Fox forces the Mass into Christmas

A friend put this picture up on Google+ (so I guess that answers the question of whether people still use Google+!). Around the same time, a reader submitted this story from Fox News, headlined:

Church devastated by super storm Sandy looks forward to Christmas mass 

At first I thought the reader submitted it because of the redundancy of calling worship on Christ’s Mass a “mass.” But that’s not why it was submitted, although it’s related to that issue.

For years The Oasis Christian Center had been a gathering place for the residents of Midland Beach, on the Eastern shore of Staten Island, New York.

“We’ve done our best,” Pastor Tim McIntyre said, “to reach our community with God’s love through food pantry and children’s programs, youth programs as well as our Sunday service.” …

McIntyre saw his church the day after the super storm. He says he didn’t think it would ever open its doors again, much less in time for Christmas mass.

Oasis Christian Center? Pastor Tim McIntyre? Mass?

The Mass is “the celebration of the Eucharist.” It is a term most commonly used by Roman Catholics, although other sacramental church bodies also use the term. Is Oasis Christian Center one of those?

I reviewed the quotes in the article and the church’s web site and I never found any mention of a Mass, Divine Service, Eucharist, Holy Communion, Communion, sacrament or the like.

Instead, there is information such as this:

What kind of church are we?

Oasis is a nondenominational church that is Biblical in practice and charismatic in expression. We are a Christ-centered community of faith that believes we have a mandate from heaven to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in our community.

We choose not be contentious about the non-essentials of the Christian faith, which version of the Bible we read, spiritual gifts, predestination, etc. There are a number of secondary beliefs that the leadership of Oasis is passionate about. Complete agreement is not required for those who choose to worship with us, but it should be known that we will preach, teach, and counsel in accordance with these theological convictions. It is important that we are all striving to diligently preserve unity and peace concerning these secondary beliefs.

It’s pretty clear that this is just a straight up error by the reporting. But it is somewhat funny, at least.

Christmas carol wars on the DC Metro — not

Anyone who spends much time on subways and other forms of mass transit knows that a whole lot of religious stuff goes on while people are moving from home to work. I’m not just talking about the people with their sports pages and copies of 50 shades of hades or whatever.

Lots of people on the Washington, D.C., Metro spend their commuting time doing studying their Bibles. Years ago, one of my students did a feature about the stash of Bibles that the Metro staff maintains so that people who have accidentally left them on trains can retrieve them. Also, I am sure that some of the folks sitting in silence with their eyes closed are praying and you see the occasional sign of the cross gesture.

The key word here, however, is “silence.” Many commuters are open to talking to one another, even about religion (it happens to me all the time, depending on what book or magazine I’m reading), but other folks covet their peace and quiet, even when not in the “quiet car” on the regional train lines.

Everyone learns the rules. However, I’ve always enjoyed the mass-transit experience, all the way back to my journalism and graduate-school days in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., a twin cities area with a great bus system. I jumped on the Blue Line there during a visit 20 YEARS after my departure and the bus driver remembered me as a regular on the route. Can you imagine that?

All of this is to say that I really enjoyed The Washington Post Style feature about a local pastor who has been part of my commutes here in greater DC for more than a decade. I have always know this man as the Korean pastor who sings classic Christian songs, or plays them on his trumpet, outside Union Station. Some of his favorites are “Amazing Grace,” of course, as well as “Just As I Am” and “How Great Thou Art.” He must have worked in a Billy Graham crusade somewhere.

As it turns out, he has another branch of his public ministry this time of year. Is he part of the “Christmas wars”? I am sure that some believe that he is.

On a crowded morning train on Metro’s Orange Line, Fisher Yang, 50, of Centreville, gets his share of jeers, eye rolls and smiles.

Yang, who is the pastor of a church in Shenandoah County, sings Christmas carols two days a week during the morning rush hour on Metro’s five subway lines. Starting at Vienna, he makes his way along the Orange Line toward downtown and then switches onto Metro’s other train lines, singing all the way.

Wearing black corduroy pants, a red and blue plaid flannel shirt buttoned up to the neck and a cross with the pattern of the American flag pinned on the lapel of his sport coat, Yang stepped onto a train, his chest puffed up in anticipation, and made his announcement.

