The High and the Low of Christmas

David Russell Mosley

kung_fu_panda_holiday_cover

Advent
17 December 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

So the other day I was looking for a short kids movie to watch with my sons on Netflix. The featured video was the Kung Fu Panda Holiday. Since it featured all the original cast, and I happen to like the first two Kung Fun Panda movies. Any way, to give you the briefest of synopses: Po (the panda and Dragon Warrior, read really important kung fu person) will be hosting the annual winter, undefined holiday feast at the Jade Palace (place where all the kung fu masters we met in the first movie live). This feast is highbrow. Elegant is the word of the day. Every hand gesture Po makes has meaning. Contrasted with this is the Christmas party Po’s adopted father (a goose) holds at his restaurant. This party couldn’t be more common (as Shifu says). Po feels torn in two. Should he take up the responsibility, and honor, and serve as host at the Jade Palace, or serve noodle soup with his father and their friends from the village. This is the dilemma. Should Po participate in the High or the Low? The answer, in the end, is the low, the common. Here all are welcome. The kung fu master and the low slinger of noodle soup. While cute and adorable and prioritizing family, I think the answer is a bit flawed.

In Christmas particularly do we have a coming together of the High and the Low. Although I think this only possible when we have a church celebration of the Nativity on the 25 of December. Let me explain: Particularly in a high church “style,” but ultimately any time we gather to worship, we experience something of the high. We bring ourselves in a corporate setting into the presence of God (not that God is ever not present, but in worship, in liturgy, we have the opportunity to bring time into eternity). In this sense nothing could be higher. When placed within the trappings of a high mass this becomes even more evident.

And yet a proper celebration of Christmas does not end with a church service. A celebration of the birth of Christ is not complete without feasting with one’s family and friends. Good food, games, and traditional folk songs, along with generous amounts of wine, beer, and spirits. Nothing could be more low, more common. We join in our homes, however “homely” and share in life together: we laugh, we fight, we sing. These are things common to all people. And they are beautiful in their lowness.

Christmas, in fact all of life, requires both the high and the low. I’m reminded of a story told to me by one of my PhD supervisors. He had been tasked to deliver a homily at the wedding for the child of a friend and mentor. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was performing the actual sacrament. As the stood on the lawn outside the church, the bride along with her family and other members of the wedding party were paraded through the village. After the service, at the reception, the father of the bride gave a long and rather theological speech. When he finished, the father of the groom stood up, noticed the rather highbrow nature of things up to this point and so led the whole reception in singing an old folk song. Everyone joined in, even the father of the bride with gusto. This is a picture of what I’m talking about, the wedding of the high and the low. Both are necessary for a full life and make up the proper celebration of all holidays, Christmas not the least.

So, this Christmas, let me encourage you to seek the high and the low. By all means enjoy time with your family and the giving of gifts, enjoy your family traditions, But also make sure you enter into the presence of God. Enter into the throne room of God by entering into corporate worship with your brothers and sisters in Christ. We must keep the Mass in Christmas as well as the feast in the Feast of the Nativity.

Until then, enjoy Advent and prepare yourselves for the coming of Christ.

Sincerely,
David

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The Christmas List: Training in Covetousness or the Training of Desires?

David Russell Mosley

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Advent
10 December 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Last year I wrote a post responding to a new professor at my alma mater on Father Christmas. The problem, according to Dr Samples, is that Father Christmas/Santa Claus has become a source for perpetuating economic disparities. As I noted in the post, a friend of mine once told me that she discovered Santa wasn’t real because the rich(er) kids down the road got more and more expensive presents than she did. Recently, a new friend of mine, writing an excellent series of posts concerning the United States’s unnamed god, Affluence. He suggests that by training our children to write Christmas lists is to train them in the worship of affluence by teaching them to covet, to desire things they don’t have but want to have. However, I think the Christmas list and the presents brought by Father Christmas do not have to be trainers in covetousness nor perpetuations of economic disparity.

Now, first let me say that nothing will stop some parents from lavishing their children with presents at Christmas time. I was spoiled as a child, all the time, not simply at Christmas. However, I was trained not to brag about my presents because not everyone could get the same things I did. This actually taught me to share, but this is besides the point. If we cannot permanently change how our given neighbourhood parents “do” Christmas, as regards presents, we can change how we and our churches do it. Let me suggest at least one way.

