Maligayang Pasko Again!!

It is Christmastime in 2017. Most years I put a little post about Christmas. Some are better than others. This year I linked Christmas with a short story by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. (https://munsonmissions.org/2017/12/22/christmas-and-the-gift-of-garigolli/)

However, two of my favorites I wrote were from 2012. You may want to read them.

Christmas, It’s Okay… Really.  It looks at Christmas with regards to the issues of Contextualization, Separatism, Historicity, Ascetism, and Conformity.

St. Joseph at Christmas.  Views Joseph the Carpenter in the light of several roles he could have chosen in the story of Christmas.

Have a blessed Christmas. Below is one of the least impressive Christmas cards you will ever see. I have limited photo manipulation skills, and even more limited ability to get my family all in the same place at the same time for a picture. This was taken at the Staff and Faculty Christmas Party of Philippine Baptist Theological Semnary, December 15, 2017.

https://bobandceliamunson.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/christmas-2017.jpg?w=637

Christmas Musings 2016

It is Christmas Season here in the Philippines. Arguably, it has been since September 1st.

Every year I come across some Christians who are worried about whether it is okay to celebrate Christmas because of its “pagan roots.” This year is no exception. Additionally, some JWs came by our house today and they reject Christmas for this very reason (of course, it is their choice, and I certainly don’t ask those of other faiths to celebrate our own religious celebrations). But Christians rejecting Christmas because of its pagan roots makes no sense unless one believes that things that non-Christians do are forever unredeemable by God. Rejecting the obscene consumerism— well, I am a bit more sympathetic to that view. But I think subversion of consumerism in a system is best done from within than without.maligayang_pasko_god_jul_i_tagaloggf_rund_kudde-r3b6741f100284f578da60ed788644954_z6i0e_324

Some reject Christmas because it is… festive, and festive is problematic. It reminds me of a group of, truthfully very nice, people who felt that birthdays were wrong to celebrate because it is wrong to suggest that even one day a year is your own day rather than God’s. That is fine, but that does seem to presume that God rejects celebration, or that a day of personal celebration demeans or offends God. I don’t really see that.

Anyway here are some Christmas musings from the past:

Christmas– It’s Okay, Really! (2012)

Christmas Musings (2010)

St. Joseph at Christmas (2012)

Joining the Festivities (2015)

Additionally, here is my Family’s Christmas Letter/Card:      CLICK HERE

Joining the Festivities?

We have finally finished our Christmas celebration here. We had a number of friends and relatives over for a Christmas day feast here in Baguio City, Philippines. Then we talked to some other relatives across the ocean. We will keep up the Christmas tree at least through New Years. I don’t like the tendency for people (and especially merchants) to keep pushing Christmas celebration earlier… but I do like it to linger a few days past the 25th.

Christians struggle with holidays a fair bit. Every year, some Christian groups (as well as “Christian-ish” groups) argue that good Christians should not celebrate Christmas because of its so-called pagan roots. To me the argument is not valid, but I won’t repeat that. You can look at that in “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.photo-2-1

But we are not alone. I was reading a little tweet by a Muslim who was trying to discourage fellow Muslims from celebrating Christmas. Now some of the other tweets by the same person suggest a viewpoint that is a bit out of the mainstream. Still, it is always a bit awkward when it comes to celebrating holidays of other religions. Here in the Philippines, the President every year tosses in special holidays for certain Muslim holy days.  <Note: If you ever get to be the head of government in your country… please plan your official holidays months in advance. Don’t just toss them in at the last minute. It creates unnecessary chaos.>  I have to admit that I don’t join in the celebration of Muslim holidays here. I have an acquaintance here who is Jewish and he said I was welcome to join a Hanukkah celebration here in town. I wasn’t able to this time.  But I hope to next year.

But this got me thinking about festivities.

