Tag Archives: Christmas

East Anchorage congregation gave generously to the community in December

In my December 17, 2016 column, “Three Churches, Three Approaches to Christmas”, published in Alaska Dispatch News, I mentioned Baxter Road Bible Church’s annual giving campaign in December.  Unbelievably, they donate 100% of church income to charitable causes in our community, causes suggested by individual members. Their theme is “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus'”.  (see http://www.churchvisits.com/2016/12/three-churches-three-approaches-to-christmas/)

This congregation walks the talk, and unbelievably gave over $102,000 in December!  I’ve been privileged to become acquainted with some of the members of this dedicated church community.  They give out of their love for God and their fellow man.  A few members might not even want me to mention their giving in the event this practice might be mistaken for being a prideful act.  Clearly they lead by example and their example has been a personal inspiration.

Coincidentally, the same day I visited BRBC in December, I also visited Anchorage Baptist Temple. Unbelievably, Pastor Prevo made an earnest appeal before his sermon for a coming “Christmas Miracle Offering”, to be distributed to staff of ABT, Anchorage Christian Schools, and their missionaries.

Some churches might take up a special offering in December for the poor or local projects of concern such as various non-profits.  I thank God for churches like BRBC which remind me that Christmas is the time to emulate the gift given to us in the form of Jesus.

In his wonderful book, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday”, Pastor Mike Slaughter reminds us, “At Christmas, we celebrate a messiah, a deliverer, who was born to die. So, we too are called to give ourselves sacrificially with Christ for the world that God loves. More for him and less for us. Such sacrifice is paradoxical because the more of ourselves that we give away, the more abundant our faith and our contentment will be with what we have. In our culture of consumption, this is a countercultural way to live. Living on less when we could have more and giving away more when it means having less is a frightening proposition to many people. It is not easy, and there will be naysayers, but this sacrifice is what Jesus truly desires of those who would follow him.

Since 2004, Ginghamsburg Church and local partners have raised $8.3 million to provide humanitarian help for Darfur with their Christmas Miracle Offering. (see http://ginghamsburg.org/serve/ways-to-serve/christmas-miracle-offering)

I didn’t read a single word or hear a single TV story about Darfur during the Christmas season just passed.  Makes you think doesn’t it?

 

The value of Christmas is deep and remarkable

When many of you read this, Christmas Eve preparations will have been made. Churches will be ready for you with multiple services; this annual event will be celebrated with great joy. Music, candles, pageantry, sermons and goodwill will herald the end of Advent and entry into Christmas.

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches will not hold Sunday services. But, according to Christianity Today, “Eighty-nine percent of pastors say their church will hold services on Christmas Day. Leaders of Lutheran (94 percent), Church of Christ (93 percent), Baptist (91 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (91 percent), and Holiness (92 percent) churches are most likely to say their church will hold Christmas Day services. Pentecostals (79 percent) are less likely. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas.”

Some argue against churches having Christmas Day services, especially when Christmas falls on Sunday, because Christmas Day is a family day. Presents need to be opened and family Christmas traditions need to be observed and perpetuated.

The purpose of Christmas Eve services is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in imaginative and multiple glorious ways. For many churches, these services are their most heavily attended of the year. Many evangelical churches now actively use them for evangelism, i.e., attracting new adherents. And what better way to use them. But for many, Christmas Day is an afterthought.

Be sure to check with your church to ensure it is holding Christmas Day services before going. Last week, over coffee with a pastor, he revealed he’d made the mistake some years ago of going to a church retreat during a weekend assuming all members would be there.

Unfortunately, no notice got posted on the church door. Upon his return, he discovered some people did come for a Sunday service and left with the impression the church was no longer in business. This also happened to me when visiting a local church. It turns out they were away at a camp meeting but the door had no notice of it.

Most Catholic and Orthodox churches hold both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. As always, it’s best to check church websites or call to ensure when services will be held. I fondly remember, as a then-member of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, singing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral several years ago.

It’s truly a beautiful service with brass, choir, organ, timpani and piano focused squarely on the birth of Christ and culminating with the partaking of Eucharist. To be able to participate in this “extracurricular” event was an honor I’ll always remember. This might be a good year to experience this beautiful Mass along with this elite musical group.

As a choir singer for most of my life, I can personally attest to the amount of effort church music directors put into the preparation of music for Christmas services. In some churches with large choirs, the choir itself can represent a sizeable portion of those present for services. Choir members invest significant amounts of time preparing for this special music, and enjoy the participative efforts of their singing.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I urge you to experience Christmas celebrations of other faith traditions. It always amazes me how rarely Christians allow themselves permission to experience Christmas through the eyes of another faith.

Maybe they are fearful of eternal damnation if they do so, or are so tied to their personal congregation that they feel nothing could be better. I’ve experienced Christmas in various areas of the world, and through the eyes of various cultures. It’s fascinating to do so, and gave me new insights and appreciation for practicing my own faith in ways that were enriching.

