Tue | Feb 20, 2018

Peter Espeut | We all come from pagan origins

Published:Friday | December 15, 2017 | 12:22 AM

It’s that time of year again when my colleague Ian Boyne and I spar over the validity of Christians celebrating the birth of Christ. Sadly, Ian is not well, and I sincerely wish him a speedy and full recovery. He and I have unfinished business, and I do pray that he will be back in action soon.

We celebrate the birthdays of our parents and friends, in addition to our own. What could be the objection of celebrating the fact of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ, which is recorded in some detail in the Holy Scriptures?

Ian’s version of Christianity, championed by radio preacher Herbert W. Armstrong, initially an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Church of God, is that the celebration of the Jewish feasts of Tabernacles and Passover are to replace the celebration of the Christian feasts of Christmas and Easter. In fact, Armstrong rejected all celebration of birthdays, claiming them to be of pagan origin. Armstrongists claim that the celebration of both Christmas and Easter are to be rejected because they are of pagan origin. This view is fundamentally a historical, and must be challenged.

Before Judaism began, there were a multitude of pagan religions. Armstrong and his disciple, Bishop Boyne, would have us believe that when the Hebrew people began to practise Judaism, they invented new feasts and rituals from scratch. Nothing of the sort!

The earliest Israelite settlers in Canaan found the pagan natives celebrating an agricultural thanksgiving festival at the end of harvest time. This they adopted and transformed into a festival of Jahwism today called the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths).

The ancient Israelites took what were originally Canaanite (pagan) spring holidays and imbued them with a heightened significance when they made Passover a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.

And so the Jewish feasts of Tabernacles and Passover, which Ian and his disciples advocate, both have pagan origins. If friend Ian is consistent, he should reject them also!

The fact is, almost everything ultimately has pagan origins, because that is where we all are coming from. The word Wednesday (Mercredi in French) is named after the Germanic god Woden (the French version is named after the Roman god Mercury); as are all the names of the days of the week. January is named after the two-headed Roman god Januarius (one head looking back at the old year, and the other looking forward into the new), and March is named after the Roman god Mars. Even Ian uses these names, but I don’t believe for a moment that he worships these ancient gods. If we are to reject everything of pagan origin, what would we have left?

Celebrating God’s love

And yes, pagans celebrated their birthdays, but, after all, they were human beings; it is a human thing to celebrate one’s birthday. When Christians (and Jews) celebrate their birthdays ­ and those of others ­ we are celebrating God’s loving gift of life, not some pagan ritual.

The Jews took pagan feasts and rituals and gave them new meaning and significance; they are no longer pagan feasts and rituals. Tabernacles and Passover are not celebrated for their origins, but with new significance.

For the Jews, Passover celebrates their deliverance so many centuries ago from slavery in Egypt and from the avenging angel of death, and devout Jews still feast on their Passover lamb and unleavened bread. At his Last (Passover) Supper, Jesus told his followers that from now on, they were to “Do this in memory of me.” In other words, Christians were now to eat bread and drink wine no longer in memory of the Egypt events, but now in memory of the Calvary event, when we were saved from slavery to sin and death. The Christian celebration of Easter gives new meaning and significance to the Jewish feast of Passover.

Christian doctrine teaches that after ‘The Fall’, the world was in darkness, and in the thrall of ‘The Evil One’. When the Saviour was born, light broke into a darkened world. No one knows the day or the month when Jesus was born, but it is a scientific fact that December 21 (the winter solstice) is the darkest day of the year, and thereafter the days get longer (have more light). What better time of year to celebrate ‘the dawn from on high breaking upon us’ than right after December 21?

It is true that around the year 274 AD, the Roman emperor Aurelian made the post-Solstice worship of ‘Sol Invictus’ (the Unconquered Sun) an official feast day of the Roman state; but when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World, on December 25, this has nothing to do with the worship of a pagan sun-god, and it is disingenuous to say so.

I hope Ian recovers well enough to reply to my Christmas column this year. And I hope he will not mind if I wish him and his flock a very happy and joyful Christmas!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com