Christmyths

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Rudolph Bultmann, was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early twentieth century biblical studies and a prominent voice in  liberal Christianity. Bultmann is known for his belief that the historical analysis of the New Testament is both futile and unnecessary. Bultmann’s approach relied on his concept of demythology, and interpreted the mythological elements in the New Testament based on empirical evidence. Bultmann contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus.

I was thinking of Bultmann when I wrote this piece.

They say that Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas. This is undoubtedly true, but despite what Nativity plays and Hollywood epics would have us believe, the story of the birth of Jesus is more complicated than many people think. Between the difficulty in reconciling different versions of the tale and the 2,000 years of popular interpretation and culture layered on top of them, much of what people commonly know about the story of Jesus’ birth is wildly different from what the Gospels have to say. Here, then, are five myths about the Christmas story for your digestion or indigestion, as the case may be.

Myth No. 1

Jesus was born on December 25.

The overwhelming majority of Christians mark the birth of Jesus on December 25. But there is no biblical reason to celebrate Christmas on this particular day.

According to the Gospel of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks at night at the time Jesus was born. This detail – the only clue in the Gospels about the timing of the birth – suggests that Jesus’ birthday was not in the winter, as shepherds would have been watching their flocks only during the lambing season in the spring. In the colder months, the sheep probably would have been corralled.

As late as the third century, Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The earliest discussion of the birthday is found in the third-century writings of Clement of Alexandria, who raises seven potential dates, none of which correspond to December 25. The first record of a celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25 comes from a fourth-century edition of a Roman almanac known as the Philokalia. Alongside the deaths of martyrs, it notes that on December 25, “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

Some have argued that the date of Jesus’ birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the fourth century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the seventh century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints’ feast days on the days of pagan festivals.

The real reason for the selection of December 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of the Annunciation – the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, thus marking his Incarnation.

Myth No. 2

Jesus was born in a stable.

As depicted in Nativity crèches and Renaissance paintings, Jesus was born in a simple stable. Generations of pastors and priests have used this notion as evidence that Jesus had a humble birth. As a theological argument, that is true. But this particular detail of the story is not in the Bible.

Luke 2:7 states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and “laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” This makes it sound as if they could not get a room at the local Holiday Inn, but the Greek word, kataluma, which is commonly translated as “inn,” does not mean a hotel in any modern sense. Greek has a different word for a hotel, pandocheion, which Luke uses elsewhere in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, if Luke had wanted to say that Mary and Joseph were turned away from a hotel, he had the vocabulary to do so.

The more likely interpretation, as New Testament scholar Stephen C. Carlson has argued, is that Joseph and Mary intended to stay with his relatives in Bethlehem and that there was not enough room in the guest quarters – typically located in the upper level of a house – to accommodate an imminent birth. So, Mary had to give birth elsewhere, most likely in the main room of the house, on the lower floor. There is no mention of animals being present, but the detail of the manger seems to be what has led to the image of a stable – and many live Nativity scenes featuring farm animals.

Myth No. 3

“Manger” is another word for “stable.”

When people talk about a manger scene, or Jesus being born in a manger, or a star shining down on the manger, it is not clear they always understand that “manger” refers not to a barn, but to Jesus’ makeshift crib.

A manger is a trough used to feed animals. The word is derived from the French verb manger, meaning “to eat.” In first-century Judean houses, mangers were found both outside and inside the home, sometimes separating an interior space for people from a space where animals were kept. Thus, in the Nativity story, Mary may have had one at her disposal, despite not being in the immediate vicinity of a stable.

Myth No. 4

Three wise men attended Jesus’ birth riding on camels.

The best-dressed attendees at the birth of Jesus were the three wise men. Often mistaken for kings – think of the Christmas/Epiphany carol We Three Kings – these visitors from the east are described in the Gospel of Matthew with the Greek word magoi, or wise men. Nothing about the story’s language suggests that these visitors were monarchs or even that they were three in number. People commonly think there were three because of the gifts enumerated in the Gospel of Matthew: We are told that they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there could as easily have been two, four or eight wise men as well as three.

