Friday, December 23, 2011

Rethinking Christmas Traditions

Malacy's mom always kept the potatoes underneath the kitchen sink when she was growing up. My mother, in her role as Dr. Mom, used to place the entirety of the family medicinal arsenal just above the dishwasher in a kitchen cabinet. My paternal grandmother, however, always (we might say religiously) kept peanut butter only inside of the fridge. So, naturally, if you've got a headache and are craving a baked potato with a side of peanut butter in our own home -- even today -- you'll need to know exactly where to go. You'll need a little advice, as it were.

Isn't it funny how we learn to function in the kitchen (or not) based on how we were brought up? Now, of course, none of these idiosyncrasies are technically wrong -- just funny. And many of them arose out of simple space constraints or evolved from habits their parents taught them.

The most famous example of this is the granddaughter, who, following in the footsteps of the many generations of matriarchs before her, was still slicing the ends of the ham before baking it on Christmas Eve. Why? Well, the roasting pan her forbearers used was too small for the whole ham so they trimmed the ends so it would fit. But even now, with the latest and greatest full-size Williams-Sonoma roasting pan in her midst, this lady still slices the ends before baking!

It tickles me that I, too, want the medicine in a kitchen cabinet instead of in the self-evident medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Likewise, how funny is it that if I'm looking for an Idaho baking potato I have to move the chemicals around under the sink to find one! And we all can add our own stories here; all of us have these little inherited tricks we've picked up over the years. Many of them are really quite clever. Most of them are harmless. And really none of them are outright wrong on their own.

Festal meals also follow this paradigm as well. In some places Christmas is not really Christmas without a turkey, while in other places Christmas is a time for beef or roast duckling. I know one friend, a hoot of a man, who takes his own cranberry relish to his in-law's Christmas dinner because his grandmother -- a very strong-willed Southern belle -- once told him it was her favourite part of the Christmas meal and Jesus taught her how to make it! And we all know mad grandma is a sad grandma, right?

Nevertheless, it is interesting that we're still thinking about certain things in the kitchen in certain ways without at least tacitly considering other -- some might say more salutary -- options.

I think we do this with certain aspects of our faith as well. I know some people -- because of how they were raised -- that consider only certain parts of the Christian story. Evangelicals, of course, typically stress only the atonement, while liberal Protestants overly-accentuate social causes and inclusiveness in the Church. Some of my dear acquaintances will - again, because of what they've inherited - boil down the whole of God's revelation to humankind to one verse in the bible! And sometimes this myopia is a really random and obscure aphorism from the Old Testament! Others, raised with lukewarm Christian parents, will cite absolutely nothing as the source of their faith; they were never told about God. 'Go get your own one day if you see the need, junior' - is the logic in their story. Those with Fundamentalists in their not-so-distant bloodline might talk about abstention from booze or swearing, while those from purely pagan ancestry might question why we profess a belief in God in the first place. Finally, some with Puritanical leanings may, when pressed, tell you how to please God the good old-fashioned way: hard work, pulling up the proverbial bootstraps and demonstrating some supposed election.

But all of this -- good or bad -- is, to a large degree, inherited. This is also why it is absolutely essential that we must endeavour to bequeath the fullness of the 'faith once delivered', the traditio St. Paul mentions in the first epistle to the Church at Corinth: 'Remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you'.

Two ideas here, dear ones, are paramount: handing on, i.e., bequeathing and the fullness of the faith.

Now, let me give two disclaimers before proceeding and, at last, relating this to Christmas: first, the Church does not, thanks be to God, rise or fall on our own ambitions or plans, not even the well-meaning ones. The Church 'keeps calm and carries on' (thank you, Churchill) because Christ is its head and cornerstone. It is only the Spirit moving in us as a the Body of Christ that we become the Church Militant which allows us to participate in this Divine economy. Secondly, we cannot force anybody to believe a certain way, and that should never be our goal. We should only get them in the kitchen, as it were. Then, and only then, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit can God work a mighty act in our own time.

So it's perfectly okay if we tell our kids to keep the medicine in the kitchen and to keep potatoes under the sink -- provided, of course, we get them in the kitchen to talk about these things in the first place.

Thus, at times we need to stress social concerns, while, at other times, we need to think about neglected parts of the bible, ever mindful of St. Augustine's advice, 'The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New'. Sometimes we need to think about why the Puritans -- in all their craziness -- truly believed they were offering all their labours to God. And we probably even need to honestly address some of the more fascinating aspects of Christianity in an open and candid manner (i.e, evolution, medical ethics, etc.).

