If the Puritans proved themselves the enemies of Christmas (see my previous post on that), they did so in part because their particular form of theology had been severed from the roots of ancient Christianity. As ironic as it is, the Protestant Reformation that inspired them cut a large part of modern Christendom off from the faith of the early Church.
The reformers, of course, believed they were restoring that faith. They looked at contemporary (sixteenth-century) Roman Catholicism and concluded it had deviated dangerously from it. Doctrines like sola scriptura (the authority of “scripture alone”) were devised by Luther and other Protestant fathers to correct these deviations. This is all well known to any college undergraduate who has been through a course in western civilization.
What is not taught in most American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian) colleges, however, is how far Roman Catholicism itself had departed from what was for eastern Christians the standards or norms of the ancient faith. Orthodox Christians for their part never had to deal with the historically disruptive experience of a reformation because the Orthodox Church never developed the kinds of doctrines and practices that came to characterize Roman Catholicism on the eve of the Reformation. As a matter of fact, following the Great Schism of 1054 that separated Roman Catholics from the Orthodox Church, western Christendom had grown increasingly unique in relationship to the ancient faith the Orthodox claimed to maintain.
The Orthodox never held to Purgatory or Papal Infallibility. Indeed, they never had a supreme bishop or Pope exercising ultimate, juridical authority over the entire body of believers. They never required priests to be celibate (most Orthodox parish priests are married and have children). They historically used vernacular languages for the scriptures and services, unlike the western insistence upon Latin.
Finally, by rejecting the doctrine of Purgatory they never developed a system of “indulgences” by which one’s soul was released from bitter and prolonged punishment after death and before entrance into paradise.
It was this last practice, used by the Renaissance Papacy to fund, of all things, the reconstruction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, that provoked Martin Luther to nail his famous Ninety Five Theses against the sale of indulgences on a church door in Wittenberg, Saxony, on October 31, 1517. And it was this act, students learn in our western universities, that launched the Protestant Reformation and led, among other things, to the rise of Puritanism.
In some ways, the Protestant Reformation that resulted in Puritanism was a well-intentioned overreaction. It was a swing of the pendulum from the innovations and deviations of a particular stage in the history of Roman Catholicism (some of which have since been acknowledged and even lamented by Roman Catholics) to excesses and deviations in the name of their repudiation. But while it may have been well-intentioned, it was still an overreaction.
What does any of this have to do with the celebration of Christmas? Quite a bit. The agony of modern Christians about the apparent demise of Christmas has its roots in the past as much as the present. It can be traced back in time beyond the “war on Christmas” by today’s secularists (the management of Starbucks possibly among them); beyond the commercialized distortion of Saint Nicholas in the twentieth century; beyond the impious ribaldry of winter revelers in the city streets of nineteenth-century America (documented in the very interesting book The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum); and beyond even the dour moralism of the Puritans who helped found American civilization.
It can be traced in history to the departure of western Christendom–both Protestant and Roman Catholic–from the ancient and sacramental roots of the early Church.
In order to “reform” our contemporary approach to Christ’s birth, in order to “purify” it of Puritanical and other distortions, we need to go back in time a good deal further than Americans (and students of American colleges) are used to doing, beyond the Protestant Reformation, beyond the high middle ages when Roman Catholicism flourished as the only form of Christianity in the west.
What we in the modern west really need to contemplate during this Christmas season is the Christ of the ancient Church.
In my next post I will try to do this by reflecting further on the cosmology of traditional Christianity as it was revealed in the ancient celebration of the incarnation.