Saturday, December 23, 2006

Whence Christmas?

Mark Shea's got an excerpt from his upcoming book about where we got Christmas, or more to the point, why we have it when we do. I won't repost it here, being a bit long, but it's worth a read, and there's some good stuff in the combox that fills in a few other details. Just permit me to highlight a few details and then ramble on, on my own, for a little while.

Christmas was not merely a reappropriation of pagan winter holidays. Early Christians were very interested in how their Jewish forebears scheduled things, and not so much what pagans did.

While the Church did sometimes "baptize" pagan practices once it had the momentum and resources to evangelize whole nations, it wasn't simply a matter of putting a Christian skin on a pagan animal. Easter--still called Pascha in the Eastern traditions and in many other languages, and described with the adjective "Paschal"--near the vernal equinox, but more importantly it followed (and in the East, still does) closely the Passover, which is in the spring for its own reasons. Christmas, December twenty-fifth, is no more (even less so) pagan than exchanging rings at weddings. First of all, Christmas comes nine months after the independently scheduled (for the most part--when you've got imperfect record keeping, there will always be conflicts between placing an event when it's thought to have taken place and placing it in relation to another event a specific length of time away) Feast of the Anunciation, which gives any relation to Saturnalia a circumstancial flavor, and had been so set since before Aurelian's promotion in 274 of the celebration of Sol Invictus, which had been a minor holiday until the Emperor decided an alternative to the Christians' nativity feast was necessary. The Christians, turning the astronomical imagery into a metaphor for the Son Himself, were not having any of it.

There's no closer relation between Christmas and pagan holidays than there is between Santa Claus and Old Man Winter. The gift exchange doesn't even stem from Hannukah, which is a relatively minor Jewish holiday (you'll find the original events in Maccabees 1 and 2), but rather from the Feast of the Epiphany, which takes place a little after Christmas, but the adoration of the magi as well as of the shepherds got rolled together with the Nativity, at least in the U.S.

But anyway, merry Christmas. I'll probably have a little more for you around the Feast of the Mother of God. I always get good material when I'm hangin' with the fam. Pax.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Development of doctrine and priestly celibacy

There is currently a discussion about the history of marriage restrictions in priestly and religious life in the Church going on in the Bible and Christianity forum over at ISCA. One recent post briefly summarizes the nature and history of consecrated life; in the penaultimate paragraph, a few apparently androgynous mystical experiences are cited, and the piece ends with the following paragraph:

Why does the Catholic church still insist on celibacy and male-only priests? Their justification is still largely sacerdotal purity, though inheritance issues also drove the demands for celibacy in the 11th and 12th centuries. They claim that as priests are the representative of Christ on Earth, he cannot be represented by a woman. But the Catholic church is reaching a crisis point; many diocese are terribly underserved, as older priests retire and die and as the church weathers the storm of child abuse scandals. It's likely that, within our lifetimes, we will see a change on these fronts, but the pontiff will have to be forced into accepting it. If there aren't enough priests to maintain a parish, something has to give. Either accept married priests in the ranks or ordain women.

Some of the flaws in the argument are obvious. Two thousand years ago we learned the significance of a distinct, ordained male priesthood; one thousand years ago, we learned the value of a priesthood not divided between parish and family. These benefits aren't just practical; you don't solve a pragmatic problem by compromising principles. I can see a relaxing of the rules preventing married men from getting ordained, but not anytime soon; the tradition, though not the rule, of celibacy is two millennia old, and orthodox seminarians are on the rise. As for the pope being forced into accepting anything, the user who posted the article apparently doesn't understand papal infallibility; from the Church's perspective, a pope couldn't contradict Ordinatio Sacerdotalis even if he wanted to, and from an external perspective, the doctrine of infallibility itself would shield him from political pressures for compromise.

I've seen this pattern in the Church before, and I don't think it's a coincidence. Five hundred years ago, there were nascent Protestant movements promoting iconoclasm and simplicity of worship. What was Rome's response? St. Peter's Basilica. John Paul II was the most ecumenical pope to date, and what was one of his most favorite topics? Mary, perhaps presently the greatest stumbling block to Protestant dialog with the Church.

Why does the Church not take more opportunities for emphasizing common ground? Is schism not worse than heresy?