“Good morning. Excuse me. Can I have your attention, please?” he told riders on Monday morning. He cleared his throat and belted out in a bass voice all the verses of “The First Noel,” No. 123 his English-Korean hymnal.

At each station, he sprinted from one rail car to another and started his routine again. He goes so quickly between rail cars, sometimes he loses track of which direction he’s going on the system, he said.

On a crowded Orange Line train leaving Rosslyn, a few riders looked up from books or the ground, rolled their eyes and then looked away.

This is not easy work, as it turns out. The story contains the telling detail that he is currently using his fifth hymnal, because some riders have taken copies away from him and ripped out many of the pages.

The story also asked one of the first questions that jumped into my mind in this litigious age, especially since the Metro is the kind of environment in which a train driver can cause controversy merely by saying the words “Have a blessed day” over the intercom.

Metro’s chief spokesman, Dan Stessel, said Yang’s not violating any policy. In 2010 there were flash mobs singing Christmas carols on some Metro trains.

“If you’re standing on a train and you happen to be singing instead of talking, it’s not something we’re going to regulate,” Stessel said.

So what is missing from the story?

Well, for starters, I would assume that, under the Associated Press Stylebook, this man should have been called “the Rev. Fisher Yang.” Sometimes I think that folks at the copy desks of our major newspapers have decided that Protestants, especially ethnic clergy, are not really ordained.

I also wanted to know more about why Yang does this, using his time and gas money to get into DC from a church more than 60 minutes West of the Beltway. The story quotes a few people on the Metro reacting to his work. I would like to know what the head of his deacon board thinks of this work, which he has been doing since 1998.

The pastor gives a logical quote, theologically speaking — “God wants me to sing in front of him. … It doesn’t matter what other people think.” Still, I’d like to know more about his contacts with believers, as well as unbelievers.

The story ends like this:

Yang said he became a Christian when he was a young boy in South Korea after “volunteers from the Salvation Army evangelized to him.” He said he’s partial to “The First Noel” because it “spreads the Christmas message.”

Just as he finished the chorus, a woman got up from her seat, clapped, and gave him $1. He’s received money before — although he said he doesn’t solicit money.

“I love to tell the story because I know it is true,” he told her. “Thank you. And Merry Christmas.”

Reading this story also made me flash back to something I witnessed on the Orange Line back in 2000. I tried to write this for the Style section, but editors there thought it was too, well, religious. I then turned a shorter version of the piece for Scripps Howard, with the title “Just another voice on the Metro.”

The context: Minutes after rolling away from the Capitol South station, an elderly African-American woman began preaching:

“God’s grace is real, but that doesn’t mean you can just keep on sinning and sinning and sinning,” she said, gazing straight ahead. “God is watching all the time. God sees all of you. … Our God is a Holy God.”

People kept their eyes down, reading their newspapers and paperbacks. A young black woman across the aisle giggled. “Oh no, it’s church,” she whispered to a friend. New riders glanced around in surprise, as they boarded the crowded car. But no one challenged the preacher or asked her to stop.

“God doesn’t ask that much of us,” she said. “He wants us to love each other and take care of each other and follow the commandments that are in His Word. Is that too much to ask?”

A youngster listening to rap on headphones said, “Preach it, sister.” Surely the collision between the pounding music and the sermon was causing a storm in her head. At first she was amused. Then she began shooting daggers at the preacher with her eyes.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the elderly woman. “You’re saying, ‘How are we supposed to know how we’re supposed to live?’ … You know what the Bible says: ‘For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ You all know that verse, right?”

No one answered.

“Sweet Jesus is all the guide we need. But God also gave us his Word. You open up your Bible and read it and tell me that God hasn’t made himself perfectly clear how we’re supposed to live. The Bible is God’s book. There’s no other book like it. Some of you may go to church and you may read your Bible. But have you ever let it get inside you and change you? That’s what I’m talking about. We’ve got to change on the inside. We’ve got to change how we live.”

I turned this into a commentary on mass-transit life and, in particular, this city’s vibrant African-American churches and believers. Of course, that Orange-line train was rolling out into Prince George’s County — the home of many, many black megachurches.

