by Rick Lindgren
Sherry and I try to learn a new Christmas song every year. Sometimes it is a fun one and sometimes it is a serious one, but we are usually drawn to a lyric that strikes us as relevant to our life circumstances, as well as to our ever-growing understanding of this Christmas story. The “Mass of Christ” has proven to be a very malleable foundation over 20 centuries for tying a scriptural tradition to current culture. Sometimes that current culture leaves a new tradition behind, like the evergreen Christmas tree from 16th century Germany. Or not, like a “figgy pudding” from England that Americans know about from just one old carol.
I have long seen one key role of the priesthood in our own “faith walk” as having a special responsibility for certainly preserving some old Christian traditions, but also to be linking them to the realities of “modern life” in the spirit of “new revelation.” But sometimes it is hard to get the balance right between the old and the new.
That “ever-evolving Christmas tradition” started near the beginning, with two very different Christmas stories in our own Bibles. Luke’s brief account (only twenty verses long) tells of Bethlehem, angel choirs, and a baby in a manger, and it scripts the bulk of our Christmas pageants. Matthew’s longer story never mentions a manger, but does introduce the Magi (although never saying that there were three) and then takes us on a journey to Egypt with the baby Jesus, stories that are not in Luke’s account. Mark and John apparently did not see either story as essential to include in their gospels.
The many “old order” Amish that have moved to the land surrounding Lamoni, Iowa, in recent years struggle every year with how far to change their traditions when their local bishop establishes a revised set of rules for their community to follow for the year. Unlike the Sarasota Amish, the Lamoni order mostly dress in black and drive horse-drawn buggies rather than “modern” bicycles and tricycles. For years, the men were not allowed to hire out for work inside the city limits of Lamoni because it was a “city.” Then one year, a new bishop from out East said that he knew what a city was, and Lamoni was NOT a city, despite the “city limits” sign. Now you can hire a great carpenter to repair your house, or a young man to help repair your driveway. Some Amish probably hated that change in their tradition, but others welcomed it, and the income that came with it. Some of the men even own cellphones today, but don’t tell the bishop!
I still get goosebumps when I hear the melodies of some of our traditional hymns, but then I hear the words and get very uncomfortable. Our personal theologies have all changed over the years, whether we admit it or not. There are likely scriptures and topics that were part of your rearing that you have just not thought about for many years. Change can be very subtle.
I have rarely had any problem adapting new scientific discoveries to my religious tradition. Science is just a method for expressing discovered reality, and so my take is that, even if Jesus knew how human reproduction worked, he wasn’t communicating with his followers in a language that could even attempt to explain DNA. However, we do have that language today, if we choose to learn it. I call that emerging language “revelation.” God reveals his world as we go along in it. Hopefully, God is revealing new “healing knowledge” through scientists as we speak.
Likewise, the Old Testament tradition could only see roles for women that involved being the marketable property of first, their fathers, and then their husbands. Is it heresy that caused us to change that view, or perhaps instead a greater understanding of the worth of all persons, a continuing theological journey for all of us?
Thirty years ago, I read a great phrase from a Belgian Jesuit named Edward Schillebeeckx. “God is new each moment,” he said, meaning that the ancient story, from creation to the birth of Jesus to the emergence of Christianity to the rise of the modern age, was almost always in one direction, that of greater revelation. Our eyes are constantly “seeing” a “new God” as we learn more about the universe’s realities around us. In the same way, I believe that we can see how Jesus is “new each Christmas” if we keep our eyes open to revealing Grace, perhaps from unsuspected sources.