There is also no indication that the wise men visited Jesus as He lay in the manger, as is often shown on Christmas cards. When King Herod anxiously meets with them in Matthew 2:16, he thinks his reign might be threatened by the child they have come to visit, so he orders all boys two years old and younger slain. Thus Jesus could have been as old as two – a walking, talking toddler – when the wise men arrived.

In James Ussher’s, The Annals of the World, Ussher places the visit of the magi prior to the fortieth day. Some churches celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 (twelve days after Christmas) in honor of the visit of the magi. This is the origin of the “twelve days of Christmas” tradition. However, in light of the poor offering at the Temple, it makes more sense that Joseph and Mary were still poor and had not yet received the rather valuable gifts from the magi. Furthermore, they were likely still living with relatives during the census period and potentially in the same animal-housing portion of the place where Jesus was born and laid in a manger. It was not until later that they were living in a house when the wise men visited.

A few more facts that are frequently missed need to be noted by the readers of this story, so let me point them out.

First, there is no mention of camels in Matthew’s story of the wise men. Camels are only mentioned in Isaiah 60. Matthew does this by turning Isaiah 60 into a narrative of magi coming on camels to the place of Jesus’ birth and bringing with them the symbols of Jesus’ kingship, Jesus’ divine nature, and Jesus’ death.

Second, nowhere in Matthew are the wise men said to have been three in number. We read that into Matthew’s story from the list of three types of gifts that the wise men were supposed to offer. The text of Matthew says that “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts (note the plural) of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It does not say one gold gift, one frankincense gift, or one myrrh gift.

Finally, read Matthew’s story carefully and you will see that the wise men came to a house in Bethlehem over which their guiding star rested. In that house lived Joseph with Mary and their baby. There was no stable. There was no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled. There was no census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Those are details from a later source and one that we have blended into Matthew’s story. Our task thus far is to see Matthew’s original birth of Jesus story in its own integrity. This was the first story of Jesus’ birth ever to be written and it did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Common Era! About ten years after Matthew’s first birth narrative, a second and quite different birth story would be added to the tradition by a gospel writer we call Luke.

The literal accuracy of the Bethlehem birthplace for Jesus also depends heavily on the story of the wise men being true. Yet no reputable biblical scholar today would seriously defend the historicity of these magi. This story, which is told only in what it was that motivated the family of Jesus to leave his noble Judean place of birth in Bethlehem in order to grow up in rural and rustic Galilee. That contrived explanation involved a number of supernatural messages received through dreams and even included a little royal intrigue, pitting the household of the monarch, King Herod, against this humble child who was supposed to be a threat to the king’s power (Matthew 2:7–23).

Myth No. 5

Three wise men were led by a star.

In Matthew’s rendition, these kings or magi are led by a magical star that from its heavenly perch in the east announces the birth of a king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2). That star then floats across the sky so slowly that these Middle Eastern stargazers can follow it to their destination (Matthew 2:9).

After all, if you pick a random star in the sky, point at the horizon, and predict that there is a baby about to be born in that direction, statistics – and birth rates – are on your side.

Stars that appear in the sky to announce earthly events are conceivable only in a world that viewed the sky as the roof of the earth and the floor of heaven. Stars in that worldview were a kind of heavenly lantern that God could hang out to be seen on earth to announce important births and were often so used in Jewish folklore. In one interpretive tradition of the rabbis, a star was said to have announced the birth of Abraham, the father of the nation; another announced the birth of Isaac, the child of promise; and still another, the birth of Moses, the one who most dramatically shaped Jewish consciousness.

