Monday, December 6, 2010

We Need A Little Christmas Now

The Feast of Saint Nicholas,
4th Century Bishop

Today's observance is one that should not be overlooked.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

The passage of time may have obscured his life into legend, but the most important thing to remember today is that Nicholas, the archetype of our present-day iconic Santa Claus, was indeed a real person who walked the earth.

Wilson's Almanac is an online reference source I use when it comes to the lesser observed celebrations of the Season of Light. Here we find the following - and I've included just a few 'tip of the iceberg' tidbits:

Nicholas (Nikolaus) (c. 270 - 345/352) became a Bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) when quite young. Among Christians, he is known as the 'Wonderworker'. Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. He has always been a very popular saint: in England at least 372 churches are named in his honor.

Nicholas's early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284 - 305) and Maximian (reigned 286 - 305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two Emperors on May 1, 305, the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the Empire, Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305 - 306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon receiving the throne. In the Eastern part, Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when, from his deathbed, he issued a general edict of toleration. The persecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period, although his activities at the time are uncertain. He was present at the Council of Nicaea (325) and it is said that he punched Arius on the jaw. (Arius was the promulgator of the Arian heresy, which was condemned during that council session.)

Enemy of the old religion

The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Arguing that the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas's feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.

Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travellers. The popular worshipping of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early considering that Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527 - 565) is reported to have built a temple in Nicholas's honour in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time.

But early in the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081 - 1118), Myra was overtaken by Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari, Italy, seized the remains of the saint over the objections of the Orthodox monks then caring for them. Returning to Bari they brought the remains with them on May 9, 1087. Some observers reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics, and 30 people were cured of diseases; ever since, the tomb of Nicholas has been a favorite of pilgrims.

He compelled thieves to restore some stolen goods to their owners, so became patron of thieves. Saint Nikolaus or St Nicholas is celebrated in several Western European countries. His reputation for gift giving comes partly from a story of three young women who were too poor to afford a dowry for their marriages:

Legend of the 3 dowries

A nobleman of Patara had three daughters; he was so poor he couldn't provide their dowries and they were going to have to go into prostitution. St Nick had inherited a large fortune, and he resolved to help, but secretly. As he went to their house at night, wondering how to do this, the moon came out from behind a cloud and lit up a window through which he threw a bag of gold, which fell at the girls' father's feet. This enable him to provide a dowry for his first daughter. The next night, St Nicholas threw another in, and thus procured a dowry for the second daughter. The father wanted to see the benefactor, so on the third night he saw St Nick coming and grabbed his cloak, saying "O Nicholas! servant of God! why seek to hide thyself?" The saint made him promise not to tell any one. From this came the custom on St Nicholas's eve of putting out presents for children. (This may also be where the custom of gifts placed in stockings originated.) For his helping the poor, St Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop are symbolic of the three sacks of gold.

Legend of the evil innkeeper (The Pickled Boys)

A gentleman of Asia sent his two sons to Athens for education, and had them stop to see the holy Archbishop of Myra, St Nick. They stayed in an inn where the keeper chopped them up and salted them down like bacon. St Nick was warned of this in a terrible vision and went and charged the landlord with the crime. He confessed with contrition and asked the forgiveness of Heaven. Nick did this and also restored the boys. In art, St Nick is often shown next to a tub with naked children in it.

The leap between sainthood and legend, between Sinterklaas (as St. Nicholas is called in The Netherlands) and Santa Claus, should be celebrated as part of our accumulated tradition. It takes nothing away from the observance of Christmas, especially when we realize that Nicholas was indeed a real person, and he embodied that which we are called to do. Sadly, it is often those who believe it is a duty to "keep Christ in Christmas" who lament that Santa Claus is part of the problem that we deal with this time of year. On the contrary - the beloved Jolly One in the Red Suit belongs here as he's based on a real-life person who did many things to be light and peace, and comfort and joy to people who really needed it. Doesn't that reflect what Jesus did? Isn't that what we who profess to be Christian are supposed to do? (Okay, maybe taking out those who spread untruths and tearing down pagan temples is a bit beyond where we are. On the other hand, how strong a stand do we take when injustice is blatantly promoted by the high and mighty?)

Just make sure you check your shoes and socks before putting them on later today or tomorrow. There could be a surprise there for you.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

People of Zion, Art Thou Fed Up With Gurnee Mills?