Growing up in a Christian family, even if we did not go to Christmas Eve service, we always commenced Christmas Eve festivities with a Gospel reading of the Nativity story. It’s an enriching story and needs to be read in its entirety to catch its fullness.

I like Luke’s version the best, and Luke 2 is the place to start. Matthew’s version of the Nativity starts at Matthew 1:18 and is preceded by the genealogy of Jesus. Try reading with some different translations to capture the scope and sway of the text. The King James Version, even with the Elizabethan English, still captures the imagination. These days I often enjoy the English Standard Version for its translation accuracy and beauty of language.

My experiences with Anchorage Christmas services have always been an enjoyable part of my church year. No matter where I go, churches seem to be on their best behavior during this time. Many years, I’ve gone to multiple churches to experience their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

I’ve been particularly blessed when churches offer “Lessons and Carols” services during Advent or at Christmastime. I see that First Congregational Church is offering such a service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Also, Holy Family Cathedral will be offering this type of service on Christmas Eve at 11 p.m. Zion Lutheran offers its own Christmas Eve service of “Lessons and Carols” at 7:30 p.m. These types of services are beautifully rendered with readings, carols and special musical presentations.

As I wind up my writing year, this will be my next to last column for the Alaska Dispatch News. Next week I’ll present my “10 Things I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Address in 2017” column. My “10 things” columns at year’s end have been something I look forward to writing and will continue to do as I confine my church writing to my website, churchvisits.com. The site also contains all of my ADN blog posts and columns for the past eight and a half years, approximately 530 articles.

As we complete Advent and transition into Christmas, I wish each of you warm Christmas greetings. May the peace and hope brought by the birth of Jesus’ attend your ways at this time, and into the coming year.

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Three churches, three approaches to Christmas

Last Sunday I attended three separate services. After focusing on Advent this month, I wanted to experience services at evangelical churches not observing Advent. While I believe Advent, rightly observed, can be an antidote to the crass commercialism hijacking Christmas, evangelical churches should also be urging their parishioners to keep focused on the true purpose of Christmas, Jesus.

Anchorage Baptist Temple

This megachurch, Alaska’s second-largest with approximately 2,500 members, is always a feast of sight and sound. Everything seems to be larger than life with an enormous center-stage video screen, flanked by two large video monitors to the right and left. Spirited singing by choir and congregation was underway as I entered the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

The music was a blend of Christmas carols, along with some modern classics such at the “Little Drummer Boy.” Hymnals are not needed as the words are projected on the screens, which use incredible animation to bring the words to life. A vocal group composed of Anchorage Christian Schools youth sang a number of songs, and a singer sang a lovely song.

The stage was decorated with the traditional icons of the season. I counted six decorated Christmas trees on the stage, plus eight more lighted trees in the choir area. There were stacks of presents, teddy bears and candy cane poles all over the stage.

Throughout the service reminders were given about the Christmas pageant to be held this weekend, donations to ABT’s bus Christmas store, and sacrificial giving to the church’s 2016 Christmas Miracle Offering. I was bothered when the Rev. Jerry Prevo mentioned the purpose of this offering as being for employees of the church, the school and church missionaries.

Prevo made a very hard sell for this offering, the likes of which I’ve only seen in one other church — a certain prosperity Gospel church in Anchorage. The goal was $30,000, and I was concerned they were thinking more of each other this time of year than those desperately in need of physical and financial assistance.

Prevo presents well-prepared sermons. He interrupted this one, “Two Kinds of People,” to show a dramatic 12-minute short film to illustrate his talking points. The video illustrated people who respond to invitations to help and those who do not, which he later typified as the “lost” and the “saved.” My ABT visit showed me a “Christmas as usual” attitude with much giving expected, heavy appeals to give to the Miracle Offering, and a significant emphasis on the upcoming Christmas pageant, quite a contrast to my next two church visits.

Baxter Road Bible Church

Less than a mile from ABT, lies Baxter Road Bible Church. The church offers two services on Sunday: 10 a.m. and noon. Arriving at the noon service a few minutes late, I found Communion already being served. The church’s musical group is enjoyable to listen to and sing along with; it presented hymns and carols of the season, typical of non-Advent practicing churches.

Children presented several songs. No matter how good or poor the singing is, this is a time of wonder for the adults. Many of us have been there before, and can only remember the faces smiling back at us.

The Rev. Bob Mather’s sermon, “Preparing for Christmas,” was Bible-based, giving practical advice about preparing our hearts for Christmas. Though this church is a little over a 10th the size of ABT, it’s opened its heart for years to giving during December without urging.

Using the theme, “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’,” the congregation dedicates 100 percent of December church income to community nonprofits and other religious organizations members suggest. These organizations are actively doing the work Jesus referred to in his teaching.

Last year, Baxter’s December’s giving reaped over $90,000, more than twice what ABT has set as its 2016 goal. No sales pitch was necessary Sunday morning for this cause at Baxter. The congregation doesn’t need it; it’s one of those things they do without urging. Mather, pastor at the church, has often told me: “The more we give, the more blessed we are.”