If God lived beyond the sky, as people in that day generally assumed, with the earth as the object of constant divine attention, perhaps such a thing might be imaginable. It is not imaginable, however, in our space age. We live with a consciousness of the dimensions of space that first-century people could not have conceived. In our world, first airplanes linked us to destinations on the other side of our globe and then spaceships carried us to the far reaches of the moon. Unmanned spacecraft later carried us to other planets in our solar system. With help from the Hubble telescope we have learned that our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, has over 200 billion stars in it, most of them larger than the star that we call the sun. Our single galaxy measures over 100,000 light years in size; in other words, it would take light 100,000 years (traveling at its approximate speed of 186,000 miles per second) to go from one end of our galaxy to the other. To find the distance roughly in miles, multiply 186,000 by 60 seconds and then by 60 minutes and then by 24 hours and then by 365.25 days and you will have the distance traversed in a single light year; then multiply that total by 100,000 for the total mileage. The result is beyond our ability to count. Our modern consciousness has also had to embrace the fact that the whole visible universe, of which our enormous galaxy is but a tiny part, contains hundreds of billions of other galaxies, with more being discovered almost routinely as space continues to expand outward up to and including this very moment.

Stars are impersonal physical objects that do not announce earthly events. There are no wandering stars in our galaxy. Ben Rumson in the Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon, may sing about a “Wanderin’ star,” but in reality, each star travels in a fixed trajectory that can be charted by computers, and its exact location in the sky on any date in the past or in the future can be calculated precisely. So in the real world there can be no such thing as a star able to lead the magi first to the palace of King Herod, where they learn from the king’s scribes that Bethlehem is to be the birthplace of the Jewish messiah, and then to their final destination—Bethlehem. Those ideas, so essential to the biblical story, are simply not credible except when we travel into the world of make-believe. They are pre-modern fantasies.

For most people the birth stories are probably the most familiar part of the New Testament. They are also probably the most misunderstood. They are victimized by the annual Christmas pageants held in most churches. They are distorted by hymns sung, oratorios heard, and sermons preached each Christmas season. They are celebrated in lawn crèches built, Christmas cards sent, and store windows dressed during the holiday season. Like all birth stories, however, they are not really about the birth of the hero, but about the adult life of the hero. Once we break them out of their literal prison, they take on a new wonder, a new meaning, and a new power.

Please keep these five myths in mind as you watch a Christmas pageant in your local parish church next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Nontraditional Christmas Message

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They say that “confession is good for the soul,” so let me make my confession to you. I must confess that for a few moments this week, I was assaulted by an almost irresistible temptation. I was possessed by the beguiling impulse to write a “traditional” Christmas message.

Well, let me tell you, I did not – I repeat – did not yield to that temptation! I must add how grateful I am that this fever left me almost as quickly as it came upon me. I realize now as I write this that I could not possibly have pulled it off.

A “traditional” Christmas message? What is that, you ask?

Well, be assured that it does not have a thing to do with stars in the sky, or angelic choruses, or shepherds on the hillside, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you think that those are the elements in the “traditional” Christmas message, you are a generation behind. I have read and/or heard too many contemporary “traditional” Christmas messages to know that none of those elements ever gets mentioned.

An article in one of the leading church magazines states: “These elements of the Christmas story are the Sunday School picture part, the elements of the romantic tale. . .” The article goes on to say that we Americans do not think in terms of kings, or angels, or Magi. These terms are dead to those who live in the age of the astronaut, the microchip, and the word processor. It is simply bad faith and pious dishonesty to obscure the reality of Jesus the Christ by celebrating his birth in this way.

The “traditional” Christmas message? Let me tell you about it.

Those writers who write such “traditional” messages usually begin by taking a stern look over the territory. They then set their pens or computers in their most pious stance and proceed to make everyone feel like lecherous, pagan libertines who have dragged the Feast of the Nativity down into the mire of a commercialized, a sentimentalized, and a sensualized festival of greed, debauchery and desire. I believe that you can see the direction that the “traditional” Christmas message takes.

Having established the thesis in the introduction, the prosecution then proceeds to pile up the damning evidence along several time-honored themes.

First, there is the theme of commercialism with which to deal. The reader is confronted by the staggering and soul-shaking evidence that the bill for this year’s Christmas spending will exceed 465 billion dollars! And please note, you will be told, that this figure excludes the extra charge on you electric bill for burning those ludicrous lights on that decorated Christmas tree! If that money were spent entirely on US made products it would create 4.6 million jobs. But it does not even have to be that big. If each of us spent just $64 on American made goods during our holiday shopping, the result would be 200,000 new jobs.

