Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas)

First things first: I hope that readers who are into that whole Christian calendar had a great 12 days of the real Christmas season, as opposed to the six or seven weeks of whatever that is that ends with an explosion of wrapping paper on Dec. 25.

Did anyone throw 12th night parties?

So this brings us to the great Feast of Epiphany, which in our ancient churches is the second most important day on the calendar after Easter/Pascha. More important than Christmas? Well, it’s hard to rank these things, but the key element of this day — marking the baptism of Jesus — is the scriptural account of the revealing of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. That’s big. In the West, the feast tends to focus on the arrival of the Three Kings at the cradle of Jesus.

To my surprise, Epiphany has been getting a bit more news ink in recent years (surf this search-engine file for a current sample).

Personally, I think it’s the whole photo-op principle at work. I mean, who doesn’t want to show up to put the following into shivering pixels?

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) – Thousands of young men plunged into icy rivers and lakes across Bulgaria on Monday to retrieve crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual marking the feast of Epiphany.

By tradition, a crucifix is cast into a lake or river and it’s believed that the person who retrieves it will be healthy and freed from evil spirits throughout the year.

The celebration of Epiphany, or the Apparition of Christ, as Bulgarians call it, began in Sofia with a water-blessing ceremony. The head of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, said a prayer for the prosperity of the people and blessed the colors of representative army units — a tradition abandoned in 1946 and re-established in 1992.

Concerning that whole health and evil spirits thing: I think it’s wonderful, in stories of this kind, to mention folk and small-t traditions. However, it does help to include at least one sentence about why the feast exists in the first place and what church doctrine — that whole big-T Tradition thing — says about the symbolism of these kinds of rites.

Oh, and the “celebration of Epiphany” — as in the feast itself — began in Sofia? I think that what the AP team meant to say that this year’s celebration of the feast in Bulgaria began in Sofia. By the way, for the Eastern Orthodox this is known as the great Feast of the Theophany.

Anyway, I am glad to see increasing coverage of this great feast. I am curious, however: If Protestants are growing more interested in liturgy and ancient rites, is this truly affecting how they celebrate Advent, Christmas and Epiphany? There might be a story there next year.

As opposed to that other huge, massive, crucial, apocalyptic story almost everyone covered this year.

You know the one: The whole “white Santa” thing?

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Everything you know about Christmas is wrong

George just posted about an old story being rehashed for Christmas, which reminded me that the regular attempts to debunk Christianity around its holy days has become my favorite tradition. What would Christmas and Easter be like without a semi-blasphemous newsweekly magazine cover questioning some central tenet of the religion?

All that to say that the Washington Post‘s piece the “The Evolution of Holiday Celebrations” is a decent entry into the genre.

It’s in the Style section, so all expectations are lowered, of course. It says stuff like this:

Early Christians did not celebrate the Nativity. Christianity had been around for more than 350 years before the church fathers in Rome decided to add that event to the Christian calendar. They did so in part because many Christians were arguing that Jesus had not been an actual human being but rather a divine spirit — a belief the church fathers considered heretical. What better way to convince Christians that Jesus was human than to commemorate his physical birth? The problem was that there was no evidence of when Jesus’s birth took place. (Neither Luke nor Matthew, the two gospel writers who included stories of Jesus’s Nativity in their narratives, had indicated the date, or even the season, of the event.)

Is it most accurate to say “many Christians” argued that Jesus wasn’t human? Is that really the central aspect of how the date for Christmas was chosen? That is a heresy that has been taught and continues to be taught but I’m not sure this is phrased the best way. As for the rest, it’s true that the Nativity was not celebrated by early-early Christians, but we also know that it was celebrated in a variety of locations well before the date was fixed. By 200 A.D., for instance, Clement of Alexandria is reporting that Egyptians have marked the date and the year of Christ’s birth. The thing was that different people were celebrating the birth on different dates. Why did it get pinned to Dec. 25? Was this a top-down effort to defeat gnosticism? Was the day something Christian laypeople noted that some church leaders tried to stop? Was it much more complex than a brief article in the Style section could broach?

The church fathers decided to place the new holiday in late December, virtually guaranteeing that it would be widely adopted because this was already a season of mid-winter revels, a holdover from pagan times. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the holiday was called Saturnalia. This festival, which concluded on Dec. 23, was partly a holiday of lights that celebrated the winter solstice. But Saturn was the god of agricultural abundance, so his festival also marked the bounty of the completed harvest. Finally, the Saturnalia was a time of role reversals and seasonal license. Everyone took time off from ordinary labor. Slaves were granted temporary freedom and were treated by their masters to lavish banquets. The holiday was observed with feasting, drinking, gambling and sexual abandon.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

As I wrote six years ago (!) here at GetReligion:

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

It doesn’t matter. Almost everyone believes something else.

