Week of December 20, 1999
Is Christianity rooted in paganism?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
My university professor said that the roots of Christianity are in paganism. Is that true?
It depends what is meant by "roots" and what is meant by paganism?
My dictionary says that the word comes from the Latin pagus which means the country or paganus which means country-dweller or a non-militant to miles Christi (a soldier of Christ); also a barbarous or unenlightened person. Therefore, pagans were rural people.
It is important to understand something about religious practices. They mark a particular place, a moment in time or part of human life made sacred by an encounter with the mystery of God, something like Jacob's dream of angels going up and down a ladder to heaven.
People remember these experiences and repeat them by observing rituals, saying prayers, etc. Such practices evolve naturally among people. Usually they are neither planned nor mandated. Some eventually become part of official Church practice, others die out or evolve into new forms. But religious practices are, of their nature, human and limited in scope.
Religious practices come from the real stuff of people's lives, cultures and experiences. They promote a religion of the whole person: the heart, the body, the senses, the imagination. They encourage contact with the sacred in the ordinariness of life.
They prevent religion from becoming a head trip. They serve as a reinforcement for faith because they are cyclic and repeated in a regular basis. They celebrate the mystery dimension of life and evolve around the birth, the perils, the death dimensions of human life and of the seasons.
So it was normal that the country (pagan) areas developed nature cults to ensure the fertility of land and beast. They needed rituals to gods to protect the harvest, the flocks and the water supplies. When these areas became Christian, often practices of these old religions were absorbed by Christianity.
When freedom of worship was given to all religions in 313 by Constantine, the traditional country (pagan) religions were still flourishing. However, gradually the Emperor forbade the pagan cults, sometimes under pressure from Christians.
Christians usually consider their roots to be within the Judaic tradition.
Jesus and his parents were faithful Jews. They worshipped in the Temple, as the Gospels attest. In his public life, we see Jesus with his disciples attending Temple worship and synagogue.
The evangelists show Jesus quoting the Hebrew Scriptures frequently as a good Jew would. Christians continue to be inspired by Jewish writings, both Scriptural and other.
Followers of Jesus did not dream up new religious forms. They continued familiar Jewish traditions but experienced them as full of new meaning. Using purifying waters and sweet smelling oil, they committed themselves to a new life in Christ.
They experienced with enthusiasm the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, at the same time as the Jewish harvest festival celebrating God's gift of the harvest and the covenant. They remembered Christ by gathering and sharing the ritual of bread and cup. Even the first conflict among the Apostles had to do with the extent of Jewish traditions such as circumcision and dietary laws that Christians were obliged to follow.
Christians adopted some Roman practices such as genuflecting, as well as pagan customs. It was natural for them to do so. Actually, this was probably a good thing, as it facilitated the acceptance of Christianity by people who would be comfortable celebrating a Christian feast at the same time as they were used to celebrating a pagan feast.
It could be compared to what we call inculturation, that is, adjusting Christian faith expression to be more in tune with the culture and people of a particular country.
Scholars are not in complete agreement why early Christians chose Dec. 25 as the date to celebrate Christ's birth but they believe it was based on Christians' natural tendency to borrow from the world around them and their attempt to offset the influence of pagan festivals. The symbolism at the winter solstice when the light of day began again to conquer the darkness of night was powerful.
Followers of Mithra, a Persian deity, celebrated the birth of their sun god with a festival called "birthday of the unconquered sun" at this time. In 274 the emperor proclaimed the sun god as main divine patron of the empire. Christians adopted this festival because its symbolism was effective in depicting Jesus as light of the world.
The Advent wreath which came to us from Germany probably originated from the holding of a festival of burning lights in pre-Christian times as the darkness of winter descended. Even our days of the week are named after pagan gods.
These are only a few examples of the Christianization of pagan customs.
Christians did, of course, develop many of their own customs related to their faith in Jesus: various depictions of Jesus, the cross, veneration of the saints, pilgrimages, the rosary and the use of colour at certain times.
Of course, the practices which came to us from pagan sources are accidentals of the faith - they are the human dimension of faith that change. The essentials of the Christian faith are based more on the Judaic faith with the principal elements from Jesus and the early Church.
The essential practice for Christians is the faith gathering of the community and sharing in the liturgy of the Eucharist followed by its extension to daily life in love and service of God and others. Sometimes the difference between the two is misunderstood as, it appears to me, may be the case with your professor.