Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “Nativity”

Be born in us today

Be Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation TodayBe Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation Today by John Davies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have known John Davies for 60 years. Back in 1959 he was a parish priest of a somewhat distant, largely rural parish in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, and he came a couple of times to speak to students at Wits Univeresity. On one of those occasions he spoke about Christian art, but I have forgotten the other. A couple of years later he spoke to students from all over South Africa on the topic of Religion versus God, and I remember quite a lot of what he said then, as it had an enormous influence on my theological understanding. It was reinforced seven years later by reading For the life of the world by Father Alexander Schmemann.

That makes it a bit difficult to review a book he has written, since his thinking has influenced my own thinking to such an extent that it is difficult to be objective and critical. So let the reader beware.

This book, as the title suggests, is about Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of the Incarnation. What do we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is both God and Man, both divine and human? The book is intended to be used by parish study groups, and so is divided into chapters with a scripture passage relating to the birth of Christ, intended to be read aloud by several voices,. a brief meditation on the passage, and suggestions for discussion and activities at the end.

But at the beginning there is an introduction, where John Davies describes his first Christmas as a parish priest, which shaped the understanding that lies behind the book, and is perhaps the most useful part to concentrate on in a review.

The parish was in what is now Mpumalanga, and in it there was a gold mine, and the Christmas service was in the hostel for black miners. They normally held the service in a classroom, but it was locked up with many people being away for Christmas, so they had it in the miners’ common room, which was also occupied by some of the fowls the miners kept. Davies writes:

My most abiding memory of that Christmas is of a candle-lit congregation singing the praises of the coming of Christ in half-a-dozen different languages, accompanied by the intermittent complaints of poultry whose sleep-pattern had been so strangely disturbed,

He notes some of the things that struck him about that service, which helped to shape his understanding of the scriptural texts (I can only give a much abbreviated version here).

  • It happened in a borrowed room, an annexe to a public meeting place.
  • It was a hidden event, not publicized much in advance.
  • It happened in the dark. Few people saw or understood what was happening; most were asleep.
  • It happened in the company of farmyard creatures, humanity’s close companions.
  • It happened among people who were poor and voteless non-citizens. They were not “simple” or “ordinary” people; most of them were people of valuable skill and courage in the gold-mining industry, but they were people of no status within the systems controlled by the political and economic dominances of the day.
  • It was an occasion which affirmed the value of material things; bread and alcoholic drink could both be sources of argument and fighting and killing; but here they were being claimed as ways for God to be present among people.

There are many other parallels that Davies notes. He notes that they are all history, but they are slanted history. They are selective, and were written down forty years after the event, just as the gospel stories of the Nartivity were themselves written down about 40 years after the events themselves. The details he notes are not recorded anywhere else.

There will be no reference to that Christmas gathering in the archives of the mine administration, or in those of the Magisterial District of Bethal in the Transvaal. There are all sorts of assumptions in what I have written… I have recorded the event because of its meaning to me. I cannot be sure that my understanding of the regulations concerning the use of mine property is correct, or that I have remembered accurately the conditions on which non-mine-employees were allowed on the site. I cannot even be sure what sorts of bread and wine were used or what the sermon was about. But my purpose is not to give a specimen of the social history of the mine, but to give an account of what I believe to have been an example of God’s presence in the world. On that basis, and only on that basis, judge my story. Similarly, we do not go to Luke to get details of the Roman taxation system, or to Matthew to get astronomical information. We go to find something concerning the meaning and manner of God’s presence in the world.

And that is what this book is about.

Christmas and XMas

A useful reminder.

AGAIN AND AGAIN

XMasHAPPY XMAS – X is the abbreviation of the name Christ and has been in use since early Christian times. Many people nowadays are mistakenly of the opinion that the use of “Xmas” is a recent invention or a secular attempt to remove the religious tradition from Christmas by taking the “Christ” out of “Christmas. The practice of using contractions for divine or sacred names (nomina sacrum) started sometime in the 1st Century AD although the exact date remains unknown.

