Well, it has been a long time.
In fact, it has been over six months since I last posted anything. I might try to explain the absence a little more–though mention of moving and more has already been made–but that would require an entire post in itself, and is not the point here.
Instead, I want to wish everyone happy holidays. Today is the last day of Chanukah and the fourth day of Christmas.
(Here is one of our chanukiot after the latest sundown.)
I must say, I love the winter holiday season. I love Advent and Christmas, and always have, back as far as I can remember. As a child I spent Decembers reading about Christmas traditions around the world. (I think I felt a little sad about the fact that Canada hardly ever featured in any of these accounts; because Canadians did not seem to have any unique Christmas traditions, I constantly tried to invent some. They never stuck.) I also gravitated toward the religious stories of the Christian holiday. As much as I liked Santa Claus, I preferred a pop-up book of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the one of ‘The Night Before Christmas’. I used to try to get up early on Christmas morning before the stars had gone out, hoping to see THE star, the one that heralded Jesus’ birth. Whether sighting the star would mean a Christmas miracle–a momentary glimpse of the glories of heaven shining to give hope on a dark wintry night–or a sign of the second coming of Christ, I don’t think I was ever sure.
As I grew older, and when I learned some theology, I did not stop liking the Advent to Epiphany seasons. I never became one of those cultured Christian despisers of the holidays, thinking that they had become so commercialised that they need to be abandoned for some true Christian message, but I did wish that the spiritual side of Christmas would be more emphasised. To that end, I attended much more closely to Advent and its themes of waiting and preparation; the four Sundays before Christmas became a time of reflecting on Christ’s coming in the past, the present and the future. I became an enthusiast of keeping to the church calendar, even when it seemed counter-intuitive according to all that went on around me. When I was ordained, I carried this enthusiasm with me, trying as hard as I could to make worship services meaningful from Advent 1 to the Sunday after the sixth of January. It became my practice to hold an open house at the manse on Epiphany as a way of proclaiming that the story of the birth of Jesus did not end on the 25th of December (and of having good company).
Now, however, I am a bit more conflicted about Advent and Christmas (and probably Epiphany, too, but I have not stopped to think about that yet). I know. Last year he was in a funk, you’re thinking, and this year he’s ‘conflicted’! Is this going to be one of those holiday traditions?
Well, here is what is happening.
1. I really do find that this time of year lends to a heavy inclination towards traditions, with theological and liturgical traditions being no exceptions. For instance, growing up in The Presbyterian Church in Canada has meant that my experience of Advent is indelibly linked to the liturgies produced annually by Presbyterian World Service & Development for use with the lighting of the Advent candles. In an example of ecumenical liturgical convergence, these liturgies have always been tied to the same weekly themes each year: candles of hope, peace, joy, and love for the successive Sundays of Advent, followed by a Christ candle for Christmas Eve.
But we are back in Scotland, and all my experience here has taught me that the Church of Scotland observes Advent as a much more ad hoc affair. Candles are not tied to any particular meaning; special liturgies come from each individual congregation. The first congregation I attended in Scotland (admittedly one I was finding theologically incongruent from early on) impelled me to make the first Sunday of Advent my last appearance at worship there when they did not light Advent candles at all. It appears that I do have a theological line in the sand, after all.
This is not to say that the C of S has nothing going for it at Christmas time. I enjoy many of the ways of celebrating the holidays that are new to me. I find the custom of having Watchnight services on Christmas Eve which end after midnight, thus bringing in the festival with worship, and of having Christmas morning services particularly theologically thoughtful. (Few Canadian Presbyterian congregations have Christmas Day services unless the 25th falls on a Sunday.) It is just that the differences make me more wistful and nostalgic at this time of year than at other times. Apart from Advent candles, this feeling of being away from home is heightened by the increased number of Advent and Christmas hymns whose title is familiar from my church life in Canada, but which wrong-foot me when I open mouth to sing because they are sung to a different tune over here. All these things add up to make me much more sympathetic than ever before with those people who complain when aspects of worship services change: it can really feel wrenching. As an aside, I hope I remember that the next time I am in the position to do something differently than ‘the way it has always been done’–not that I should not change anything, but that I should be ever so sensitive to the consequences.
2. Increasingly, this time of year makes me homesick.
3. Perhaps the deeper thing is that I have had to re-evaluate my theological understanding of Advent and Christmas in the light of what I have learned from being part of an interfaith family. Yes, Alana and I celebrate together as much as we can. Yes, neither hinders the other from observing the religious traditions of our holy days. I do fear sometimes that decorating for Christmas might overwhelm Chanukah, but we are working on that. However, it would not be much of a partnership if we did not attend to one another’s stories, and attending to Alana’s story has taught me that my celebration of the season is not as innocent as I once thought. Christian interpretation of Hebrew scriptures–an important part of the season of Advent for interpreting the meaning of the coming of Christ–can smack of rather unfriendly appropriation. I learned this most keenly when the two of us were in Durham on a holiday that happened to fall on the first Sunday of Advent, and I convinced Alana to join me at the cathedral for the traditional service of lessons and carols, thinking that she would enjoy the music. There followed hours upon hours of theological conversation as she told me how it felt to have the interpretation of her tradition dictated to her in a way that never stopped to even think that there might be another way of looking at things. (See Alana’s latest post for more of her views on this subject.)
Such events have made me realise that my rather easy assumptions about the meaning of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany–though I may think them rather sophisticated by some Christian theological standards–do not sit easily with everything that I profess these days. In short, some of the things I thought I had figured out require more work. Even celebrating the season with a high inflection of social justice, as I had been wont to do, does not really answer the question of how to fit the celebration of the incarnation of God into a desire for fruitful collaboration with folk from other faiths. I am not saying that it is all or nothing, but that ignoring incongruities will not make them go away; I am also not suggesting that Christians should do away with the centrality of Jesus for the Christian faith. I just think that maybe it is time for more systematic reflection on what Jesus of Nazareth whom I call the Christ means for my interaction with the world.
And this makes me bow with weariness. It will not be easy work. It means asking more questions; it means not being able to rely on past understandings. Above all, it means that I cannot go through the Christmas holidays with an immovable theological anchor holding me in place when buffeted by the stresses of the season. But I used to say to people that Christian theology was all about asking questions, and probing God’s mysteries even when you were not sure where the exploration might lead you. Even when you were afraid and the light you held seemed dim. So perhaps all of this is God’s way of telling me to act on what I say and keep going with the hard work.
Besides, theological reflection has its own joys, joys and hopes which can be carried into celebration. A few timely interventions have reminded me of this, and I would like to share them here. First, there was Velveteen Rabbi’s ‘call for kindness during the month of Kislev‘, which reminded me that it was okay to enjoy holiday celebrations. Then there was Onehandclapping, wondering why Christians preach the Advent of liberation but do not always extend the work of liberation to allowing others the freedom to be different; this reminded me that hope calls for people to continue trying to inspire transformation for the better. Finally, Reb Jeff’s discussion of different understandings of Chanukah reminded me that traditions, if they are living, are constantly being reinterpreted, and our roles as theologians are to look to the possibilities for building upon what is joyously beautiful within the tradition. In all, some different faith traditions, but all holding up lights in the winter darkness, suggesting that a return to thinking through fundamental questions does not have to be unhappy.
So, from here to wherever you are, happy holidays, merry Christmas, chag sameach, and blessings for 2012.