Christmas Contagion

Jesus came with more than his fair share of surprises. Among these was his power to reverse contagion.

“Contagion” is a fancy way of talking about something being contagious. In particular, we talk about contagion as how things become “unclean.”

If an unclean object comes into contact with a clean object, the clean becomes unclean. Uncleanness is more powerful than the cleanness an object might carry around.

Priests are holy and eminently clean. But they can’t go into the same room with a dead person: the unclean dead defiles the living clean.

Jesus messed all this up.

Jesus came and touched the unclean, declaring to them, “You are cleansed.”

The unclean leprosy did not defile Jesus. The purifying touch of Jesus cleansed the leper.

How relevant is any of this to us? After all, we don’t live in a world whose boundaries are marked by laws of purity and impurity. We don’t come to a temple for cleansing.

But, in general, Christians still struggle with the fear that we will be defiled by the unclean.

A few years ago I was gently ribbing a friend on Facebook who was describing their “quiet evening at home,” on October 31. They had gotten some candy, bobbed for apples, sipped some hot cider, made a bonfire.

Two things were equally clear: (1) they were celebrating Halloween. (2) They weren’t calling it Halloween because it’s a pagan holiday.

See also: every church that allegedly has a “Harvest Festival” even though nobody in our post-industrial age even knows what difference an ingathering of food would make compared to any other day of the year.

Christmas presents similar problems for us. We get all bent about Christmas celebrations that are less than what we would idealize as “Christian.” Many of us get worked about taking Christ out of Christmas and the like.

And so we’ve resorted to believing that the power of the world’s contagion, the power of the world’s uncleanness, is an overwhelming power to be feared, rather than being willing to embrace, participate with, and (either literally or figuratively) rubbing shoulders with the non-believing world around us.

Jesus is more powerful than the forces of the world that would defile us.

There is no power in non-Christian music or movies or celebrations that the cleansing power of the resurrected Christ (who is Lord over all) cannot overcome and purify.

So lighten up. Proclaim Christ. Worship Jesus in that old tavern or Masonic lodge or Druid temple if you’re fortunate enough to get the space.

He whose purifying power we bear is greater.

9 thoughts on “Christmas Contagion”

  1. On the serious side, I am often struck by the difference between the Christianity of some conservatives who try to isolate their children from “secular” influences by keeping them away from public schools and universities, and the depiction in the New Testament of Paul preaching at the Areopagus, able to quote (and thus having learned something of) non-Christian poetry about Zeus. A Christianity that feels that it has to hide from influences and fight over holidays is a far cry from what we see in the New Testament.

    On a lighter note, I made a parody of the notion of a “war on Christmas” which you may enjoy.

  2. I was discussing essentially this principle with a colleague recently, and he noted something I found quite fascinating: in our tradition (Anglican/Episcopalian), as part of the ablutions (cleaning of the cup after communion) we use unconsecrated wine: the unconsecrated wine “desacralizes” the remaining drops of consecrated wine from the cup. If we add unconsecrated wine to a cup of consecrated wine, we have to say a prayer of blessing.

    This colleague explained to me that the Orthodox have a reversed understanding of how these things work: if you add unconsecrated wine to consecrated wine, the “secular” wine is made sacred through its contact.

    I am probably missing nuances of this – I am not well-versed in Orthodox theology and have not looked it up since. However, I found the general principle really fascinating: which is more powerful, the sacred or the profane? And do our actions (including our rituals) match our beliefs?

  3. In case anyone plans to take this advice literally, though, I will politely request that if you do ritual in someone else’s space, you treat it right–don’t damage anything, clean up after yourself, don’t leave tribal markings on the fixtures.

    I was involved with organizing a Pagan festival at a public camping facility. At the end of the weekend the park rangers asked us to do an intensive physical cleaning and disinfecting–basic public health rules for the facility. One of the rangers said sadly that Christian groups using the facility had a bad record on cleaning it afterwards. Please don’t be like that.

    It’s quite possible for different faiths to share their space: I was involved with a chapel that served alternately as a Unitarian church, Pagan ritual site, and Jewish synagogue, and all three groups got along successfully. But it does require basic respect on all sides.

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