ChangePoint

Alaska’s largest church at around 3,500 members, ChangePoint leads by example in the local community. I tend to find the music overly loud at ChangePoint and don’t visit as often as I could. However, the Sunday 6 p.m. service found a smaller crowd, and music easier on the ears than normal. My decibel-meter measured most of the music at 90-98 decibels, a sharp reduction from previous services.

As I entered, I was greeted at the door and welcomed by a member. I noticed the church’s OnRamp life group was collecting practical gifts for children at McKinnell House, Salvation Army’s temporary family shelter, during November and December. What a sensible ministry!

Before the sermon,the Rev. Scott Merriner, executive pastor, introduced Adam Legg, newly appointed executive director of Love Alaska, and Rick Steele, executive pastor of operations. Legg is in charge of an exciting new venture that joins two previous ChangePoint initiatives, Grace Alaska and Priceless.

Grace Alaska took on some major projects in town such as getting the Downtown Soup Kitchen started, and providing automotive services for single mothers and widows through Rightway Automotive. Priceless is a service to women involved in human or sex trafficking. Approximately 70 women have been referred to the program, which provides them access to over 120 trained mentors in 18 local churches.

Love Alaska will now be a separate organization not subject to ChangePoint’s structure. Members of ChangePoint will be encouraged to support these efforts to address areas of brokenness in our community along with members of other churches. A third initiative of Love Alaska will be Chosen, a program which focuses on mentoring youth as they leave the foster care system. ChangePoint’s annual Uncommon Gift Offering will be taken Sunday to support Chosen. These changes are exciting for Anchorage and ChangePoint is to be commended for making them happen.

Student ministry pastor Adam Brown’s message was the second in a series titled, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His particular message was subtitled, “The Wonder of Real Treasure.” Using Matthew 6:19-24, he said “real treasure is what we think it is,” noting we must each choose our treasure — temporal or eternal — and to chase our master whether it be God or money.

I thought this was a powerful message from a church that is making a difference in our community. As we look at the consumer-driven brokenness of Christmas, it was refreshing to hear this message on Sunday, a real antidote to consumerism.

Advent Music Here

Too many churches fail to recognize Advent by jumping into Christmas right after Thanksgiving and continuing the pattern of Advent and Christmas carols until New Year’s celebrations. Anchorage’s local classical music station KLEF-FM, 98.1, presents a wonderful sacred music program Sundays, from 6 – 9 a.m.  Host Jon Sharpe always seems to find sacred music for every mood and taste.

During Advent, Jon’s focusing on Sacred Advent and Christmas music. For 15 years he’s been producing a program on KLEF-FM 98.1 called “Sacred Concert”.  It airs every Sunday morning from 6 to 9.

His remaining December lineup includes:

European Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 4.

Early American Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 11.

An English Christmas Celebration will be featured December 18.

Christmas Day, “Christmas in New York”, is the special feature.

KLEF’s website is at http://www.klef98.com/. They also provide an internet streaming experience over the internet. (http://www.klef98.com/listen-live) If you are outside of Alaska, remember the time zone differences from your locality.

Thanks to KLEF, it’s sponsors, and Jon Sharpe for fine sacred concerts Sunday mornings. I’ve been listening for years and have never been disappointed.

Advent Conspiracy is an antidote to the over-commercialization of Christmas

Why am I writing about Christmas now since it’s not even Thanksgiving? So many retailers have had Christmas items for sale as early as August or September this year. Plainly stated, it’s marketing greed in a rush to capitalize on every Christmas dollar to be spent. The time to plan for a proper Christmas is now, not later.

A small group of pastors made a positive step in addressing this issue a few years back, creating an organization called Advent Conspiracy. Their website clearly states their premise in just a few words. “Can Christmas still change the world? The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption and relationship. So, what happened? How did it turn into stuff, stress and debt? Somehow, we’ve traded the best story in the world for the story of what’s on sale.”

That’s the problem, and the Advent Conspiracy’s solution is elegant. Its website offers a suite of resources for churches, parents and other individuals to address the problem of the abuse of Christmas as an orgy of spending for ourselves and each other.

Advent Conspiracy is focusing this year on water, noting: “Today, 663 million of our brothers and sisters around the world lack access to safe drinking water. What if the way we celebrate Christmas this year changes this? We continue to hear story after story of churches and families participating in Advent Conspiracy each year to conspire to spend less each Christmas and give in ways that collectively fund hundreds of life-changing water projects worldwide. This year, prayerfully consider including giving to end the clean water crisis as part of your Advent giving.”

Advent Conspiracy’s website offers several short videos which help to bring its focus alive. I urge you watch them.

Christmas, the highest holiday spending time of year, promises to be so again, almost eclipsing last year’s record spending. However, there are clouds on the horizon. According to Fortune magazine, “shoppers will rally after Nov. 8. Election stress is a real thing. And it could hurt retailers as the holiday shopping season gets under way next week.

A National Retail Federation survey found that a majority of Americans will be cautious about Christmas shopping this year, with many possibly pulling back on spending, because of anxiety over the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential contest. What’s more, it’s hard for retailers to get a word in edgewise these days, potentially making their marketing less effective.” Christmas shopping is a nightmare for parents, driving many into debt and despair.

