St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Christmas Day 2011 Sermon
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Jim Campbell

Last evening I gave the Christmas Eve sermon, and mentioned at the start that if anyone found it boring, there was plenty to read in the handout.  This morning we’re going to actually look at this handout for our sermon—at the history of Christmas! 
 
The traditions that we enjoy at Christmas today were invented by blending together customs from many different countries into what is officially our own national holiday.  It is amazing how this sacred holiday to Christians has come about over the past 2000 years! 

The history of Christmas actually dates back over 4000 years, as have a lot of our other Christian holidays.  Many of our present Christmas traditions were celebrated centuries before the Christ child was born.  Up until the last 2000 years, these celebrations were to honor multiple Gods, not even necessarily the God of the Jews.  The 12 days of Christmas, the bright fires, the yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday feasts, and the church processions can all be traced back as far as the early Mesopotamians. 
 
The Persians and the Babylonians had a festival called the Sacaea, that included the exchanging of places--the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey.  Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls.  As the Winter Solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return.  Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.  In Scandinavia, a great festival would be held, called the Yuletide, and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log.  Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.  The ancient Greeks held a festival similar to that of these older festivals to assist their god Kronos who would battle the god Zeus and his Titans.
 
The Romans celebrated their god Saturn.  Their festival was called Saturnalia which began the middle of December and ended January 1st.   With cries of "Jo Saturnalia!" the celebration would include masquerades in the streets, big festive meals, visiting friends, and the exchange of good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits).  The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles.  And the masters and slaves would exchange places.
 
"Jo Saturnalia!" was a fun and festive time for the Romans, but the Christians though it an abomination to honor the pagan god.  The early Christians wanted to keep the birthday of their Christ child a solemn and religious holiday, not one of cheer and merriment as was the pagan Saturnalia.  But as Christianity spread they were alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs and Saturnalia among their converts. At first the Church forbade this kind of celebration, but it did not cease.  Eventually it was decided that the celebration would be tamed and made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God.
 
Some legends claim that the Christian "Christmas" celebration was invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December.  The 25th was not only sacred to the Romans but also the Persians whose religion Mithraism was one of Christianity's main rivals at that time.  The Church eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights, and gifts from the Saturnalia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas.
 
The exact day of the Christ child's birth has never been pinpointed.  Traditions say that it has been celebrated since the year 98 AD.  In 137 AD the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of the Christ Child celebrated as a solemn feast.  In 350 AD another Bishop of Rome, Julius I, choose December 25th as the observance of Christmas.

By 1100, Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe, and Saint Nicholas was a symbol of gift giving in many European countries.  During the 1400's and 1500's, many artists painted scenes of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. 

[The popularity of Christmas grew until the Reformation, a religious movement of the 1500's.  This movement gave birth to Protestantism.  During the Reformation, many Christians began to consider Christmas a pagan celebration because it included nonreligious customs.  During the 1600's, because of these feelings, Christmas was outlawed in England and in parts of the English colonies in America.  The old customs of feasting and decorating, however, soon reappeared and blended with the more Christian aspects of the celebration.

In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe.  When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas.  But by popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.] 
 
When you look at the evolution of Christmas in America, it is a wonder that it ever became what it is today, just based on the religious and political forces involved.
 
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell.  As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America.  From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.  Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.  By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
 
After the American Revolution, all English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas.  In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia.   Along with this, though, in 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (popular from its first line—“Twas the Night Before Christmas”).  This poem made very popular the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume real economic importance.
 
[Before the Civil War the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas, as well as on the question of slavery.  Many Northerners saw sin in the celebration of Christmas; to these people the celebration of Thanksgiving was more appropriate.  But in the South, Christmas was an important part of the social season.  Not surprisingly, the first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836, and Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

In the years after the Civil War, Christmas traditions spread across the country.] Children's books played an important role in spreading the customs of celebrating Christmas, especially the tradition of trimmed trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus. Sunday school classes encouraged the celebration of Christmas.  Women's magazines were also very important in suggesting ways to decorate for the holidays, as well as how to make these decorations.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America eagerly decorated trees, caroled, baked, and shopped for the Christmas season.  Christmas was declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870.  Since that time, materialism, media, advertising, and mass marketing has increased and expanded and made Christmas what it is today in a secular, commercial sense.   The spiritual sense still remains too, though.
 
I said last evening, looking at Christmas now in the spiritual sense, all who have been exposed to the Christian faith at all know in their hearts the real reason for this Christmas season.  Almost 85% of people in America say they are Christian, and over a 1/3 of the entire world are Christian, and most everyone else has been exposed to the Christian faith at some time. 
 
I read an article just this morning from CNN that talked about ways other faiths are celebrating Christmas,  "Interestingly enough, other faiths in this country celebrate Christmas mostly as Christians do.  The Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger in Bethlehem 2000 some odd years ago extends across the country.  Christmas at every corner can be somewhat problematic for those who are not in the estimated 246 million Christians living in the United States.  But for some faiths, the season brings reminders of their own traditions.
 