Well, it is, but perpetuating the scandal of heresy just to end schism isn't much of a bargain. My point is that this crisis is not a sign from God to the pope that the doors in all the seminaries and iconostases need to be flung open. I think it's an opportunity to emphasize how important a celibate, male priesthood is. In a time when the priesthood is at a nadir in number and quality (sorry, but the pedophilia angle is usually invoked by now), insisting on admitting only single men into the seminary is a dramatic sign of what the priesthood is.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Currently reading...

Science and Religion: some historical perspectives, John Hedley Brooke

A two-foot stack of neglected issues of Newsweek, AOPA Pilot, Flying, and This Rock. There's probably still an issue or two of Parenting mixed in for some unfathomable reason, too.

"Theology of the Body" Explained, Christopher West and George Weigl. Well, I keep starting it....

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I just got news that my dad's cancer is still playing hide and seek with his liver, so I don't really feel like posting anything right now. Prayers, for healing for my dad and strength for my mom, would be much appreciated.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Apologetic for a Random Reader (II)

The claim by fashionably skeptical secularists and a few para-Christian groups: "Santa Claus is a myth. We don't even know where the idea came from."

If by "we" you mean "those of us who prop up our own convictions with our own convictions, rather than careful study," then yes, you don't know. If by "don't even know" you mean "can't find evidence documented to 21st century standards," then you're only half wrong; we have documentation on where and when he lived and who he was, and then historical traditions that are pretty consistent in the relevant details.

The popular incarnation of Santa that we see today was started the better part of a century ago in a Coca-Cola ad campaign, but the trail doesn't exactly get cold right afterwards. The name comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," which is a contraction of the Dutch for "St. Nicholas."

Nicholas, an actual saint, was a fourth century bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey. Especially in Europe, he's still depicted as a bishop, complete with miter and crozier. His feast day is December 6, when I should have made this post. He was known for giving anonymously to the poor, to the point that after his death such anonymous charity continued and was still attributed to his actions. He is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers; three gold balls are traditionally hung outside of pawn shops in honor of his best-known anonymous gift, three bags of gold secretly tossed into a poor man's house as dowries for his three daughters. Well, it was anonymous at the time, anyway.

The name Kris Kringle comes from the German for Christ Child (probably thanks to Martin Luther), in the interest of focusing on Jesus Himself over a man who...well, I needn't remind you of the whole commercialization-of-Christmas thing, which even then could have added to the distraction from Christ, if not added to the richness of a Christocentric holiday. Somehow the name and the saint were conflated.

There is the most tenuous of pagan ties through what we think of as Father Christmas. In some places in pagan Europe, around this time of year a man would dress as what we'd recognize as Old Man Winter; centuries ago, the old man would go house to house, where the hospitality shown him was supposed to reflect how gentle the winter would be to that household. There was no association with bringing gifts; the only material holdover I can see would be leaving him a snack, and even that one is mitigated by the fact that hospitality isn't exclusive to paganism, and that St. Nicholas traditions exist even where Christmas doesn't happen during cold winters, so placating a personification of the weather doesn't even have the remotest symbolic value.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Single parenting...

The December 4, 2006 Newsweek has an article about the boom of children being raised primarily by (i.e. in a household with) one parent. It starts with the usual examples of people who are surprised and then blasé when they play the odds on modern courtship practices and lose, and then gets into the sociological ramifications.

On the one hand, single parenthood is shown to be less than a tragedy, since people are getting married later and later in life (and, I infer, condoms will break at any age), so kids outside of marriage are just going to happen. On the other hand are the likes of Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who draws a connection between single parenthood and child poverty, and with welfare dependence, both of which contribute to future births of children with unwed parents. Continues the article:

But sociologists say many of these kids actually fare pretty well, especially when two parents are involved. The determining factor seems to be family stability--and marriage has no lock on that.

Duh. Marriage might not have exclusive rights to domestic stability, especially in this day and age, but which arrangement tends to be most stable in the first place?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Be excellent to each other" theology

I sometimes--often?--sound a little derisive when I use that term when people rely on Matthew 5-7 as a behavior guide to the exclusion of the rest of the Gospel, because while it revolutionized how we should treat one another, the first half of Matthew 7:1 is often used as the lens through which the entire Sermon on the Mount is viewed, with supporting evidence like "Jesus didn't condemn the adulterer" and "He ate with tax collecters."