‘X’ is an ancient abbreviation for the word ‘Christ’ which comes to us from ancient Greek and is written in the Greek alphabet ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (cristos) The first two letters are called Chi and Rho and were used to form one of the earliest Christograms, which is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ. Known as the Chi-Rho it is traditionally used…

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The real origins of Christmas

At this time of the year one finds all sorts of fluff pieces in newspapers and in the blogosphere and on the web about the origins of Christmas. Most of them are not worth the effort to read, because they are so full of vague speculations and over generalisations as to be almost completely worthless.

Adventus evidently feels the same way as I do about them, and writes:

If you wade through that (as you should, if you want to know something verifiable about history), you reach this conclusion:

The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.

Some years ago I had the job of marking some student assignments on this very topic. The assignment was part of a missiology course at the University of South Africa. It had not been set by me, so I had to read everything on the reading list to make sure I knew where the students would be coming from. Most of the reading was articles in various respectable (peer-reviewed) theological journals. I was rather surprised to see how many unsubstantiated assertions there were in these articles, and decided to do a bit of research on my own and tried to find out when Christians began to observe the Feast of the Nativity of Christ from contemporary sources, and why they did so. And what struck me was the remarkable absence of contemporary sources.

nativitySome of the assertions were based on wild assumptions and speculations made by 19th century scholars. Or, more often, some historian had made a tentative hypothesis, and those who cited him did so as if it had become and absolute certainty.

Eventually, in marking the assignment, I found that most of my comments to students were simply urging the students to use their sources critically. It appeared that many missiologists are given to speculation, and are not familiar with church history, or even secular history. And church historians are very often not aware of the missiological implications of the matter they deal with. In the matter of Christmas, many of the assertions are based on huge anachronisms, which even an elementary knowledge of history would enable people to see through.

Anyway, Adventus also seems to have got sick of these muddled speculations and has taken some pains to set the record straight, or at least straighter. It’s worth reading.

And, since everyone seems happy to put forward their own speculations on the origins of Christmas, here are mine: The origin of Christmas. In that article I put forward the hypothesis that the popularity of the celebration of Christmas grew in the 4th century as a means to counter Arianism. I think that is as as valid as most of the other speculations.

See also: Urban legends about Christmas.

The Santa boycott

‘Tis the season to SMS boycott exhortations, it seems.

First it was the Deon Maas/Satanism affair: (see Notes from underground: Christian responses to “Satanism” and journalists who write about it). Then it was the film The Golden Compass. Now, in this month’s Synchroblog, Matt Stone comments about Christmas in a pluralist society, and the demand for a politically correct Christmas, where he says:

To my way of thinking what we should be aiming for, as a democratic and pluralistic society, is not a blanding out of religious distinctiveness, but rather for the mutual respect of religious distinctiveness. I may not agree with everything Jewish or Pagan tradition stands for, or Hindu or Buddhist or Atheist for that matter, but I can surely give non-Christians space to express what they find meaningful in life in their own way. I see nothing in the New Testament that would justify compulsion.

But by the same token I feel no compulsion to water down my own tradition either, and I expect the same courtesy and respect I show to others to be returned to me.

And that reminded me of the Santa boycott, which had a huge influence on the way in which I see and celebrate Christmas.

No, not that Santa.

It was this one — the South African National Tuberculosis Association.

It was a long time ago, when I was still at school, about 1958, I think.

Santa was (and still is) an NGO, and one of the ways that it raised funds was by selling Christmas stamps. These could be bought at post offices, and they urged people to buy them and put them on Christmas cards that they sent out. This would not only raise funds for Santa, but also publicise the work of the organisation. Its work is needed more than ever today, because TB is on the increase, as Aids weakens people’s resistance to the disease.

In about 1958 their Christmas stamp showed the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus, and the Dutch Reformed Church called for a boycott of the stamps, because they depicted the Virgin Mary with a halo.