One local church has successfully addressed this problem for many years with its “It’s not your birthday” program. Baxter Road Bible Church began the program some years ago. It dedicates 100 percent of the income received during each December saying, “It’s our gift to Jesus because, after all, it’s his birthday we’re celebrating.” Last year they raised around $100,000 in December. The Rev. Bob Mather, senior pastor of the church, says the money “goes to the poor, the needy, and those going through hard times.” Much of it is spent locally.

The amount of $10,000 is dedicated to a Haitian mission the church has supported for years, vetted by one of the congregation. The focus of that mission is feeding and helping the poor, clothing them, and providing health care. The mission is led by a Haitian minister. I’ve been unable to locate any other Anchorage church that is so generous at Christmas. A few might dedicate one offering in December, or take a second offering for this purpose. Mather observes, “The more generous we are, the better off we are.” The faith and generosity of this warm group of Christians always amazes me. They walk the talk, and have grown rapidly as a result.

Christmas can be a teachable moment for parents with their children. I believe it offers families an opportunity to develop an awareness of the true meaning of Christmas, rather than a narcissistic display of spending that satisfies only ourselves, and does little for mankind.Other useful resources and film links about Christmas are available on my website Church Visits.

Anchorage’s next archbishop to be installed Wednesday

In August 2015, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz submitted his resignation to Pope Francis I in accordance with papal law. After 14 months, an archbishop-designate for the Anchorage archdiocese has been selected. Bishop Paul Dennis Etienne was recently introduced to the community in a news conference. He is currently the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

His installation will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The installation will be preceded by evening prayer at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holy Family Cathedral. Both ceremonies are followed by receptions. (A copy of the official invitation is available here.)

The Mass will begin with Archbishop Schwietz presiding. The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre, will read a proclamation from Pope Francis designating Etienne as the new archbishop. He’ll then show it to the archdiocesan consultors for agreement. At this point Bishop Etienne is now archbishop and will be led to the cathedra (bishop’s chair) and be presented with the crozier. Bishop Etienne will then preside over the remainder of the Mass. Eight to 10 other bishops will be present, including all three Alaska bishops. It promises to be an impressive installation.

After the installation, Schwietz will have the title archbishop emeritus. He’ll continue to pastor St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River where he’s been pastor since his resignation.

“I leave with a tremendous sense of gratitude,” he told me. “The people have been so gracious, welcoming, and cooperative. They’ve been so caring for me. It’s been a wonderful experience. I lay down those responsibilities with regret but look forward to the leadership of the new archbishop.”

In anticipation of a full audience at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, the archdiocese has announced the installation Mass of Archbishop-Designate Etienne will be streamed live online at CatholicAnchor.org.

The old Alaska traditions surrounding Orthodox Christmas

Last week I attended Orthodox services at St. Alexis Mission in celebration of Christmas. The Orthodox Church in America counts nearly 90 churches across Alaska, and congregations here, and in Canada and 14 other countries, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, a practice harkening back to the church’s beginnings. The church in these regions follows a modified Julian calendar. (Locally, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 using the Gregorian calendar for dating Christmas.)

In Alaska, Orthodox churches conduct Divine Liturgy services at 9 a.m. When a place of worship becomes too small, they do not add services but form a new body, i.e. mission, for the purpose of raising a new church. St. Alexis Mission meets at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association headquarters building on East International Airport Road. This temporary meeting space requires them to pack and store everything after services, no simple feat. Orthodox services involve the use of many icons and Eucharistic items which, in the temporary space, cannot be left in place.

The Very Rev. Jonah Andrew is assigned to the the mission, where he is sometimes assisted by the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa. Although Oleksa is retired, he is active in many other activities outside of St. Alexis. Andrew was in Tyonek celebrating Christmas at St. Nicholas Church, so Oleksa was the celebrant at both services I attended.

The 9 a.m. Christmas service at St. Alexis, a simple service including Eucharist, was led by Oleksa and a small choir. Orthodox services, except for the homily, are celebrated with the congregants standing. The service was very musical with the choir and the priest intertwining voices during the liturgy. Often, Oleksa raised his voice in support of the choir, even harmonizing with them.

In the Orthodox tradition, Christmas is preceded by 40 days of fasting — no easy feat, considering the fast period starts before Thanksgiving, and runs through the New Year. The Christmas service was a standard liturgy with special introductory psalms. The Gospel was Matthew, the story of the Magi, and in his homily, Oleksa talked about the Magi, and the birth of Jesus, pointing to the Magi in the primary icon, which are depicted as if seen from afar to emphasize the length of their journey. After the Eucharist, St. Alexis’ star was twirled to the sound of liturgical hymns for this feast day. Several times Oleksa joyfully announced, “Christ is born!” To which all responded, “Glorify him!” After the service, all were invited to Oleksa’s house for more hymns, folk carols and breakfast.