Turning the other cheek is great, but there is more to loving your neighbor than simply damping down the cycle of violence. Refraining from judgment is great, but you're not loving your neighbor by telling him his sins are good. The last thing Christ told the woman was "Go and sin no more."

Correcting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, and counseling the doubtful are spiritual works of mercy. None of them runs counter to any of the others. Picking out a few at the expense of the others may be convenient, but saying something like "You don't have to be helpful as long as you're kind" is sort of like spoiling a child, and it's a sin against justice. Charity may be the greatest of things, but justice, too, is a good.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Joyful Mysteries

Almost thought I forgot, dinn'tcha? Or weren't you even keeping track? Well, I did almost forget.

  1. The Annunciation

    Mary can be seen as analogous to the Jews as a whole. They were chosen by God to be the ones through whom the Savior would be brought to the world, a societal tabernacle as well as possessing the gold and wood one. Then Mary was the tabernacle of flesh, the apotheosis of the tabernacles of flesh that we all are before the end of Mass.

  2. The Visitation

    I often wonder how much Elizabeth knew or suspected about her child or the child of her cousin. Zechariah no doubt wrote down everything Gabriel said for Elizabeth to consider, but imagine what she was thinking when she wanted to tell Mary the great news of finally having a son, one destined for great things, only to find that Gabriel had meanwhile told Mary of the great son she too would have. From her exclamation when John leapt in her womb, she must have known something great was afoot. What did they talk about during their three months together? Did they realize that the culmination of salvation history was actually upon them?

  3. The Birth of Jesus

    This mystery is bittersweet. Truly, the Incarnation, in sanctifying creation by God's entering it, is something monumental, and like the other third mysteries is a fulcrum, in this case the locus of the history of salvation. It is said later in the Gospel that Jesus was unwelcome in his home town. Jesus, in some ways, faced that fact right since the Nativity. Joseph and Mary could find no lodging, so they had to stay with the animals. When the magi came, one of the gifts was myrrh--not a sign that he had no place in the world, but a foreshadowing of death, a sign of how life in this world is transient. Soon the holy family would have to hide out in Egypt for a spell. In time Jesus would reveal that we who are in Him also shouldn't be thinking of this world as home.

  4. The Presentation

    This one also has a sad tinge to its joyfulness. The presentation itself, and Simeon's affirmation of the Christ upon seeing him? Great. Simeon's prophecy, that a sword will pierce her heart? Sad. Did Mary have any idea of what sorrows were in store yet? Prophets were usually called when God wanted them to begin speaking for Him; what was God doing coming to the mother of someone destined to be great (or in the case of Zechariah, the father)?

    ...but suffering is redemptive, and Mary was united to Christ in sorrow and joy from the beginning.

  5. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

    I like to think of this one in part as a reminder of the Eucharist. Look for Jesus: sure, you'll find Him amongst us, we who live in Him, but don't be surprised to find Him physically in the House of God, also. If it weren't for the Real Presence, He would not be there in any meaningfully different way than He is in the hearts of the faithful or in the Scripture.

    This mystery, like the others, is more complex than simple joy or sorrow. Jesus would not have been the kind of boy who got into trouble, so not seeing him for a while in a caravan probably filled with family and friends would itself not have been a great cause for worry. Finding that none in the caravan had seen him, and searching for Jesus for three days in the holy city, on the other hand, would have been. Where did they find him? In His Father's house, conversing with and impressing the teachers. While Luke tells us Mary and Joseph didn't understand why Jesus had to be there--Where was He even staying at night? Did the rabbis or scribes not think to ask after his parents?--they would have understood how a man leaves his parents to fulfill his own vocation, and in time they should have come to know the emptiness parents feel when their child strikes out on his own, and the pride in seeing the child now as a man.

    In the end, Luke gives us a sign that, like the wedding at Cana, prayers to Mary can be effective, for Jesus will give her what she asks of Him: When they find Jesus in the temple, they bring him home rather than leaving him to his Father's business, and (Luke 2:51) "He was subject to them."