A “Church” that Never Saw “Christmas”
As we hurtle toward yet another “Christmas,” awaiting the last deliveries of packages from our online shopping (does anyone go to real stores anymore?) and gobbling up “just one more cookie” for the fourth time in an hour, it might be helpful to stop. What is going on? What and who are we celebrating?
“Church” is increasingly marginalized in Western society. Not only in the “put Christ back into Christmas” kind of way. But Church has little or no voice in the world, and the world increasingly dictates what Church looks like. Our suburban church buildings tend to look like suburban big-box stores. Our church governance is shifting to a CEO style, so our church’s Boards of Directors assess their pastor with the same hire-and-fire mentality that they operate with at the workplace. Balance sheets are routinely printed in the weekly church bulletin, as if it was, like the Dow Jones and the S&P 500, another indicator of the health of the economy. Layer upon layer upon layer has been added to “church;” one wonders of, it times, the Bridegroom can even recognize his Bride for all the layers of gaudy makeup and false eyelashes that she has “prettied” herself up with.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I saw a recent blurb about an exhibition of art from Dura-Europos, now on display at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, through Jan. 8, 2012. Dura-Europos, in modern-day western Syria, was located at the crossroads of several ancient civilizations. In the Roman Period, which saw the rise and destruction of the city, it was a border town between the Roman Empire and the Parthians, a people who gave Rome no end of trouble, and were a major reason that the Romans maintained troops in the province of Syria (from which Judea and Jerusalem was administered). The city was destroyed in AD 256/7; just before its destruction, however, a house in the city was converted to use for Christian worship (in roughly 232). There is debate about whether this particular house reminded a private residence but was used also for worship, or whether it became a “church building” used solely for worship (excellent discussions are found in R MacMullen, The Second Church and W H C Frend, The Archeology of Early Christianity). From the outside, the building itself looked like any other residence on the street; its walls were incorporated into the surrounding structures and indeed into the exterior city defensive wall. There are no parking lots, in case you are wondering. But there is art, such as depictions of processions from the baptistery to the assembly room, with women on one side and men on the other (as was typical Eastern practice). There are depictions of events in Jesus’ ministry, such as walking on the water and healing a paralytic. Something like, I suppose, the stained glass windows of Western church building. The congregation would not have been large; the assembly room could hold, at most, 70 individuals. An excellent page on the city and the house that was used for Christian worship is provided by Yale University’s Art Gallery. The image below is one reconstruction of the building, though of course the labels are quite hypothetical.
This house is not the only place of worship in Dura-Europos. Like all pre-Constantinian cities, religious diversity was the rule, not the exception. A Jewish synagogue and a temple to Mithras have also been excavated. What can we determine about the lives and worship of the Christians who gathered here? Not much, for unfortunately walls don’t speak. Although the walls were not fully intact when excavated, it is striking that a few scenes from Jesus’ ministry are not evident. The crucifixion and resurrection are missing, as is also the nativity.
Which brings us back to Christmas. The absence of reference to the death and resurrection is surprising — after all, these events are what make faith in Christ matter (1 Cor 15:1-11, 17). But the lack of reference to the nativity is not. There is no evidence for “Christmas” as part of the worship life of the church until 80 years after the “church” in Dura-Europos was destroyed: there is a reference in a Roman text in AD 336, which lists Dec 25 as the festival of natus Christus in Betleem Judeae. Shortly thereafter there is evidence for a festival of the nativity in the eastern empire, with its capital in Constantinople, celebrated on Jan 6 (the West’s date for Epiphany). Imagine, you pastors out there, if you were serving a second or third century church and not having the “Christmas” rush every year?
This is not to argue, of course, that the Feast of the Nativity should not be observed; a celebration of the Divine Service is a wholly appropriate way to reflect on the Incarnation, an opportunity to “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” But is “silence” in the presence of the Incarnate One what we will keep on Dec. 25? Or something else? We have piled stuff onto “Christmas,” so much stuff that “silence” is hardly even possible any more. And we’ve done this to ourselves, as we’ve added, bit by bit, to “Christmas.” Allow a few examples:
Much of the nineteenth century Christmas hymnody that we still sing today is about “Christmas,” not about the birth of the Messiah. Rather, it reflects a Victorian Britain celebration. In the first century, Mary and Joseph did not “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” for snow is a December phenomenon in England, not something that occurs in a Judean Spring (when the “shepherds in the fields” would have been keeping watch over the sheep who were giving birth and tending their lambs). It was not a “Bleak Midwinter” (though this carol, mercifully, did not make it into recent Lutheran hymnals). Try telling our brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere that Dec. 25 will be bleak, while they are lounging on their beaches and pursuing summertime activities. Other elements of the Christmas story are older, but no less fictitious. “What Child is This” sings of the place “where ox and ass are feeding.” Although we all have an ox and a donkey in our nativity sets, there are no animals mentioned in the gospel accounts. Rather, this comes from a text called Pseudo-Matthew, a seventh-century narrative of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. This text is itself based on an earlier, second-century text called the Protoevangelium of James, which is the source for much of the Christmas imagery: Joseph as an old man; the journey to Bethlehem being made on a donkey; the depiction of the birth in cave (or grotto), etc. Other items, such as the “no room at the inn” and the Christmas pageant innkeeper, are the result of mistranslations in our English Bibles.
Now, all this is not to say that we should strip down everything out of the Christmas story (although some reflection on what we’ve done to “Christmas” would be a good thing). Rather, what might be helpful in this time of way too much stress is to keep the main thing the main thing. Is it not odd that the actual church festival, the Feast of the Nativity, is the least attended of all the Christmas services? Some congregations have three and even four Christmas Eve services — and Christmas music festivals and children’s programs in the weeks before Christmas. But on the actual nativity feast day only one service is held, and that so sparsely attended that a few congregations don’t offer Divine Service on that day at all.
All this is to say, simply, stop. Keep silence. Ponder, and stand in awe. What are you doing this week, and does it help? The church could, unbelievable as it may seem, survive without “Christmas.” Without Christ, without his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and return, it could not survive. But the Church, even the Church you attend or serve, doesn’t need “Christmas.”