The Missing Christ and His Forgotten Followers

Walking into a supermarket during the Christmas Season a couple of years ago I saw, to my disbelief, a large sign tacked up along the back wall of the meat department which read “Merry Beefmas.” In what someone obviously thought was a catchy marketing slogan, the “Christ” in Christmas had been replaced with the word “Beef” in order to move some steaks and prime rib roasts off the shelves as quickly as possible, presumably. The supermarket was crowded that day, but I was the only one exercised by the sign–or so it seemed to me. I asked to speak to the manager and explained, calmly, how substituting “Beef” for “Christ” was offensive to me. A white-faced youth–maybe the creator of the sign, I don’t know–skulked anxiously in the background as I spoke with his manager. To the manager’s credit, the offending sign had disappeared by the time I arrived at the check-out with my groceries. I honestly believe that the person who exchanged “Beef” for “Christ” had no idea who or what the Christ in Christmas signifies. And it really has come down to that in our society. After all, any mention of Jesus, the “Christ” in Christmas, has been relegated almost exclusively to the confines of church and private home. What disturbed me almost as much as seeing “Beef” where “Christ” should have been was the indifference of the other customers in the supermarket that day. Were they unaware of the sign, or was it that they just didn’t care?

The post-Christian indifference to the crass exploitation of Christmas symbols that I witnessed in the supermarket–and that’s what I would call it–carries over into other areas of life as well. How else can one explain our indifference to the dire situation in which many Christians find themselves, particularly those living in countries with Muslim majorities or in countries with Islamist insurgencies? People who identify with the Christ of Christmas are dying for their faith, on an almost daily basis, yet you wouldn’t know it from Mainstream Media reports. One only learns about the persecution of Christ’s followers through alternative news sources like Twitter or the Internet. A pastor shot in the back of the head as he prayed in his church in Kenya, a Christian girl in Nigeria ordered to convert to Islam or die, a Bible translator gunned down in the Central African Republic, a French priest kidnapped in Cameroon: Stories like these never make the six o’clock news.

Inexplicably, you’re not likely to hear stories like these in your church, either, for the church appears as indifferent to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa as is the general populace. At least, that’s the sad conclusion I have reached after listening to almost an entire year of Sunday sermons. Never once was mention made of these modern-day Christian martyrs. Why doesn’t the church express more concern? We’re a caring people, after all, when it comes to “the poor.” Churches, for instance, collect hundreds of toys, games, and toiletries to put in shoe bags to be delivered to Mexican children at Christmas. That’s all well and good. But are we too obsessed with serving the poor? Indeed, have we “sacralized” the poor, to use another’s term? While I was busy collecting items for my own shoe bag, I couldn’t help thinking about the children of the Syrian Christian refugees. What will their Christmas be like–threatened, forced to flee, injured or sick, living in snow-covered tents, cold, hungry…? If Christians don’t care about suffering fellow Christians, who else will? Maybe this Christmas we could take time to remember not just the poor, but those who will risk death or grievous injury simply by attending a Christmas Eve service.

I see from my daily newspaper that a local organization has organized a “Merry Kiss-mas” event to raise money for charity. The public is invited to share a kiss with a loved one under a giant mistletoe and then make a donation. I detect a trend here. Before the “Christ” in Christmas disappears altogether, I’d like to wish any one who reads this blog…
merry-christmas1

Of Kings and Comets

Comet Isen
Comet ISON, dubbed the “comet of the century,” survived its perilous trip around the sun on Thursday. The comet was spotted on a trajectory toward the sun and then seemed to disappear, which prompted the European Space Agency (ESA) to declare the comet dead. It was thought that the large, icy, dusty snowball (which is what a comet is) had been obliterated by the sun. But pronouncing Comet ISON dead proved premature. Shortly afterward, astronomers spotted bright lights which they initially took for the comet’s dust trail that would soon fade away. But that isn’t what happened: The lights appeared to be getting brighter. It seems that a small fraction of the comet’s nucleus had indeed survived. That was Friday. Today, no trace of the comet is to be found.

The “comet of the century that wasn’t” has been in the news at the time of year when Christians turn their attention once more to the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, a narrative in which another celestial body, a star, plays an important part. Matthew’s Gospel (and the only one of the four Gospels to do so) relates how wise men from the east, guided by a star, arrived at the court of King Herod in Jerusalem to locate the child who had been born King of the Jews (2:1-12). They had seen the newborn king’s star in the east and had come to worship him (v.2).

The visitors from the east were not kings (despite the lyrics of the familiar carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”). Calling them “kings” was a later, medieval embellishment to the story. The Greek biblical text calls them magoi, ‘magi’ in Latin, esteemed wise men from Persia [now Iran], or possibly southern Arabia or Yemen. The Greek historian Herodatus (c 480-c 425 BC) in his Histories describes a similarly-named priestly caste within the Persian Empire. Magi were said to be skilled in the interpretation of omens, in philosophy, medicine, and natural science, with astrology being their special area of expertise. An unusual, hitherto unseen, star would have aroused intense curiosity. Matthew doesn’t tell us how the magi determined that the appearance of this new star signalled the birth of the King of the Jews but, somehow, these Gentile wise men grasped its significance. So convinced were they that they travelled to Jerusalem to meet the new king.

It has been assumed that three wise men arrived in Herod’s court, based on the fact that they gave three gifts to the Christ-child. But the number of the magi is never stated. The Bible translation known as The Message refers to the magi simply as “a band of scholars.” When King Herod learned why the magi were there, he was terrified, not only he but all of Jerusalem along with him (v.3). The reason for his terror: Herod was not the rightful heir to the throne. His father, Antipater, was an Idumean convert to Judaism; his mother, Cypros, a Nabatean. Given his Edomite heritage, Herod was not qualified to be King of the Jews: He lacked the requisite Davidic lineage. He had only gained the throne by ingratiating himself with the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. In 40 BC, the Roman senate appointed Herod King of Judea. Rome’s “puppet-king” aligned himself fully with Rome, even to the point of embracing Greco-Roman culture and religion. To learn that the King of the Jews had been born would have been viewed by Herod as a personal threat, undoubtedly. He now sought the Child as well, but for a very different reason (v. 7-8).

After learning from the chief priests and scribes that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem to search for the new King and report his location back to him. The same star the magi had seen in the east now went before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was (v.9). Going into the house, they met the Child and Mary his mother, the object of their quest. They paid homage to the Child, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (v.11).

Readers of Matthew’s account of the magi’s visit have long wondered about the “star.” Was it real? Astronomer Colin J. Humphreys believes that it was, and that it was a comet. In 5 BC, the Chinese recorded a major, new, slow-moving comet in the Capricorn region of the sky. The comet was seen for a period of over 70 days, mainly during the months of March and April (which was the likely time of the year when Jesus was born, not December). Most scholars believe that Jesus was born around 6 BC. Herod the Great was on the throne when Jesus was born. Herod died in 4 BC. Time wise, then, a comet that appeared in 5 BC would fit. Humphreys suggests that this comet is the “star” in Matthew chapter two. It’s an intriguing idea.

I’m disappointed that Comet ISON is no more. Watching a comet move across the night sky is an awesome experience. I was privileged to see the Hale-Bopp Comet in 1997. In a few days, hardly any people will recall that there even was a comet called ISON. But that’s not the case with the Bethlehem star–or comet. Whether the star of Matthew chapter two was a real star, or a comet, or something altogether different, Christians have continued to read about it, talk about it, sing about it for more than two millennia now. And Christians (even many non-Christians) will do so again this Christmas Season.