Oleksa was the celebrant again when vespers was celebrated that evening at St. Alexis — this time with fewer worshippers, and a much smaller choir. It was a beautiful service with another brief homily in which Oleksa depicted the Christian ending to one’s life; painless and blameless. Another “starring” was held. Not even the Protestant churches mark this time and event with such gusto.

After the service, Oleksa invited all present to meet up and join for “starring” and hymns at Lois and Tomislav Vasiljevic’s home in Russian Jack. Separately, Oleksa told me Tomislav, who is Serbian, was also celebrating his family Slava. “Serbian Orthodox are unique in that they do not celebrate their patron saint or Name Day, but instead celebrate the feast day on which their family became Christian,” Oleksa said. “In Tomislav’s case it was over 1,000 years ago that their whole village became Christian. St. Alexis always takes its star there, and sings for Tom and his family, who also treat us to a meal.”

Worshippers sang traditional Serbian religious music, while Oleksa’s son twirled the star. After the meal, Vasiljevic asked Oleksa to pray a healing prayer for him, which Oleksa did while placing a cross on him.

As I started writing this column, I had the impression most Orthodox worshippers avoid the temptation to succumb to the commercial trappings surrounding Christmas. However, the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, bishop of Sitka and Alaska, shared a strong statement of support for those who hold true to church recommendations saying, “I admire all those who wait until January 7 to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, because all the commercialism and busyness that has become the trappings of Christmas, has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, but more to do with the merchant’s pocketbook.”

“Alaska Missionary Spirituality,” a collection of 18th- and 19th-century letters, diaries and sermons of Orthodox missionaries in Alaska edited by Oleksa, explains starring as a “Native Alaskan term for traditional Julian calendar Christmas, combining elements of Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox hymns and folk customs and traditional indigenous practices. A pinwheel-shaped star, representing the Star of Bethlehem, with an icon of the Nativity of Christ in the center, leads the procession of carolers from house to house, where:

(1) In Aleut regions, they sing Orthodox and the traditional ‘“Many Years,’ often greeted with a rifle salute.

(2) In some Yup’ik Eskimo regions, all are treated to a lavish three-course meal (with the elders and church functionaries dining first). And in some households adults are presented with small gifts.

(3) In other Yup’ik areas, each household presents ‘to the Star’ their major annual contribution to the parish that the singers represent.”

I enjoyed my warm, in-depth introduction to Orthodox Christmas.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

 

10 ways to make the most of this Christmas

As you read this, the Christmas season is approaching a climax. Before Christmas passes, I’d like to suggest a few activities to help make the most of your observances of this Christmas season.

These practices will, I believe, help make the holiday’s meaning and message more real.

“Christians celebrate Christmas because they see, in the person of Jesus, God’s reign in-breaking amidst the sin, pain, despair and seemingly endless cycles of violence in our world,” says Rector Michael Burke. “The traditional teaching of Advent is threefold: to prepare for the birth of the Messiah, in the form of the tiny Christ child, in a place known only to those for whom the world has no place (or ‘room’).”

Advent observers experiencing a period of watchful waiting for the Messiah may be better prepared than other worshippers to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an eagerly awaited event.

As you celebrate Christmas, use this time to share with those around you the good news of His wonderful gift of love and redemption. Jesus was mostly rejected by his own people, yet much of his brief ministry was directed toward casting out devils, bodily and spiritual healing, kindness to prostitutes, loving the unlovely, and giving hope to the poor. Gandhi is famously quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Those of us who are Christians can remember this by opening our hearts and lives in loving response to the work of Jesus. Let’s share it with our children and everyone around us. Christmas offers many opportunities to do this. Here are 10 ways to restore the true spirit of Christmas in yourself, your family and friends and others.

1. Attend both a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service.

Both are important. If you have children, look for appropriate Christmas Eve services. Many churches have them. They can be memorable for children and adults alike. A double-page spread in today’s Alaska Dispatch News lists many services offered by area churches. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Christmas services at St. John United Methodist Church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe co-cathedral, especially the midnight Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

2. Read Luke 1 and 2 together with a group.

It’s a story where both chapters are important. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a wonderful film to watch on Christmas. YouTube has the poignant part where Linus recites the passage from Luke 2 for Charlie Brown to restore his faith in what Christmas is all about. Charles Schulz insisted this be included in the film.

3. Make snow angels outside with someone you love.

In doing so, remember the significant role of the angels of the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke.

4. Attend midnight Mass if you’ve never done so.

Like Easter, midnight Mass is one of the highpoints of the Catholic church year. Held at midnight, it rings in the true spirit of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, you’ll appreciate this special event. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also has a service starting at 11 p.m., which culminates with candles and Eucharist at the stroke of midnight.

5. Invite a friend, regardless of religious persuasion, to join you at a service.

You’d do the same for them if they invited you to a meaningful service in their personal life. It goes both ways.

6. Extend yourself to the ‘beatitudes people.’

You know, the ones Jesus spoke of during his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, revilers and evil speakers. There are ways to reach out to every one of these. For example, there are many examples of the persecuted these days, such as Syrian refugees.

