Ancient Answers


Leave a comment

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!


Leave a comment

Day for a Beheading

August 29th is observed every year as a commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. The story is told most fully in Mark 6:14-30.

beheading of john

Icon of the beheading of John the Baptist, showing Salome waiting to receive the head of John

The story is gruesome, and the composer Richard Strauss took advantage of the gruesome aspects in creating his shocking opera, Salome. The daughter of Herodias is not named in the Gospel narratives, but Salome is the name that tradition has given her. She was coached by her mother to request the head of John the Baptist, which she did. But that’s the stuff that operas and melodramas are based on. The true meaning of this day lies elsewhere.

Why was John put in jail to begin with? Because he accused King Herod for committing incest by marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias. But that too is the stuff of melodrama and there is confusion in the historical records about Philip, Salome and Herodias. No, it’s not melodrama and royal intrigues that interests us today. Rather, it is the ministry of John himself.

John was imprisoned because he spoke truth to power. His conflict with Herod and Herodias echoes the conflict of the prophet Elijah with Ahab and Jezebel in the time of ancient Israel. In the Orthodox Church, John is called Prophet and Forerunner. He was prophet because, like the prophets of ancient Israel, he proclaimed God’s judgment on sin. And he was prophet also in the sense that he spoke of the coming of Christ, the Messiah. But he did more than speak of Christ’s coming. He also prepared the way for the coming; hence he is also called Forerunner (Prodromos in Greek). His appearance in the desert, baptizing people and preparing them to receive the coming of Christ, was a fulfillment of the prophesy spoken by Isaiah 40:2-4, The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God,” to quote the King James version that was set to music my Handel in his great oratorio, Messiah. (See and hear the tenor soloist singing these words at about the 10-minute mark of this video of the complete oratorio; or at about the 8-minute mark of this alternative video recording.)

John appeared in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. The desert is the place where God encountered Israel throughout the ages. It was in the desert that God appeared to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). It was in the desert that God led the people of Israel to the promised land. It was in the desert that God revealed himself to Elijah (1 Kings 19). And so on.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the desert was the place of testing – where the people were tested by God and God himself was tested by the people. The desert symbolizes the arid heart, the human heart that has drifted away from God. So it is in the desert that God goes looking for us. It was in the desert that John preached and baptized, preparing the way of the Lord. And it was in the desert that Jesus himself was tested (Luke 4) after his baptism by John.

Icons of John the Baptist often show him preaching in the desert with his severed head on display.

john the baptist

 The message of the icon is clear. From the moment John went out in the desert, it was a foregone conclusion that John would die a brutal death. Herod and Herodias were not the only enemies he created. He challenged all levels of society (Luke 3:1-20), especially the powerful. He was the last of the Hebrew prophets. He prepared the way for one mightier than he: “I baptize you with water; but one who is mightier than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). The powers destroyed John, as they would later destroy the One whose way he prepared. The Forerunner’s spiritual unity with Christ was complete.

The Church honors the beheading of John the Forerunner every year on August 29th. May today be a call to every one of us to go out into the desert places of our lives to hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Every one of us can prepare the way of the Lord. The desert is in us and all around us. It is the place where God waits to meet us, to heal us, to baptize us with Spirit and fire.