Exodus 32.1-6, 15-20
The golden calf is a much maligned feature of Israel’s story. Originally a golden calf stood at each of the two shrines in the ancient northern kingdom of Israel. Together they may have formed the feet of God’s footstool, which was seen as looming over the whole kingdom - making it the point of contact between God, seated in majesty on his heavenly throne, and the world below.
The people of the southern kingdom of Judah still had the Temple in Jerusalem, which was their capital city. They imagined the Temple or the Holy of Holies, its innermost shrine, as God’s footstool, but the people of the northern kingdom had to make do with the golden calves.
The whole story of the golden calves is set out in the First Book of Kings Chapter 12, where we are given an account of the origins of the northern kingdom. Its first king, Jeroboam, set up one golden calf on a hilltop at Bethel and the other on a hilltop at Dan, and he and his priests offered incense and sacrifices to God on the altars there just like the offerings which were still being made in Jerusalem.
There’s no suggestion, really, that Jeroboam was being disloyal to God. He didn’t offer sacrifices or worship to the two golden calves; they were just symbols of God’s presence in the kingdom. He probably looked to the tradition of the golden calf set up by Aaron in the wilderness as the pattern for what he was doing.
Again, there’s no suggestion that Aaron actually worshipped the golden calf. It was just a focus, somehow, for the people’s worship of God, which was accompanied by much revelry. But although Aaron had declared the occasion to be a festival to the Lord, and doubtless, Jeroboam did the same when he went up to worship at Bethel and Dan, the Bible takes a very dim view of these goings-on and condemns them as a great sin.
Doubtless that conclusion was partly influenced by the fact that it was people from the southern kingdom who, after their exile in Babylon, eventually put together our version of the Old Testament. They didn’t approve of the way worship had been organised in the northern kingdom and its shrines.
But their antipathy to the golden calves was also partly influenced by the many flirtations that the people of both kingdoms had enjoyed with paganism down the centuries, and not least by the disconcerting resemblance between the golden calves and images of bulls which were cast to celebrate the Almighty God of Canaan and the Canaanite storm god, Baal.
With the benefit of hindsight it became apparent that using images in worship, even relatively harmless ones, had caused confusion between Canaanite religion and the distinctive faith and worship of the people of Israel and Judah. And revelry and dancing came to be frowned upon too, probably for similar reasons. A new, more austere, way of worshipping emerged as a result, stripped of all imagery and revelry.
This sorry tale of confusion and disagreement has some uncomfortable lessons for us. Christianity has often borrowed from other faiths in order to persuade people to abandon their old beliefs and adopt the new faith. Partly, Christian missionaries wanted to sweeten the bitter pill of giving up long cherished traditions by adopting some of the more acceptable features of other faiths and incorporating them into Christianity, and partly they wanted to make Christianity fit into different cultures rather than trying to impose a totally new and alien culture on people, which could seem like a form of imperialism.
So, in the modern era, Christians in India have borrowed the idea of nondual contemplation from Buddhism and Hinduism. ‘Nondual’ contemplation means immersing oneself in God rather than praying to God as someone distinct and totally separate from ourselves. This sort of prayer has always been a feature of Orthodox Christianity and of Christian mysticism in general, but the encounter with Hindu and Buddhist cultures brought it into sharper focus. Rediscovering nondual forms of prayer gave Christians a way of entering into dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus, and perhaps of persuading some people brought up in those traditions to adopt Christianity.
But in the first centuries of Christian witness in the British Isles similar accommodations were made with pagan tradition. People were persuaded to give up their devotion to Mother Earth by refocusing their veneration of motherhood onto Mary the Mother of God. To this day priests and ministers still bless well dressings dedicated to saints on the very same sites where water gods were once worshipped. And both Easter and Christmas coincide conveniently with ancient pagan festivals.
For the most part these borrowings were harmless and are examples of the genius of Christianity for assimilating existing ideas. But Christmas is, of course, the great exception, the golden calf of Christian experience.
Taking over an existing winter festival seemed at first to be a harmless concession, but Christmas has proved to have a life of its own. It has swallowed up all the Christian attempts to give it new meaning and become once again a hedonistic time of revelry, a celebration of all forms of excess, with its own god, Father Christmas, replacing both Jesus and its original focus on the unconquered sun.
It’s a reminder that using images of God Almighty, cast in the shape of a bull or a calf, as a way of focusing our worship on God once seemed like a relatively harmless accommodation to long established custom and tradition, but it quickly caused confusion and a loss of direction and moral purpose, with the worship of God becoming hopelessly compromised by less healthy Canaanite traditions and values. Adopting Christmas has surely proved to be our Golden Calf. It has brought about a fateful confusion between our values and the values of society at large, and from this trainwreck we are now lumbered with the urgent task of trying to recover some of the original meaning and purpose of the Christian celebration of Christmas.