7. Ask any number of charities now if you and your family could help.

The Salvation Army, Bean’s Cafe, Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, AWAIC, Gospel Rescue Mission, Food Bank of Alaska and many others can make use of your monetary and other assistance at this time of year.

8. Share memories of Christmases past with friends and family.

Many of these memories are stories of hope and meaning that may die unless shared and maybe recorded for posterity. StoryCorps is a wonderful way to record these memories of a friend or loved one, which may otherwise disappear. Storycorps.org has an app available to download to make this easy.

9. Consider a monetary gift to an Alaska-based relief and development project in someone’s name.

Alaska Sudan Medical Project (alaskasudan.org) is one such worthy cause in South Sudan that is saving and changing lives in many ways. So is the Malawi Children’s Village (malawichildrensvillage.org). Both are spearheaded or strongly supported by Alaska physicians.

10. Call a long-lost friend to reach out in love.

Giving the gift of love is a virtually cost-free gift with huge dividends. Using Google or Facebook can facilitate your search.

Here’s my hope that God’s peace rests with you and your family as you celebrate the true experience of Christmas.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

What are we really celebrating at Christmas?

Let’s face it: Our stories about Christmas originate from the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, but we don’t really know when Christ was born. Many scholars tend to favor spring as the most likely time of year. This is based on the account of shepherds watching over their flocks by night, something more likely to have taken place in spring than winter.

We probably celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 because of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt pagan celebrations held around the winter solstice. It was also the birthday of Mithra, the pagan god of light. On the darkest day of the year, Roman pagans celebrated by lighting up the night with fires to repel the dark. Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival of Saturn, was also celebrated in December, with often-unrestrained merrymaking. Scholars believe elements of both festivals eventually became incorporated into Christmas.

Hans Lietzmann, in his definitive “A History of the Early Church,” writes, “The festival on Dec. 25 originated in the west, and undoubtedly Rome was its cradle. Here it was observed as early as A.D. 336 under Constantine. From that date onwards, it is mentioned wherever we are justified in expecting it. Epiphany was unknown in Rome throughout the whole of the fourth century, being observed for the first time about 450, when it was mentioned by Leo the Great as the festival of the ‘Magi,’ i.e., the wise men from the east.” Historian Will Durant, in “The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ,” wrote, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”

Popular culture and Christianity have slowly developed traditions that don’t always correctly represent the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, Christmas cards, crèches in homes and churches, and living Nativity scenes wrongly depict the Magi as being present at the birth of Jesus, though they did not arrive until sometime after his birth — possibly days or weeks later, or even longer. Scripture notes it was some time after Christ’s presentation in the temple. The shepherds came, but not the wise men. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, only that three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — were given.

During the Reformation, many reformers, including John Knox, John Calvin and Martin Luther, rejected the way Christmas was celebrated. Luther, a former Roman Catholic priest, did allow certain Catholic observances of Christmas, and is said to have encouraged the bringing of evergreen trees inside and lighting them with candles. Presbyterians, on the other hand, were a late holdout against the celebration of Christmas, and when Puritans settled in America, they initially banned its celebration (cultural suspicion of the holiday persisted into the mid-1800s in New England).

Gift giving, once a tradition welcoming in the New Year, slowly shifted to Christmas in the 1800s. In the last hundred years, Christmas has become a phenomenon of unrestrained spending to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s even become an international sensation in countries with virtually no official tie to the teachings of Christianity. To me, it’s curious that religious leaders do so little to correct this orgy of spending, redirecting those energies toward the holiday’s true meaning.

I’ve visited many churches in town during this Advent season, an annual time of reflection and preparation of recognition of the birth of Jesus, and with only one exception, I’ve heard “business as usual” sermons on many different topics including parables or explications of passages of Scripture unrelated to the coming Christmas season.

Thankfully, one pastor mentioned “Advent Conspiracy.” Advent Conspiracy (see adventconspiracy.org) is a movement started nine years ago to correct the excesses of this season. Its website states these four simple aims: “Advent Conspiracy is a global movement of people and churches resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption by choosing a revolutionary Christmas through Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.”

It’s simple and easily accomplished. Some families have written to me telling me wonderful stories of how Advent Conspiracy has changed their perspectives, helping them become better Christian citizens of the world, fulfilling the truth of the Gospel.

This contrasts with pollsters’ predictions that average American spending for Christmas will be $830 per family, with many spending over $1,000, the highest amount since the Great Recession of 2008.

Who hasn’t had a family gift opening with squalling children, hurt feelings, and a numb sense after the gifts are all open, not to mention mounting debt as a result? I’ve seen it many times; it’s not pleasant. Christmas spending is a huge shot in the arm for our economy, but wouldn’t it be better to more wisely use those resources during the year to recognize family birthdays in turn?

Christmas is “not your birthday,” as the Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reminds me yearly. For Christians, at least, it’s Jesus’ birthday — to be observed in a manner reflecting all the glory and praise back to Him for the marvelous gift of grace God gave a fallen world. (And yes, I realize practitioners of other religions, plus atheists and agnostics, observe Christmas traditions that have become a part of pop culture.)

