Bishop Teodoro Bacani recently blamed Santa Claus for stealing the “true spirit of Christmas” as revealed in a news article in The Daily Tribune.
The Bishop is apparently peeved at the fact that Santa is more popular than Jesus Christ during the Christmas season. He said:
“Santa Claus helps promote consumerism because he is the symbol of shopping and gift-giving. Christ symbolizes the sacrifice of life for man. But Santa has more commercial draw… Let us keep Christ at Christmas. Let us project Christ at Christmas.”
While the Christian fold may argue that Christmas has its roots on Judeo-Christianity, I submit that it is a mistake to look at Christmas merely under the Judeo-Christian light and I submit that Santa Claus should actually be deemed as a Christmas hero instead of a villain.
The shift of looking at Christmas from celebrating the birth of the “Redeemer” to celebrating the season of peace, hope and kindness, is a positive thing. I would even argue that the present spirit of Christmas, even with Santa Claus being more popular than Jesus Christ, reflects its true spirit more than from strictly a Judeo-Christian perspective.
But let’s entertain Bishop Bacani’s assertion for now and let’s critically analyze the light of celebrating Christmas strictly on the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Christmas, in its true spirit, is not merely a birthday celebration of Jesus Christ. Christmas, together with Easter, is really a celebration of the theology of atonement and salvation. It is a mistake to look at the picture starting from “Mama Mary’s” and “Papa Joseph’s” journey to Bethlehem. We have to look at the whole picture to get a sense of the significance the birth of Christ and why Christianity celebrates it.
Most of the backgrounder on the Judeo-Christian faith tradition and theology that I am about to share comes from Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”. Most of the views of Jesus Christ I embrace that I will share in the end come from Spong’s book “The Sins of Scripture”. Some of my readers already know that I am an avid reader and a fan of Bishop Spong and I really recommend Bishop Spong’s books, without any reservations, to anyone who is open to looking at Judeo-Christianity under a light different from the current mainstream. Anyway, here it goes…
The Bible starts with the story of creation. The Bible asserts that it was a perfect creation and God announced His creations good (after His divine labors). Then came the Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve were supposed to have a perfect relationship with God in Paradise. According to the Bible, however, boundaries were set in this Paradise; that Adam and Eve were not to partake of this “forbidden fruit”, for it was said that if they ate it, their eyes would be opened and they would know good from evil. This is actually quite fascinating and most Christians take this quite literally.
Of course we know from the story that a serpent seduced Eve into eating the “forbidden fruit”. Upon Eve’s enticement, Adam also partook of the “forbidden fruit”. From that moment on, the perfection of creation has been ruined. God has been disobeyed and human life has fallen into sin, and of course, the penalty for this disobedience was death. The immortality that had been in Adam and Eve (humans) as theirs as creatures of God’s image was gone.
Because of this original sin, all human life thereafter, it was asserted, would be born in sin and suffer death – the ultimate consequence of sin. The universality of human mortality was interpreted to be a sign of the universality of human sin. So life stood still in need of “redemption”.
So God started the process of redemption by choosing a particular people through whom God would work out the entire divine process of salvation. Salvation began in a small scale with the call of Abraham. Now we know from the Bible that Isaac was chosen over Ishmael. Jacob was chosen over Esau, Judah and Joseph were chosen over Reuben. Through Joseph, God’s people went to Egypt to avoid famine. Unfotunately, in time, they fell into slavery. The story of salvation began some 4 hundred years later with Moses and the exodus.
Once free of their bondage from the pharaoh, the people were led by God, through Moses, to Mount Sinai, where the law of God, called the Torah, was given to the people. The law was to serve as the guideline to lead the fallen people back into a state of grace. But the children of Israel didn’t follow God’s laws so the search for salvation in history goes on.
A sacrificial system was developed in the ancient world to help overcome this supposed separation between man and God. Israel developed in its liturgical life a day called Yom Kippur, dedicated to that sense of human sinfulness and designed to be an occasion to pray for atonement and restoration.
Two rituals are involved; one was the public confession of people’s sins, which were ceremoniously heaped upon the back of a goat. Laden with people’s sins, this goat, called the “scapegoat”, was run into the wilderness and was believed to have carried away with it, the sins of the world, thus purging them (Lev. 16).
The second ritual was the sacrificial offering of the lamb of the atonement (Lev 23:26-32). This lamb was inspected carefully, for it had to be perfect in the eyes of God. In other words… no scratches, no blemishes, no broken bones, etc. Human life, so alienated from God, so fallen into sin, had to come before God under the symbol of something perfect. The lamb was also subhuman, therefore incapable of being immoral, since morality requires the ability to choose evil. So a morally perfect, physically perfect, but still subhuman sacrifice was offered to God to atone for, even pay for, the sins of the people. The assumption was that to be human was to be sinful. Paul would later write this in his epistles “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
It was the conviction that humans were sinful and in need of redemption that enabled guilt and religion to be so solely tied together. The power of western religion has always rested on the ability of religious people to understand and to manipulate the sense of human inadequacy that expresses itself from guilt. This religious system assumes that the purpose of life is to be whole, free, and at one with the Creator. This is what gives the sense of alienation its power.
The religious leaders of the ages learned that controlling people’s behavior rested upon controlling these human feelings of guilt. So religious empires were built on helping people live with and to some degree, overcome their sense of guilt. How could guilt be overcome? How could our broken humanity be repaired? How could human life be rescued from its fall? Those were the questions that Christianity organized itself to answer.