A professor of mine talks about training his children’s desires. He will ask them what they want (desire) for dinner. They might say chips (fries), or candy, or fast food. He will then tell them that instead of any of those things they are having baked fish (or whatever has been made for dinner). The point is to teach them what they ought to desire. By allowing them to voice what they really do desire, but not give it to them, he is helping them learn what they ought to desire versus what they do desire in a given instance. I’m sure this ends in meltdowns and tears often. I’m equally sure that some nights he gives in. But the point is to try, to try to change their desires from low things, that can be good at times, to higher things that are much better. When we allow our children to make Christmas lists that they send to Father Christmas, we’re allowing them to voice their desires. Yet we are not bound to get anything on those lists. Some items may be intangibles, I frequently asked for snow. Others may be well outside of the parents’ price range. J. R. R. Tolkien used to write letters from Father Christmas to his children. While as the stories grew so did the Father Christmas mythology, equally, most of the letters are a way of explaining why the children didn’t get everything on their lists; typically, this is because of some catastrophe that happened at the North Pole. I think we can take this a step further.

I do not have children old enough to ask for anything for Christmas yet, so these are purely ideals that will likely change over time. Nevertheless, I think there is a way that we can allow our children to give voice to their desires in the Christmas list that will be beneficial to them, especially when they don’t receive all the things they asked for. A child might ask for the latest video game system and instead might get a book. A child might ask for a pony, or even a puppy, and yet only get an art set. It’s likely they will be sad not to get all the things on their lists. Yet, if we as parents continue to get them things that are good for them (I am not suggesting that video games, ponies, or puppies are inherently bad for children, just that they represent rather expensive options that parents may not be able to buy their children) we can train them in their desires; and I think we will see a change in what they ask for, because their desires will be being properly ordered.

Parents of children who actually ask for presents, what do you think? Am I completely off base here?

Sincerely yours,

David

The Importance of the 12 Days of Christmas

David Russell Mosley

Русский: Рождество Христово (икона в Храме)

Русский: Рождество Христово (икона в Храме) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

23 December 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Christmas is nearly upon us. Tomorrow evening, as we have our supper, however meagre or magnificent, the celebration of the Nativity begins. For most of us, it has probably already begun to some extent. We’ve probably indulged in a few Christmas songs; our churches have put on carol services. Everything is building up to the next day, the 25 of December, perhaps the only day in the Western Calendar (both secular and sacred) that still firmly has a name rather than a date. Wednesday morning will dawn, we’ll open presents, go to church (if it’s safe or if they’re holding services), perhaps we’ll sing carols, give hugs, we’ll laugh, in short, we’ll feast. And then, Christmas is over. Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day in the Church Calendar, will come and perhaps we can find it in us to extend the festivities to this day, but by the 27, St John’s Day, Christmas is quite firmly over, isn’t it?

Actually, in the Church Calendar, there really are 12 days of Christmas. Depending on how you count it the twelve days run  from the 24 of December to the 5 of January. Either way, Christmas is more than a day or two, it is, in fact, a liturgical season. We are meant to extend both our celebrations and solemnities (particularly during Holy Innocents on the 28 which commemorates the children put to death by Herod). Christmas is meant to be much more than its feast day.

Think of what a change this could make in how you think of Christmas. Christmas parties can continue for twelve days. Christmas carols can be sung with gusto, especially if you’ve generally fasted from them during Advent. The reality of the Incarnation can continue to be at the forefront of our minds. Perhaps, if we in the West, were to take more seriously the twelve days of Christmas we might even begin to think about the larger implications of the Incarnation beyond the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. As I’ve written to you before, I work on the topic of deification. At the heart of this primarily Eastern doctrine is the Incarnation, God becoming human so that humans might become God. Maybe if we took Christmas a little more seriously, people like me wouldn’t need to convince Western Christians of the truth and beauty of deification, or as it is called in the East, theosis.

Christmas has always been my favourite time of year. The music, the movies, the weather (in the Northern hemisphere anyway), the carols, the services, Father Christmas, all come together for me to show forth the magic of Christianity. Beyond all of this, however, is the reality that our God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the Creator of everything and yet Uncreated, became a creature  in the Son without ceasing to be Creator. He became a creature in order to lift us up, to make us like himself, to make us gods, to make us sons through the Incarnation, the gift of his Spirit, and the sacraments. This is what Christmas means, this is why we celebrate it for 12 days and not just one.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

A Place for Father Christmas: A Response to Tara C. Samples

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Russell Mosley

Third Week of Advent
16 December 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The Feast of the Nativity (probably a more accurate description for most Christians, and non-Christians, who stay whom on the 25 of December) is nearly upon us. This time of year, along with engendering quite a few more letters here on Letters from the Edge of Elfland, also tends to cause quite a lot of controversy, particularly over one issue. No, it isn’t the Keep the Christ in Christmas issue, nor is it the Happy Holidays controversy. It is the Santa Claus controversy. Every year we see a strange combination of consumeristic Santas (WestJet, Coca Cola, etc.) and Christians who have rejected the use of Santa Claus in their families.