Despite the misgivings outlined above, I think Christmas is a wonderful time of year to look forward to and celebrate the birth of Christ in Scripture, spoken word, and song. It is also the least invasive time in which we can invite friends and acquaintances to our place of worship to celebrate this joyous time. For parents, it’s a teachable moment when your children can learn about the beginnings of Christianity. Advent observance can also delve deeply into prophetic scriptural writings, words and music dealing with Messianic anticipation.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Orthodox Christmas tradition burns brightly in Alaska – 1/10/15

Some of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had writing about religion in Alaska have been in connection with the Orthodox Christian faith. Last summer I addressed three flavors of Orthodox Christianity in Alaska in this column. In preparing for that column, I met many Orthodox Christians who are truly blessed by their beliefs. But I had never attended a Russian Orthodox Christmas service. Jan. 7, the traditional Russian Orthodox Christmas, I attended a wonderful service at Anchorage’s St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Beginning as Vespers, but ending with “Christ is born,” Bishop David Mahaffey continued by blessing elaborate stars congregants brought for the “starring” after the service. Starring — i.e., spinning them — proceeded to liturgical music and a selection of Christmas carols. The choir for this service was small in number but beautiful in tone. The church, packed with believers celebrating Christmas, will continue starring for days by going to the homes of congregants, wishing them merry Christmas and singing carols. That service was a wonderful departure from what I typically experience in many local churches. It really put Christ back in Christmas!

A well-known local Orthodox priest, the Very Rev. Michael Oleksa, extensively shared his thoughts with me about Russian Orthodox Christmas and its cultural place in Alaska:

“Most Orthodox Christians in the New World, following the lead of the Greek Orthodox Churches, use the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, 13 days before those who follow the ‘old’ Julian Calendar, will celebrate Christmas this week, Jan. 7. Those who continue to calculate their religious holidays on an outmoded calendar that is clearly nearly two weeks behind the astronomical realities of the universe, however, do so for two rather simple reasons … or maybe three!

“The first is simply that the Julian calendar has been in use since the time of its namesake, Julius Caesar, and is still in use in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Palestine, the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos, as well as Ethiopia. Immigrants whose ancestors came from these places tend to keep the old calendar in continuity and solidarity with their ethnic roots and traditions. The missions who inherited the Julian calculations, like in Alaska, keep the customs they inherited from their spiritual ancestors, the saints who first brought the Gospel to North America 220 years ago.

“The second is more complicated. American culture has become so increasingly secular that any mention of the original meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ — the date from which the whole planet counts its years — is practically impossible. With few exceptions, the ‘carols’ broadcast on radio stations and in shopping malls are of the Rudolph, Frosty and White Christmas variety. The traditional carols, praising God, welcoming the Christ-Child, celebrating the Incarnation have been banned from public arena. Here in Anchorage, the only place I heard a Christian carol was while I was on hold, waiting for a GCI agent to answer. I invoked God’s blessing on my phone company!

“So having another, later, second Christmas allows those of us who celebrate Dec. 25 as the Santa Claus, Reindeer and sleigh, elves and presents holiday to then focus totally on the religious essence of the Feast: ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One! And the Earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star: since for our sake the Pre-Eternal God is born as a little child!’

“In ancient times, the Yup’ik people in Southwest Alaska invited neighboring villages to feasts at this time of year, thanking the animals who had sacrificed themselves, allowed themselves to be hunted, killed, skinned and eaten, during the past year, and also in memory of their own relatives who had passed away during the previous 12 months. Entire villages visited their neighbors and received gifts. This has been combined with the Ukrainian custom of carrying a large pinwheel-shaped ‘star’ from house to house, singing Orthodox hymns and folk carols and then feasting and receiving gifts in memory of those who have died — just as was the custom long before the Christian faith arrived.

“To change to the astronomically more accurate calendar would deprive those following the old (ways) of their chance to celebrate a religious holiday, sever their bond of faith and love with their spiritual ancestors and deprive the non-Orthodox village guests of the chance to participate in Slaaviiq, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ which now incorporates so much of ancient Yup’ik culture and makes the holiday a beautiful synthesis of the old and new, the Alaska Native and the Slavic Christian streams that flow together in what is often called ‘Russian’ Christmas, although it is a celebration that is uniquely Alaskan.

“And we get to take advantage of all the post-Dec. 25 Christmas sales too!”

Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey also shared thoughts with me on the difference between the two calendars.

“It is not a matter of ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong,’ but what is more important to you; holding fast to the traditions we have been taught, (2 Thessalonians 2:15), or having a desire to keep the calendar in line with the its actual movement around the sun?

“I don’t see either way as being wrong; they are just different ways of observing important dates in the life of the Church. One must also be willing to admit, there is less secular distraction on Jan. 7 than there is on Dec. 25. Thus, in one way, waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ until January has a stronger focus on the spiritual aspect of Christ’s birth than does the December feast.

