Pagan Christians
They fasted, they made sacrifice, they sang hymns, they recited litanies, they walked in processions, they initiated people with water, kissed the altar, bore sacred vessels with ritual solemnity, communed with their god by partaking of a sacred meal, and they had a professional priesthood. They were Pagans.

 “Pagan” originally meant rural or rustic—in Latin paganus. It carried no negative feeling at all. Christianity was born in the Roman Empire, which accounts for Latin being the language of the Catholic Mass. People outside of cities in the Roman Empire—Pagans—clung to their old religions longer than city people, who were more easily swept into the new Jesus Movement. The rival Christians gave Pagans a bad name.

After Jesus was crucified, his followers, profoundly affected by the spiritual master, kept his memory alive. Thus, the Jesus Movement rose and spread. It could be expected that the emerging religion would borrow ways of worshiping from religions around it.

Because Jesus and his followers were Jews, his disciples adopted the Jewish chosen-people concept. This led them to denounce traditional non-Jewish (Pagan) religions in spite of sharing their ideas of Holiness and ways of relating to The Holy.

We still use Pagan words and phrases like "mystery," “salvation,” "sacrament," and "handing on truth." From Pagans comes our idea of hell or Hades. And our saints, who took on the characteristics of their lesser deities. And our halo, which first adorned the sun-god Mithras. 

And the fasting, the sacred meal (the way I was taught to think of the Mass and Communion), the professional priesthood (“professional” suggests the possibility of clericalism)—all done by Christians and Pagans alike. Christians adopted Pagan elements around them, but denounced those whose religious stories became patterns for the Christian story—typical of rivals. 

We should thank Pagans for Christmas. What developed into our beloved Christmas began in the fourth century when Christians started a feast patterned after the Roman solstice holiday. It honored the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus (Sun Invincible or the Unconquerable Sun), one of several sun gods. Jesus became another sun god. 

With Pagan gods, the mythic Jesus Christ shares having been born of a virgin on the winter solstice, having 12 disciples, 7 sacraments, dying and rising in 3 days, and being commemorated in sacred meals. In human psychology, the Lord Father takes up the same place as Zeus—authoritative commander of all, often harsh. Mary took over Goddess titles—Virgin, Queen of Heaven, Start of the Sea. 

When I was growing up in the 1950s, Catholics practiced all the elements mentioned. I can still hear the repeated melody of litanies when I was growing up. The priest would sing a saint’s name and the choir would sing, ora pro nobis (pray for us) again and again. It would have been less boring if we could have sung with the choir. 

We had processions in church that involved only the priest, servers, and men with important positions—always all males. They processed down and up and around the aisles, carrying banners while the priest bore a sacred vessel with ritual solemnity and the choir sang. 

The rest of us watched the performance, standing, kneeling, or sitting in our pews as directed by rubric. But on Corpus Christi everybody processed in the cemetery. We girls got to strew flowers in that procession. It was a big deal to fill a basket with flowers, wear a white dress, and walk around the gravestones slowly strewing the contents of our baskets. 

Today, aware that Pagans influenced our Christian liturgy, I see that the Gloria of the Mass with its paeans to the "Most High" reflects Pagan piety. I sing along just because I love to sing, but the words seem nonsensical to me. I change words if I can fit them to the melody. 

“Almighty” and “only-begotten” and “you alone are the Holy One” and “seated at the right hand of the Father” reflect Roman-Hellenistic culture with its belief in gods that dwelled “on High.” Romans had conquered Greece and absorbed Greek (Hellenistic) religions. 

Their religious idols clash with the earthy Nazarene known for sayings blunt, combative, and baffling, sayings that shatter pious certainties and challenge logic. To me, this Jesus who actually lived and subverted the foundations of conventional thinking, is far worthier of reverence than the god patterned on Pagan gods. 

I was amused to read that Christian rubrics borrowed even this small detail: In the gesture of priestly blessing, the priest raises his thumb and first two fingers while bending the other two. I used to see priests do this, but not anymore. 

Catholic processions and litanies? Not much anymore. Roman-Hellenistic influence seems to be fading. Today, both Christian and non-Christian spirituality directs us to relate with Spirit within, not bowing to gods out there and up there.                       


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