The story also tackles Hannukah:

In recent times, Hanukkah, too, has largely become a child’s holiday. Many Jewish parents give their children seasonal presents as abundant — and expensive — as those received by their Christian neighbors.

And with Hanukkah as with Christmas, a vestige remains of older mid-winter festivals. This is the dreidel, a four-sided top that resembles the familiar six-sided dice and is used in similar fashion to determine how much money (or Hanukkah “gelt”) the player receives — or owes. Thus Hanukkah, originating as the celebration of a military victory, now incorporates a host of other rituals: the commemoration of a divine miracle, a seasonal celebration of light and harvest, a focus on children and even a hint of mid-winter revelry.

Over the centuries, through all those historical accidents, Hanukkah and Christmas have come to look a lot like each other.

They don’t really look much like each other, obviously, but is the dreidel just a game? It’s origin isn’t exactly known but when I was in Israel, I was told that it hearkens back to a game developed by Jews to hide the fact they were studying the Torah. During one period of their history, the penalty for teaching the Torah was death. Jews would gather in caves to study and were pretending they were gambling if spotted by soldiers.

But more than anything, it’s not what is in the article that is so bothersome but what’s left out. Or how what’s in the article is treated so flippantly. Did Christianity just happen onto the idea of Jesus being the Christ? Isn’t the Nativity story a central element of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew? Even the Winter Solstice is treated as something of an historical accident. Was Hanukkah really just a holiday that morphed into something about light?

I wonder if part of the problem is that the author of the piece typically writes very accessible history books and that this breezy style works well when you have the time to flesh out more details but when you’re given just a few hundred words in the printed page, it comes off too glib, glossing over serious religious and cultural battles. That might be a function of editing as much as anything.

Hanukkah image via Shutterstock.

Xmas quiet in Jerusalem? Check the Julian calendar

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Along with millions of other Americans, I am on the road this fine Christmas Day. Thus, when checking into a typical American hotel, I was immediately presented with the Holiday edition of USA Today.

Turn the front page and, lo and behold, there is this rather bizarre variation on a very, very familiar story about Christmas.

The basic thrust of the story? Hey, did you know that Christmas is different in the Holy Land itself, as opposed to normal life for Christian human beings on Planet Earth (which seems to have a lot to do with the calendars used in shopping malls)? The lede focuses on the point of view of one David Parsons, formerly of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Long ago, he moved to Jerusalem and, dang it, this American Christian is still struggling to get his holiday vibe going.

In the Holy Land, there are no Christmas tree sellers on the side of the road, no Jingle Bells played on the radio, no Black Friday department store sales. And that’s not a bad thing, he says.

“Here there aren’t those constant ads on the television or sales, sales, sales. Being free of that allows you to concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas,” says Parsons, who left North Carolina long ago.

Christians make up less than 2% of the populations of both Israel and the West Bank territory, and though here is where Jesus was born, lived and died, there are few outward signs of the celebration of his birth in much of the region.

In Jerusalem there are almost no Christmas decorations except for the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Dec. 25 is just Tuesday, a working day for Jews and Muslims.

As it turns out, there are some quite religious Christmas celebrations in logical places such as, well, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Some of those have been known to show up on global television networks.

The big problem with this story, however, is that the people who produced it seem to know nothing about the history of Christian liturgical calendars in this part of the world.

You see, there is a very good reason that Dec. 25th is simply another day for many — in some places most — of the Christians in the Middle East.

Why is that? Well, that’s because the ancient Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is following the ancient Julian calendar and, thus, Christmas falls on Jan. 7, so the celebrations tend to kick into gear on Jan. 6.

This is one of the most commonly known facts about Eastern Orthodoxy, leading to a wave of photo opportunities on Jan. 7 that often show up in American newspapers — reminding news consumers that there is, for many Orthodox believers, an “Orthodox Christmas” for the same reason as there is an “Orthodox Easter.”

Click here for a quick explanation of this situation. It’s a rather basic fact to know about Christianity in the Middle East.

Read the whole story. Maybe there was supposed to be a reference to the ancient date for Christmas in there somewhere and it got edited out. Instead, the story ends like this:

As they do every year, at sunset on Christmas Eve, Parsons, his wife and their 13-year-old son will go to Mar Elias, a beautiful old stone monastery that affords a commanding view of Bethlehem and Shepherd’s Field.

