‘Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.’ Janet Scott, Quaker Faith and Practice 27.42 – excerpt
It’s been the sort of time when this testimony (and it’s non-observance) has been high on my radar. Indeed, I feel very strongly right now that we should reclaim it in some way.
I was looking around the Internet for some comments on this Testimony and came across this one: I suppose I mark Christmas because it’s there, and not to do so is a distinctive statement in itself – rather like wearing C17 “plain” dress would be. This comes from a website called Quakerinfo.com and I think it is really telling.
Do we – individually or collectively eschew making distinctive statements about things we are strongly committed to? And/or: is our testimony against times and seasons something we should be strongly committed to?
I don’t have the knowledge to argue the origins of this Testimony with any degree of certainty – no doubt some of you who read this may be able and willing to chip in on that.
But as I understand it, the crux is this: we don’t believe that some days are more holy or more sacred than others because all days are holy or sacred. And therefore, to single out some days in the way they are in the Christian calendar would be to denigrate all the others.
I’m not sure I live up to that understanding myself in any meaningful way although I do try to do something worthwhile with each day. What I do know is that I am completely fed up with the way ‘special days’ are commercialised and abused by industry to make them profit. This year has been almost worse than previous years because we have now had Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and various other shopping opportunities thrust upon us in addition to the Christmas mayhem. People are encouraged – not to say dragooned – into spending money on stuff they (and the people they give it to) don’t want and don’t need. The success of Christmas is measured in sales turnover of the big high street chains.
This is so far from any possible meaning of the Christmas story that all I can do is turn away from it and hibernate. On the whole, that’s more or less what we did this year. A few Christmas cards, a few more Christmas e-mails – and I was careful to make them as non-saccharin and as non-pseudo religious as possible – and a nice meal on the day. And that was it.
But you can’t escape the rigmarole; you can’t escape the endless onslaught of ‘Christmas’ adverts.
But our Meeting had its traditional Christmas celebration; and we sang carols – well, I didn’t join in but I was there. And that’s when I wondered whether we are actually making enough of a statement.
We gathered on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas – so at least we weren’t saying this has to be on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve; we spent, collectively, a good deal of money on food and drink – much more than necessary; we collected a reasonable sum for a local homeless charity (we could have double that if we had not spent anything on food, I’d say).
And we sang a number of ‘well-loved’ carols. And when you actually look at the words I find it really hard to believe that we could seriously be saying any of this and mean it; but it seems perfectly possible to sing it.
Each year, I think: I’ll re-write the words so that we can actually mean them; and then I don’t because other stuff intervenes.
But here’s one of the ones we were singing (I think) and I thought I would at least try a bit of a commentary:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
So, we’re celebrating the fact that for reasons of government interference in people’s lives a family with a new-born infant is homeless?
The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.
Newborn, homeless, probably cold: we describe this as ‘His sweet head’; and why ‘little Lord’? It conjures up an image of a life of privilege. But it could not have been further from any kind of truth – and not so far from the reality of Palestinian children today: children who grow up under occupation and who find themselves homeless because their parents have been told to leave their homes for arbitrary reasons.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
Not terribly likely that stars do anything remotely related to what we think of as looking.
The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
You’d hope that he was asleep; but chances are he was waking up regularly and crying (see below).
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
We would rightly be horrified to think of a newborn and his mother (who, after all, has just given birth) being accommodated in such conditions – from a health and safety and hygiene point of view if nothing else. So why are we singing about this as if it’s worthy of rejoicing?
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.
So now he’s in the sky and we’re asking him to look down on us from there – presumably to look after us and care for us; but what are we doing about the homeless children in our society? And wouldn’t we be better occupied with them?
And so on and so forth. Frankly, I can’t bear to go on because the song is so superficial and so saccharine.
So maybe 2015 could be the year when we reclaim our authentic voice that says it how it is: Christmas and other so-called Christina holy days have been so utterly debased by the commercialization that surrounds them that the only response is to ignore them completely and to come up with another way of doing something meaningful: every day.
And maybe that means we do need to – at least metaphorically don plain dress and bonnets and be visible as Quakers in a world that needs some plain speaking.