Today's newspaper contained some great news. Nearly $9million of federal stimulus money is flowing to Portland in the form of a grant to open a health care clinic in the middle of downtown for the poor. And the best part (at least in my mind)? It's taking an old, abandoned Burger King and transforming it into a one-stop medical center helping Portland's poor, homeless and mentally ill.
I love the idea of using a place that once dispensed artery-clogging Whoppers and french fries, sugar drinks and all manner of other greasy, deep fried anti-nutrition (don't get me wrong- I LOVE all of that stuff- too much, in fact), and turning it into a place that does exactly the opposite- dispenses health, medicine… help.
No doubt, when you look at the building, you'll still be able to tell it was a Burger King because of its very distinctive design. And yet- a whole different kind of impact with its presence.
And all that made me think of Christmas.
I'm remembering when I first became aware of the "pagan" origins of Christian celebrations like Christmas and Easter. Discovering that early Christians had co-opted existing pagan celebrations was a bit of a shock. No Virginia, Santa Claus, much less Christmas celebrations isn't in the Bible.
But… those who look at that fact and decide that the responsible thing is to eschew celebrating Christmas altogether or just humbug about it (especially all the non-Jesusy parts) all season long really miss the point.
Certainly- nearly all cultures and even religions have holidays around this time of year, mostly started to somehow celebrate the turn from shorter and shorter days to longer and longer ones. The move from darkness to light.
And when the early Christians looked at that, it seems they had a really good idea…
There's no reason to think that Jesus was born on December 25th. We all know that. He was most likely born in the Spring sometime, because the shepherds were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks- a Spring activity. But even though there's no reason to believe He was born then, there are great reasons to celebrate then.
Whenever we bring the Gospel into a culture, we have a responsibility to contextualize it- to use the language, the symbols and the existing social structure (where it doesn't overtly contradict the Gospel) to explain the great Good News that God Himself has come to rescue and renew all of creation through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
So what to do when your culture has celebration hard-wired in? Fight that? Talk about humbug.
But… A celebration where we focus on the coming of light into the world after a time of darkness? Hmmm… Sounds familiar.
Sounds perfect, in fact.
Custom made for re-interpretation in light of the narrative of the Gospel and Jesus. Custom made to explain the coming of the Son of Righteousness into our darkness.
Those early followers of Jesus who gave us things like Christmas, far from retreating from their culture simply repurposed some of the best parts of it. Like the solstice celebrations. And like I said- I love the irony of taking something meant to point to one thing and making it point to a better thing.
"'The Christians stole it,' said Marie Elena Castle of Minneapolis, the 82-year-old founder of Atheists for Human Rights and an atheist activist for two decades."
We took something that pointed at the sun and pointed it in a different direction. Towards the One who made the seasons, the sun and the moon, the one who came to give them real reason to celebrate. Jesus.
So if you don't want to celebrate, that's fine. Your choice! But you're not just taking yourself out of a very Christian tradition, but a very human one as well.
And don't tell me celebrating Advent isn't a great way to tell the Gospel story in a hundred different ways- to our kids in our Advent readings, to our neighbors in our hospitality and gift-giving (at a time when they are more open to that than any other time in the year), and especially to ourselves- maybe the ones who need most to hear "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord."