Less important— at least if television is your barometer for understanding the cosmos—this is the third week of Advent in the Year of our Lord, Anno Domini, 2007. On the 25th of this month, churches will celebrate the Christ-Mass. The ancient, solemn Christian feast day has evolved from a high mass to a bewildering mess of confused children parading on stages wearing bathrobes.
The traditional liturgical calendar has four weeks for Advent followed by Ash Wednesday, with Lent beginning Feb. 6, less than six weeks away. The church in the fourth century defined time as starting with the birth of Jesus rather than measuring it with the time spent in office by Roman rulers.
The church converted the winter solstice on Dec. 22 from a pagan to a religious holiday, thus giving a new meaning for movements of the sun and earth. The Christian community even developed its own heroes as role models, among them Saint Nicholas—the patron saint of sailors, children and the poor.
The Christmas story is about kings who come to recognize a new order as did peasant shepherds. Our current ritual of giving gifts to the weakest members of society—the children, the poor and the isolated—is a form of remembering this new upside-down kingdom.
I love listening to my friends and clients describe how they celebrated Christmas in their homelands. They may use a different calendar in the Eastern Church and have a different day for gift giving and feasting. But in a mysterious way, some folks in Baghdad, Ho Chi Minh City, Warsaw and rural Mexico will go to sanctuary to share a common sacred time.
Our problem in America is not the debate whether shop clerks should wish us a happy holiday or a “Merry Christmas” at the cash register. The problem is not even if city hall should install a crèche in a public space.
Indeed, this is the season to be suspicious of merchants and kings. After all, the other player in the nativity story was King Herod—who tried to co-opt the significance of the birth of Jesus.
Maybe Christians should ask governments to take down crèches in public spaces and ask clerks to offer “happy holidays” as a greeting and keep the Christian calendar as a more private affair.
This would raise the question for those of us in a church. Do we actually understand this is real time, sacred space and a new way of seeing the universe? Do we actually believe that what happens inside the worship space is more real than what happens in the Iowa primaries or at shopping malls?
To believe this is to make an audacious and even outrageous claim. This would make worship the ultimate political act—an act of defiance against the world—the belief that the Christian worldview is real and the “world” is less real.
You can contact the author at dale.Suderman @gmail.com.