Thursday, December 22, 2011

How Christmas began

The history of Christmas should make us ponder. Christians had no Christmas for more than 200 years after Jesus was born. The origin of the feast had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus because no one knew when he was born.

Bible scholars inform us of contradictions and impossibilities in the biblical accounts contributing to the myth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (the authors actually are unknown, but that’s another story). Rev. E. J. Niles, a scholar quoted in Unity magazine, says,
I love how Joseph was said to take his pregnant wife Mary 94 miles to Bethlehem to fulfill a type of civic duty (a census) that most women would never have even participated in during those times.
Also factual nonsense are the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, which disagree with each other, as do their implied dates of Jesus’ birth. Quirinius was governor after Herod died, not before.

But we don’t need Bible scholars to tell us that the manger myth lacks facts; any intelligent reader can infer its disagreements with science and history. Myths are not about facts; they're about meaning.

Not until the third century, at the earliest, did Christmas begin. It developed in competition with Pagan feasts observing the birthday of the sun on the winter solstice, when the sun “dies” as daylight reaches its shortest point and then is reborn or resurrected as daylight increases. The Romans celebrated Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, “whose annual journey across our sky can be celebrated worldwide as a truly unifying expression of our global family.” This last lovely sentiment comes from Acharya S., an atheist writer. I note this to banish Christian notions that we own Christmas exclusively.

The earliest written record of Christmas appeared in 336 CE, and in 354, a calendar entry for December 25 listed the births of both Sol Invictus and of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. This double notice provides an example of syncretism, the melding of religious ideas, which, contrary to Christian claims, occurred often in our tradition.

Before the earth was known to be a revolving sphere, the sun mysteriously disappeared in the west every evening, followed some unknown course below earth during the night, then reappeared in the east every morning. Naturally this cycle of nature inspired mythmaking. The Goddess enveloped the sun in her body in the evening and sent it forth in the morning. The Greek sun god Helios crossed the heavens from east to west in a shiny chariot, descended to the underworld, and was "born anew every morning," sang the poet Horace.

The sun's daily descent and ascent also provided rich Christian symbolism. Surrounded by and steeped in Greek myth, Christians of the early centuries imagined Christ journeying to the underworld and rising in the east. "As the sun rises daily for all, so the mystical Sun of Righteousness rises for all," sang a Christian verse. In ancient records Christ was listed as one sun deity among several.

Pagans called their birthday feast of the sun god “Epiphany,” meaning "appearance." The Pagan Epiphany happened on January 6, which also became the date of the rival Christian feast celebrating Christ's appearance in the flesh, showing Christmas to be one solar celebration among several.
Calendar adjustments moved the winter solstice to December 25 and later to December 21. Some quarreling between Christians in East and West broke out when the East continued to observe the birth of Christ on January 6 after the West switched to December 25. Today Eastern Orthodox Christians still celebrate Christmas on January 6.

Because of its Pagan origin, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas at all, and a few other Christian groups have discredited Christmas for the same reason. But that would also disqualify Easter, All Souls Day (Halloween), and other Christian feasts related to Pagan holidays.

For thousands of years before Christians took over solstice celebrations, human cultures developed myth and ritual to mark it. Huge bonfires were an important part of such events. We can easily imagine that before artificial light existed, the annual shrinking of light down to the shortest day of the year, followed by the steady growth of light foretelling spring, would have had a huge impact on human life.
Today we see the human impulse to light up the darkness in the riot of artificial lighting from November to January. The lights are not necessarily related to the Christian festival, as few people in the West believe the manger story literally anymore.

But for good reasons we continue singing songs that repeat and embellish the myth. There must be something besides commercial value that makes Christmas precious to more than believing Christians. The birth of the Child represents the birth of the precious Self inside each of us, the Christ consciousness in every person—the urge to give generously, the warm feelings of unity with all. This, I believe, is the enduring value of Christmas.

Christmas message, December 26, 2008
Here's my Christmas message along with my consoling philosophy/faith. I learned 28 years ago that I could reconcile my knowledge of Christian myth with my need for spiritual solace by trusting in a Higher Power. It shows Its face in interesting ways when I give myself over to Its guidance.

I was planning to drive somewhere on Christmas Day, having spent Christmas Eve with my son and daughter. In various ways I was prompted to change my mind, sure that it was best to stay home. I prepared to enjoy music and reading. But a friend in emotional need called and we spent much of the day together. I could not have been there for her, had I insisted on my original plan instead of being attuned to the subtle prompts diverting me from that plan.

This sort of thing happens to me often—an inner thread pulling me through the little and big decisions of life. Others attuned to a Higher Power, whether they respond to Jesus or another name, will not scoff at this.

I don’t consider this a late Christmas message. When I was growing up we started the Christmas season on December 25, and it lasted through January. The Advent period before that really did await the day when celebrations would start. On Christmas morning we woke up to the miracle performed by Christ Kindchen the night before. He brought our presents, trimmed the tree, made Christmas cookies—everything. When a school classmate told me slyly that Santa Claus was fake, I was surprised that he’d ever believed in silly Santa Claus. It did start the wheels in my little brain turning with regard to belief in the miracle.

