Christmas: Jesus, Caesar and Us

The conflict between “Jesus and Caesar” is a major even if most often overlooked theme of the Christmas stories in the Bible. In Matthew, King Herod the Rome-appointed ruler of the Jewish homeland seeks to kill the new-born Jesus. Luke emphasizes – especially but not only in Mary’s “Magnificat” – that what is happening in the advent of Jesus is the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones and the wealthy from their place of privilege. Both stories announce the … [Read more...]

Two Christmas Pageants

Most – perhaps all - Christmas pageants combine the stories of Jesus’s birth in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. From Luke: the announcement to Mary that she will conceive a son through the Holy Spirit, the journey to Bethlehem where there is no room in the inn so that Jesus is born in a stable, the angelic message to shepherds who then visit the new-born Jesus. From Matthew, wise men (typically portrayed as kings) following the star and bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. So … [Read more...]

The Real War on Christmas

There is a lot of silliness in the contemporary (and now perennial) and largely conservative complaint that there is a “war on Christmas.” Often cited as evidence is the common replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and the use of “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.” The former is a recognition that Christmas has become more than a Christian holiday in increasingly pluralistic and secular Western societies. The latter should not bother Christians: “X” has … [Read more...]

Thinking about Advent

I begin with the obvious: Advent is a season of preparing for the coming of Jesus. For many centuries in Western liturgical churches, it has (like Lent) been a penitential season. Though it is about remembering his first coming 2000 years ago, it has also been about his second coming at the last judgment and the need for us to be prepared through earnest repentance. Thus, like Lent, the liturgical colors for Advent have been (and for the most part still are) violet or purple, the color of … [Read more...]

Gratitude: One of the Most Important Virtues

Perhaps the most striking sentence I have read in the last few years is in Huston Smith’s most recent book, And Live Rejoicing. Published in 2012 when he was 93, I call it his “most recent book” rather than his “last book” because he is still with us. Who knows if this is his last? Smith may be the best-known religion scholar of the past half century. Not only is he the author of the best-selling book in the history of American academic religious publishing, but well-known for more … [Read more...]

The Cultural Captivity of Christianity: The Poisoning of the Church

In the first third of the 300s, as the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and then became its patron, Pope Sylvester, the bishop of Rome from 314-335, had a dream. He understood it to mean, “Now is poison poured into the church.” I owe my awareness of Sylvester’s dream to a lecture by Douglas John Hall, one of the most important theologians of our time. Delivered at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto in October of this year, its title was “The Future of … [Read more...]

What is the Gospel?

For a number of years I have asked Christian groups what they think the Christian gospel – the “good news” – is. I ask them to begin with memory - to think back to how they would have answered that question at the end of childhood, at age twelve or so – and in not more than a sentence. What had they absorbed by then? I give them a few minutes to think about that, and then put them in small groups of four or five for about fifteen minutes to share what they came up … [Read more...]

What Is a Christian?

What does it mean to be Christian? What makes a person a Christian? An important prologue: my purpose in this blog is not to provide criteria for deciding who is and who is not a Christian, not to separate sheep from goats, not to suggest who is in and who is out. Rather, it is a series of reflections about what is at the heart of being Christian. What matters most in seeing what being Christian is about? I begin with a negative. Being Christian is not very much about believing in the … [Read more...]

Further Comments about the Cross: Part Three

I continue the conversation about the cross with some comments about responses to my previous blog "The Real Meanings of the Cross." I appreciate all of them and am very pleased with the conversation that has unfolded. One response noted my use of the word “real” and wondered what I meant. On the one hand, it is “headline shorthand,” as all headlines are. On the other hand, it does refer to what I see as the “real” meanings of the cross – the earliest and New Testament … [Read more...]

The Real Meanings of the Cross

My previous blog highlighted and critiqued the “payment” understanding of Jesus’s death, the notion that he died to pay for our sins. Some responses defended that understanding by referring to the role of animal sacrifice in Judaism prior to and in the time of Jesus. And at least one represented that practice accurately. Yes, animals were sacrificed in the temple. And sacrifices involved the shedding of blood. But sacrifice in Judaism was not about payment for sin. Its root meaning is … [Read more...]