Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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The Real War on Christmas


There is a Buddhist saying, “If you meet Buddha, kill him.” Weird? Clearly, the saying is meant to warn against idols, against illusions, against deceptions. We are easily deceived, easily fall into our own wishful thinking and illusions, and easily can turn everything and everyone into an idol.

Every year, we kill the Christ child – not because we are Buddhists, but because we fail to understand how easily we fall to idolatry, illusion and deception. The market kills Christ every year, turning us into partying consumers. We lose all sense of balance – and no wonder the holiday season creates some of the worst depression and stress in the year!

Herod tried to kill the Christ child and he ended up killing uncounted innocent babies instead. That’s how much he felt threatened by the presence of the child born in Bethlehem. Today’s consumer madness does its own damage, to adults and children alike. I’m not being a scrooge. I love Christmas as much as anyone. I love the carols, the Christmas cards, the lights, the trees, the festive decorations of the stores. And I love the gifts that we exchange. But the joy seems to have gone out of so much of the Christmas traditions. Why? Because we have lost the sense of balance.

Christmas is just one more indicator that we as a society have lost the sense of balance, moderation, and common sense. There IS a war on Christmas – but it’s not the war pronounced by one TV news network and some politicians and evangelical preachers. The war on Christmas arises from deep within us and our loss of meaning. When Christmas is only about saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, when it’s about public displays of Christmas trees – it’s clear how trivial Christmas has become in the minds of those who talk about a war on Christmas.

No, the real war on Christmas began 2,000 years ago in Judea, and it continues today. It’s not about public displays of Christmas trees and nativity scenes. It’s not about how we greet each other. Merry Christmas becomes just another superficial greeting that some Christians even use as a weapon against non-Christians. That’s pretty sick, in my opinion, to turn a greeting of goodwill and joy into a weapon of one-upmanship against people who don’t celebrate Christmas. Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire, and Herod sought to destroy him. Jesus is a threat to today’s powers and principalities, both political and economic. Hence the real war on Christmas is being waged precisely by those who speak of a “War on Christmas”! The best way to eliminate the threat of Jesus is to domesticate him and turn his birth into a commercial bonanza. The Bible itself is a threat to the commercial interests that govern our world. Solution? Turn it all into self-serving and self-promoting slogans and simplistic theologies. Turn the Bible into a gospel of wealth, and it’s in the pocket of the commercial interests.

Instead of shoving our commercial version of Christmas down the throats of non-Christians, why not show them the love of the Christ child instead of the hatred of Herod? There is a longing in the hearts of all people, a longing for authentic, meaningful existence. How do we meet that longing? Isn’t it also the longing deep inside us? A longing for communion, fellowship with each other and with God?

Before we can recognise the longing that is inside other people we have to recognise it in ourselves and respond to it, instead of covering it up with trinkets, partying and escapist entertainment.

I don’t agree with everything in our Orthodox tradition, but one of the things that I have admired about our tradition is the way Christmas used to be celebrated in Orthodox societies. Christmas was a purely religious celebration. The gifts and the partying came after Christmas, during the so-called 12 days of Christmas, Το Δωδεκαήμερο. The Catholic and Anglican traditions also have the idea of the twelve days of Christmas – hence the popular song/carol. But the Orthodox society that I remember has fallen into the same commercialism that we experience. The temptation of superficiality is just too strong for all societies.

This Sunday, because it falls on December 31st, is a bit confusing in the church calendar. Is it the Sunday After Christmas or the Sunday Before Theophany? Different calendars choose one or the other. The Greek Archdiocese has chosen to designate it as the Sunday Before Theophany. I have included both Gospel readings today. The Matthew reading is for the Sunday After Christmas and it tells us of Herod’s killing spree. The Mark reading is in anticipation of next weekend’s celebration of Epiphany/Theophany. Nice to read both as I did today. Because after Herod’s evil actions and the escape of the Christ child with his parents, we hear the good news – the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After darkness comes the light, the way forward.

