerusalem for the seven-day festival of Passover.

One year, as Jesus was approaching manhood by traditional Jewish calculation, “when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.”  They may have gone up as usual but they didn’t come back as usual. The rest of the family headed home but unbeknownst to them Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without even a word.

What Mary and Joseph would’ve given for a cell phone and a text message!

Without any digital advantage however, his parents were worried sick. They turned around mid-journey and finally located Jesus in the Temple. They weren’t that happy about it either. Mary scolds Jesus who was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Apparently, they were also asking Jesus questions because the teachers “were amazed at his understanding and answers.” Jesus, unfazed, wonders why his parents were searching for him. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His parents were as baffled by his actions and his response as Jesus was by their anxiety.

If this story is any indication, Mary and Joseph definitely trained up their child in the way he should go.  He loved God, loved Torah, and loved learning—all pluses in the Jewish world view. As the years went by, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  Mary and Joseph did a good job raising Jesus as a faithful Jew. But as parents know all too well, not every kid keeps the faith. What about Jesus? Did he take it on as his own as he grew up? Or did he leave it behind and become a Christian?

 

(Excerpt from The Jew Named Jesus, p 27-28, Rebekah Simon-Peter, Abingdon Press, 2013)

 

Do you remember what happened on the 8th day of Christmas? 

The 8th day of Christmas, you ask? You mean, eight maids a milking?

Nope!

On the eighth day of Christmas–after Jesus is born in a humble feeding trough, after the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest” and announce good news of great joy to all the people, after the shepherds, amazed, run to Bethlehem, but before the Magi come bearing gifts–Jesus is formally welcomed into the Jewish people.

The eighth day of Christmas, as it were, is when Jesus is circumcised and named. The ancient rite of circumcision, first practiced by Abraham as a sign of the covenant with God, is routinely performed in hospitals now. But not then.

And then as now, circumcision is the first and most basic mitzvah (commandment or law) to be fulfilled for a Jewish baby boy.

“This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is 8 days old…” Genesis 17:10-12a

Jesus isn’t the first Jewish boy whose circumcision is noted in the New Testament. Don’t forget cousin John’s, also on the eighth day. His naming and miraculous birth is mentioned as well.

“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said ‘No, he is to be called John.’”

Luke 1: 57-60

Circumcision is a permanent sign, etched in the flesh, of partnership with God. Even more than lineage and ancestry, circumcision anchors these boys, and their families, firmly in the Jewish community.

At his circumcision Jesus is also named with “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21) By the way, it should be noted that girls are named too, but not circumcised.

About a month after Jesus’ circumcision, Joseph and Mary come to Jerusalem. There they present Jesus to the LORD in the ancient practice of redemption of the firstborn son (pidyon ha ben). Since Jesus is Mary’s firstborn, and as the author of Colossians later asserts, “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15), he is presented then bought back or redeemed after he reaches 31 days old.

Joseph and Mary would have paid a small sum (five silver shekels in biblical times; today, usually five silver dollars) and performed a brief ritual in the Temple to fulfill the mitzvah. (Numbers 18:15-16)

 


While the family is at the Temple for the redemption ceremony, two righteous and devout Jews, Simeon and the prophetess Anna, recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s salvation and praise God, for this “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” who would himself redeem Jerusalem.  (Luke 2:32, 2:38)

From his earliest days, Jesus is raised in a strong and beautiful Jewish home. From circumcision to naming to redemption to offering sacrifices, Mary and Joseph do “everything required by the law of the Lord.”

Not from a sense of empty duty or obligation, I suspect, but a profound connection to God and Torah and love of their child, Jesus.

After these mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) are fulfilled, Jesus and his parents “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” At home in Nazareth the mitzvot, blessings, prophesies and praises take root: “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:39-40)

___

 


Excerpted from the forthcoming book, “The Jew Named Jesus” (Abingdon Press, 2013) by Rebekah Simon-Peter.