Or How About Christian AND Pagan?

<Background:  A friend of mine was visiting people in the neighborhood here in Baguio. He met a man who is part of a religious group here in the Philippines known as Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). This group was founded over here. Theologically, it is basically Arian. Soteriologically, it is Particularist (meaning salvation is mediated through their organization on only through their organization). Not talking about INC today. The man gave my friend a magazine from their group. It had a bit of that “Friendly-Confrontative” thing going as Jehovah’s Witness magazine-style materials.>

The title of the main article on the magazine listed above was “Lent:  Christian or Pagan.” Of course, one can call almost everything from the Christian church as pagan. Very little trappings of institutional Christianity are in the primitive church. In fact, there are no real holidays recorded. One might argue that there are some holidays that may be implied from the Bible. These are:

  • Jewish holidays. Although they are not directly indicated in the NT text, the predominance of the Jewish believers in the early church, and the fact that the church was recognized as being founded on a Jewish holiday probably meant that many Christians celebrated these holidays regardless of whether the assembly as a whole did.  (Some Christians today are starting to practice the Jewish holidays as the only legitimate Christian holidays. Although this seems flawed, if one accepts an either/or attitude about holidays, one can see where it comes from.)
  • Birth of Christ. Although we don’t really know whether the early church celebrated “Christmas” we know that two of the four gospels shared considerable details about the Birth of Christ, and both emphasize the celebratory nature of this event. Based on this, it is hard to see how Christmas cannot be seen as deeply rooted in Christianity— regardless of pagan influences.
  • Resurrection of Christ. The early church celebrated weekly the Lord’s Day– the resurrection of Christ. Did they practice the celebration yearly? I don’t know, but pilgrimages to the open tomb went way back in church history so clearly celebration on some level wasn’t limited to a weekly event.
  • Additional period celebrations included Eucharist and Love Feast, although these were weekly, not yearly.
  • Pentecost. It is certainly a Jewish holiday, but did the church recognize it as a Christian holiday in the primitive church? Again, the emphasis on it in Acts 2 suggests that the church recognized its importance. Tertullian (160-220) recognized Pentecost as a Christian holiday.

Some like to quote Tertullian (chapter 2 in “To the Martyrs”) to point out the strong divide between pagan and Christian in terms of holiday.

You have no occasion to look on strange gods, you do not run against their images; you have no part in heathen holidays, even by mere bodily mingling in them; you are not annoyed by the foul fumes of idolatrous solemnities; you are not pained by the noise of the public shows, nor by the atrocity or madness or immodesty of their celebrants; your eyes do not fall on stews and brothels; you are free from causes of offense, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences; you are free now from persecution too.

Those that bring up this passage miss the point, in one reads the broader context. Tertullian is providing comfort to those Christians who are in prison. Tertullian is letting them know that prison isn’t so bad for a Christian. He later compares prison for a Christian to desert for a prophet— a place of asceticism to grow in faith. As such, Tertullian isn’t saying that prison is an inherent good, but that prison does have some advantages. Likewise, it does as if he is saying that pagan celebrations are bad in and of themselves, but are bad in so much as sinful activities are done during them.

Tertullian, in  “On Idolatry, Chapter XIV” gives further warning about Christian involvement in pagan hoidays. The wording is again a bit open to interpretation. It seems to say that we are to have positive relationships with pagans, not negative. It seems to be assumed that pagan holidays would involve a lot of sinful behavior. Reading a part of this passage you see a bit of the nuance that sounds a bit like Chapter 5 of the Epistle to Diognetus,

“To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren!”

This is a bit open to interpretation, but it is pretty clear that interaction between Christians and Pagans are to be positive and friendly, but we are not to take in pagan beliefs or sinful behaviors into the church. Because Saturnalia is brought up specifically (a celebration of considerable lewdness commonly), some writers have tried to say that Christmas cannot be celebrated. However, there seems to be little connection between Christmas as Saturnalia behaviorally, belief-wise, and even chronologically. It seems to be a made up controversy.