At the start of every year we read this opening of Mark’s gospel. Every new year is an opening to a fresh start. Regardless of what we’ve turned Christmas into, the start of the new year invites us to love his appearing. And perhaps with every new year, we can desire to recover something of the missing spirit of Christmas. Or do we forget by the time we get to December? Perhaps this is something I should return to next year, not after Christmas but before! My bad. Perhaps I’ll have more wisdom next year. CHRIST IS BORN!

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Twelve Days of Incarnation



That is the traditional Christmas greeting for Orthodox Christians. It is analogous to the more familiar Easter greeting: “Christ is Risen! Truly he is risen!” The Christmas greeting comes from the first words of the Oration on the Theophany by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, which you can read in its entirety here. It is not known whether St. Gregory preached this homily on December 25th or January 6th, because in the early centuries of the Church the two days were inseparable. Dec. 25th became a celebration of Christ’s birth, while January 6th was the celebration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. But both feasts constituted the key events in the appearance of Christ, hence the word theophany, θεοφάνεια, which means manifestation of God (or the divine).

Nativity Icon (click to enlarge)

Nativity Icon (click to enlarge)

Baptism Icon (click to enlarge)

Baptism Icon (click to enlarge)








The New Testament tells us almost nothing about Christ between his birth and his baptism (except for two incidents in Luke’s Gospel). Although the two events were separated by about 30 years, the early church exercised spiritual insight by combining the two events into a 12-day celebration of Incarnation-Theophany. And if you ever wondered where the 12 Days of Christmas originated, it’s right here, in the theological wisdom of the early church. Although the idea of the 12 days of gift-giving is more closely related to the later Roman Catholic observance of Epiphany (Jan. 6th) as the Visit of the gift-bearing Magi, the Eastern Church preserved the more theological understanding of Nativity and Baptism being the two key events in the manifestation/appearance of Christ, hence Gregory’s Oration on the Theophany.

The birth of Jesus Christ brought about the incarnation, the key event in God’s history with humankind. God was no longer above everything, interacting with humans through dictates from a distance or through intermediaries: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Grace and truth came because human nature was joined to the divine nature. As a result of the incarnation, God now has access to our hearts and can write truth into our being. The incarnation brought to fulfillment the prophecy spoken by Jeremiah 31:33. “[Thus] says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

The incarnation of Christ united human nature to the divine nature. It made it possible for human beings to share in the divine life – what Orthodox theology calls deification. In his baptism, Jesus Christ shared not only our human nature, but the fullness of our human existence. Though he himself had no sins to repent of (except maybe disobeying his mom as a teenager), he joined the crowds who went to John to receive baptism of repentance. But the baptism did more than complete God’s identification with us. By entering the waters of the Jordan, Christ also sanctified all of creation. The earth is essential to our mortal existence. We cannot exist without the earth. God made holy the fullness of our human existence: our bodies, our hearts and souls, and the creation that surrounds and nourishes our lives. This is why on January 6th in the Orthodox Church we have the Great Blessing of Water. We symbolically remind ourselves that the natural world and all life in it are holy to the Lord. He has made all things holy. There is no sacred and un-sacred any more. Everything is holy! Polluting the environment, abusing a dog, or abusing a child are all evil acts in the eyes of God.

The traditional period for gift-giving was the 12-day period between Christmas and Epiphany/Theophany. That’s what the popular song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is all about. Unfortunately, as market capitalism has replaced the Christian lifestyle, the 12 days have lost much of their meaning, even if we continue to sing the popular song. But no matter, the twelve days continue to be the source of divine gift-giving. When we become exhausted from partying and shopping in the days before Christmas, perhaps we might be in a better place to experience the quiet of the divine birth and the immeasurable gift of holiness that it brought into our lives and to the natural world around us. Perhaps during these days between Christmas and Epiphany/Theophany we can learn to experience holiness and sanctification in our own lives and to treat the planet and all life on it as holy gifts of God. We are called to be agents of holiness, just as we are being made holy. Let the Twelve Days of Christmas be more than a song that has lost its meaning and purpose. Let them be Twelve Days of Incarnation and Sanctification. And then, come to the Great Blessing of Water on Theophany and take holy water, as a year-round reminder of what Christ did for us and for the world at his Baptism. May the holy water you take home become the means of a “liturgy of holiness” in your own life during the year. May it be the start of restoring something of the Christian lifestyle in your home!