UPDATE: I was wrong in this post, Shofar did have a Christmas service. My information was thus old. (A few years ago they did not have a Christmas service.) My sincerest apologies for the incorrect assumption, I will try my best to not to repeat this mistake.
On Christmas, I attended the Stellenbosch Gemeente service. Presented by Theo Geyser, the sermon was titled Wegsteek-en-vind-tradisies. (I have decided to give up on my attempts at avoiding the stigmatised “sermon” word. I’m giving up on spoon-feeding. )
On the other side of Stellenbosch, there was no Shofar sermon, because Shofar does not celebrate Christmas.
I thought Theo’s sermon was brilliant, and was very happy to hear that it was broadcasted on RSG at 9am. RSG is an Afrikaans radio station, typically serving conservative Afrikaans culture and often featuring religious programs that could possibly be described as “fundamentalistic”. By that, I basically mean I have a relatively strong dislike of the typical RSG religious wares, and celebrate when something more down-my-alley is broadcasted. (Even if I don’t listen to RSG.)
I am not going to go into depth into the sermon, due to limited time and the effort required to translate Christianese for those that do not want to listen. The essence of the sermon is already available at the link above, in Afrikaans. The sermon will also become available for download some time in January.
Stellenbosch Gemeente (SG) is embracing elements of the liturgical calendar. The four Sundays leading up to Christmas is known as Advent, a time of waiting. SG lit four candles, symbolising hope, faith, joy and love. (In Afrikaans, Christmas is called “Kersfees”, translated literally to Candle festival.)
On the audio/visual (video) side of things, the process of decorating a plastic Christmas tree with tinsel and baubles was contrasted with the process of a real tree growing from a sapling to a tree in full-bloom bearing genuine fruit. Consider the ideas of hope, peace, joy and love: these too can become plastic, if not rooted in “real soil”. Rooted in reality. If such things remain concepts floating around as ideas without practical application through deeds, the ideas are plastic, dead.
Humanity’s rejection of a sense of wonder and mystery was lamented. Some people are so busy arguing about the (“incorrect”) date and the heathen elements found in Christmas, that they miss the point of Christmas. (NB: these are my words, my paraphrase.)
During the sermon, the prevalence of virginal birth stories throughout human history was mentioned, in conjunction with the virginal birth story from the Bible. The approach used leaves the congregation free to be diverse in their interpretations of “virginal birth story”, and provides them some context to get them thinking and making up their own minds. I love this approach. I do not see the point of telling a congregation “this is how it is” or “that is how it is”. That does not wean a congregation from their love for authority figures spoon-feeding them. Ideally, every human should develop the ability to think for themselves, rather than hop from one authority figure to the next. (Homoeopaths or astrologers, anyone?)
The congregation was invited to help hand out some gifts to the “Beskermingsdienste” (protection services, e.g. the police?) after the 10am sermon. They also handed out gifts in cooperation with Vineyard-gemeente (possibly to homeless children? I’m not sure, cannot remember.) I did not help out, despite deciding last year that I wanted to do so this year. Instead, we had good family time making gourmet burgers for lunch, with Miles Davis for background music.
Shofar does not celebrate Christmas, citing heathen sources and influences as the reason, and the fact that the date is incorrect anyway. Also, I’m under the impression that they feel every day should be Christmas.
My Thoughts on the Contrast
Everyone with enough curiosity should know that 25 December is technically an incorrect date. As I understand it, the Christian tradition is a tradition of syncretism. If you start discarding the parts that were syncretised, where do you stop? I don’t see the point of this course of action.
The date the festival is celebrated is really rather arbitrary. With regards to the choice of this particular date, celebrating Christmas near the Winter Solstice is particularly useful in the North, where winter is a depressing time, and people could benefit greatly from a festival of hope and rebirth.
With regards to the “everyday is Christmas” idea, it could be considered noble, but it ignores a fact of human nature: our lives are driven by seasons. Having a weekly rhythm is unrealistic. A longer-term rhythm is valuable. Also, one day of publicly shared compassion and serious family time and/or holiday, is more valuable than none. Attempting to live that dream every day really dilutes it (increases psychological entropy?) to the point of irrelevance.
These thoughts of mine are not particularly well informed, historically: I really wish I knew more about the tradition of Advent. I did some reading today, but cannot do any more. If you know anything about the history, or have anything to share about Christmas in other churches or communities (or in Stellenbosch Gemeente or Shofar, for that matter), please do so in the comments.