Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Puritans Won The Battle of Christmas After All

It may begin with Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, of course, but there's so much more.

How do Christmas when Christians stole the Pagan traditions? How do Christmas when Puritan Christians stole or ruined Christmas from or for other Christians? How do Christmas when capitalist America took over religious America and domesticated both the American church and by extension Christmas? But so much more still.

Should Christmas Eve worship services be held by non-Christian, or "more than Christian" churches? If so, should they just have biblical readings, and if so just from the Christian scriptures, or is it okay to use Hebrew scriptures like Isaiah which Christians also term scripture? Is it okay to use passages from the Quran about the birth of Jesus, for example, at such services? Is it okay to have a "secular Christmas" church service without any, or very limited, mention of Jesus' birth? If a religious Christmas service, do you read biblical passages only if you exegete them with the most current scholarly understandings? Only religious Christmas hymns at the services, or secular Christmas songs? If religious Christmas hymns are sung, should the lyrics be changed, for either gender-inclusive reasons or theological reasons? Do you do the same service year in and year out, and what to do with your boredom if it arises with that approach, or how do you keep the service fresh and topical without it becoming too superficial, or, heaven forbid "too political" (as if the story of the First Christmas wasn't political to its core)?

I believe much the same issues come into play on Easter Sunday too, and throughout Holy Week, but not to the same extent as at Christmas. Is it nostalgia-driven? Is it the same dynamic that creates charity givers at this time of the year when we can become a bit more compassionate toward "the poor" so we don't have to keep their needs and issues at the forefront the other months of the year?

As a Christian minister in the Unitarian Universalist community, perhaps I have more of a front row seat to these anxieties than most, be they my Christian colleagues in other faith communities, or the laity even in my own.  I know, particularly sometimes depending on their own congregational context (do they serve a Christian UU church or a more pluralistic in worship orientation UU church?) that there are different stances and approaches and practices to these questions among UU Christians as well.

Mostly, I feel, and I hear from other UU Christians too, some pain in all these issues. We, who might struggle so much throughout the year in our churches and in the Association, to keep our grounding and enrichment in both Christianity and Unitarian Universalism that is more than Christianity, want simply to lose ourselves in story and tradition and to be reminded of some of the core truths of our faith which is now a minority faith within our Association as they are revealed in the Christmas ancient stories and traditions that have emerged out of those stories. And, as we are a minority faith where we were once a majority faith, we also understand the pain we hear expressed by those who feel, as minorities within the wider cultural context (though that is changing, as we continue to move toward an unchurched society, or return to what had been the demographics before the middle of the 20th century), that they are "forced" to be a part of celebrating something religiously in their church (or society, or congregation, as the name church is often seen as "too Christian") that they wouldn't otherwise celebrate. Perhaps they see this as a nod to us Christians in their midst, or an acquiescence to cultural Christianity and American civic religion that can be oppressive, or has legacies of oppression? Is it even appropriate, it is asked, to clothe our churches in a Christian aura once a year if we don't incorporate our Christian sources throughout any of the rest of the year; and at what percentage is it then enough? I feel this pain from others, and experience it as a UU Christian, even as I understand the role that privilege plays and that all of our, including my, "fragility" over such issues masks the privilege our churches and lives often hold that all these issues are the ones we get concerned about.

Whichever the reason, there is at times in all of these questions, a felt sense of shame that can creep in for the religious nature of Christmas, for it becoming such a controversy, invoking such painful responses in others, when after all the candles we light in observance are for peace, hope, joy, and love. Christmas, in its religious roots, which restores our souls (though we too can be prone to all the Christmas dis-ease from rush and depression, etc.) is too much the cause, we hear, of burn-out and unrest. It can reach a zenith where I want to just say, as a Christian, yes, no more pageants, no more candle-light singing, no more homiletic anxieties over it being too much of this or not enough of that, as in no more controversial town parades, let's acknowledge that maybe the colonial Puritans had it right all along: damn the festivities and just mark the birth of Jesus by working for the birth in the world of all he stood for, and was killed by the state for.

There is indeed a strong puritan strain in all of these controversies and anxious responses: are we doing Christmas right? are we being true to "our faith" with how we "do Christmas"? Puritanism in our tradition is a church that was created over "how do church" questions. Theologically, both separatists and independent puritans agreed with many other Puritans such as those in the Reformed/Presbyterian church; that is theologically about God and Christ; but it was over the nature of the church, how to do church, that "our Puritans" came into being, and so we have been blessed and cursed with that emphasis on How, and on who is Us.  And, as I observe Unitarian Universalists at Christmas, and how I too have promoted us at this time, there is a tendency to make Christmas all about us, to raise up our "famous UU" connections to the Christmas traditions, as a way for our shrinking in the percentage of the population faith to say hey see us, look at us, see how we are part of what you are celebrating without knowing we are to be credited? Even, as we tend to do, claiming people as Unitarian in Christmas lore, like Clement Moore of Twas the Night Before Christmas fame, who were not Unitarian (seems like the Universalists didn't quite have this same dynamic in their own tradition among us).