“So, I understand the logic behind both dates, and until we are able to reach an understanding that both East and West can agree upon, this is going to continue to be situation we live with. Somehow, I think it would be better if we were all on the same calendar, and I pray that we are able to find a way to come together in the interests of fulfilling the command in the Gospel, to be of one mind (Rom. 15:6 and others).”

Next Christmas, I urge you experience Russian Orthodox Christmas, as I did.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

Memories of Christmas past highlight reason for season – 12/20/14

As the Christmas holiday season is ending, I’m sharing several impressions of Christmases past.

Childhood recollections

My childhood memories go back to when I was 3 or 4. I was not educated in the Santa Claus myth and only knew that Christmas was a time for celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas was a special time of song and gifts from close family members, including grandparents. The gifts were of a useful nature and helped me understand, from an early age, that Christmas was a time of caring and sharing. My father was the son of deeply religious Christian parents and my mother was the daughter of a divided home. Her mother was very religious but her father was not. My mom and her mother celebrated Christmas mostly with focus on the birth of Christ, not much on gift giving.

As I grew up, I came to realize the season celebrated the birth of Jesus, not lavish gift giving to individuals tangential to my life. Christmas was marked by religious events including church musical presentations and sermons highlighting the significance of the date being marked. It was also a time when family came together to find a Christmas tree under which those few presents were stowed until Christmas Eve. Often my brothers and I would go into the surrounding forests to find a suitable tree. We decorated the tree with items we made, like paper chains, handmade ornaments and strung popcorn.

Christmas Eve was usually tough as we had to wait until Dad arrived — often late, as he was an important medical professional in our town. I’d sit glued to my second-floor bedroom window wondering if the headlights coming down the road were his and Christmas could start. It was like Advent with its attendant hopeful watching and waiting. After Dad’s arrival, we would have a time when the Bible was read, especially the Luke passages, and a few carols were sung. Presents would be opened, many of which we made for each other prior to Christmas. Truly, it was a warm spiritual time of family coming together to recognize this special time of year. My mother, an artist, created a large stained glass window reproduction insert for our huge front window. Displayed there during the Christmas season, it left little doubt in our neighbors’ minds that Christmas was a special time for the Thompsons.

Just before Christmas my mother would have one or two get-togethers for many friends, weighted heavily toward those people whom time seemed to have forgotten, or who were no longer cared for. She’d inject good food, holiday cheer and reflections about the wonderful time of year we were commemorating. These gatherings continued until shortly before her death at age 92. An incredibly musically talented woman, Mom directed choirs in two different churches and presented wonderful musical programs during the Christmas season to direct hearts closer to God, the reason for the birth of Jesus.

Christmas caroling was another huge part of my younger life; friends and family would go caroling in groups, singing in harmony to bring cheer to neighborhoods in my northern Idaho town. It was always a joy to go caroling.

Bright Anchorage memories

During 15 years in Anchorage, I’ve collected many wonderful Christmas memories. Some Advents have been especially wonderful times of connecting with God. A particularly bright spot was the presentation of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at St. John United Methodist Church, with Karen Horton leading the choir and chamber orchestra. It brought me so close to God, I was amazed. Last Christmas, I had the opportunity to sing with the Anchorage Concert Chorus at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s celebration of midnight Mass. That wonderful service was most fulfilling. Many churches offer candlelight services on Christmas Eve. They are wonderful events and worthy of attending, no matter the religion. Christmas at church tends to bring out the best in music, liturgy, children’s understanding and the poignancy of scriptural affirmation. If you have children, I urge you to let them enjoy this special time.

A sad Mexican Christmas memory

About 20 years ago, I celebrated Christmas in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I was thrilled to participate in a Las Posadas procession, in which villagers ritually go from house to house asking for room for the Joseph and Mary figures in the front. Las Posadas processions are accompanied by ritual singing, prayers and readings. As I joined the procession, I discovered a number of American tourists had also joined and were attempting to inject a jovial air to it by spinning around, dancing, loud talking, laughing and other absurd attempts to make it very festive. I was saddened by this “ugly American” behavior and left the procession.

Martin Luther and Christmas

Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther redirected the practice of giving children gifts on St. Nicholas’ Day (Dec. 6) in favor of celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. In so doing he directed people to the true meaning of Christ’s birth. Luther also preached excellent Christmas sermons. One of these wonderful sermons is available on Beliefnet.

Purpose of Christmas

Scriptural interpretation is unclear when Jesus was born but many scholars lean toward 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. Times of year vary, but I lean toward early November. Christmas is a wonderful time of year to reflect on the plan of salvation and God’s love for man to provide a way of escape (a gift) for the price of sin. It’s a time we can emulate that gift by giving to the unloved, just as God did. The various ways of doing so have been shared in this column all through December. Let’s stay focused on God’s gift to us, and pay it forward to those who need our love. Remember, it’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’.

My wish list for 2015

Over the years, my list of items for churches to address in the coming year has been one of my most read and shared pieces of writing. If you have thoughts about this, I urge you share them with me by email at churchvisits@gmail.com.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.