  1.  Christians really should feel comfortable with finding ways to celebrate in Christian holidays. Not everyone feels this way.  Here in the Philippines, a lot of Protestants actively avoid the community fiestas. Sometimes it is because of the vices (gambling, drinking, and general carousing), but often it is because of it being attached to the celebration of a catholic saint or icon. Many Filipinos believe I am wrong (and they may be correct in that judgment) but I feel that as fellow Christians it is good to seek to find some way we can join on some level to demonstrate spiritual unity with other Christians. Joining a celebration, even in a small way, is one way to do that.
  2. Christians really should feel comfortable with Jewish holidays. After all, their holidays are part of our history as well. Yom Kippur, Rash Hashanah, Hanukkah, and so forth, are part of our faith history. But not only are there some Christians who believe we should not in anyway celebrate Jewish holidays (I believe I recall that the Western Church purposely moved Easter so that it would not line up with Passover— how strange.). On the other hand, I know Christians that like to suggest that as Christians we should only celebrate the Jewish holidays because they are “Biblical holy days.” Those special days, however, are special not because they are Biblical, but because of their role in remembrance of God’s faithfulness in history. But God’s faithfulness did not end in, oh say, 300 BC. It has been demonstrated more recently as well (including, but not limited to, Jesus birth, and resurrection). It is fine to celebrate Jewish holidays, but not them alone.
  3. Christians should at least be open to finding ways to celebrate other holidays of other faiths. This gets a bit more touchy, but it is not wrong to celebrate with Hindu friends a holiday with them…. or Muslims, Sikhs, Shintoists, or others. Some feel that that is inherently wrong. I would simply suggest that it may be possible to find ways to connect with those of other faiths, through celebration while holding true to one’s own faith. For example, Jesus did a miraculous sign at a Jewish wedding. But could he have done it at a non-Jewish wedding? I would think so? What if it was a non-Jewish celebration of a different kind, could Jesus have joined it and performed a miracle then also? I think it is possible. In this area, I think it would be wise not to condemn. I know Christian missionaries who work with Muslims who join Ramadan, both in the fasting and the celebration of the end of fasting. They believe they connect with Muslims better through this.

Ultimately, like meet sacrificed to idols in the first century church, this a matter of personal discernment in Christian liberty. But I hope you will find ways to celebrate. Heaven will be full of celebration. May as well practice now.

 

St. Joseph at Christmas

St Joseph
St Joseph (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

We know Joseph gets downplayed at Christmas. I suppose it is understandable. But let’s just take a moment to think about his role.

David Zimmerman in “Comic Book Character” notes that mankind takes on four major roles in the Bible. In the Bible, God clearly takes on the role of hero, not people. However, people do take on the role of:

1.  Villain.  As I noted in my book “Theo-Storying” is is not true that Satan is the primary villain of the Bible. We sometimes like to read it that way (very selective reading at that). Satan may be the villain in the heavenly realms, but on earth, we really have no competition. We fit the role of villain better. Satan is more of a partner of ours in our role.

2.  Victim. While we may be the villain… we commonly are also victims in the Bible. Special place is given to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the marginalized. However, we all live in a world that is messed up, a world that we did not create. We sin, but we also are sinned against.

3.  Witness. Mankind may be an active player in the drama… but we also serve as witnesses of what is going on on stage. In the Bible, we are called to act, but also to witness and report.

4.  Partner.  The position of hero in the Bible is already filled, but we have the option of partnering with God. In comic books, there are superheroes and sidekicks. The sidekick doesn’t take the limelight of the superhero, but helps bring success.

Okay, now let’s consider Joseph. Joseph was engaged (betrothed) to a woman who became pregnant outside of wedlock. The visit by the angel explaining the situation did not necessarily make things better. He was still stuck in a culturally very awkward situation. So look at the roles listed above:

A.  Joseph was a Witness and Victim. He had no choice in this. He did not create the problem but found himself experiencing it.

B.  Joseph rejected the role of Villain. It would have been easy to do. He could have rejected Mary… “putting her away”… quietly. He could have felt justified (legally and culturally) to be vengeful.

C.  Joseph also rejected the role of Witness and Victim. Just because one is given a role, one still has a choice to embrace that role or reject it.  Joseph could have passively focused on the injustice he found himself in. He could have backed away– a sulking victim, an uninvolved witness. But he didn’t.

D.  Joseph embraced the role of Partner. He accepted the word of the angel, and accepted Mary. In so doing he chose to be the partner of Mary, with all of its joys and pains, and partner of God and His work.

We find ourselves dealing with these roles too. We are victims… not sure there is anyone who is not. We are witnesses of what God is doing. We can embrace the role of the victim. We can embrace the role of a witness (whether involved or uninvolved). We can take on the role of the villain, seeking to thwart God’s work. Or we can partner with God. The choice is always there.

Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.

christmas 2007
christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

A few thoughts on Christmas. May as well get the thinking started now.