The last thing this preacher said, after the train reached its destination, was her thesis: “If one person hears the Word, then this is worth it. Just one person.” She was the last person to exit.

Welcome to mass transit.

Anyway, the Post piece was a good one. I would be interested in knowing the reactions of GetReligion readers to that piece. Was it funny? Inspiring? Both?

IMAGES: From the Panabasis photo blog.

The Pope hates Christmas

Breaking news from the Telegraph … the newspaper’s Rome reporter reports that one Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. the Bishop of Rome, Pontiff of the Catholic Church alias  Benedictus PP. XVI, claims Jesus was not born December 25, in the year 1.

As I read this story, “Jesus was born years earlier than thought, claims Pope” I could envision the clatter of the teletype in the background with three bells ringing to tell the news room a major story had come across the wires. In a story datelined from Rome, we learn:

“The calculation of the beginning of our calendar – based on the birth of Jesus – was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years,” the Pope writes in [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives], which went on sale around the world with an initial print run of a million copies.  “The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before.”

The assertion that the Christian calendar is based on a false premise is not new – many historians believe that Christ was born sometime between 7BC and 2BC. But the fact that doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition have been raised by the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is striking.

“Many historians believe” that Jesus was not born in the year 1, or 0? How about all historians for the past few hundred years — I’m not aware of any school of church scholarship that holds to the contrary view. The Telegraph reports that in addition to challenging the notion that Jesus was not born in the first year of the Gregorian calendar, the pope claims the traditional church creche is all wrong:

Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised by the Pope in his new book – he also said that contrary to the traditional Nativity scene, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus’s birth. He also weighs in on the debate over Christ’s birthplace, rejecting arguments by some scholars that he was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.

Well, there goes the Christmas pageant. But why is this news? Anyone with even the remotest knowledge of the issue would not be surprised by this revelation.

It could well be ignorance on the part of the reporter, who upon reading the third volume in the pope’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was dumbstruck by this information and had to rush to print to tell England the news. Or, it could be that the Telegraph, aware of the abysmal level of religious knowledge and practice in England, believed that this would be news to the millions of cultural Christians in England whose only relationship to the faith were hoary memories of youthful school and church pageants. Or, this could be just another story in the series of articles from the British press that paints Benedict XVI in unflattering colors.

The article closes out with an Oxford professor’s calming assurance the pope may be right as “most academics agreed with the Pope that the Christian calendar was wrong and that Jesus was born several years earlier than commonly thought, probably between 6BC and 4BC.”

Again we have the “most academics” — I would be interested to know who are the dissenters that believe in the 25 Dec 00 date.

The signs the story was rushed in to print also comes from the selection of the expert. The Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture from Oxford is quoted on the absence of any dating in the text of the Bible as to exact time of Jesus’ birth. But the professor is allowed to move out of his area of expertise — Biblical interpretation — into Patristics or Patrology (the study of the writings of the Church Fathers and the history of the early Christian Church) and in doing so, the good professor makes a mistake.

The idea that Christ was born on Dec 25 also has no basis in historical fact. “We don’t even know which season he was born in. The whole idea of celebrating his birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.”

This claim by the Old Testament scholar about the origin of the Christmas holiday is false. While the village atheist may delight in repeating this legend, it is nonetheless untrue. A non-academic rejoinder to this “pagan traditions” claim can be found in a 2003 article “Calculating Christmas” by Prof. William Tighe in Touchstone magazine.

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

From this piece, should you be interested in the details you can access the academic literature. But returning to the Telegraph piece, there are some fascinating things raised in the pope’s new book — and smart fellow that he is it came out just in time for Black Friday. There is an interesting historical and religious debate mentioned by the Telegraph story, the location of Jesus’ birth: Nazareth v. Bethlehem, but that is passed over in favor of the “striking” news about the calendar question. Given the excitement over the women bishops’ vote in the Church of England the reporter may have needed to “sex-up” his story to find space in the newspaper for another religion news item. Whatever the reason, the story is a disappointment. The Telegraph is supposed to be a “quality” newspaper, but this story is worthy of the tabloids.

Nativity scene courtesy of Shutterstock.