They Don't Celebrate Christmas
They Don't Celebrate Christmas
Joanna Bogle FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2015
Joanna Bogle opens a discussion about a group that has launched a new promotion campaign over the past year in Britain.
You will find them at the entrance to a railway station, or at some street corner, standing politely, holding booklets that no one seems to take. They have dressed carefully to look smart, the men in jackets-and-ties and the ladies well groomed. And they have definite rules: smile pleasantly, don't accost anyone, hold the booklets but do not deliberately proffer them. Just be there, as a witness.
And that is the name they have given themselves: Jehovah's Witnesses. They are decent folk, and in an ugly modern Britain, they are rather endearing. They smile, they have beliefs about God that matter to them, and they are trying to live by a moral code that is more than just “what feels right for me” and is certainly not particularly fashionable.
Some of them are ex-Catholics. At least, that is how they describe themselves, sometimes explaining why they abandoned a Faith they never really understood. They are glad to talk about it – or to talk about anything, really, because most passers-by don't want to talk to them, and it feels exciting when some one stops, and they can do some real Witnessing.
There are some standard things they say. One is “I got so confused when I was taught about the Trinity. How can there be three gods? And anyway, the word Trinity isn't mentioned in the Bible.”
Is it worth opening up a dialogue? If so...we might start with a recognition that, well, the word “Bible” isn't in the Bible either. come to that. And the Trinity is vividly portrayed, with interesting detail, at the baptism of Christ, with God's voice calling from Heaven and the Holy Spirit hovering over Christ standing in the water. They may state that this is not an acceptable way of teaching anything: visual actions cannot reveal truth. But the Bible is full of visual imagery – and for centuries many illiterate people have come to know and love God through mentally picturing the great events it describes. Let's think about Genesis, the vivid picture of God bringing all things into being, all clearly set out: God the Creator, and his Word, and the Spirit hovering over the waters. Powerful stuff. And is there a match here with that baptismal event, the Spirit again hovering, the Voice speaking? Worth discussing?
Others, especially in December, may want to talk about Christmas and why it shouldn't be celebrated. Not in the Bible, you see. Is it worth a discussion? We might note that the day of Christ's birth was most definitely celebrated when it first occurred – angels singing, shepherds hurrying to see the baby...and Mary and Joseph fulfilled the law by taking the child to the Temple to give thanks, so should we not give thanks too? And the Jewish people obeyed God in observing anniversaries with great care – the annual round of feasts, the Sabbath, the Passover… if we are never to mark any specific date or anniversary, the discussion needs to go deeper. Perhaps even giving names to days of the week is itself a bit pagan – especially as the names we have are in fact those of pagan gods. What does the Bible say about that? What about anniversaries of the founding of schools, churches, organisations…
"I Am Who I Am"
Jehovah's Witnesses have been taught to ask people “Do you know God's name?” This is because most people will answer “Er...no. Um...isn't it just...er... 'God'? ” Which gives the JW the chance to say “His name is Jehovah, and I want to tell you about him...” Of course the real answer is to refer back to the Scriptures, and to discover what God answered when Moses asked him his name. God said “I am who I am” and this is repeated by Christ when he repeatedly says “I am...” God's name is, in a crucial and important sense simply “I am”. God is the one who is, without whom nothing else would or could exist. When Christ repeatedly uses the expression “I am...” he is making an enormous claim….a claim that was deemed blasphemous. He was claiming God's name. A Catholic armed with the Old Testament and the Gospel of St John could get into a deep and possibly fruitful discussion with a JW on all of this…
Should We Get Involved?
So should one get involved in deep discussion with JWs who stand holding out literature? In general, perhaps probably not. Such a discussion may simply turn into an argument – not edifying, not helpful.
Many ex-Catholics do return to the Church eventually, and it usually isn't because some one has argued them into it. Often it starts with just a longing, a sort of homesickness, a childhood memory of affectionate grandparents, or of a kindly word from a priest or from some Catholic neighbour. People are influenced by the oddest things, too: one passionately anti-Catholic ex-Catholic started the journey back home when some one finally explained to him what the words of the Salve Regina meant: he had sung it regularly at his Catholic school in the 1980s but never had it translated and assumed it was just a weird and beautiful chant with no real meaning. Another was drawn into a church simply because it was warm, and then was impressed by people coming in to light candles in front of a statue of St Anthony.
And if the JW isn't an ex-Catholic, he or she may be coming from some other starting-point which itself needs first to be recognised...and this can take time and a false start may merely result in lengthy exchanges and forays into a variety of cul-de-sacs.
One possibility, however, is to offer a fair swap of literature. The Catholic Truth Society offers a wide range of leaflets and booklets, some directly useful for this. They are ideal for a friendly exchange: “Here – you take this, and I'll take one of your booklets”. The latter can be dropped into the appropriate place on arrival home. Maybe that's what the JW will do with your leaflet too. But we can soak the whole exchange with some generous and genuine prayer, and leave the rest to God.
Other ideas? It does seem a pity not to engage in some way with these good people. A lot of energy, time and expense has gone into their bookstands and their carefully-planned campaign. They've been at meetings and training-sessions, and before all of those, there was evidently much debate and discussion which resulted in a decision to stop going from house to house knocking on doors and asking to chat. People disliked being interrupted, were sometimes rude, and rarely took any interest in the copies of the “Watchtower” with their images of people in 1950s outfits cuddling lions and eating berries as they live on earth with nothing to do for ever and ever. So the railway station campaign began. Perhaps it too will be abandoned in due course. But it still feels wrong, somehow, just to let the poor JWs get going on a further campaign. There's a call on our charity in this somewhere.
Truth matters. It is distressing to see good people trying hard to teach and promote something that simply isn't accurate: it's like a fad diet that doesn't work, a crossword puzzle with the clues printed wrongly, shoes that aren't matched pair, a knitting pattern with a page missing. One wants to help: these things can be sorted out.
If one in ten of the ex-Catholic JWs in Britain returned to the Church, there would not only be a substantial increase in the sum total of human peace and happiness among all those people, but there would also be a strengthening of the Church in Britain. Ideas welcomed.
Joanna Bogle is Editor of FAITH magazine.