And then the gifts will be run down. Everything will be mentioned from the solid gold toothpick and the air-conditioned doghouse to the offering of a $700,000 week at three estates in the English countryside, including a helicopter trip to Alnwick castle. And for the more frugal, there is a modest $30,000 price tag for a walk-on role on Broadway’s Waitress musical. And then, perhaps to increase our cynicism, some writers will even throw in the story of the department store Santa Claus who was arrested for shoplifting.

Some years ago, Mad Magazine, in its usual irreverent look at humankind, reported what might be typical dialogues between people who receive Christmas gifts.

For example, there is the wife who opens a gift from her husband and exclaims: “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” And the husband responds: “Well, at least we agree on something.”

Or, there is the young girl who receives a gift from a young boy and says: “I’m not that kind of a girl!’ And the young boy responds: “Don’t worry; it’s not that kind of a gift.”

Or, there is the woman who gives a man a garish tie and says: “Wear it in good health.” And the man responds: “I’m sick already, just looking at it.”

You see, this is what you get for commercializing Christmas!

But the “traditional” Christmas message is not yet finished. There is a second theme: a discussion of the irony of the message of peace on earth and the way that the world really is. In the “traditional” Christmas message, you will be reminded that since the United Nations, an organization dedicated to the idea of saving humankind from the scourge of war, was organized over sixty years ago, we have not had one year in all that time without a war, or a rebellion, or a revolution, or civil strife. And what about the present threats of terrorism and Lord knows what else, to say nothing of the carnage that occurs in schools, businesses across this land, and on the streets of almost every American city. What a travesty it is, the writer will tell you, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in the midst of all this conflict.

And then, as if this were not enough, a third barrage is launched. The writer will observe that we are going to be feasting during this holiday season, and filling our already overstuffed stomachs with more of the rich foods that we really do not need. The point here is that it is hard to share the spirit of joy and peace when we realize that one-half of the people living in the world today will go to bed hungry tonight. So, go home, the writer of the “traditional” Christmas message will tell you, yes, go home and enjoy your Christmas dinner – if you can!

Well, I am sorry, but I just could not write such a “traditional” Christmas message!

It is to all of these redundant, cliché-ridden, hashed over, contemporary concerns for our desecrated and destroyed Christmas; to all of these inane platitudes that people speak as though they have just had a marvelous intellectual discovery that I say, “Hogwash!” and “Unadulterated balderdash!” And I will go even further, and repeat that wonderful, good old-fashioned American four-letter word uttered by Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge when the German commander, Lt. Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz, asked him to surrender – “NUTS!”

Yes, “Nuts!”

So, we twentieth century Christians have spoiled Christmas, have we? What utter and absolute nonsense! Since when did Christmas depend upon us? Humankind did not plan Christmas, was not even ready for it, and did not accept it when it did come.

If we are spoiling Christmas today, think of who spoiled that first Christmas. The Sanhedrin called no special session to announce the birth of a savior. King Herod arranged no diplomatic reception. Caesar Augustus ordered no forty-eight-hour cease-fire. The shoppers in the Bethlehem bazaar did not pause in their trading to listen to the angels sing. There were no special services in the temple. There were no gifts exchanged. In fact, the first gifts came nearly two years later, and then, from the hands of foreign astrologers. The streets of Bethlehem were crowded with people, but they were not there to buy gifts of love. They were there to be counted, to be enrolled, and ultimately, to be taxed. Angels filled the sky with music, but only a few lowly shepherds heard it.

But – and note this well – none of this lack of response stopped the coming of the Christ! For, as Paul reminds us, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4: 4-5) whether humankind was ready or not.

Here are the simple ingredients of the Christmas story: a helpless baby, a brutal adversary, and a protecting angel. And yet, in these ingredients are the essential facts of life. The Holy One of God came into the world as a fragile baby, and against that baby were arrayed all of the formidable powers of darkness for an unequal battle against an irresistible force. And so, each year, that irresistible force saves our Christmas for us.

We are going to destroy Christmas with rampant commercialism?

With frenzied partying?

With uncontrolled gift giving?

With immoderate spending?

With festering troubles in the world?