One such example, and the impetus for this letter, appeared on the Sojourners blog by Lincoln Christian University Professor of Counselling and Psychology Tara C. Samples. Samples’ article says this, ‘We have chosen to say “no” to Santa based on our faith, our understanding of social psychology, and commitment to economic justice.’ For Samples, Santa has become a means for consumerism and thus the continuation of economic disparity. There is a truly heart-rending Christmas song called ‘The Little Boy the Santa Claus Forgot.’ The basis of the short and simple song is that this little boy received no presents at Christmas because he has no Father, thus his family lacks the ability to buy him presents from Santa. I myself have at least one friend who determined quite early on the Santa Claus could not be real because the gifts she received from him paled in comparison to the gifts given by St Nic to her wealthier neighbours. Samples goes on to say, ‘The jolly old elf brought a lot of joy into my life when I believed, but as an adult I have discovered Santa’s magic is a poor imitation of God’s grace and his mythology brings joy to only a privileged few.’ Her point? Santa can now only bring joy to those with enough money to buy presents for their children. This is Samples’s main reason for discontinuing the Santa tradition.

Samples does attempt to connect this consumerism to latent theology behind it as emphasised in this video by fellow Christian Joffre.  In the video a little girls is said to have stated in Sunday School that the number of presents one receives is dependent on how sinful one is (perhaps she said it a little differently than that, but you get the idea). Instead, as most Christian parents do who choose not to have Santa in their lives, Joffre and Tara focus on the historical figure Nicholas of Myra. A rather common trend in this day and age.

I want, however, to offer a critique. While I agree that Santa can be used to perpetuate bad theology and economic disparity, I’m not sure he’s outgrown his usefulness as Samples and this blog post suggests. Now I first want to argue that this is partly the reason I am a bigger fan of Father Christmas than Santa Claus. After all, Santa Claus literally means Saint Nicholas (Claus being another nickname for Nicholas like Nic/Nick). Having written on this subject already last year (In Defence of Father Christmas), I will leave it and continue to provide my defence of Father Christmas.

The key thing about Father Christmas is having someone bigger than you or your parents to be thankful to at Christmas time. G. K. Chesterton writes in the ‘Ethics of Elfland’ section of his celebrated Orthodoxy, ‘Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?’ For Chesterton, Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as I suggest, actually teaches us thankfulness. Author and Christian J. R. R. Tolkien believed Father Christmas to be such a good that he actually wrote letters from Father Christmas to his children each year. One might argue that in both cases these men came from (and had) economically privileged families. It would perhaps be mute to point out both that in their day Father Christmas rarely gave as extravagant gifts as he does today and also that Tolkien himself often wrote to his children letters from Father Christmas explaining why they did not get all the things they desired.

Perhaps my favourite depiction of Father Christmas is the ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Rather than a being as old as the nativity itself (see Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas), he comes from a family that can be dated back to the Christ event. This ghost’s chief purpose, beyond Scrooge’s salvation, is the spreading of Christmas cheer on food and conversations, those that are kindly given, but especially those that are poor, because, as the ghost himself says, they ‘need it most’. I personally use this, along with gift giving, when I write letters from Father Christmas to my nephews, and will continue to do so with my own children.

There are many arguments I could attempt to make defending the place of Father Christmas in Christianity, from thankfulness for gifts received and joy in gifts given to being able to teach our children (and ourselves) that our very existence is itself a gift. I wonder though, if perhaps there isn’t a bigger issue. Consumerism. Many Christians today repudiate Christmas altogether because of the way the World has taken it over. Yet this seems to be the wrong attitude. If the World has taken something of ours, rather than it give it up as a lost cause, should we not seek to redeem it. To show how we can do Christmas differently, how we can do Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) differently? To be in the world and not of it, its something I write about quite often on here, particularly in relation to liturgy and the Church Calendar. Father Christmas, whose very name more evokes the Feast of the Nativity than Santa Claus does, can be the way we as Christians do that. By all means let him bring toys, but perhaps he also brings suggestions to the wealthier to help the poor (as St James seems to desire). Perhaps as Alison Milbank will suggest in the video below, we can create a community of gift-exchange that centres around Father Christmas, who centres around the Nativity.  It should be remembered that C. S. Lewis, the author with whom Samples ends her article, used Father Christmas to signal the end of the reign of the White Witch in Narnia because he signalled the coming of Aslan into Narnia.