But one might take it further. What if Saturnalia WAS brought into the church. Suppose it was modified when it came into the church. I am making up something just for the point of example. The modifications might include:

  • Changing the name. Saturnalia is tied to the Roman god Saturn. So it could have a new name. Suppose the church called it. Winterfast (not Winterfest).
  • Changing the meaning.  Unlike the original meaning, Winterfast can represent a time of self-denial. In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, this time of year is a time of death and little sunlight and warmth. (I hope it is clear that the Winter Solstice is not a pagan event or a Christian event. It is a solar event.)
  • Changing the behavior. Saturnalia was a time of feasting, so maybe Winterfast would be one of fasting.
  • Creating new symbols.  Winterfast could create whole new symbols that express the event in a meaningful way to the celebrants.
  • Redefining old symbols. Use some symbols that are part of Saturnalia but given them entirely new contexts and meanings.

So in this case, if Saturnalia came into the church with a new name, new meaning, new behaviors, new symbols, and redefined symbols, to what extent is it still Saturnalia. Maybe it is something new. And if it is on a different day, finding a connection between the two  has become silly and argumentative.

We can take the meandering above to consider three views of holidays:

  • Full incorporation of Pagan holidays into the church. This probably doesn’t really exist per se. Coming into the church the meaning, practice, and symbols have pretty much always changed considerably. Halloween looks a lot like this one… although the history of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is much more complex than some would suggest.
  • Christian holidays with absolutely no pagan roots. This is probably an impossibility as well. The Lord’s Day celebration (a weekly celebration) might have no pagan roots. Perhaps the only yearly holiday that the early church practiced without pagan roots was Pentecost. And even Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) is a festival tied to the wheat harvest. Since harvest festivals are very much pagan in origin, it almost certainly fell in line with other pagan harvest festivals at one time or another. So perhaps this doesn’t count either.
  • A third option is to do what was done above with “Winterfast.” Take a celebration, pagan or otherwise, and change it in so many ways that it has no real similarity to its “pagan origins.” Based on articles scattered all over the Web, it is pretty clear that this won’t satisfy some people.
  • Below is a fourth option. This option is from Pope Gregory the Great as instructions for what has been called the Gregorian Mission to Great Britain:

“The heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols which are to be found in them… If the temples are well built, it s a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to adapt them for the worship of the true God… And since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food; when they have eaten and are full, then they must render thanks to the giver of all good things. If we allow them these outward joys, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.”

Letter by Pope Gregory (18 July 601) to Mellitus. (A History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neill, London: Penguin Books, 1990), pg 58

This is classic accommodation. Accepts the celebration as something that is not bad. But the meanings are to be changed so that it is directed to God rather than somewhere else— and that which is sinful is removed or gradually cut off. One might argue that this is quite in line even with what Tertullian was talking about– living in the world but not of it.

So let’s bring back that original question. Is Lent Christian or Pagan? The INC is also against Christmas because they see it as pagan. (Curiously, I have seen them have an “End of the Year” celebration— something with more pagan and less Christian basis than Christmas. However, this issue has usually be used to try to demonstrate denominational superiority rather than embrace virtue.)  Truth is, that entirely pagan and entirely Christian are not really options. If the meanings and symbols of a celebration are Christian, calling it Pagan makes no sense. And since it is pretty much impossible to find a celebration that Christians celebrate (or even could celebrate) that doesn’t line up in some manner or other with pagan celebrations at some point in history, totally Christian is not really an option.

If one does not want to celebrate anything (some Christian groups do sort of go this route) that is fine. Otherwise, the realistic choice is

Christian AND Pagan

I don’t celebrate Lent myself, because I am not from that tradition. However, I can see it as a positive part of the liturgical calendar (as long as the revelries of Fat Tuesday don’t spoil it).

I feel that it is time to get past the silliness that hits us every year— especially about Christmas. The connections between Christmas and pagan feasts are actually much weaker than some people suggest. But of course the connections are there. That is not a bad thing. The same can be said of Easter, Lent, Thanksgiving (if one chooses to look at it as a Christian holiday), Epiphany, or pretty much any other day you would choose. How can we redeem cultural symbols and days?



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!”