We are going to destroy Christmas? Ha! Go ahead and try. Be my guest. Not even old Ebenezer Scrooge could destroy Christmas!

And that truth is cause for our rejoicing. Christmas can never be destroyed!

So, tonight, or whenever it is convenient, in the circle of love that is your family and friends, rejoice. Rejoice in the knowledge that God cared enough to send his very best (with apologies to Hallmark cards) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Rejoice, for that is what we should do.

That is really what I want to say to you this Christmas. And, whew! Am I glad that I did not write that “traditional” Christmas message!

Merry Christmas!

 

 

Darkness and Light

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“Oh, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute…” from Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical, Mame.

These are desperate days on the planet. 

They are desperate days in our hearts.

Man, do we need “a little Christmas!”

We need the birth of something beautiful, that thrill of hope we used to sing about as children, to return again to our spirits.

We need the arrival of a great light into the deep, dark recesses of ourselves, where joy and wonder have all but vanished.

For Christians, the great festival that interrupts the darkness of human history is called Christmas, that traditionally has lasted from December 25th to January 6th. This twelve-day celebration was designed to recall the birth of Jesus who, the Christian faith system asserted, came to be called “the light of the world.” These nativity narratives, created by second-generation Christians, provided the content for this observance.

In the earliest birth story of Jesus, written by the author we call Matthew somewhere between the years 80-85, the primary symbol of light was a star – bright, radiant and beautiful – that illumined the darkness of the night. This star was said to have had the power to guide Magi through that darkness to the birthplace of this newborn savior in Bethlehem.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, written sometime between the years 88-92, the light symbol was not a star, but a resplendent angel accompanied by a heavenly host, who cracked the midnight sky with heavenly brightness. To shepherds recoiling before this unearthly light, the tradition said that the angels announced the birth of Jesus, the “true light,” who “came down from heaven.”

Historical records from that period of time are scant, and no one today can date with precision the actual time of the birth of Jesus. That did not stop the tradition, however, from locating the celebration in the dead of winter. That choice was not designed to coincide with literal history, but to meet a deep and ancient human yearning that antedates by thousands of years both Judaism and Christianity.

As far back as human records go, it is clear that people in the northern hemisphere have observed with acts of worship that moment when the daylight stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its march back into the world. That human yearning for light to come to a dark world shaped Christmas. Indeed it captured it. That is why the celebration is located in the darkest month of the year, December, in the Western calendar.

Modern people have difficulty imagining the fears of our primitive human ancestors. We live today in an artificially lighted world. We can hurl back the darkness of night with the flip of a switch. We can travel in darkness far from home by turning on the headlights of our automobiles, or by utilizing the lights marking the landing fields of our airports. We live in cities with electrified streets and neon signboards.

For our ancestors, however, the only light of night was provided by the moon and the stars. When the moon faded each month into a total blackout the darkness of night was illumined only by the distant twinkling stars. When clouds made the stars invisible, the darkness was total. With darkness came danger and fear. The darkness was inhabited, it was suggested by a traditional Scottish prayer: “From ghosties and ghoulies/And long-leggedy beasties /And things that go bump in the night/Good Lord, deliver us!”

The relatively recent human ability first to capture fire and later actually to ignite it, was a gigantic step in the quest to defeat the always-threatening darkness. The vast majority of the human beings who have inhabited this earth lived with the presence of an unconquered and unrelieved darkness.

When one further embraces the fact that people in the ancient world did not understand the relationship between the heavenly bodies and the earth, it is easy to understand why mythology and ritualistic acts were wrapped around these mysterious natural wonders. Modern men and women deal with these realities in a quite secular manner. We manipulate our clocks with various time zones and with something we call “daylight savings time.” We anticipate and name the shortest day of the year as the winter solstice. We understand that the earth rotates on its axis as it journeys around the sun every 365¼ days. We know the months when we are closer to the sun and the months when we are farther away. None of this, however, was known by our forebearers. They only knew that the sun seemed to retreat into darkness as the winter came. They wondered why, and they speculated about this observable phenomenon using a wide variety of religious explanations. They lived with a chronic fear that one year the enveloping darkness that came each winter might finally capture the light of the sun forever and thus doom their lives to be lived without any light at all.

