Once again, we are in that time of the year, as Andy Williams sang:
‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you be of good cheer
It’s the most wonderful time of the year’.
Ideally, we would be singing
“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth”
However, we do not live in an ideal world of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood any more. And we stopped singing ‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood’. Do we love our neighbors? Do we have good vibes about them?
In 1965 Professor Harvey Cox alerted the communities of faiths about an unnerving proclivity of separation from spiritual life in our urban centers in his book, ‘The Secular City’. Two decades later I worked with Prof. Cox when we resolved that secularity after all is not an adversary but an effective catalyst that inspires people of all faiths to sustain the presence of the Holy One in our over populated cities. We believe in the Holy One. We are present in the community as harbingers of hope and goodwill.
In 2000 Professor Diogenes Allen gave an impressive lecture on the secular and the sacred as if they were isolated concepts. When I insisted that sacred and secular are very much like day and night where one extends and leads to the other, Prof. Allen was chippertoreply: ‘I wish you told us that ninety minutes ago; we all could have gone to Manhattan to get some shopping done’. We treasure and respect followers of all faiths. After all secular and sacred are two sides of the same coin.
In the former European Christendom, the places of worship are disbanding. It was heart-wrenching for me to learn last summer that Oxford Mills United Church, south of Ottawa, Canada’s capital is no more a community of faith. No one will be lighting Advent candles or singing carols or reading lessons this year in the deserted sanctuary where I was ordained as minister!
However, I am heartened to enjoy the Christmas decorations and listen to the carols at Square One Shopping Center these days. Consequently, ‘O Holy Night’ in the sanctuary has moved on to ‘O Holy Malls’ where we
summon, paraphrase John Wade’s 18th century words,
“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem”
‘O Come, All Ye Shoppers’ to listen to the carols and take in the tiny pulses of baby Jesus in the womb of bazaars all across the globe. A few years ago, when I led Advent Bible Study at Thomas Green Restaurant and Bar, a traditional place across St. Andrew’s Church in Gore, New Zealand many were petulant about my choice of a “bar” to prepare for Christmas! Whether we like it or not, we must cross the street, to heal our hurting humanity.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? The answer: priest and Levite chickened out!
We are invited to transform our festive seasons as opportunities to gate-crash and engage with the marketplace where more people hang out than our places of worship.
We should not wait for opportunities to show up to act. Take advantage of the moments of possibilities to interact and influence the challenges of humanity.
The birthday of Jesus is annually celebrated all over the world. 2.6 billion people, a third of the world’s population, celebrate Christmas. While Afghanistan and Algeria have no birthday observances in Albania it is masked.
Christmas holiday season, a fabulously dazzling midwinter break in the west, for some is to recollect experiences long past and gone while for others a lonely time without a loved one for the first time. The longest Christmas celebrations in the world happen in the Philippines where it is acclaimed during the “ber” months – September, October, November and December.
While many people are ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’, about 90% of Americans and Canadians celebrate Christmas. This spiritual tradition provides a wonderful opportunity for members of our communities to share in an evening of music and celebration.
Mary’s son has three names: Jesus (he saves), Messiah (the chosen one) and Emmanuel (God with us). The date of the birth of Jesus suddenly became a topic of interest in the third century and the first recorded birthday celebration of Jesus was held on December 25 in the year 336. Maberly United Church organist once asked me about the D O B of Jesus. There is no affirmation on the date of birth of Jesus in the gospel narratives; nor do we know the year of Jesus’ birth. She looked sombre during the worship service and thereupon I gave up such uneasy theological topics for discussions!
In our post-COVID world, millions of people are on the move – airports, bus and train stations are crowded. The hardest thing about Christmas is the prolonged period of waiting for four weeks. The busiest person with a full plate and on the go during that time is not Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, the wise men or Santa and his elves but our ‘mothers’ who keep busy with baking, making the guest list, shopping and gift-wrapping for family, friends and neighbors.
It is ‘the most wonderful time’ of my pastoral life- no more in the arena in charge of everything that went on, now it is fun to be seated on the bleachers to enjoy and watch the pageantry.
Not long ago one Ukrainian soldier stated, “This is a result of Putin’s war. As a Christian, this is very offensive to me.” Many are homeless. They have no homes to decorate and no living room to place the Christmas tree.
During these frenetic days before Christmas, we need energizing, uplifting words to keep going…when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. For children, it’s all about waiting for Santa Claus to show up with Christmas presents; for youth it’s party time and for the parents more baking and cooking for family and friends.
Holy and Loving One, you chose to take our mortal flesh as a vulnerable newborn in Bethlehem long ago. You lived as Good News in our midst in occupied Palestine and as a refugee child fled to Mizraim far away from the evil empire of the mighty and proud.
We love words of hope, courage, joy, love, safekeeping, wellbeing and serenity in our pandemic captivity. This holy night, come Emmanuel to give birth to renewal of our faith communities, peace and safety among war-torn nations, healing to those who suffer ill-health, hunger and thirst in our world. We pray that you be born again in our hearts and in our world in this holy season of our joyful gatherings as we give thanks for Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. John T. Mathew is an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada who served several urban and rural congregations in Canada since 1974 and taught in the Department of Religious Studies, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. He was awarded Merrill Fellowship at Harvard Divinity School and served as Pastor-Theologian at the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry. He was Ecumenical Guest Minister at St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen (Church of Scotland) and Minister with the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand.