Andreas Føllesdal

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The Christmas Gospel:

Priorities and Challenges to Preachers in Asker og Bærum Prosti

Holmen Kirke December 5, 1995

My earliest memories are memories of Christmas. Some of celebration, and some of preparation: of advent. My mother showing and teaching us children how to make Christmas tree decorations. In hindsight, I now realize that my parents had given much thought and put great effort into this event -- the creation of the traditions and identity of our family. Creating traditions and identity anew, in a foreign country -- the United States of America.

The traditions and influences of their parents were one source for my parents' efforts. An important source, to be sure, but subject to reflection, assessment and selection: Responding, in their way, to the new opportunities and challenges of the country we were living in, a country foreign to them.

My parents were raising a family in a society where Christmas was bereft of religion, where Santa Claus does not hark back to Saint Nicolaus or the "nisser" of the farms, but only serves as a marketing gimmick. My parents response, one of the traditions they wanted to create, involved straw and colored cardboard - difficult to get hold of in stores which carried ready-made decorations, to be bought, consumed and thrown away on an annual basis. We spent evenings making stars out of straw, and weaving paper hearts from green and red paper, creating an identity as Norwegians.

Another of my earliest memories is of my father reading the Christmas gospel at the dinner table on Christmas eve, by candle light and with tiny bells ringing in the background. The children listening, impatiently, to the gospel for the second time, because we had already been to childrens' services during the afternoon. Again, establishing a tradition, creating a family identity, this one without much precedent from either of my parents' own homes, but drawing in part on the traditions of their grandparents.

Traditions, then, allow us to honor the past, express our selves, and let us shape the society of tomorrow. I want to point to three interwoven themes drawn from these memories of Christmas traditions, when considering what are the main challenges for preachers of the Christmas gospel in Norway today.

1 Traditions are important

When my wife and I now in turn deliberate about the traditions we establish with our children, we are very much aware that we value traditions. Traditions shape and sustain our identities and our attitudes. Traditions shape us.

2 Traditions can be subject to change and choice

Different aspects of our culture and history can be brought out in response to the situation we and our children face, and which society confronts. We can shape traditions and identities.

3 In Norway, Christmas has been central to our self-understanding as Norwegians

We -- or most of us -- are Norwegian Christians; and we are, most of us, Christian Norwegians. Our identity as Norwegians and as a so- called Christian People are intertwined in the Christmas celebrations. Consider, for instance, how Norwegian flags adorn many Christmas trees.

Multicultural Norway as a Challenge

An important challenge for preachers of the gospel during Christmas season is the multicultural Norway we see emerging. It is no longer true that we are all Christian Norwegians. We should no longer assume that all Norwegians are Christians. We must come to grips with the fact that many citizens do not regard themselves as Christians, yet correctly hold that they are Norwegians in good standing.

But is this a challenge for preachers of the gospel? Your audiences, the grownups (and some children) listening to sermons on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, no doubt regard Christianity as constitutive of their identities, no doubt in a variety of ways.

Other segments of Norwegian institutions must face up to an obligation of neutrality. The public schools must not assume that we all share the same system of values and religious world view. To be sure, some fundamental ideals of good citizenship and kindness must be taught, but not strictly coupled to a peculiarly Christian ethics and religion. Indeed, many religions will endorse fundamental principles of human dignity and toleration, though they will differ on whether these principles are based on revelation. And they will deny the central Christian point of Christmas: that god became a human being -- "the Word became flesh". Toleration towards all religions committed to human dignity is central to a just society, and hence to public schools.

However, it would be absurd to insist on neutrality of this kind within the church. Agnosticism is appropriate from the teachers desk, but hardly from the pulpit at Christmas. Respect for those who believe otherwise should not muffle the message from the pulpit of the good news to people of good will, of Christ become man. Toleration cannot mean complete relativism or removal of all differences. Nor should toleration prohibit each one of us, from within our own world view, from saying that 'by our lights, other religions are mistaken on some issues."

The multicultural Norway poses a different, and more difficult, challenge to the church. How should Norwegian Christians respond to people of good will, but of other faiths? We must reflect about what is required of our society in order to give expression to our shared commitment, across a wide range of religious outlooks: A fundamental respect for each citizen as a member of society, of equal worth.

A stable commitment to toleration, and a clear sense of the limits to toleration, seems to be part of what respect and equal dignity requires in a multicultural setting. This response to multiculturalism must be embedded within our different world views, traditions and identities. Traditions shape us, so each must find the roots of toleration and respect within their own tradition, otherwise toleration and respect will not last in times of tension. The grounds for toleration -- and therefore the forms and limits to toleration -- must be worked out within the Christian religion as well.

What should we as a society insist on among people of different faiths with regards to basic education, equal treatment of the sexes, modes of religious observance and education? The answers to these tough questions are not obvious from where we are, but I believe that an important task for preachers of the Christian gospel today is to deliberate about this. What are the resources within the gospels for responding to these issues? It is not for me to offer answers to this question, but I recall that the Christian gospel wishes peace to all humans 'of good will', 'in whom He delights' -- regardless of their faith. The parable of the good samaritan underscores that foreigners share some fundamental values with us; and so forth.

A task for preachers, then, is to reflect on traditions and hence the identity of Norwegian Christians. Perhaps traditions and shared understandings must change to cope with new circumstances, in a country which has changed, and which has become foreign also to us.

Christmas sermons allow us to reconsider some features of Norwegian Christianity in order to respond appropriately to those Norwegians who don't share the Christian faith, and to help shape a society which we all can take pride in and which we all can regard as ours.

For those who attend church at Christmas, the Christian gospel is an important ingredient of their identity. By offering your reflections on the Christian response to the multicultural Norway, I believe that preachers can indeed use Christmas to bring peace to all humans of good will.