For this reason in almost every human culture there was a great religious celebration when the sun stopped its relentless retreat into an ever enveloping-darkness and began its slow but steady return. Christmas became a later historical expression of this ancient celebration. It thus reveals its northern hemisphere, and obviously human origins.

It is time to recognize that religious truth, like all truth, can only emerge out of human experience. Once that is understood, then religious people will recognize that their exclusive claims to possess some external, divine revelation is nothing but a part of our human security system. These claims also create the mentality that fuels that religious imperialism that, even in the twenty-first century, underlies human conflict.

The only way for the Christmas yearning for peace on earth to be achieved is for every religious system to face its human origins, and to recognize that all worshipers are nothing but human seekers walking into the mystery and wonder of the God, who is beyond anything that human minds can finally imagine. That would represent a gigantic step both into a new sensitivity and away from the negativity that religion perpetually pumps into the human bloodstream. In our observances of Christmas this year, that could well be our most important learning.

Man, do we need a little Christmas. . .right now!

When War Was the Only Casualty

From The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: "British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches"

From The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches”

This is my favorite Christmas story, after the original one, of course. It deserves to be told as long as war still exists.

It was Christmas Eve one hundred years ago, the first year of the Great War – the “War to End All Wars.” All was indeed quiet on the Western Front. The artillery in the region fell silent that night. On 7 December 1914, Pope Benedict XV had suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but in the trenches on Christmas Eve, English and French soldiers on the one side and German soldiers on the other, declared their own unofficial truce.

The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Proper burials took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in “No Man’s Land,” soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from the 23rd Psalm.

It was a welcome respite for a group of lonely British soldiers who had become all too familiar with the roar of the cannons. As they reclined in their trenches, each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home.

“My parents are just finished a toast to my health,” a lad from Liverpool said slowly.

“I can almost hear the church bells,” a man from Ely said wistfully.

“My whole family will soon be walking out the door to hear the concert of the cathedral boy’s choir.”

The men sat silent for several minutes before a soldier from Kent looked up with tears in his eyes. “This is eerie,” he stammered, “but I can almost hear the choir singing.”

“So can I,” shouted another puzzled voice. “I think there is music coming from the other side.”

All the men scrambled to the edge of the trench and cocked their ears. What they heard were a few sturdy German voices singing Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn:

From Heaven above to earth I come,

To bear good news to every home;

Glad tidings of great joy I bring,

Whereof I now will say and sing. . .

When the hymn was finished, the British soldiers sat frozen in silence.  Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into the chorus of a traditional English carol:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.

Refrain:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;

O tidings of comfort and joy. . .

Before he had sung three bars, a dozen voices joined him. By the time he finished, the entire regiment was singing.

Once again there was an interlude of silence until a German tenor began to sing Stille Nacht! This time the carol was sung in two languages, a chorus of nearly a hundred voices echoing back and forth between the trenches:

Stille Nacht!/Silent night. . .

Heil’ge Nacht!/Holy night. . .

Alles schläft/All is calm. . .

Einsam wacht./All is bright. . .

 “Someone is approaching!” a sentry shouted, and attention was focused on a single German soldier who walked slowly, waving a white cloth with one hand and holding several chocolate bars in the other. Slowly, men from both sides eased out into the neutral zone and began to greet one another. In a few minutes, each soldier shared what he had with the others – candy, cigarettes, and even a bit of Christmas brandy. Most importantly, the soldiers showed the battered, but treasured pictures that they carried of loved ones. On Christmas Day, men from both sides again joined together, even visiting the other’s trenches.

With “No Man’s Land” cleared of dead bodies and throngs of men milling about, it was only a matter of time before a ball materialized and a soccer game was afoot! The depth to which these men enjoyed the game was evidenced by the ingenuity in their producing balls in the middle of a war zone! These games, by all accounts were filled with excitement and joy at getting to kick the ball about. There were no referees and goals were marked by headgear. The size of the teams opposing one another could number as many as one hundred or more, yet there is no account of an opposed foul or scuffle over a play. In most of the reports, the Germans won most of the games 3-2.

