Evidently The Ex-Reverend found yesterday’s lunch conversation worthy of reflection. For those who know Greg it may come as a shock that he is not really pining to pound the Church and Christians at every turn. But, he is not letting the Church or Christians off the hook easy when we trot out well-rehearsed euphemisms as explanation for our “beliefs,” much less our praxis.
In some regards you would understand Greg better if you found him something of a modern day Viktor Frankl asking questions about meaning. Please do not invest the analogy with more than the penchant to ask questions. Greg did not suffer in a concentration camp but did endure experiences which prompt the same sort of existential interests. Along the way Greg pushes us like Inigo pressed Vizzini in The Princess Bride with, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Here is a re-post with permission. “Christian Identity, or Can Baby Jesus Get Some Love.”
Christian Identity, or Can Baby Jesus Get Some Love
The survey results look promising on first glance. Ninety percent (90%) of churches will hold services on Christmas day. Anytime you get 90% of any group doing a good thing or what they ought to be doing or at least not doing a bad thing, it seems like a victory. If 90% of students completed high school, the country would marvel. But, of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought it was really a good thing. The numbers mask an amazing presumption and perhaps some confusion in the group that carried out the poll: the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Christmas is a Christian holiday. It just is. Talk about all the Saturnalia and pagan syncretism you like, talk about substituting one pagan holiday for a Christian one, talk about borrowed symbols and commercialism, talk all you want about it; at its core, theologically (for Christians), Christmas is the coming of Messiah, and therefore, a religious high, holy day. It’s a celebration day, much like Easter (another holiday about which I’m weary of hearing stories of syncretism. One thing is clear, however it started, the Christian narrative won.), not a fast day like Good Friday. It is, by my estimation, the second most important day on the church calendar, following Easter, of course.
Can you imagine a research team sending out an email to pastors asking if they plan to have service on Easter Sunday? No. Not going to happen. Easter is always a Sunday, and it’s explicitly religious, and churches church on that day. The assumption is that churches will meet on Easter Sunday. So why isn’t it the same assumption for Christmas when it falls on a Sunday? Shouldn’t that be cause for additional excitement? The research team knows something about American Christianity, it seems, because only 90% of churches that call themselves Christian are meeting this Sunday. May I ask what the other ten are doing?
I’m also weary of hearing about how they shouldn’t be holding services so as to go out into the world and feed and clothe the poor or some other noble endeavor. Jesus said the poor will be with us always not as permission to ignore them, and in the context of the passage, he is certainly indicating that a prioritization must happen that doesn’t ignore the poor but that also doesn’t prevent the Church from churching. It’s the same principle as Sabbath; there are six days to feed and clothe the world. Give God the seventh. That being answered…
In addition to the 10% of churches who seem to have forgotten that Christmas is a day of religious observance (War on Christmas rhetoric notwithstanding), there are those uncounted Christians who won’t show up to their churches that are holding service on Sunday. Yes, some are out of town, some have relatives in town, some are ill, and some are working, but the overwhelming majority are placing the cultural celebration ahead of the religious observance. Some well-meaning but clearly confused pastors are offering a Christmas Eve worship alternative, because they want to observe the holiday, and let’s be honest, it’s the last “Sunday” offering of 2011. Why are those Christians not attending church on Christmas?
I have no answer, except to suggest that almost all American forms of Christianity are first cultural and secondly theological. By cultural here I don’t mean style of music or mega vs. small or white vs. black or even patriotic vs. non-sectarian. I mean that Americans are largely shaped by consumerism, individualism, and materialism, the three idols of the market that serve to make all of us mini-narcissists. The Church calendar exists to break a narrative of Christian identity and formation into manageable chunks. The story is told across 52 weeks with the high points receiving special designation: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost. In each chapter, the Church is reminded who she is and the Christian is invited to participate in a formative story, the story of being Christian in the world. It is this narrative that combats the idols of the market, and it is this narrative that is losing.
Not surprisingly, Easter continues to be well-attended, because the primary theological assumption most American Christians seem to make is also narcissistic: Jesus died for my sins and then rose from the dead. The first part of the clause is the most important, and Christians celebrate Easter because the resurrection is the guarantor of the truth of the first part. Even on this most festive of days, the idols of the market win. The hidden assumption behind all this church planning is that church is for the people. Catholic priests know better. They will say the Mass this Sunday even if no one shows. Why? Because the liturgy, the work of the people, is God-directed. Church, theologically, is only tangentially for the people; its primary purpose is worship, thanksgiving, celebration, and praise, not the edification of the body. There are six days for edification; the seventh belongs to God.