When we tend to make religion, and religious holidays, about our faith identity and not about the mission of our faith (which is what I see at heart in all the cultural wars of Christmas over language and liturgies) then we are running the risk of idolatry, of making ultimate our indentity, our selves even, instead of our mission of liberating mutual transformation with those who suffer. In terms of Christmas, to put it starkly (and as Michael Slaughter did in a book by this name) it happens when we think of the holiday as our birthday instead of Jesus' birthday, what we are getting out of the holy day, not what we are putting into it for others.

I am proud, though, as a Christian, to be in the tradition of all these traditions of Christmas: from the ones who wrote the revolutionary gospel stories of the birth of Jesus to help shore up communities of resistance against the Empire, and to see how divinity could be incarnated in the vulnerable, the flesh endangered, the outcast family, the poor and oppressed and unknown, to those who later found sustenance in aspects of the various traditions around them to merge with their own faith story and developing traditions of festival and giving; from the ones who sought to return from the excesses of outward festivals to developing communities focused on the inward experience of God's grace and the pursuit of, as Puritan pastor John Robinson described it, "more light and truth to break forth". Some of that "more light and truth" breaking forth led to liberation and freedom and independence and the rise of American liberalism; some of it prompted the reactionary excesses of Puritanism that have come to be cast over the whole movement, including the Puritan "war" on Christmas.

On the theological front, as in the cultural front, Puritanism was always in process, particularly on the American continent. An so ironically a movement which sought to be "pure" was always not purely fixed. A movement that could eventually incorporate both strands of Puritanism, separatists and the independents, one that was always embedded in a land of pluralism even as it sought to create and practice (in hopes of taking over Mother England's church) its own government ways that also repressed others, that could lay a foundation for its vision in the radical free church Cambridge Platform and still modify and adapt it every few decades with new synods and compromises as experiences required, that fostered both a Great Awakening of religious spirit and a response of reasoned experience in reaction to that Great Awakening, such a movement would naturally also adapt to cultural experiences and theological expressions such as Christmas, to those "keeping it" in celebration, and those trying to keep it in check.

I am proud also to be in the tradition of those challenging Christmas, then and now, in the name and spirit of Christ, (all those opting to unplug the Christmas machine, to have Advent conspiracies, are acting in the tradition of the Puritans in early New England critiquing Christmas), and also to be in the tradition of those like Charles Follen of Christmas tree fame, and Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame, who helped sow the seeds of Christmas as a family and not just church based holiday, and particularly of those Puritan DNA Unitarian Christians like Edmund Hamilton Sears who were moved by the Christmas spirit to write an anti-war carol like It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. (Rhetorically, Unitarianism did not replace puritanism as a kind of separate colonial and early United States religious movement within our churches as much as it emerged as a liberal theological expression of it; much of the cultural emphases of Puritanism, some might say for both good and ill, are still a part of our religious life as they are in others. We UUs, or Unitarians of the 19th century, did not save Christmas from the bad Puritans of before--puritans at different times responded differently to the puritan quest to make the world a better, more God-filled placed--just as we did not make it into what it is today. Christmas is not about us.)

Christmas as we know it still then has all these historical strands and strains and streams within it. As a Christian, especially a universalist one, a lower case c catholic one, an ecumenical one, I draw from all of the strands and traditions; my religious heritage goes back before the rise of Unitarianism among Puritans, back before the rise of Puritans and the back before the Reformation, back even before the rise of the Roman Catholic church; I am enriched by all of the controversies and changes, including over Christmas.

The real commercialization of Christmas, what I see as our Christmas challenge for our time, emerged not so much from any church control or influence as from the post world war one rapid rise of American Marketplace advertising and the explosion of media in the culture for that advertising to capitalize on. The influx of immigration toward the end of the 19th century helped to expand the culture, and religions and holy days with it, beyond the Great Britain migrations and culture up to then. It continues to change, to inspire, and to be full of excess. Christmas, as two thousand years ago, as four hundred years ago, prompts us with a theological response today. Will we join in with its revolutionary missional spirit of the ancient story that came out of communities of resistance, and see the spiritual truths in many of the songs and liturgies that arose from the story, even to critiquing its absorption into Empire theology then and critiquing its ownership by corporate culture now? Or will continue to look for ways to fight over it because of how it makes us feel? We are, as we move through Christmastide toward the Day of Epiphany and the celebration of the story of the arrival of the Wise Ones to the birthplace of Jesus, faced with the same question they were faced with once they became a part of the story: do we return one way to Herod and follow the values and requirements of Empire, and put our comfort and identity and competitiveness first, or do we go home another way and take with us the values and requirements of the God of love and justice for others who was born an(other)?  

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