1.  It is OKAY to Christianize a pagan holiday. <An Issue of Contextualization.> Some are bothered by this and make this a big issue at certain times of the year. But Christianization is simply the subversion or reinterpretation of symbols. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Jesus and the early church subverted/reinterpreted the symbology of the Jewish Passover and ritual purification rites with the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. The church structure is the reinterpretation of the Jewish Synagogue. One of the two primary words for God in Old Testament Judaism (“Elohim”) has roots in Canaanite paganism (the roots of “YHWH” are less certain). The primary word for God in the New Testament Church (“Theos”) has roots in Greek paganism. Again, the key point is not the symbol but the meaning given to the symbol. Frankly, the most recognized symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a Christian reinterpretation of a pagan practice (crucifixion). Harvest Festivals have deep pagan roots, yet the Jews were comfortable with reinventing them as Jewish holidays. Three major Jewish Festivals are reinterpretations of harvest festivals (Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles). Christians have, in turn, reinterpreted Feast of Unleavened bread as part of the Christian Holy Week, and the Eucharist. Christians have also reinterpreted Pentecost as a Christian celebration. Reinterpreting pagan symbols is a healthy part of the cultural contextualization of faith. To become a Christian in a non-Christian culture should not involve rejecting every aspect of that culture, but selective rejecting the bad, embracing the good, and reinterpreting the redeemable. That is the role of insider within that culture (not the outside kibitzer).

2.  It is OKAY celebrate a civil holiday. <An Issue of Separatism.> Some are bothered that Christmas has become a civil holiday and has been overlayed with a lot of non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) messages. I believe that it is true that some things have to really be set aside. This manic materialistic busy-ness simply has little redeeming value. But we as Christians should find areas of healthy cultural interaction with the surrounding society. Separatism tends to lead to marginalization and/or ghettoization. I feel that the desire to radically reject everything in society without thoughtful evaluation may stem from the belief that it will show people that they are Christians. I suppose that works. Evangelical Christians are recognizable in that many/most don’t celebrate the local fiestas here in the Philippines (because of pagan and Catholic roots, and the proliferation of vices). In India, I have been told, Christian houses are easy to recognize because they are dark and dreary during the celebration a Diwali. There may be reasons not to celebrate (the tendency mix Christian messages with nationalistic messages during American Independence Day or Memorial Day does make me a wee bit squeamish). However, the fruit of the Spirit is a better way to show that you are a Christian.

3.  It is OKAY to celebrate Christmas in December. <An Issue of Historicity.> Some, in complaining about Christmas, note that we don’t know when Jesus was born (although March might be a good educated guess) so it is ridiculous to celebrate His birth on any day… including in December. I have to admit, this one never made the least bit of sense to me. We have friends who adopted a little girl… she was found wandering the streets in the Philippines. She was apparently abandoned by her mother at around 2 years of age. They don’t know what her birth name was or what day she was born. Yet her paperwork now has a birth date and a name, and they celebrate her birthday every year on a day they assigned her. Suggesting that they should not celebrate her birthday because they don’t know the exact day that she was born is ludicrous. Actually, celebrating Christ’s birth close to Winter Solstice, at least for the Northern hemisphere, makes a lot of sense. Since it is the darkest time of the year, and the coldest (again, in the Northern hemisphere) it fits symbolically the idea of Christ coming into a world of darkness to bring light. And the comraderie and celebration provides emotional warmth to a time so cold. So unless you are big on technical historical, astronomical, or astrological factoids, relax and enjoy Christmas in December

4.  It is OKAY to CELEBRATE.  <An issue of Ascetism> Sometimes it seems as if the problem with Christmas is a problem with celebration. I have not heard anyone complaining about eating rice or utilizing fire, based on its long documented use by pagans and in pagan rituals. Perhaps the focus on Christmas and Easter and such has more to do with the belief that God is against fun and celebration. The Old Testament was full of celebrations. Jesus was involved in much festivities. Not all celebrations are good… but celebrations, are redeemable, and can be good.

5.  It is OKAY to NOT listen to me. <An issue of Conformity.> You don’t have to listen to me. If you celebrate Christmas as a Christian (or a non-Christian), that is great. If you don’t celebrate Christmas that is your right and your freedom as well. That is really not the point and people who think that is the point have really missed the point. But for those who accept it, “Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon!”

Christmas Musings

Living in the Philippines, Christmas is a big event. It has at least as much noise, food, gifts, parties, songs, and fellowship as the United States.