Back in those days there were no cell phones, and so one couldn’t call for boycotts by SMS, so it was done by press release instead. The Afrikaans press dutifully plugged it, and the sales of Christmas stamps dropped. And, as happens today, the English press commented on how bigoted and narrow-minded it all was.

My own response at the time was to react against it.

I resolved never to buy Christmas cards that did not show a nativity scene, preferably one showing the Virgin Mary with a halo. And I began, self-consciously and deliberately, to write “Christmass” with the double-s spelling.

The people who then called for a boycott of Christmass stamps were the same elements of society who have more recently been calling for a boycott of Deon Maas and The Golden Compass, and in that respect little has changed. But as Matt Stone points out in his blog, they have now been joined by other elements.

There was a reaction from other quarters as well.

The following year the Catholic Church brought out its own Christmass stamps, with the slogan “Put Christ back into Christmas”, and sold them at Catholic Churches after their services. And many Anglicans I knew also went along and bought them.

Santa, on the principle of once bitten is not twice bitten, capitualted just as Beeld did in the Deon Maas affair, and produced entirely secular Christmas stamps the following year. I don’t know whether Dutch Reformed Church members started buying them again, but by then many Catholics and Anglicans were buying the “Put Christ back into Christmas” stamps instead.

I’ve already posted my contribution for this month’s synchroblog on Redeeming the season on my other blog, and tried to avoid the culture wars, and simply describe what the season means to Orthodox Christians, reckoning that most of the other synchrobloggers would not be familiar with that

But many of the other synchrobloggers did blog, directly or indirectly, about the culture wars, and Matt Stone’s contribution reminded me of this episode in the past, so I thought I’d have a second bite at the cherry and blog about it here.

And the work of Santa is still needed.

Christmas customs and traditions

We’ve had a Canadian visitor coming to church with us the last week or so, and she has remarked on the differences between the way Christmas is celebrated in South Africa and Canada.

I’ve noticed some of the differences in blogs and newsgroups and such as well, and if anyone is interested in this, I’ve written more about it in my LiveJournal.

The sun is a very magic fellow

The sun is a very magic fellow
He shines on me each day

Since it’s the summer solstice and the longest day (was last night or is tonight the shortest night?), and because I’ve been discussing the Tarot with various people recently, it seemed appropriate to post this:

You are The Sun

Happiness, Content, Joy.

The meanings for the Sun are fairly simple and consistent.

Young, healthy, new, fresh. The brain is working, things that were muddled come clear, everything falls into place, and everything seems to go your way.

The Sun is ruled by the Sun, of course. This is the light that comes after the long dark night, Apollo to the Moon’s Diana. A positive card, it promises you your day in the sun. Glory, gain, triumph, pleasure, truth, success. As the moon symbolized inspiration from the unconscious, from dreams, this card symbolizes discoveries made fully consciousness and wide awake. You have an understanding and enjoyment of science and math, beautifully constructed music, carefully reasoned philosophy. It is a card of intellect, clarity of mind, and feelings of youthful energy.

What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.

The Sun Tarot cardThe main problem with it, as I’ve said in other posts, is the awful choice of display images that go with it, not one of which is the authentic Tarot sun.

The version on the left is authentic, though I prefer the variant with the drops going the other way. The Moon sucks life from the earth, the sun showers blessings, and the naked or near-naked children are open to receiving them. There is a variant that has one child riding a pony and holding a banner.

One of the things that struck me when I first began learning Zulu was the number of words in the i(li)/ama class (gender) that had to do with the basic elemenal things — ilanga sun, day; amalanga suns, days; Itshe a stone, and so on. Our life on earth is dependent on the sun, and it is basic to our existence.

And for Christians the solstice is followed shortly by the feast of the Nativity, when we sing:

Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus ChristThy Nativity, O Christ our God
has shone to the world the light of wisdom
For by it those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee
The Sun of Righeousness
And to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee.

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