Monday, December 03, 2007

Reclaiming Christmas

With Advent upon us and Christmas on its way, I am reminded of the kind of forced separation and compartmentalization I had to endure growing up around Christmas time in the CoC.

We did celebrate Christmas in our family, though it was stripped of all its religious meaning and reduced down to a time for family to spend together and talk about Santa Claus and reindeer and chimneys. While most Christians were attempting to "keep Christ in Christmas," we were trying to do exactly the opposite. My sisters and I once asked if we could write a message on the fence with Christmas lights, and our father said that as long as we used "xmas" so that people didn't think we really thought it was Christ's birthday, it would be ok. (Yeah, he obviously doesn't know what the "x" stands for, and apparently didn't mind that most people would just assume we were shortening the word to fit on the fence!) And so, our mission, alongside atheists and anti-religious folk oddly enough, was to keep Christ out of Christmas.

It was kind of a confusing time as a child. A mention of Jesus out in the secular world that I normally would have considered a good thing was tainted by the fact that it was because of Christmas, and so I had to frown upon it and regard it as bad. For once, images and pictures and talk and music surrounded us proclaiming the glory of Christ, but any good was overshadowed by the fact that this was of pagan (i.e. "Catholic") origins and was considered idolatrous and bad. It seemed that the most important thing was to be different. If the world didn't talk about Christ, we should. If the world was talking about Christ, they were doing so for the wrong reasons and we shouldn't join them.

And so now that I am, Catholic, I love being able to embrace the good that comes from the general increase in awareness of Christ around the time of Christmas, and I welcome it with open arms! On the other hand, some well intentioned folks can risk running to the other extreme by wanting to completely separate their religious Christmas from any secular "tainting." But, even this gives me flashbacks and makes me cringe a bit.

I think for me, personally, the CoC just kind of wore me out on stressing the "we're SOOO different from the world" idea, and so that kind of makes me cringe now in any form, and even more I find it fascinating to see where the world actually picked up traditions because of our faith, and to see that our culture really is influenced by Christianity, even if they've forgotten, and I want to reclaim that and be proud of it! After being in the CoC, where we claimed that the best way to let our light shine was to continually separate ourselves from "the others" around us, it's still thrilling for me to see a real light shining in the midst of all those people in the world, even when they don't realize it. It's amazing to me that pretty much everyone in our culture knows the story of the birth of Jesus, even if it is only because they watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and heard Linus read about it from Luke. I also love just celebrating the authentic and original traditions, and pointing out to people where their own supposedly secular traditions came from when it turns out they originated from something religious.

I'm reminded of a blog post from Mark Shea I read a while back about Harry Potter and Pharisees. (Yeah, I know...go with me here!) He describes how the Pharisees are so focused on remaining clean by remaining separated from all "unclean things", that they completely miss the lesson when Jesus comes. The laws from God that were supposed to humble them and teach them that there was no way, through their own power, they could be sanctified, to prepare them for the idea that Jesus alone has the power to sanctify, were kind of twisted around. They set up so many rules to try and keep themselves clean (which was a noble idea) that they ended up convincing themselves they didn't need any cleansing.

And so in an ironic way, they take the mirror of ritual uncleanness that God has given them in the Mosaic Law, and instead of seeing in it an image of their own uncleanness and defilement by sin, the turn it around and say to those around them, "See how unclean you are!"

Naturally then, when Jesus appears on the scene, they simply do not know what to do with him and are motivated by their pride to misunderstand him. Jesus, in Matthew 8, turns the Pharisaic understanding of the law on its head. He touches lepers and they are healed (8:1 4), receives Gentiles and they receive faith (8:5-13), consorts with demon-possessed people in a cemetery and they are restored (8:28-31), and, in the next chapter, permits the touch of a menstruating woman and she's healed (9:18-22), touches the dead and she is raised (9:25), and eats with tax collectors and sinners and makes them saints (9:9-13). Yet, in all this, they see only the ritual defilement, not the revolutionary reversal in the flow of power. For, as Jesus points out elsewhere, pride has blinded them (John 9:35-41). They are so certain they are clean they cannot say, "Lord, if you're willing, you can make me clean." And so they miss the crucial lesson that the time for separation is past. In Israel's childhood, separation from uncleanness and sin was necessary just as it is necessary for us to keep our children from "bad influences" lest they become imitators. But with the dawn of the power of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the bad influences that are to be conquered with good ones, sin that is to be conquered with virtue, and death that is to be conquered with life.

So what does this have to do with Harry Potter?
[And Worldly Christmas?]

Well, the funny thing about the gospel is how often, in the history of the Church, the Church has fulfilled Jesus promise, "if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them" (Mark 16:18). The Church has drunk from all sorts of pagan wells, ranging from Plato and Aristotle, to the various ways in which Norse, German, Druidic, Roman, Indian, and other forms of pagan culture have been baptised and turned to the service of Christ. The Pharisaic approach is to reject--as the Pharisees rejected Christ--the possibility that he really holds power over the devil. It is a mentality that never considers the opposite possibility: namely, that Christ has power to conquer what defiled us under the old law and turn it to his glory.

And that is why I'd rather reclaim the worldly versions of Christmas and re-sanctify them in people's minds, and turn them to the glory of God as they were originally meant rather than separate myself from them completely.

And on a side note, it never ceases to amaze me how closely the CoC resembles the Pharisees when I read more about the Pharisees and their understanding of things! They both often have the best of intentions and the strongest of convictions, but they just miss the mark, largely because of blinding pride.

Edited to add: I just found out that Mark Shea made a whole 3 part series on the subject! All three parts are just piercing with witty truth, as usual!

Part 1: Pharisaic Purity
Part 2: A Christian Approach to Purity
Part 3: Sterility and Fruitfulness


Anne Marie said...

This is a great post, thanks for the link to Mark's blog. I'm going to trot on over and check it out. I stumbled on you blog some time ago and found it again today thru Jen's Et Tu blog.

I love your conversion story. Thank you for posting that too.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for stopping by! :-)

Ken said...

Sorry, but Mark Shea is just plain wrong about "baptized paganism". In fact, you might even find some of my comments on his blog when he talked about this last year.

Frankly it disgraces the memory of many Christians, the saints and martyrs, who gave their lives in the spiritual war against paganism.

What similarities there are between pagan religion and true religion is from the fact that paganism is a digression from true religion. Of course, in the progress of digression pagan religion would retain some elements of truth.

Stephanie said...

Obviously, I disagree with you. I don't see anything wrong with turning a cultural tradition that was originally pagan (or something else) into a Christian tradition. Christianity is universal, that's the beauty, and it can adopt anything that is good (although it may be being used for a wrong purpose) and turn it to the glory of God. I certainly don't see that as a disgrace to anyone, unless one has the pharisaic idea that we'll be "tainted" by such things, which is exactly where I think Mark Shea is spot on.

*shrug* No big deal, we'll just have to agree to disagree. :-)