Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ghost of Christmas Past

Here is my sermon for last Sunday. The text was Mark 1:1-8:

I want you to think of one of your favorite Christmas memories? Do you have one in mind? Does anyone want to share a memory? I’m willing to bet that most of them do not involve a gift you received or even a gift you gave? This is going to be true even if you are thinking of childhood memories. Sure there may have been a bike, or some other special gift that really stood out, but most of our favorite memories of Christmas are about experiences we had, of time spent with family and friends, maybe it’s decorating the tree, or eating the meal, or a special visit to Santa, we might remember opening presents when we were a children, but not actually remember most of the presents themselves.

So as another exercise, I want you to write down or at least try in your head to name five to ten things that you received as a present for Christmas last year? Can you do it? I’ve had a while to think about it as I was preparing this and I could only come up with a couple of the gifts I received. I remember what Santa brought the girls last year, but that is primarily because the elves didn’t assemble them before Santa put them under the tree, but I can’t remember what we got for the girls. And yet, even though we can’t remember the gifts we receive, even though most of our best Christmas memories have nothing to do with gifts given or received, we are constantly told that Christmas is all about gift giving, that it’s about going to the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t be happy this Christmas, will think that we don’t really love them, and our children will grow up unhappy and turn into old scrooges because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year, Yet, even though we know these things aren’t true, year after year we keep doing the same thing.

In Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol, which greatly impacted the creation of our modern understanding of Christmas and its attendant celebrations, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts. The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley, who comes to warn Scrooge of the three ghosts who will come to visit him during the night. Marley is himself bound with chains which he says he is forced to carry for eternity as a result of how he lived his life, and so he has been sent to see Scrooge so that Scrooge might free himself of the chains which hold him back in this life so that he can be free of chains in the life to come. In order to help understand what those chains are and how he came to acquire them, the first ghost, the ghost of Christmas past, comes to help Scrooge remember and to learn from the past so that he can move into the future, and today we are going to do the same. We are going to look at how our Christmas celebrations came to be so that we might be able to try and free ourselves of some of the chains that fetter us so that we can come to see Christmas in a new way.

Now I feel that I have to start by saying that I am not doing this because I am a Scrooge in hiding who wants to ruin Christmas. In fact it is quite the opposite. I love Christmas, love it. I am the opposite of the Grinch who “hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season.” I start thinking about Christmas decorations for my front yard in June, and start listening to Christmas music in October. I love Christmas, so what we talk about over the next three weeks is not about doing away with Christmas, it is not about not giving gifts, because as we discussed a few weeks ago, giving is important, indeed we are celebrating God’s gift to us in the birth of his son, but that’s really the point. As a recent book title said, Christmas is not your birthday. So how did we come to celebrate the way we do?

We’ll start with why we celebrate when we do. We have birth accounts in only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, and neither of them gives an accounting for when Jesus was born, and so the early church had to come up with a date if they wanted to celebrate his birth. Now I am sure that most of you have probably heard the story that December 25th was a pagan holiday that the early Christian church co-opted, and there is some history to this. In the year 274 in order to give credit for a victory to the sun, the Emperor Aurelian marked the winter solstice as a day to celebrate the birth of the invincible sun. We do know that by 336 Christians in Rome were celebrating Jesus’ birth on this day. So, following this story, the church sort of built off the pun of sun and son, and made a pagan holiday their own. It certainly makes a good story, but it is not the only story.

In looking for how scriptures predicted Jesus’ coming, as we see in the passage from Mark today, the early church was also looking for how creation foretold Jesus’ life. The early church placed Christ’s death as happening on the vernal equinox, and since they believed that Jesus was perfect then the date of his death and his conception must be the same, and so if Jesus’ was conceived on the vernal equinox, and everything is perfect, then he would be born on the winter solstice, which is exactly nine months later. Having the light of the world be born on the darkest day of the year would also match with their theology. In addition, because we are told in Luke that John the Baptist is six months older than Jesus, that would indicate that John would have been conceived at the fall equinox and born at the summer solstice, and therefore creation would match the birth of these two figures. Now this might seem like a stretch, and it’s easier to say that they just co-opted a pagan holiday, except that the writings of the early church are filled with this sort of theological reasoning, seeking to give theological justification and to find the importance of Jesus in everything.

But regardless of why this date might have been chosen, it was not universally accepted. Many orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 7, where it is accompanied by a feast which breaks a day of fasting and does not have gift giving associated with it. In addition, Christmas was never the most important holiday in the church year, regardless of the fact that that is what it seems to have become today. In fact, the celebration of Epiphany, which is the day that the wise men are said to have arrived, which sometimes included gift giving, and was also when Jesus’ Baptism was celebrated, is not only an older celebration in the church, but has been considered a much more important holiday than Christmas for most of Christian history. Again within Orthodox and Latin American churches, Epiphany is the third most important holiday behind Easter and Pentecost.

As Christmas celebrations continued over the years, its emphasis waxed and waned. By the middle ages people would celebrate by attending worship, where they often listened to mind-numbing sermons, some things don’t change, then the rest of the day would be spend in revelry with the consumption of large amounts of food and even larger amounts of alcohol. A large number of births in late September and early October, especially to unmarried mothers, also indicated what else was taking place, and caused concern for some in the church. By the time of the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, the reformers were disgusted at what was taking place, and argued that since there was no Biblical witness to when Jesus was actually born, as well as because of how the day was being celebrated that Christmas should be deemphasized or removed from the calendar all together. And that is exactly what happened in some cases.