I resent consumerism for stealing Christmas. On this day after December 25, radio stations refuse to play Christmas music anymore, the inspirational, meditative music appropriate to this dark and wintry transitional time between the old and the new. Professional musicians and singers who perform the music know its text is based on myth but appreciate our spiritual heritage. But the commercial world has convinced Americans that material stuff makes up the whole purpose of life. No more buying presents after the 25th, so no reason to play Christmas music. Despicable reasoning.

I wonder what the purveyors of consumerism think “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are about. The twelfth day was Epiphany on January 6, which was the Roman Empire’s winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it to December 25. Pagan religions celebrated the birth of the sun on this day and Christians established a rival feast to celebrate the birthday of their “true sun.” When the solstice moved to the 21st in another adjustment, Christmas stayed on the 25th in the West, but Eastern Orthodox still celebrate Christmas on January 6.

Dates and names are less important than the theme of death and renewal—Easter’s theme. For this reason it was a more important Christian feast than Christmas, before consumerism stepped in. Enough of that.

May the economic downturn direct us away from material things during the following year and toward healthy, loving relationships. This is my Christmas wish for all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Back to being sheep

Back to being sheep, December 8, 2011
The overthrow of ICEL
The new Mass language produces more than a few ripples of indignation, but only in people who know what took place. Ordinary people in the pews, unaware of the history preceding this change and oblivious to the implications of language, accept it without question. All Catholics who attend Mass, however, will be affected negatively, especially those unaware of what happened.
A reader asked me to comment on the new translation, and I am happy to comply, but first I expose the conspiracy. Yes, conspiracy.

An International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) produced its first Vatican II-mandated English translation of the liturgy in 1973 and continued its work to improve the first hastily-wrought translation. Liturgical, biblical, and linguistic experts—even poets—from around the world contributed to a new translation, finished in 1998, that focused on beauty of phrase while accurately translating the sense of the original Latin. All English language conferences of bishops approved it.

But not the Vatican. There a small group secretly made another translation now imposed on the world. The perpetrators, still not known, obviously had the cooperation of Benedict XVI.

Word-sensitive persons react negatively to the imposed liturgy:
Clumsy . . . wordy . . . very stilted . . . awkward and convoluted . . . abstract . . . word-for word literal . . . gobbledygook . . .
There are traps for the unwary . . . [It] ends up suggesting that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit are instrumental in scattering God’s children.
Anthony Ruff, of the St. John’s, Collegeville, Benedictine community, resigned his chairmanship of ICEL’s music committee and wrote:
The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church.
When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process—and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity . . . I weep.
His widely-quoted words explain the outrage from the perspectives of authority and linguistic inadequacy. I object for another reason.

Over the course of centuries, Catholics have grown up; they’ve become less like sheep, more educated and less dependent on the word of clergy. Eastern spirituality and secular humanism have contributed to an evolution in recognizing the worth of each individual human person—a trend appearing not only in religion. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. in 1948 also signals this trend toward recognizing the dignity of the human person in all its forms.

The words Catholics will now say buck this trend. I’ll explain next time.

December 16, 2011
I’m annoyed by the obsequious compliance of Catholics with the Mass language changes. I said Catholics have grown up, but many grown up Catholics give up on Christianity, even on Jesus, and leave. Of those who remain in Catholicism, most go along with hierarchical commands because it’s easier or because they would lose too much if they stood up for their convictions.

Yes, some language changes are “piddly,” as one person observed, but taken together, they seek to widen the distance between us and sacred divinity. I think the perpetrators had a deep motive, one not acknowledged and perhaps not even consciously recognized by them—reinforcing hierarchical control.
The changes do this in two ways—by beating out the theme of human unworthiness and using Latin expressions to make God seem unreachable except through the power of ordained clerics. This creates a chasm between divinity and humanity in direct opposition to the ascending theme of divinity within all. In the last half of the twentieth century an ascending chorus of voices has sung the song of an animating power we call God dwelling within physical reality. The imposed translation tries to reverse this growing realization.

To me, the proclamation, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” celebrates ongoing, universal expressions of divinity, because Christ represents the divine spark within all, ever nudging us to become better persons. Thus, Christ is constantly dying, rising, and being reborn.
But this proclamation has been replaced by the words, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again.” The interjection of “Lord” vetoes the universal interpretation and directs us to believe literally in the myth of a god who died for us and will come again at an end of the world.

Worse and glaringly obvious is the interjection of guilt-inducing words in a confession that used to read simply, “I have sinned through my own fault.” Now they want people to say “I have greatly sinned . . . through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” It would be laughable if it didn’t do so much harm.
The mostly-women congregations left in Catholic churches definitely do not need to hear how unworthy they are, given the tendency of women to grovel in self-criticism and the rates of violence against women. I repeat the accusation I flung out in my Sermon to Catholic priests:
What you don’t realize is that you contribute to sex abuse every time you say Mass.
Provocative? Yes. I hope to provoke change. An indictment of Catholic priests? No. The vast majority are innocent, good, and doing good, while oblivious to the wickedness wrought by the words they say. My Sermon explains adequately; here I have another task.