The experience of Jesus was captured in this mind-set. The linkage between our sense of inadequacy and the role of Jesus happened very quickly and was apparent before the first generation of Christians died. The initial step was to see the death of Jesus in terms of sin and salvation. By the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians sometime in mid 50 AD, that step had been achieved. Christ died, Paul said, “for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). Our sins somehow required His death, He was the sacrificial lamb on our behalf.
The first Gospel, Mark, was the first to set the narrative of Jesus’ death in the context of the “Passover”, so Jesus was quickly and immediately identified with the lamb who was slain to break the wages of death. That story written in the book of Exodus formed the center of the Jewish liturgy of their founding moment. God had enabled their escape from slavery by sending the angel of death to slay the first born in all the land of Egypt.
The Jews were spared this slaughter when they killed the lamb and placed the blood of this lamb on the doorsteps of their homes. Of course in the Christian interpretation, the blood of the lamb was replaced by the blood of Christ. All we have to do is to come before the Lord through the blood of this sacrificial lamb.
Now we come to St. Augustine (354-430). Augustine believed that Adam and Eve were literally the first human beings. Their banishment from Eden resulted in the ultimate punishment of man. Death was not natural, but rather, punitive, for Augustine. Now as he worked out the theological understanding of life, the virgin birth tradition became crucial to him. He asserted that the virgin birth had to be absolutely necessary for salvation.
The reason was that since the original sin was passed on from generation to generation, for Jesus to be the lamb, Jesus had to be free of this inherited blemish – sin. His formulation goes, that Jesus did not come from Adam’s lineage because the Holy Spirit of God was supposed to be His father. But at Augustine’s time, it was believed that women do not contribute genetically or materially to the birth of a child. The belief back then was that women merely nurtured the male’s “seed” to maturity. So the fallness of the woman’s humanity was not an issue.
In time, when the woman’s role as genetic co-creator was understood, Augustine’s theology came in question. The Catholic Church handled this by declaring the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That Mary too was miraculously delivered from the corruption of Adam and Eve’s sin. By “Divine Intervention” Mary was prevented by her Immaculate Conception from passing onto Jesus, the Saviour, the effects of Adam’s sin. Salvation was thus assured. This makes Jesus, the sinless one, to be qualified by His origins to make the perfect offering.
So if we really look at the spirit of Christmas solely on the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition, Christmas is nothing more than a celebration of the coming of the sacrificial lamb or the “scapegoat”, in the person of Jesus Christ, who will take away the sins of the world so that you and I can be spared of the wages of sin (eternal death) as decreed by God Himself as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Original Sin).
So really, in Judeo-Christian terms, celebrating Christmas would be celebrating God’s master plan involving the perverted notion of inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on person X (whether this person is His son or not) so that person Y (you and I) can be “saved”.
I’m sorry but I choose not to look at Christmas and Jesus Christ this way.
The Jesus Christ who I know lived in a world where stereotypical prejudice separated Jews from the Samaritans. They would not eat together, they would not worship together, they would not inter-marry, etc. Yet Jesus in the Gospels was said to have taught that the Samaritan was worthy of healing (Luke 17:11-19) and that a Samaritan who acted out the claims of the law in terms of showing mercy was more deeply a child of Abraham than the Jewish priest or Levite (Luke 10:29-37). These were radical statements of barrier-breaking inclusion, which expanded rather dramatically and in a new way the meaning of love.
Jesus, as well, broke the barriers between the Jews and the Gentiles. Back then Gentiles were even considered as unclean by the Jews, they weren’t circumcised, not bound by Kosher dietary laws, and ignorant of the demands of the Torah. Association of Jews with Gentiles was a big taboo back then. Yet Jesus was portrayed in the Gospel according to Mark as going to the Gentile side of the lake to repeat the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness story.
Jesus was also said to have reached out to the Syro-Phoenician woman, another Gentile, and to have healed her daughter (Mark 7:24-30). The Gospels also tell of Jesus healing a slave of a Roman centurion and even commending his faith as greater than he had found in Israel (Matt. 8:5-10; Luke 7:1-10). He also defended and forgiven an adulterer – a crime back then was punishable by death (John 8:1-11). We also note that he touched the rotting flesh of a leper (a sickness considered a curse and of the lowest form back then) and brought him once again into human community (Mark 1:40-41).
Beneath the God claims made for this Jesus was a person who lived a message announcing that there was no status defined by religion, by tribe, by culture, by cult, by ritual, or by illness that could separate any person from the love of God. If love is a part of what God is or who God is, then it can surely be said of this Jesus that He lived the meaning of God!
In the book, “The Sins of Scripture”, Bishop John Shelby Spong tells that perhaps that is why those believers wrote that human life could never have produced the experience they found in Jesus. They were so moved by this man that they thought he must have been of another realm! Perhaps his birth was said to have been announced by a star because a star does not shine just for a single nation, it shines for the whole world! His life drew all nations and all people beyond their limits.
The celebration of Christmas, for me, is not a celebration of a testament of a particular religious faith but a celebration of an all-inclusive love for one and all. Santa Claus, just like Jesus Christ, is a representation of the celebration of love, kindness, generosity and goodness for humankind.
Merry Christmas and Seasons Greetings to all!
- “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”, John Shelby Spong, Harper Collins Publications (1998)
- “The Sins of Scripture”, John Shelby Spong, Harper Collins Publications (2005)