The spontaneous truce was largely over by New Year’s Day, however. Commanders on both sides ordered their troops to resume hostilities under penalty of court-martial. The Great War stretched on through another three Christmases and beyond, but all subsequent attempts to organize similar truces failed, and millions more died before the armistice of 11 November 1918 finally ended the Great War for good.

As a celebration of the human spirit, the Christmas Truce remains a moving manifestation of the absurdities of war. Frederick Niven, a Scottish poet during the Great War, may just have it right in his A Carol from Flanders, in which he writes these words:

In Flanders on the Christmas morn

The trenched foemen lay,

the German and the Briton born,

And it was Christmas Day.

The red sun rose on fields accurst,

The gray fog fled away;

But neither cared to fire the first,

For it was Christmas Day!

They called from each to each across

The hideous disarray,

For terrible has been their loss:

“Oh, this is Christmas Day!”

Their rifles all they set aside,

One impulse to obey;

‘Twas just the men on either side,

Just men — and Christmas Day.

They dug the graves for all their dead

And over them did pray:

And Englishmen and Germans said:

“How strange a Christmas Day!”

Between the trenches then they met,

Shook hands, and e’en did play

At games on which their hearts were set

On happy Christmas Day.

Not all the emperors and kings,

Financiers and they

Who rule us could prevent these things —

For it was Christmas Day.

Oh ye who read this truthful rime

From Flanders, kneel and say:

God speed the time when every day

Shall be as Christmas Day.

One hundred years later, a Christmas truce seems an impossible dream from a more simple, vanished world. It appears that peace, however brief, is indeed harder to make than war.

 

Expect the Unexpected!

christmas giving2No political commentary this week. And no tirade against fundamentalist pastors who show no compassion. Not this week. No lamenting of the present state of affairs in either politics or religion or historical comprehension or theological knowledge. No, none of that this week. Rather, I am taking my lead from Pope Francis this week who said in a recent sermon: “Enough gloom, try joy ahead of Christmas.”

So, instead of writing about some of the darker sides of our human condition, let me share this more joyful post.


December is a beautiful time of the year. The celebrations for Christmas are in full swing. Of course, they have been in that mode since Labor Day in September!

The symbols, some sacred, some quite secular, mingle in the market place: Bethlehem and the North Pole, the Angel Gabriel and Santa Claus, the Heavenly Host and grandma being run over by a reindeer, crèche scenes and chestnuts roasting by an open fire, shepherds in the fields and Christmas trees.

In the Northern Hemisphere, December is also the time when light hurls back the darkness of the winter solstice, an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

December is also the time when Bill O’Reilly heads into the trenches for his annual battle against the “War on Christmas.” For years now, the Fox News host has been scrambling to save Christmas from a slew of threats – real and unreal – and, I am afraid that 2014 will be no exception.

The shopping malls, the Internet, the television, the radio, the magazines, and the newspapers are all proclaiming what every child already knows to be a fact: Christmas is coming! Many children will ask – if they have not already asked – “Is it Christmas yet”?

Speaking of children, during the Christmas Eve Service one year, a child was heard to innocently warble this very distinctive, but utterly unauthorized version of the Christmas hymn O Come All Ye Faithful. She sang: “Sing choirs of angels . . . sing and expect raisins!”

Expect raisins? No, I don’t think so! The child’s words were unexpected! The child’s meter may have been correct, but her thought certainly missed the mark.

With children, one should be prepared to expect the unexpected. Often, in their innocence, children just “cut to the chase,” say what is so obvious to them, and in the process, often leave us speechless.

Here are just a few of the classic cases in point:

A kindergarten pupil told his teacher that he had found a cat, but it was dead.

“How do you know that the cat was dead?” she asked her pupil.

“Because I pissed in its ear and it didn’t move,” answered the child innocently.

“You did WHAT?” the teacher exclaimed in surprise.

“You know,” explained the boy, “I leaned over and went ‘Pssst!’ and it didn’t move.”

As I said, expect the unexpected from children.

