Wednesday, December 21, 2011

At churches, Christmas brings thought

Clergy discusses timely interest and timeless meaning of religious holiday

Express Staff Writer

Pastor Bob Henley of the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum said he sees a surge in church attendance during the holiday season. Photo by David N. Seelig

Church attendance picks up considerably during the holidays. Families gather to have meals, carols are sung and gifts are opened. But what does the season mean to leaders of spiritual communities in the Wood River Valley?

A few members of the local clergy offered their take on Christmas, and why it seems to bring the sometimes-worshipful out of the woodwork.

Pastor Bob Henley, of the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum, said he and other parishioners have long noted a spike in attendance on Christmas and Easter. Henley said these seasonal attendees on Christmas and Easter are referred to jokingly among the clergy as the "birth and resurrection membership."

But Henley said the deeper meaning of Christmas has to do with Jesus Christ.

"Some of the historical facts, like the birth of Christ, are definitive moments in history," he said. "It's part of the fabric of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is a part of our nation's roots. Christmas resonates with a deep respect for some of the fundamental values that have shaped who we are as a nation. As part of an individual's spirituality, the significance of their participation in church would differ from person to person."

John Moreland at the Light on the Mountains Center for Spiritual Living—south of Ketchum—said Christmas serves as a chance for people to reconnect to a lot of things they think are important, including family and friends and family traditions.

"If they haven't made time for it, they take Christmas as an opportunity, whether it means going to a church or spiritual center or not," said Moreland, who teaches a science-of-mind religious philosophy.

"We see the meaning of Jesus' life as not that he was uniquely divine, but we all have that divinity in us. We're not just observers, but are also able to take that story on as our own story. On Christmas, we ask how we can look at the birth of Jesus as the re-enactment of the birth of divinity within us, and how we would like to see that divinity in our life. It can be a time of new intentions for us."


Moreland said taking the Bible as literal history with regard to Christmas can pose problems.

"There are differences between the birth stories in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew," he said. "One says he was born in a stable with three kings, the other that he was born at home without the three kings.

"We basically have cut and pasted from these two stories to get the story we have today in the modern era. People back then [at the time of Christ] were more into the significance of symbols than factual significance."

Calvary Bible Church Pastor Ron Brown said attendance does rise during the Christmas season, but that it is not only about family tradition.

"It's about what the Bible says, such as in Luke when the angels announce to the shepherds that Jesus was born. They said, 'Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people ... for today in the city of David there has been born a savior who is Christ the Lord ... the son of man came to seek and save what was lost.'

"The reason that Christmas is such a great celebration is because we desperately need a savior. All of us are lost in the sense that we have sinned and our sin separates us from God. Jesus came to die on the cross as our substitute, to be the sacrificial lamb of God, which is the greatest gift that has ever been given. That is what we celebrate on Christmas. That gift is available to anyone who will receive it. [John 3:16 says] 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.'

"We have to have something to tell us definitively what Christianity is. That's why we go to the Bible. It should be taken literally."

The Jewish holiday that most closely corresponds with Christmas is Hanukkah, a festival of light beginning on the evening of Dec. 20 and running for eight nights, featuring traditional food such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).

"They are both cooked in oil," said Daniel Utley, a student rabbi serving the Wood River Jewish Community. "This celebrates the oil that was burned in the Temple of Jerusalem in 160 B.C. when the Maccabbes won a revolt against the Syrian Greeks."

"Typically, Hanukkah is not a holiday that one would go to synagogue for any special reason. It's not a major holiday in the Jewish tradition, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."

Though Hanukkah differs from Christmas in fundamental ways, the two holidays both focus attention on the finest qualities of human nature.

"Jesus was Jewish, of course. He was a Jew who came up with a different philosophy of his relationship with God. He is considered a rabbi by many, which means a teacher.

"But we do not consider him to be the son of God or the Messiah as Christians do. Jews believe the Messiah is yet to come from the line of King David. The focus of Hanukkah is on bringing the light. Some focus on being a source of light, bringing light, care and warmth to others."

"Liberal Jews, such as those in a reform community such as ours, believe our duty is to repair the world by helping others to create justice and peace. We believe this will bring about a messianic age for all humankind."

Tony Evans:

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