Tag Archives: Christmas

Merry Christmas

Gospel Manuscript (Armenian, 14th Century)

To all who celebrate today, a very Merry Christmas. Now bring us some figgy pudding.

Religious Knowledge Quiz

Relatives staying too long? Christmas tree lights breaking out of the box? Johnny Mathis starting to get on your nerves? If you need a break from all the holiday cheer, take the US Religious Knowledge Quiz, sponsored by Pew. Afterwards, you can look up the results of the actual survey and see how you compare with the American public. (H/T: Perry Dane.)

Secular Britain?

Contemporary Britain, Americans understand, is a secular place. Weekly church attendance is quite low. Although in surveys majorities continue to identify themselves as “Christian,” most observers dismiss this as evidence of merely vestigial attachments, like the crosses on the Union Jack (left). When Americans think of religion in Britain, they tend to think of stories like sociologist Peter Berger’s, about the time he asked a London hotel concierge for the nearest Church of England parish. Not only did the concierge not know where the parish was; he didn’t know what the Church of England was.

It’s always a little surprising for Americans, then, when Britain’s Christian identity reasserts itself, as it did on two occasions this month. On Sunday, the BBC broadcast the traditional Queen’s Christmas Message, which ended with a meditation on the “great Christian festival” of Christmas and a prayer “that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.” Not so secular.

Now, the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and I guess most people, if they thought about it, would expect her Christmas message to be, well, Christian. Earlier in the month, though, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a remarkable address, on the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, which also highlighted Britain’s Christian identity. “We are a Christian country,” he declared, “and we should not be afraid to say so.” He did not mean to minimize the contributions of Britons of other faiths, or of no faith, he insisted. But there was no reason to hide the fact that the Christian tradition, including especially the King James Bible, had helped shape British culture and values. Cameron rejected state “secular neutrality” as “profoundly wrong,” both in its Continue reading

Merry Christmas, Mr. President

At the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in Washington last week (that’s last year’s tree on the left), President Obama wished Americans a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday Season. His remarks, in part, were quite sectarian:

More than 2,000 years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among the cattle and the sheep.  But this was not just any child.  Christ’s birth made the angels rejoice and attracted shepherds and kings from afar.  He was a manifestation of God’s love for us.  And He grew up to become a leader with a servant’s heart who taught us a message as simple as it is powerful:  that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

That teaching has come to encircle the globe.  It has endured for generations.  And today, it lies at the heart of my Christian faith and that of millions of Americans.  No matter who we are, or where we come from, or how we worship, it’s a message that can unite all of us on this holiday season. . . .  And this holiday season, let us reaffirm our commitment to each other, as family members, as neighbors, as Americans, regardless of our color or creed or faith.  Let us remember that we are one, and we are a family.

Our readers in Europe (and Rhode Island) might find the first paragraph, which could easily have come from an evangelical preacher, a bit shocking, but official statements like this are very much a part of the American tradition. Did the President violate the Establishment Clause? I hardly think so, even under the endorsement test, given the context of his remarks and the fact that he coupled the sectarian reference with a more universal message of good will to everyone, regardless of creed — a message that is part of the Christmas story, too.   (H/T: First Things).

Bethlehem Church to Get New Roof

As Christmas approaches, word this week that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (left), the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, will get a new roof. The roof, which is centuries old, has needed replacing for some time, but the three Christian communions that share the church – Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic – have been unable to agree on a plan. The story behind their disagreement, and the reason why they have had such a hard time resolving it, is a fascinating one.

The three communions share the church under the “Status Quo,” a set of rules and customs that date back centuries to Ottoman times, and which also govern other Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The provisions are incredibly detailed. For example, the Status Quo specifies the times of day when communions may have access to specific altars, the permissible length of religious services, the proper placement of chalices, the ownership of lamps and icons, and, crucially, the right to repair sections of the church. According to custom, to repair part of the church, or even to pay for repairs, is an assertion of ownership. As a result, each communion carefully guards against the possibility that another will undertake repairs in common areas, like the roof, and thereby gain rights by a sort of adverse possession.

All this seems a bit arcane today to outsiders, but the Status Quo has occupied a major place in diplomatic history and international law. In the 19th Century, France, seeking to increase its influence in the Middle East, agitated for Catholic control of the church and other Christian shrines in the Holy Land; Russia, seeking to resist French influence, agitated on behalf of the Orthodox. The Status Quo was in fact an attempt by the Ottomans to freeze everybody in place as of 1852 and avoid further conflict. When someone removed a silver cross the French had donated to the church (above), the theft sparked an international incident that led ultimately to the Crimean War. In the treaty that ended the war in 1856, the belligerents endorsed the Status Quo, and it has been honored by the rulers of Bethlehem – the Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians, the Israelis, and now the Palestinians – ever since.

The present agreement to replace the roof has been brokered by the Palestinian Authority, which has somehow persuaded everybody to cooperate. Really, there isn’t much choice, as experts say the roof could collapse at any time. Work is to begin next year.