But there are two major groups here (groups that draw from a common Christian heritage) that do not celebrate Christmas. One of these is “Jehovah’s Witness” while the other is a locally grown group “Iglesia ni Cristo”. Within Evangelical circles they would be considered cultic groups… or more precisely “Christian-based religious groups with heterodox Christologies”. The arguments: we don’t know when Jesus was actually born, that Christmas has, in part, “pagan” roots.

I personally believe that Christmas is a good thing. The fact that Jesus was almost certainly born at a different time (perhaps in April) shouldn’t be overly important to anyone except those that believe that tying a celebration to an exact birth day is important (astrologers perhaps?)  But the second issue is important missiologically on a much broader scale than simply about whether to celebrate Christmas. The question is whether non-Christian elements make a Christian celebration impure or whether Christ purifies non-Christian elements.

Consider a few examples:

1.  Christmas is “Christianization” of a pagan event, Saturnalia. When Romans became Christians, the question was whether one had to reject the festivities of Saturnalia. The result was that the celebration of Christ’s birth was used as a replacement.

2.  In India, a very big celebration is “The Festival of Lights” or Diwali. Houses are decorated and it is very festive. One way of knowing that a family is Christian is that they have the undecorated houses. Some have suggested that a good Indian and Christian can find a way of joining his culture in celebration without falling into a paganistic trap.

3.  In the United States, there has been a resurgence in the Native American “Pow-wows”. At one time a pow-wow, or native dance was clearly and only tied to paganistic beliefs. Now, however, some groups do it as a way to connect to their culture, but do it as a celebration to Christ. Some pow-wows are even evangelistic in being used to share the Christian faith.

4.  Philippines Example #1. In the Cordillera Mountains (where I live) there are animistic groups and a number of tribes. One of the biggest cultural activities is the canao (pronounce it kan-YAO). It is a festival with dancing and other activities. Some local Christians join in. Many refuse. Some Christian groups have even used the canao as part of their celebration to God. A large church near us uses traditional instruments and dances to worship God. Curiously, many “American-style” local churches complain that they are using the devil’s instruments and dances. What is double curious is that those same churches that are complaining use electric guitars, drums, and rock-style music to worship. Why is that curious? Because 50 years ago, those instruments and style were considered devilish by many if not most Christians.  <Cultural bigotries are a funny, funny thing.>

5.  Philippines Example 2.  Most towns and barangays here have fiestas. They are often Catholic in origin (often with animistic roots) and have icons, a patron saint, and other aspects that are extremely uncomfortable to Protestants. Some feel they can find a way as Evangelical Christians to celebrate fiestas as part of community solidarity, while others do not.

6.  Pope Gregory (in 601) recommended that missionaries to the Britons accommodate as much as possible the local celebrations of the people. However, they should steer them to replace pagan gods with saints and other Christian elements. This concept of “accommodation” has been a fairly common element in Catholic missions to this day. Is this healthy or syncretistic?

I don’t plan to give an answer here. Obviously, the extremes in this area are problematic. Simply “blessing” the behaviors of all cultures is often to bless evil. William Carey, the “father of modern Protestant missions” often sought to find the best in Indian culture and literature. Yet he strenuously fought “suti” or widow-burning. One must oppose aspects of a culture that undeniably violate God’s will.

On the other hand, even those groups who are most vociferous in fighting the celebration of Christmas or other things with “pagan” elements, cannot and do not apply this consistently. The use of wheat or rice is not attacked because it has been used in pagan celebrations and practices for millenia. Few would say that the Greeks of the first century church would have to cease to be Greek (a clearly pagan culture) and become Jews. That was answered in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council.

Paul provides a more nuanced approach in the Bible when he speaks of meats sacrificed to idols. He said:

-Meat sacrificed to idols is no better or worse than other meats since the idols have no power. So don’t ask… it has no power for evil over you. You are safe to eat.

-If you are with someone who is weaker in the faith, don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols since that person may become confused and be led astray. The power is not in the idols, but in the confusion of the other person.

Taking this into account… (1)  one does not need to reject celebrations with pagan roots. Such roots has no power over a Christian. Christ can redeem all things. However, (2) there are some things that must always be rejected. And (3) there are always some people of weak faith who may need to be carefully nurtured.

The balance of these three truths will always make the contextualization of Christianity to other cultures a challenging and controversial thing.