Last week Parsons’ employer, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, hosted a homey Christmas party for staffers and volunteers, who hail from across the globe. The pro-Israel organization also threw a kosher-catered Christmas-Hanukkah party attended by Israeli officials.

At home in his Jerusalem apartment, Parsons does his best to keep alive the Outer Banks traditions of his child hood by the sea.

“I have my own little oyster roast, but it’s with the seafood I can find here.” The only problem, Parsons said, is that “it’s hard to invite my Israeli friends over for Christmas because it’s definitely not kosher. That’s life in the Holy Land.”

Totally bizarre. It’s like the story is totally focused on the American way of doing Christmas, or something, even though the story is set in Jerusalem. Most strange.

Here I stand: Martin Luther on film

So while the rest of you are focused on Halloween, we Lutherans are busy celebrating Reformation Day. To be sure, some churches moved their celebrations to earlier in the month or last Sunday, but my congregation is keeping it real with services at 7:00 PM tonight.

You might be surprised how much Lutherans mark the day. Back in my single days, my wonderful Catholic housemate used to let us use her piano while we sang hymns at our annual party. Some mark it in celebration, others in a more solemn fashion. But how is it covered in the media? (I like to tease that the failure of the media to write about liturgical holidays constitutes a “war” on them — a la the “War on Christmas.”)

Well, it’s not a major media occurrence. But I did rather enjoy this Religion News Service piece from a few weeks ago and meant to review it. Today is a better day to do it.

The piece ran in the “Culture” section under “Entertainment and Pop Culture.” Headlined, Searching for the real Martin Luther, the piece begins with some history on Luther’s public life and then goes on to explain how both his critics and theological fans view him — without pulling any punches. Then we get to the real point of the piece — how the English-speaking world has portrayed Luther in film:

The first appeared in 1953 and cast Irish actor Niall MacGinnis in the title role. MacGinnis captured the warmth of Luther’s personality, though not his irrepressible sense of humor. His portrayal underlined Luther’s stubborn and uncompromising refusal to bow to the worried pleas of his friends or the threats of his enemies.

The second movie, released in 1974, featured an impressive cast, including Stacy Keach as Luther and Dame Judi Dench as his wife, Katherine. The original play by John Osborne portrayed Luther as an angry young man in a hurry, whose conflicts with the Catholic Church seemed to be an extension of his fierce conflicts with his father.

The third movie, directed by Eric Till in 2003, featured Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick the Wise. Till saw in Luther’s story a conflict between a repressive conservative institution (in this case, the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (in this case, the Reformation, which with all its violence and disorder marked for Till an advance over the conservative structures it attacked). For Till, Luther is a symbol of an enlightened spirit in an unenlightened age, an age not altogether unlike our own.

Perhaps out of respect for the serious tone of the plot, Fiennes played Luther as an intense, uncertain, humorless and generally liberal cleric, who could tear a passion to tatters, but whose claim to suffer fits of depression sounded more like acute dyspepsia than a bout of soul-wracking melancholy.

Still, there must have been more to the “real Luther” than the uncertain young friar Fiennes creates. Neurotic introverts seldom change the world. And whatever his flaws, Luther was no introvert. He was a great rollicking figure, a creature larger than life, who filled a room with his presence before he uttered a word. He enjoyed good beer, lively conversation, and the sound of hearty laughter. Till’s Luther was certainly brave and in many respects admirable, but remained throughout a diminutive and monochromatic copy of the colorful and boisterous original.

In the end, only MacGinnis in the 1953 film portrayed a leader someone would be willing to follow. Twenty years later, Keach’s leadership, such as it was, was all passion and angry denunciation with no clear direction forward. And Fiennes seemed far too uncertain to lead. But MacGinnis’ Luther attracted followers by the force of his personality and set them in motion on the trail he was blazing.

The piece goes on to discuss how difficult it is to portray the “real” Luther and why it’s a shame that no movie has yet captured it.

Liturgical holidays are very difficult to cover for the Godbeat. Frequently it can seem like you’re just reporting on the same Christmas Eve or Easter traditions over and over again. The lesser holidays are frequently ignored. But I rather liked this approach — taking a somewhat obscure aspect of the celebrations (and watching these movies is something I can assure you my friends have done and do) and just finding something interesting to say about them.

So it’s just a small point, but one that’s interesting and even interests a general audience that might not be part of the typical celebrations.


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