The second way the imposed translation induces a feeling of remoteness from divinity is by slavish devotion to Latin. As Rita Ferrone states in Commonweal, the imposed translation doesn't sing because it exactly renders
each word and expression of the Latin, [using] sacral vocabulary remote from ordinary speech . . .
It has resulted in prayers that are long-winded, pointlessly complex, hard to proclaim, and difficult to understand. . . .
Like so many of the newly translated prayers, it will come across as theo-babble, holy nonsense.
Some changes are hilarious.
“Not worthy that you should enter under my roof” replaces “not worthy to receive.”
“He took the precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands” replaces “he took the cup.” This theo-babble is especially amusing—the Latin word, calix, simply means cup.
“Consubstantial” replaces “one in being.”
He descended into hell” replaces “he descended to the dead.” This science-defying phrase reflects the first-century belief in a 3-tiered universe with earth sandwiched between heaven and hell where the dead lived. Among other deities, the goddess Persephone traveled up and down between the three levels, preparing the way for the god Jesus to ascend and descend.
The great spiritual master Jesus of Nazareth turned into a male idol! As one of my readers lamented,
Jesus has been polluted and contaminated beyond all recognition.
The foolish changes in liturgical language magnify problems already there—creating a male idol, reinforcing the feeling of human unworthiness, and reinforcing the damage to women. They not only debase the liturgy; they debase humanity.

Lords, Fathers, He’s & Him’s, January 2, 2012

The new imposed Mass translation is even more sexist than the one it replaced; it’s loaded with “Lords,” “Father’s,” “He’s” & “Him’s.” One passage in the Nicene Creed illustrates what appears to be deliberate patriarchal propaganda.
The former text read, “he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became flesh.”
The imposed one reads, “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
It foolishly substitutes the Latin-sounding “incarnate” for “born” a few lines below the silly “consubstantial.” So we should expect its literal translations from the Latin to continue. But then it mistranslates from the Latin with the phrase “became man” instead of accurately translating the Latin caro and the Greek sarx as “flesh.” (Thanks to my scripture consultant Vincent Smiles for supplying the Latin and Greek.)
I can’t help thinking that the conspirators imposing this translation had in mind something very different from accuracy.
Richard McBrien weighed in on the new Mass translation. He corrected the
seriously mistaken impression abroad that the new translation of the missal was inspired and promoted by liturgists. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I've heard Catholics say that their pastors, though not conservative, have praised the new translations. Either their pastors are not being honest because they don't want to be reported to their bishop or they are deep-down right-wing in their thinking.
Well said. For background on the imposed language changes and why they invite outrage, scroll down.

McBrien identifies 3 strengths of Catholicism —its openness to other religions, its openness to scientific findings, and Catholic social teaching. I heartily concur—these elements make me proud to be Catholic. But I would list them in reverse order—Catholic social teaching, openness to science, and the Catholic attitude toward other religions, which is far from consistently open.
I could also have been proud of my church if, instead of wasting money and energy to impose the bungling translation, it had accepted a translation that international language experts perfected in decades of painstaking, cooperative labor. That Catholic institutions, instead, comply with meek docility to foolish Vatican directives disappoints me. One of these years Vatican tyranny will be too much and it will get the pushback it deserves.
I understand the reluctance to revolt. I can write acerbic criticisms of hierarchy because I’m not in the position of religious leaders who risk losing their jobs for taking a conscience stand or who have to protect their whole religious communities. How admirable those who speak out despite their vulnerability!
Increasingly, we see instances of conscience revolts among Catholics. There is the whole sex abuse scandal moving in on hierarchs who covered up the crimes and perpetuated the abuse by moving offenders around. I feel for church leaders who now have to clean up after the guilty ones.
There were the brave sisters in the Catholic Health Association who corrected U.S. bishops when they opposed the health care bill. The legislation passed because of the sisters’ stand and, as a result, health care is being extended to more people.
There are the Roman Catholic Womenpriests whom the Vatican declares self-excommunicated, along with religious leaders like Roy Bourgeois who openly support them.
There are the theologians ignited into a firestorm of protest against the U.S. bishops’ ill-advised condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson’s award-winning book, Quest for the Living God. Understandably, theologians fear that theology subject to Rome and confined to pushing traditional dogma will be ridiculed. Theologians who dare to challenge literal interpretations of doctrine excite me, but that’s too large a topic for this post.

I rejoice over every protest against hierarchical tyranny and eagerly await more because, only when religious abuse of power is thoroughly discredited, can deeper spiritual awareness flourish. The imposed translation illustrates the truth of Carl Jung’s words:
Religion is a defense against the experience of God.
Authentic spiritual experience in today’s Catholic Church happens in spite of the institution, not because of it.