Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Anno Domini



One of the many things I found fascinating in John Barry's book on Roger Williams is that the Puritans in America suppressed the celebration of Christmas, considering it too closely associated with paganism and idolatory.  I think anti-Catholic bias figured in as well.  It wasn't until the 19th century that New England states began to relax these laws.  Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, largely for commercial reasons, not religious ones.  Yet, we see all this anxiety over Christmas being marginalized in today's society.

There is no scriptural record of Jesus' birth.  Dates varied but the Romans decided to link his birth to December 25 in 336 AD.  Apparently, there was no surviving birth record even though the Romans kept birth records for tax purposes.  Most scholars feel that by linking Jesus' birth to the winter solstice, missionaries would have an easier time converting pagans, who already honored this day in ceremonies throughout Europe.

With the breakaway Lutherans and other Christian sects, many conservative Christians chose not to celebrate Christmas, and this attitude came to America with the Puritans.  These new Protestant religions read the Bible explicitly.  Easter was seen as the date of prime importance, although this date is hard to fix as well and came to fall conveniently near Vernal Equinox, also long celebrated by pagans.

Still, most Biblical scholars search for astronomical phenomena in December to explain the guiding light that led the wise men to Bethlehem.  History Channel was offering some cosmological insight into the matter the other night.  The arrival of the "Three Kings" is celebrated on January 6, with the ceremonial number of 12 days being the length of their journey, although it probably took them much longer given the arduous terrain and presumed distance of their journey.

It seems that are new found sense of Christmas is a product of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that took place in the mid-19th century, out of which sprung Mormonism and a wide variety of other evangelical religions that have come to dominate the Protestant movement in America.  If Joseph Smith could imagine talking to Jesus in upstate New York, why couldn't anyone else?   The itinerant preacher was born, spreading the word from town to town, and gathering converts along the way.

I think the plight of the Mormons and other evangelical religions helps explain this sense of "victimhood" many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists feel.  Their nascent religions were seen as being on the fringe and often in defiance to the more orthodox forms of Christianity.  They had to seek out new lands and new pastures to build their "heavens" on earth.  I suppose in this way they felt they were a lot like Jesus trying to gather a following around him, so his life became every bit as important as his death in their minds.

But, what has always struck me as odd is how these very strict interpretations of the Bible so often dwell on Old Testament themes, especially the idea of an angry and vengeful God that will smite anyone who defies his will.  Again, I think this has a lot to do with the persecution many of these Evangelicals felt and that there had to be some form of retribution for those who would diminish their faith.

As a result, many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists appear to have a pretty big chip on their shoulders, and get quite agitated around Christmastime.  They insist on their nativity scenes and their "Christmas trees" even though they would have found themselves breaking the laws of early Puritan America.  Ironic, especially when you think how many times John Winthrop's "shining city upon a hill," has been evoked.

3 comments:

  1. The Christmas holiday, like Easter, was chosen to gain more followers for Christianity since it was already celebrated by the pagans. There's a long tradition of bringing in greenery and lighting candles to bring on longer days at the solstice.

    I stumbled upon this series and am now watching it all online about what historians and archaeologists know about the historical Jesus:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/watch/

    According to these scholars, the Jesus movement was one of many Jewish sects (like Essenes) focused on the end times under what appears to have been extreme conditions of Roman occupation. So some of the comments about peace on earth and other sayings of Jesus (the "Q") make real sense when compared to the pax Romana of the occupation. The archaeological evidence and reconstructions are amazing.

    Apparently Jesus' family was concerned about his mental health and tried right before he was killed to bring him home to protect him, and yet later his brother joined the Jesus movement. He, too, was killed.

    I also found the idea of a community centers (what would become synagogues and churches) fascinating since pagans did not have that sense of community. So there was a powerful attraction for pagans to join in with these Jewish communities as they tried to make new sense of what was happening to their world under the Roman occupation.

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  2. Not so long ago I saw a special that cast the Book of Revelations in terms of the Roman occupation and the overwhelming desire to see Rome fall. It had little to do with predicting the "End Times." Christianity, like most religions, is a form of rebellion, which unfortunately grew into a form of oppression as sadly all too often the case with revolutionary movements.

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  3. Nothing really wrong or unchristian to celebrate the Advent season as the ancient Israelites celebrate the New Moon fest every month {1 Samuel 20:5; 1 Samuel 20:18; 1 Samuel 20:24; 2 Kings 4:23; 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 2 Chronicles 8:13; 2 Chronicles 31:3; Ezra 3:5; Nehemiah 10:33; Psalm 81:3; Isaiah 1:13; Isaiah 1:14; Isaiah 66:23; Ezekiel 45:17; Ezekiel 46:1; Ezekiel 46:3; Ezekiel 46:6; Hosea 2:11; Amos 8:5; Colossians 2:16}. Thus, according to the Bible, seasonal celebrations are OK. Having said that, Beltane was the pagan seasonal celebration day of Peace. That, more than any other holiday, is the one Christians should celebrate the most since Jesus is said to be the Prince of Peace.

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