The last post explored the political, cultural and religious threads woven into the fabric of Christmas, but it did not contemplate spirituality. How do we find spiritual meaning in the Christmas season? Of all the threads, the spiritual one is the oldest, most diverse and perhaps the strongest.
The Talmud is a compilation of Judaism’s Oral Law first written around 200 CE. It describes two pagan festivals celebrated 8 days before and 8 days after the winter solstice. The Talmud asserts the pagan festivals originated in a story about Adam, wherein he feared that the shortening days signaled a descent back into the chaos before creation as a punishment for his sins. He fasted in repentance for 8 days and then noticed the days getting longer, whereupon he celebrated for 8 days. The story reflects something in the human spirit that yearns for longer days, a new season and the promise of redemption. It reflects the nature of the human soul to wait and to hope.
Christmas as we know it inherited traditions from many cultures. Some of them existed centuries before Christ, and some seem like traditions that Jesus would endorse. For example, Saturnalia’s week-long role reversal of masters and slaves seems like an appropriate way to honor the one who said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave,” and “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:26-28) Other traditions incite excessive consumption and debauchery. I cannot find a spiritual thread connecting those indulgent traditions to the humility of Christ, and yet they persist to this day. It’s ironic that the tradition of role reversal, meanwhile, has died.
I have heard the observance of Christmas attributed to Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the empire. While that would be consistent with the Roman pattern of assimilating peoples’ indigenous practices and making them Roman, it does not agree with history. The Eastern Roman Empire celebrated Epiphany, and when a bishop said the Christmas feast, it was included on the Epiphany. It was during the century of Constantine’s rule, however, that theologians attached Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice. This choice may have been influenced more by religious symbolism than by pagan practice. Scripture quotes John the Baptist in regard to Jesus’ budding ministry saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30) That is the 2nd century rationale for aligning Jesus’ birthday to the winter solstice symbolizing his growing ministry and John’s to the summer solstice symbolizing the fulfillment of his.
All the traditions Christmas inherited—those that seem aligned to Jesus’ teaching and those that seem to have no place—have something in common. They exhibit the human capacity for hope. A farmer waiting for the first sprouts to bud in spring, a pregnant woman waiting to hold her infant, a sinner hoping to be saved from the net of his own making—they are all utterly human. As you exist in all the tensions and contradictions tangled up in Christmas, reach for the hope that connects us through it all.
Join the conversation. What does your soul hope and wait for this Christmas season?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.