Of all times to be a Christian, Christmas is perhaps one of the hardest.
It's not just the commercialization of the holy holiday that betrays American believers, says one county pastor. It's the familiarity of it all.
The Bethlehem story becomes repetitive, the ceramic nativity scenes trite, says the Rev. Elizabeth Hewett of First Presbyterian Churchin Annapolis.
This year, the church is doing what it can to make Christmas new in a meaningful way, from the novelty of buying bicycles in India in a friend's name as a Christmas gift, to considering theVirgin Mary as a third-world revolutionary.
Earlier this month, the church held an alternate gift-giving evening, offering crafts fromdifferent countries as possible gifts.
Parishioners also were encouraged to make a charitable donation as a Christmas gift in the nameof a friend or relative, says Jack Huizenga, a church member who advertised the program for the missions committee. For example, says Hewett, the church's associate pastor, people could buy a cow for a farmin a Latin American country and then send a card to a friend tellinghim the donation had been made in his name.
"The person (receiving the gift) gets a certificate explaining that so and so has purchased a block of Rain Forest for them, or that they are now the co-owner of a plot of land in Bolivia," Hewett says.
The effort raised morethan $1,400 for overseas efforts, says Hewett.
In a second attempt at encouraging parishioners to think about Christmas differently, an adult education class this month has looked at aspects of the nativity from feminist and liberation theology perspectives.
Hewett, the church's associate pastor, began the series with a discussion aboutthe story of Mary, Christ's mother, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The lecture focused on a book by a black woman author fromVanderbilt University, Renita Weems.
Called "Just a Sister Away,"the book presents the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth through a black woman's perspective. "Weems basically says that here's Mary, someone who was really a nobody on the other side of the tracks, chosen to be the mother of the Savior," says Hewett.
"He talks aboutwhat a shock that was for her, and how she and Elizabeth needed eachother.
"Mary went to Elizabeth and said, 'I'm pregnant too.' And they were scared together and bonded together. Sisterhood is especially strong in the black community, and Weems emphasizes how they encouraged one another."
A second lecture discussed the Magnificat, or the speech Mary makes after an angel informs her she will have a son.The lecture, "Mary's Song," is presented in Robert McAfee Brown's book, "Unexpected News," and examines Mary's speech as a political statement.
Hewett asked the class to write how they imagined Mary, andmost described a meek, mild woman. But Brown, she told the class, describes Mary as militant, "a lower-class working girl from Nazareth, out in the boonies."
As Americans, we tend to think of Mary as nondescript and angelic, says Hewett. "Weems suggests we move beyond thedemure Mary of our tradition and look at what she really was -- the uncomfortably militant Mary of the Latin American tradition."
Brown refers to Mary's speech, in which she says the rich will be sent away empty and the poor will be fed, says Hewett, adding, "It's a very revolutionary call."
On another Sunday, the Rev. Lee Waltz, a chaplain of the Anne Arundel Medical Center, came to the church to discuss holiday depression.
Hewett, who directs adult education for the church, hopes parishioners will be enriched by looking at the Bible in new ways.
"Looking at the Christmas story through different eyescan be a way to think about what happened, and experience it as reality."