Or how about this one?

After a long day, the house had finally settled down. The children were in bed and the exhausted mother and father sat down to enjoy a few well-earned minutes of relaxation. But no sooner had they started to relax when their seven-year old daughter called from her room: “Daddy, can I have a glass of water?”

Familiar with this delaying tactic, the father called back: “No, it’s time to sleep.”

After a few minutes, the child cried out again: “Daddy, can I please have a glass of water?”

The exasperated father replied: “No, it’s time to sleep! If you ask me again, I’m coming up there to punish you!”

There was a long pause, and then the child called out: “Daddy, when you come up to punish me, would you please bring me a glass of water?”

Again, expect the unexpected from children.

Or this classic?

The little boy was doing his math homework. He said to himself, “Two plus five, that son of a bitch is seven. Three plus six, that son of a bitch is nine.”

His mother heard what he was saying and gasped, “What are you doing?”

The little boy answered, “I’m doing my math homework, Mom.”

“And is this how your teacher taught you to do it?” the mother asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

Infuriated, the mother asked the teacher the next day, “What are you teaching my son in math?”

The teacher replied, “Right now, we are learning addition.”

The mother asked, “And are you also teaching them to say two plus two, that son of a bitch is four?”

After the teacher stopped laughing, she answered, “What I taught them was, two plus two, THE SUM OF WHICH, is four.”

Children!

Finally, perhaps you recall this story.

The five year-old boy came home one day and asked his mother: “Mommy, where did I come from?”

Well, mommy was not really ready for this question, but she did the best she could, and told him that she and daddy loved each other very much and how it was out of that love that they made their little son. She then asked him if that answered his question. The five year-old replied: “Yes, I guess so, but, you see, there is this new kid who just moved in up the street and he told me that he came from Chicago. I just wanted to know where I came from.”

Ah, out of the mouths of babes, as one of the Psalms has it! Yes, children say and do the most unexpected things.

On a more serious note, consider what happened to this mother and her child.  The mother in this story realized that after all the bills were paid, there would not be much left for her and her four children to use to spend on each other for Christmas presents. Nevertheless, she took her children to a shopping mall and gave them each a twenty dollar bill and told them that was all they had to spend on each other. The children did not seem to care. They all went off thinking of inexpensive and creative ways that they could spend their five dollars per person. The mother gave instructions to meet back in an hour.

The hour went by quickly and soon everyone gathered. Everyone was excited and they were all hiding their bags so that no one could see. The youngest daughter’s bag was the smallest. But the mother did not think too much about it until they all entered the car and the youngest dropped her bag. The bag fell open and candy bars fell out. The youngest daughter turned red, hurriedly picked up the candy bars and shoved them back in her bag.

The mother was furious. She knew her youngest daughter was a little irresponsible and had a sweet tooth, but to go and spend all the Christmas money on herself was unthinkable. The mother stewed on this situation the whole way home. All the children rushed into the house to wrap their presents. The mother followed the youngest daughter into her room, closed the door and started telling her how disappointed she was in her for spending all of her money on candy bars.

The girl started to cry. And then she said, “But I didn’t. These aren’t for me. These are the presents for you and the others.”

Then the mother asked, “But what happened to the rest of the money?”

The little girl explained that she had been shopping and could not find anything that she liked for anyone else. While she was shopping, she saw a tree covered with angels. So she went to see what it was all about and found an angel with the name of a little girl on it who needed a pair of gloves, a coloring book and crayons. She thought about all the things that she and her family had and decided to buy those things for that little girl. When she was finished, all she had left was enough to buy everyone in the family a candy bar.

As Art Linkletter used to be fond of saying, “Kids say the darnedest things!” To put his words another way: Children say and do the most unexpected things.

This mother learned a valuable lesson that day. She had made significant assumptions and unquestionable expectations about her daughter’s maturity and instead, she unexpectedly found her daughter’s actions to be remarkable  expressions of caring, of compassion and of love. And, come to think of it, such demonstrations are truly in the spirit of the one whose birthday we celebrate at this “most wonderful time of the year.”

And so, with Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I say, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”
Christmas giving