Christmas: What’s it all about? Incarnation?

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They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.

George MacDonald

At ReadTheSpirit, we help you find great books, film and TV to light up your spiritual pathway. Over the past week, we have published stories ranging from inspirational news about Christmas TV specials to troubling news about an angry Christmas video. We’ve reported on the character of St. Nicholas and the colorful Latino festival of Las Posadas.

But what is at the root of this centuries-old tradition? Nearly 2,000 years ago—before St. Nicholas, Charles Dickens or “Miracle on 34th Street”—Christmas began as a festival of incarnation. Christians believed that God became human on Christmas Day. In the ancient world, this festival of miraculous transformation was fixed on the Solstice, which in the calendar at that time was December 25. As Christmas approaches in 2010, we ask: Can the wonderment of that original idea be saved?

That is the Big Question in Donald Heinz’s fresh new book, “Christmas: Festival of Incarnation.” Of course, it’s rare to see the words “fresh” and “Christmas” in the same sentence—but they reflect the rare chemistry in Heinz’s scholarship. He is ordained in the Evangelical Church in America, once was Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at California State University, Chico, and today is professor of religious studies.

In 287 pages, Heinz takes us from the Roman world in which Christianity was born through centuries of letters, liturgy, music and art—asking readers to follow this miracle of incarnation as it gets rolled like a snowball in layers of theology, theater and finally popular culture. But this is not your typical “history of Christmas” book. Instead, Heinz wants us to think about how that ancient story of a miracle feels to us today, what it looks like in our mind’s eye, what it sounds like reverberating in our ears.

You may think it’s odd to review a Christmas book just a few days before Christmas, but we think this is a perfect time to order a copy of “Christmas: Festival of Incarnation” from Amazon. For one thing, it’s on sale right now at Amazon. For another, traditional Christmas observance runs into January. Finally, it really requires the overwhelming, mind-numbing confusion of a typical American Christmas week to understand the need for a book like this.

Millions are wondering right now: What in the heck is Christmas all about!?! Why does it matter after 2,000 years? Yes, for Christians this holiday recalls Jesus’ birth—but beyond a nostalgic baby picture of Jesus on a greeting card, does the miracle of incarnation still hold any spiritual power? In these pages, Heinz carries us—like a Dickens ghost—far and wide through arts, music, letters and theology. We hear from Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Carl Jung, J.S. Bach, St. Francis of Assisi and W.H. Auden.

Capturing an Astonishing Idea in Poetry of Jennings & Yeats

If your Christmas memories mainly summon Coca-Cola Santas with a jolly laugh and an overflowing sack of goodies, then you’ve missed the enormous wonders of reflecting on this ancient story. But, the spark is not lost, Heinz argues. From 20th Century letters, Heniz reminds us of the poet Elizabeth Jennings and her “Annunciation,” which includes:

“It is a human child she loves
Though a god stirs beneath her breast
And great salvations grip her side.”

And Heinz reminds us of W.B. Yeats’ awe-inspiring “Mother of God,” including:

“The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.”

If such sparks—almost snuffed out in our popular culture—kindle a renewed curiosity in you, then we know you’ll enjoy reading this book well into the dark days of January here in the Northern Hemisphere. You may even want to organize a small-group discussion around this book with friends in your congregation.

And, to our Christian readers, we say: Merry Christmas!

We want our international conversation to continue

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

 

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