Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent Reflections: Father/Christmas

Jump Start, Robb Armstrong, 12/27/98.

“We seek unity, not uniformity.”

That was part of the mission statement spoken at the opening of a gathering of “inclusive” Catholics I attended. In theory, I thought, that sounded great. Far better to create an environment where people are given room to be themselves than to demand a rigid conformity.

But I soon found out what “inclusive” meant to this gathering. On the positive side, it meant that the group welcomed people and groups that may have felt left out in the institutional church. But on the negative side, it meant that the liturgical language was diluted, one assumes so as not to give offense, to the point that it drew attention to itself and thus distracted from the message.

As in other liberal-leaning churches I’ve attended, every effort was taken to avoid referring to God in male terms. Usually, that means you hear awkward constructions in which the word “God” is repeated in place of a pronoun, such as “God revealed Godself to us.” Or references to “Father” are replaced with words such as “Creator,” or “Holy One.” That, of course, means, that references to the Trinity, as when we make the sign of the cross, are also altered. Instead of invoking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one may hear a reference to the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.

But the group I was visiting took its gender-neutral language one step further and avoided even references to a heavenly kingdom (your kin-dom come) and to “the Lord.” And thus, when the lector (not the priest, oddly) was reading from Luke, we heard not the familiar wording of the quote from Isaiah – “prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him” – we heard “prepare the way for God; make the paths straight.”

Well, not only does that remove the rhythm and majesty of the verse, but it also renders our experience of God sterile and distant. We use human metaphors for God in the first place so that we can better relate to him. It’s not that God is a literal man in the sky, necessitating that we call God a “he”; it’s that the God that Jesus revealed was a deity he referred to as his Father in heaven, for reasons that were no doubt cultural but also theological. 

The people of Israel thought of their God in male terms. Other peoples around them had female deities, but theirs was traditionally referred to with male pronouns. If we deny this God a pronoun, then it becomes harder to approach him on a personal level as a Father, or even as a person at all. Instead of the loving, forgiving, embracing father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he becomes an abstraction — which is what the human analogies we use to refer to him are meant to avoid in the first place. After all, if Jesus referred to God as Father, one would think that would be a compelling argument in favor of our doing the same.

Of course, Juliana of Norwich was correct when she said that God is Mother as well as Father. And to that end, we have at our disposal feminine aspects of God, most notably Holy Sophia from the books of Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach, but also the Holy Spirit, who in the early church was often regarded as a feminine presence, analogous to the Shekinah — the indwelling presence of God, the spark of the Divine – who, in Hebrew, was always referred to with a feminine pronoun. And some view Mary as a human face of the Divine Feminine. So with these feminine aspects at hand, it seems we should seek equality and diversity within the Divine by embracing both the masculine and feminine expressions of God, rather than by neutering God of either expression and flattening our experience of him.

I see the same impulse playing out with society’s insistence on preferring the generic word “holiday” over “Christmas.” Now, I’m not much of a War-on-Christmas type of person, but I find this to be another case in which an attempt to be well-meaning and inclusive, honoring our differences, instead leaves us with a kind of gray, undifferentiated sameness, where we have to restrain our desire to express Christmas greetings to each other even though 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas.

The argument typically goes that there are other holidays at the end of the year and we shouldn’t neglect them. But the fact is that Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday that only gets attention because of its proximity to Christmas, and Kwanzaa doesn’t preclude those who observe it from also observing the celebration of Christmas. 

If we were concerned about not causing offense to those who observe other holidays, then it would make more sense to focus our efforts on expunging the word "Easter" from our vocabulary, since Easter falls within proximity of Passover, which actually is a major Jewish holiday. Yet no one suggests doing that, and no one hesitates to wish others a happy Easter. Why we've gone to such an extreme over Christmas alone, when you look at the bigger picture, makes very little logical sense.

Moreover, Christmas is more than just a religious holiday; it’s part of what binds us together as a culture. And that’s really the bigger problem with suppressing the use of the C-word: If we can’t freely acknowledge the traditions that hold our culture together like glue, it’s little wonder our culture is falling apart and so many of us seem to be at each other’s throats these days.

Homes and public spaces are decorated this time of year with Christmas displays. The familiar tunes we hear on the radio are Christmas songs. Corporations use those songs, along with images like Santa Claus and his reindeer, to make loads of money off people who are buying things for Christmas. Christmas is all around us, and it does no harm to acknowledge it. As we see increasing attempts to politically correct certain seasonal songs and programs out of existence, we can only conclude that what may have once been good intentions have been turned on their heads, so that now, rather than ensuring we acknowledge and respect minority views, the majority is now expected to capitulate in favor of the minority. Without getting into a long sociological discussion, it’s fair to say this is not how diversity is supposed to work.

The thing is, the spirit of Christmas is big enough and generous enough to embrace all beliefs and traditions, so there was never a need to suppress references to it. Similarly, God the Father is big enough and loving enough that he leaves us room to honor him as a father figure and also acknowledge the feminine aspects of the Godhead.

And so I wish my readers, without hesitation, a joyous Christmas season, and I pray that the Father shines his love on you while Sophia and Mother Spirit fill you inwardly with their peace.

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