Monday, December 21, 2009

Is Christmas Christian?

By Richard Rohr, OFM

Editor’s Note: This article by Catholic theologian and spiritual visionary Richard Rohr, OFM was first published in the November-December 2008 issue of Tikkun magazine.

As a Franciscan priest, I think I have the right to ask that question. We from the Catholic tradition too easily presume that because the title is right, the train following it is on the right track. We are not often open to asking if the train has anything to do with the direction of the original engine. In this case, the birth and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

We all know that the date of December 25 is not derived from Christian tradition. It instead traces back to the third-century Roman feast of the Rebirth of the Sun-normally celebrated as soon as they could observe the same, sometime after the Winter Solstice. Right away, that tells us that the first few centuries of the Common Era had no interest in knowing when Jesus was born or even celebrating it. That came with calendars and the demarcating of precise time.

Frankly, we must confess that it was likely our founder, St. Francis (1182-1226), who began to make Christmas the sentimental celebration that it has become, although his intention was never at all in the direction it has taken. He was the great lover of poverty and simplicity, and would be aghast at the consumer- and group-defining feast that Christmas has become. He merely replicated the drama of the stable with live animals and music.

For Francis and the early Franciscans, “incarnation was already redemption” and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that were true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever - and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation. That's why Francis liked animals and nature, praising the sun, moon, and stars, like some New Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us “as Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

But groups need and create their identity symbols, and the celebration of Christmas became the big one for Christian Europe, just as Jewish people need Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Muslims need Ramadan and pilgrimage. The trouble is that the meaning became group-defining instead of life-transforming. As we say today, it got “off message”! It was no longer God’s choice of the whole, but God's choice of us! (In fairness, most religions make the same mistake at lower levels of transformation).

At those lower levels of civil religion or any religion as a “belonging system” the original meaning is always lost and often even morphs into its exact opposite. Strange and sad, isn’t it? In this case, the self-emptying of God into humble and poor humanity (Philippians 2:7) became an excuse for us to fill, consume, dominate, use, and spend at staggering levels for ourselves. In fact, the days leading up to December 25 are the economic engine around which the entire business economy measures itself in Christian-influenced countries. One might think that the fasting of Ramadan and Yom Kippur might have been a much clearer act of solidarity with the actual mystery celebrated.

Well, this year we might he forced under duress to celebrate the feast of Jesus’ humble birth with honesty! Our economic meltdown is showing for all to see what our real gods have been. It is not the Lord of Israel or his Son that we love, nearly as much as we do our limitless growth, our right to empire, our actual obligation to consume, and our sense of entitlement to this clearly limited planet.

In Christian circles, when I call these false gods into question, I am invariably criticized on other grounds of heresy and church protocols, almost so we do not have to look at what our real loyalties have been and are. “Let’s keep talking about Biblical interpretation or papal infallibility so we never have to look at our lifestyle.” For far too many of us, our final loyalties have been to the system of America, to the free market, to the protecting of the top and not the bottom where Jesus was, and to what Pope John Paul II called “rigid capitalism.” He said in several of his encyclical letters that capitalism had to be critiqued and regulated just as much as socialist communism (e.g., Loborem Exercens). Strange that most western Catholics never quoted him on that theme!

So, come, let us celebrate the feast anew! May we who have consumed the mystery of Jesus now consume his whole meal, and may it free us from needing to consume so much of everything else. If you really have the One, you should not need more and more of the other. Maybe our humble Jesus is stealing our idols from us, and inviting us back into his Bethlehem stable.

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