Sincerely yours, this believer in Father Christmas,
David Russell Mosley

Feast of St John, Or Three French Hens, Or The Word Became Flesh

Dear Friends and Family,

Today in the Church Calendar we celebrate the life of John the Evangelist, known in the Eastern Orthodox Church as John the Theologian. I love that we remember the author of John 1 in the middle of Christmastide. You see, as my friend Colin has written, Christmas Doesn’t End After Dinner. Christmas goes from 25 December until 5 January. Thus, as well as being the Feast of St John, today is also the third day of Christmas (hence the three french hens).

John is called the theologian because his gospel is always seen as the most theological. When the gospels are represented by the animals in Revelation, John’s is always depicted as the eagle soaring above the heights of the other three because it is more theologically explicit about Jesus is. John tells us that Christ is the Word (or at least leaves that inference to us). He then tells us that the Word is God and yet with God, and that the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us. You see, this is the meaning of Christmas. God the Son, or the Word as John calls him in his prologue, became a human being, born of the Virgin Mary. But what does this mean?

What we usually focus on, when it comes to God becoming human, or the Incarnation, is that Christ came to save us from our sins. He came to die, so he could defeat death and conquer sin so we could live with him in eternity. I don’t want to downplay the salvific significance of Christ’s coming, but I want to introduce another: God became man that we might become gods.

As I’ve said in a previous post, I’m now working in my research on the topic of Christian deification. Part of what this notion is centred in is that when Christ became human he made humans capable of becoming gods. Our ability to become gods is only by his grace and our adoption into his Sonship. As the Scriptures say, we become partakers of the divine nature. As one of the possible collects for the Morning Prayer Service in the Anglican Church says, ‘as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity.’ God coming as a baby into this world was to do more than save us from our sins, it was to do more than redeem us, it was, in a sense, to deify us. It can sound scary to ears not trained to hear it, but it is the life to which we are called.

I hope you all are enjoying the Christmas season. It is a time with family, as it should be, for family should remind us of Christ and his family: Scared (but obedient), young Mary and nervous (but noble) Joseph and the child they raised and named Jesus.

I want to leave you with Jesus’ prayer from the seventeenth chapter in John’s Gospel:

17 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Sincerely Yours,
David

In Defence of Father Christmas

Dear Friends and Family,

As Christmas Day is fast approaching, I thought I would write on a subject rather close to my heart: Santa Claus, or as he is known here, Father Christmas.

A collection of letters J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his children from Father Christmas

A collection of letters J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his children from Father Christmas

I believed in Santa Claus until I was 12, nearly 13. All in one day, I lost Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. I realise that I was older than most when I stopped believing. I had to ask my mom pointblank. She said, ‘Do you want the truth?’ Yes. I did. And so she told me there was no Santa Claus. This didn’t shatter my world. Somehow, I still maintained a sense of magic and mystery in the world around me. A few months later, I would decide that Christianity, that Jesus was real and before my next Christmas I had dedicated my life and death, and whatever he chose to give me after, to Christ.

I know that some parents are afraid of introducing Santa to their children because they may give up on God as well. I, however, can honestly say that being raised in a home that put no emphasis on God, loss of Santa did not make Jesus seem less plausible. I truly believe that belief in Santa, in magic in this world, prepared my pre-adolescent heart and mind for belief in one greater than Santa. I understand that Santa can be misused, he can become the face of crass consumerism and can make children of less wealthy families feel misused and abused by the goodly giver who gave them less than the rich boy down the street. However, I think as Christians we ought to take another look at Santa, or as I have come to prefer, Father Christmas.

The reason I prefer Father Christmas to Santa Claus is twofold. First, by making him Father Christmas we detach him from the real figure Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas about whom I wrote on his feast day. This allows us to discuss who the real St Nick was and what he did (i.e. giving gifts and punching heretics). Second, by using the title Father Christmas, he can be as old as the birth of Christ, connecting us ,even more firmly than the Bishop of Myra, to the event that we celebrate in the Feast of the Nativity, namely, the Incarnation of God. Father Christmas can become a figure directly linked with the giving of the gift of God become man.

One thing I do to support the belief in Father Christmas is to write to my nephews every year a letter from Father Christmas. I got the idea of Tolkien and have used similar, but never the same, characters he used to populate the North Pole. This way I can give them a bit of fun, as some kind of adventure or other seems to happen each year, but can also introduce notions about the true meaning of Christmas, that the world is a place where ‘magic’ can and does happen because of the God who created and upholds it.

Below is yet another video from the splendid Alison Milbank. Please watch it and consider incorporating Father Christmas into your family and your community.

Sincerely yours,
David