Imam Mohamed Magid, the executive director at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, preached about Jesus at Friday prayers.  "We live in a country with a majority of Christians, where Christmas is a major holiday... It's a reminder we do believe in Jesus.  Jesus' position in Islam is one of the highest prophets in Islam," Magid said, adding that Muslims view Jesus as a prophet on par with Abraham, Moses, Noah and Mohammad.  "Jesus is a unifying figure, unifying Muslims and Christians," he said. The Quran, the Islamic scriptures, makes specific mention of Jesus and of his mother Mary. "It's very interesting that there are many places where the prophet (Mohammad) is quoting Jesus."  Magid said Muslims believe many of the same things about Jesus that Christians do: Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, he lived a sinless life, he raised the dead, and he performed miracles. He also said many Muslim scholars believe that Jesus will one day return to the earth, using the Christian vocabulary of "the Second Coming."
 
At the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery three hours north of San Francisco, there is a small Christmas tree set up near the statue of the Buddha.  "Normally we just have flowers, incense and candles, but now we have a tiny Christmas tree.  It's really cute," Ajhan Yatiko, a monk in residence who is originally from Canada, said. "It's more like a traditional thing, respecting and appreciating the culture of where we live."
 
During the holidays, Yatiko said, "The senior monk might give a talk to the lay people which might draw parallels between the Christian faith and the Buddhist faith, as well as the differences, because I think both of those are important aspects of interfaith harmony.  "Sometimes in the West these days there's a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, 'We're all climbing the same mountain,' and I think the intention there is nice.  There's a harmonious intention there. But I think it's much nicer to say, 'Let's respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths," Yatiko said.
 
"We do have some rather revered traditions for Christmas Day," said Rabbi Rick Rheins.  "I'm not sure if it was Talmudic or not, to visit the movie theater followed by a Chinese dinner," joked Rheins referring the collection of ancient rabbi teaching called the Talmud.  "What's Christmas without chopsticks?" joked Rheins who is the head of Denver's Temple Sinai, a reformed congregation of about 1,100 families. "We acknowledge the importance of this day for our Christian neighbors and for my Christian colleagues.  And so we don't celebrate Christmas as Jews, but we do thrill for our Christian neighbors," he said. Rheins said the celebration of Hanukkah simultaneously at Christmastime this year will mean he won't be bringing in any Christmas metaphors into services on Friday and Saturday.  "Christians and Jews, especially over the last generation, have really worked so hard to build bridges, not just of tolerance, but also have generated true mutual respect and cooperation," he said. He cited working to fight hunger and poverty together. "These are the expressions of a society where the differences in religion and the expressions of one's faith are less divisive than they are enriching. 
 
Christmas has a way of seeping into Hindu traditions, as well.  At least the tree and presents part.  "Because of the children," Uma Mysorekar, the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America said.  "The children say, 'Oh, there's a tree in my friend's house.   Why not in my house?'  So they will get a small tree, a symbolic tree," Mysorekar said.  "We do look up to Jesus as one of the deities of Christianity," Mysorekar said."
 
As a positive way of finishing up, I read last night that tens of thousands of tourists and Christian pilgrims had packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the traditional birthplace of Jesus on a raw, breezy and rainy night.
 
"With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.  Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000.  As the fighting has subsided in recent years, the tourists have returned in large numbers and all of the city's hotels were fully booked.  By late night, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem, up from 70,000 the previous year.
 
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, along with a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree, was awash in Christmas lights, and the town took on a festival-like atmosphere.  Vendors hawked balloons and corn on the cob, and bands played Christmas songs and tourists packed cafes that are sleepy the rest of the year.  As rain began falling in the early evening, many people cleared out of the square and raced to nearby restaurants.  Festivities culminated with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
 
Among the visitors were a surprisingly large number of veiled Muslim women with their families, out to enjoy an evening out in what is normally a quiet town.  "We love to share this holiday with our Christian brothers," said Amal Ayash, 46, who came to Manger Square with her three daughters, all of them covered in veils.  "It is a Palestinian holiday and we love to come here and watch."
 
Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995, and since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of their religion.  Pilgrims from around the world also wandered the streets, singing Christmas carols and visiting churches. 
 
Late Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a meeting of Christian leaders that he is committed to reaching peace with Israel, despite a three-year standstill in negotiations.  "I hope they will come back to their senses and understand that we are seekers of peace, not seekers of war or terrorism," said Abbas, a Muslim. "The mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side in this Holy Land.""
 
I really believe that this is what Jesus wants for all of us—that we will come to accept each other, regardless of their faith, and to live side by side.  The reason for Christmas, from the early Christians to now, is because Jesus was born into this world to be one of us, to show us the true love of God, and the way to live and treat each other.  Christians are to present this unique message of Jesus Christ—a little child born in meek surrounding who came to bring change to the world and bring the world to God, in love.


 

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