Now, before you say I'm a pantheist, a phenomenologist, a syncretist or anything else you don't like (shh...I don't like them either!), you should know that I'm NOT saying that all well-meaning and genuinely spoken statements -- couched in some sort of quasi-loving prose -- are validly part of the 'faith once delivered to all the Saints'.

I am very much not saying that. Much of what passes for Christianity today would make even the most radical heretics of old blush! When classical Christianity is lost, moreover, even worship becomes ‘in practice Unitarian, has no doctrine of the Mediator or Priesthood of Christ, is man-centred, with no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and is basically non-Sacramental’, writes James B. Torrance.

I am, however, very much saying that our Faith, the Faith of the Apostles from whom we've received so great a treasure, is a FULL faith. Theologians will sometimes call this the 'plenitude of the faith', which is only to say what I am; namely, within the bounds of Christianity it is absolutely okay that two people don't see the same side of the same coin at the same time. For example, St. Augustine says this or that, while St. Thomas Aquinas says it another way down the road. And so on.

And Christmastide is a perfect time to consider the fullness of the Christian story, for what else -- pray tell -- stretches the bounds of credulity and theology than God Himself coming among us?

The Church has in ages past, and must now, admit that the Incarnation does stretch the limits of time, space and nature. In so saying, however, we are not denying the historicity of the event; rather, we are paradoxically affirming the Incarnation as the supernatural event of our salvation sine qua non.

‘But, though supernatural,’ writes Archbishop Ramsey, the Incarnation is:

also rational because it is congruous with the understanding of the world which we have, with reason, been following. We were created in order to give ourselves to God our Creator in obedience, love, worship, total self-donation. We have failed to, and the frustration of our world is the result. God’s answer to our need is to give himself utterly to us in the total self-donation of the Word-made-flesh.

I'm saying that this season of Christmastide should be a festal time marked by the interruption of all existence by the Christ-Child coming -- no, breaking, kicking and screaming -- into our world for the express reason of redeeming and restoring it to its original fullness.

And once we begin to consider the implications of this most important feast of the Church, we will then find ourselves full of faith and overflowing with joy and peace. And the best part of the whole ordeal? It all began and comes right back round to the source and summit of our joy, God Himself who has come in flesh for our salvation. Christians believe that through the ‘act of divine condescension and generosity’, which is the Incarnation, we find the ‘basis for the Christian faith’. This is the real Christmas Tradition. All other traditions -- with a small 't' -- merely take their energy from this One.

So, too, this time of year one's larder often needs re-energising. I already mentioned my friend who believed only in his grandmother's cranberry relish. But what about trying that relish another time of year? Oh yeah, I know, what about trying something else this year as a Christmas side dish instead of x or y? Scandalous, you say? But if our feasting, you see, is rooted in the Incarnate One in our midst, our Christmas table is overflowing from the proper source, the King who has come to sup with us! And that means we can branch out, consider a true feast, one with all sorts of new ramifications and surprises. We go back in order to go forth; that's how it goes.

So in the spirit of going back for the sake of going forward, I must confess, that I've only served these wonderful sauteed mushrooms with beef in the past, especially with my traditional standing rib roast at Christmas, when I even up the amount of liquid in the base to have a really stunning presentation.

But in the spirit of stretching and considering their versatility, try these with these with your Christmas chicken, lamb or roast pork.

Charleston's 'Traditional' Sauteed Mushrooms


1.5 lbs fresh button mushrooms (stems removed and sliced in half on your own)
4 TBSP fresh cracked peppercorn melange
1 TBSP plus 1 tsp fresh thyme
2 tsp finely chopped shallots
1/4 to 1/2 cup dry red wine (what you'll be later drinking)
1 TBSP Williams-Sonoma veal or beef demi-glace (this is a key ingredient; available via their website)
1 tsp Penzey's brand lemon pepper seasoning
1 TBSP white wine Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp regular Worcestershire sauce
2.5 TBSP unsalted butter
1 TBSP fresh chopped parsley


Place mushrooms in a medium-sized saute pan. Add all other ingredients and saute on high for ten minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until tender -- approximately five more minutes. Do not overcook; the butter will turn into a grease spot. If a high boil continues, remove from heat and begin once the mixture has cooled slightly. Once done, remove from heat, place in a traditional gravy boat and serve as a side item with a variety of meat dishes. Enjoy!

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