Orville Taylor | A Hard Religious Talk at Christmas
My departed colleague Ian Boyne would, in his usually unflappable demeanour, perhaps shake his head and wag his finger over my mischievous commentaries, which for some, border on blasphemy. Appearing on Profile was never one of my goals. However, from time to time, the thought of appearing on Religious Hard Talk was very appealing, especially since many of the zealots and sheep blindly follow and profess doctrines and alleged biblical tenets, often resting their brains for future usage.
Boyne approached me a few years ago, and, interrupted by his laugh, told me that he understood the thinly veiled reference to 'I am boring' as I disagreed with him in one of my columns. The substance of the difference we had I have long forgotten. However, it was the compliment that has remained with me since because I was humbled to know that in a profession where egos are larger than incomes, that was the salient comment he chose to make to his less-known critic.
He was a consummate intellect whose knowledge and defence of Christianity impressed me, and many controversial topics have swollen my head even as he discussed with other Christians who are so unchallengeable that they apparently helped write the scriptures.
Nonetheless, during this festival of three holidays, I have to keep the debate with Boyne to myself, and, assuming that he is right, we might just meet again to finish the conversation elsewhere. Anyway, call me Scrooge if you will, but I accept that Christmas is just a nice time and season for people to get excited about excessive eating, drinking, and spending. And don't tell me that it is the solemn season. Work with it. It is the festive season, meaning that it is some kind of festival where we just take a break from the drudgery of the past year.
All right, so we go to church for the second or third time of the year and listen as Pastor or Father pitches well-rehearsed speeches to the temporary prodigals who pop in and try to slide out before the offering is being collected. Worse, there might be those who make large donations to somehow make peace with God.
Boyne was acquainted with the pagan celebrations associated with the winter solstice, when Europeans celebrated the harvest and return of the sun, as well as the Norse people, who celebrated Yuletide around December 21, long before Christianity made its way to Scandinavia. Moreover, it was around 336 AD that Christmas was first celebrated in the Holy Roman Empire, under the rule of Emperor Constantine, who had opened the door for Christianity to be its official religion in 313 AD.
As a devout Christian scholar, Boyne must have had serious misgivings about the image of the Sinterklaus, or Santa Claus, taking on almost God-like powers. Being able to see into the hearts of every little child and visit every single household during a few short hours into the Western world undetected, like a 'thief in the night', sounds too awesomely like what we are told Jesus can do. If that is not sacrilege or blasphemy, the Pope is Muslim.
Of course, we know that based on the circumstances outlined in the Bible, Jesus couldn't possibly have been born in December. Indeed, as Boyne would have admitted, Jesus's birth year cannot be pinned down to 0 AD. Rather, it ranges somewhere between 6 BC and 6 AD.
In principle, celebrating the birth of Jesus is acceptable within the teachings of Christendom. After all, he is the Messiah, who came to lead the Jews. At least, that is what the Christians and Paulians say.
Christians interpret Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel," to refer to Jesus. However, the then Jews and the 13 million who live by the Torah (Old Testament) today only acknowledge him as a prophet, with perhaps less reverence and stature than Muslims accord to him. Judaism does not acknowledge as 'gospel' when Jesus in John 14:6 said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."
Perhaps Boyne might not have been so bold. However, according to Christianity, given that Christ is the only way, the 1.8 billion Muslims should be destined to some other place apart from heaven. And before the celebrants of Hanukkah start becoming self-righteous and refer to other religions as infidels or non-believers, they should be mindful. Unless Jews change their beliefs that the man who they allowed the Romans to nail up on the plus sign is a mere prophet, their heaven ticket won't be stamped either.
Therefore, given the awesome significance of the birth of the son of God, who came to save the world - Jews and gentiles, alike - it makes perfect sense that we celebrate Jesus's birth, even if it is at a time of the year when pagans used to have their festivities.
Nevertheless, my debating point with Boyne would have touched on the importance of the birth of Jesus as opposed to the most critical of all the events surrounding his life. We celebrate his birth, although this is merely the beginning of the process, and had Herod succeeded, he would have made a mockery of prophecy. We also celebrate with great solemnity the horrific death on the cross by making Good Friday another public and religious holiday.
Yet, the single most important event, the resurrection, is not even a holiday. As declared in
1 Corinthians 15:17: "... if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." This is the essence of the Christian faith, which Boyne professed, and not some heavy-spending bacchanal, typified by an overweight geriatric Caucasian in a red suit.
I hope Ian would be prouder of this religious discourse more than my corny attempt at witticism.
- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.