In 1647, Parliament passed a law forbidding the observance of Christmas in England, and in 1659 a similar law was passed in Massachusetts, which at that time consisted of nearly the entirety of modern New England. The law in Massachusetts was repealed in 1681, but the celebration of Christmas did not return with the appeal of the law. A perfect example of this is found within Methodism. The Methodist Church in America was founded in 1784 at what was called the Christmas Conference in Baltimore. Approximately 60 of the 83 Methodist preachers in America gathered on December 24, for the first of a week of meetings to vote on the creation of a new church. They did so not because they thought that gathering to worship together at Christmas would be a good idea, but instead they chose this because Christmas was an opportune time when there was little else of importance going on in the church so that they could gather. I would challenge anyone to try and call a church meeting beginning on Christmas Eve now.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas began to again rise in popularity, and the church wasn’t doing anything with it, it became more of a secular holiday much like what was taking place during the middle ages with great revelry and carousing, but these celebrations became a threat to civility and peace. People again began to look for some sort of remedy, but rather than banning Christmas celebrations as before this time they changed or created new traditions. The years 1823-1848 have been referred to as a sort of “big bang” for the creation of Christmas as we know it, and many of the ideas rest with the writings of Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote “A Visit from St. Nick”, and, of course, Charles Dickens. What these three writers did was to domesticate the holiday, to bring it into the home so that now when “out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,” instead of it possibly being wassailers who might be doing damage, it was now Santa. Christmas trees also began appearing at this time as a regular feature in people’s homes. Although legend has it that Martin Luther was the person who created the Christmas tree, since Luther was one of the reformers who denounced Christmas celebrations there is little likelihood that this is a true story. The first known reference to the use of Christmas trees in America does not come until 1821, but its common use is not seen until the 1840s when it quickly took off in popularity. In 1850 Dickens said that the Christmas tree was still that “new German toy,” by 1891 President Harrison, who was the first President to have a Christmas tree in the White House, referred to the tree as “old fashioned.”

What also arose during this time was gift giving as we now understand it as a commercial enterprise. Prior to this there is some record of gift giving, but it was most usually done on Epiphany, on the feast of St. Nicholas, which is December 6, or at New Year’s. The first movement to gifts at Christmas came in the form of Gift Books, which were elegant “literary annuals” printed at first to be given to women by their admirers. Later books were also printed for children, but these books were advertised as being for Christmas and New Years. By the beginning of the Civil War the popularity for these books disappeared, but by the time they did gift giving at Christmas, instead of at New Years or other times, had become the accepted practice. But, it wasn’t giving just any gifts but instead giving specifically store bought gifts. The age of commercialization had been born.

Now the laments about Christmas, as we have already seen, are, in the words of Leigh Eric Schmidt, “One of the culture’s fondest, most pervasive jeremiads.” I think the complaint that things were different, and it was better when we were kids is also a common refrain, as even Ralph Waldo Emerson bewailed the commercialization of Christmas, and the selling of gifts as “a cold, lifeless, business.” By the turn of the 20th century, a major retail publication was saying that November 1, was “none too early” for stores to begin their “Holiday Campaign.” And women were recording in their diaries, “Still shopping all day long, seems I will never get through,” or “Oh! This silly Christmas trash makes me tired,” and “So busy, and Children all crazy too… we always get so at Christmas,” and tired store workers were relenting the long hours dealing with harried customers. In other words, they were dealing with the same things and complaining about the same things about Christmas that we deal with and complain about today.

The ghost of Christmas past showed Scrooge how he got to where he was so that he could understand and begin to make changes in his life. In the passage from Mark today we are also taken into the past in order to understand the changes that are taking place. Mark interprets John the Baptist through the lens of the Isaiah passage which we also heard this morning, of the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the lord. John is not a voice harkening to the past out of a sense of nostalgia. It is not a voice saying, “if only we could go back to the way we imagine it used to be then everything would be okay.” Instead this is a voice that is calling us out of the hustle and bustle of the city, out into the wilderness in order to come into contact with God. This is a voice which is calling us to repent, to turn around, not really the voice we are used to hearing during Christmas, but it is the voice necessary in order to help us prepare for the coming of the Christ child. It is the voice which helps us with preparation and anticipation. It is the voice that tells us “someone more powerful than me is coming.” John calls us to come to the wilderness, to leave the city behind, to leave behind all the things we are told by society that we should be focusing on and instead to come and hear the voice of God, to come and prepare for the coming of Christ.

Martin Copenhaver says that “the Christian story begins with longing,” as best illustrated during this time of Advent. Most of us long for something different during this season. We want to feel connected to each other and to God. We want to be connected to something deeper and more meaningful. John calls us away from the stuff, to go to the wilderness in order to prepare and the ghost of Christmas past shows us the things that may lock us in chains, and then we are given the opportunity to make changes for the future. This Advent season let us take the time to reflect, to ponder, to go to the wilderness as we prepare next week to encounter the ghost of Christmas present. Amen.

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