The Second Sunday of Advent

The Word:
Isaiah 30:15, 19-22 (Populos Sion)
Matthew 3:1-12 (The ministry of John the Baptist)

A song, for openers:

Scavengers and sycophants and flatterers and fools
Pharisees and parasites and hypocrites and ghouls
Calculating swindlers, prevaricating frauds
Perpetrating evil as they roam the earth in hordes
Feeding on their fellow men, reaping rich rewards
Contaminating everything they see
Corrupting honest me like me

Humbug! Poppycock! Balderdash! Bah!

I hate people! I hate people!
People are despicable creatures
Loathsome inexplicable creatures
Good-for-nothing kickable creatures
I hate people! I abhor them!
When I see the indolent classes
Sitting on their indolent asses
Gulping ale from indolent glasses
I hate people! I detest them! I deplore them!

Fools who have no money spend it
Get in debt then try to end it
Beg me on their knees befriend them
Knowing I have cash to lend them
Soft-hearted me! Hard-working me!
Clean-living, thrifty and kind as can be!
Situations like this are of interest to me

I hate people! I loathe people!
I despise and abominate people!
Life is full of cretinous wretches
Earning what their sweatiness fetches
Empty minds whose pettiness stretches
Further than I can see
Little wonder I hate people
And I don't care if they hate me!

If you recognize this lament as something Ebenezer Scrooge might have proclaimed, you're right - it's a lyric written by Leslie Bricusse which appeared in the 1969 film and musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Now just how does this tie in with today's passage from Isaiah, and the overall theme? Plenty.

In last week's post, inspired in part by my dear, loving wife, she referred to today as "people make me sick" Sunday. The holiday shopping season, now beginning its seventh week, and its second in high gear, is enough to make you wonder about our inner nature. For example, somewhere in these United States a Wal-Mart store advertised ham for sale, touting it as being "Great for Hanukkah." (I kid you not, the photo's cropped up on some of my friends' Facebook pages.) And even though Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, there are still nineteen shopping days left with deals to be found and crowds with which to be dealt.

The Church really means for us to use this time to center our focus on the significance behind all the frenetic planning, but we are easily distracted. We need little help from the influence of retail outlets and their advertising; we're very easily distracted in the first place. I know this; boy how I do know this! Isaiah well understood this point as well, as he receives his words from God to the people of Zion (who live in Jerusalem):

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies. But this you did not wish. "No," you said, "Upon horses we will flee." --Very well, flee! "Upon swift steeds we will ride." --Not so swift as your pursuers.

Yet the LORD is waiting to show you favor, and he rises to pity you; For the LORD is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!

O people of Zion, who dwell in Jerusalem, no more will you weep; He will be gracious to you when you cry out, as soon as he hears he will answer you. The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst. No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher, while from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: "This is the way; walk in it," when you would turn to the right or to the left. And you shall consider unclean your silver-plated idols and your gold-covered images; You shall throw them away like filthy rags to which you say, "Begone!"
(Isaiah 30:15-16, 18-22)

I'm not suggesting we do away with our holiday preparations. After all, the shopkeepers invest (or is it gamble?) heavily on decking their halls, as it were. But the focus is meant to be on the end, the goal; not the mechanics of the race to get there.

John the Baptist had his hands full where that was concerned.

John was the first prophet in roughly 400 years (although the Maccabean period roughly halfway through that drought would indicate that some were indeed listening to God in that time). John was nothing if not austere; living off the land of the desert, dressing in woven camel's hair, and surviving on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Not surprisingly, his zeal (of all the prophets of the Bible, John showed no sign of reluctance to bear the message) sustained him where his diet might not - I am quite certain John didn't have a weight problem.

This also meant John did not suffer fools gladly. Perhaps his message had an even greater sense of urgency. He was not afraid to tell it like it was. And this was much more the message than the present "Keep Christ in CHRISTmas" movement:

"Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (Matthew 3:8-9).

Many have fallen into the trap of believing that, as Christians, that the Christmas event is an exclusive property. It is not, was never meant to be so, and will never be so. Perhaps that's why so many traditions have blended together over the course of human history. This time is not meant exclusively for one group or another, but for the good of all. Lest our preparations lead us into the trap that shopping is but one more task to be endured, we have missed the point. We have missed out on what the Season of Advent and the Season of Light is about; to be light and peace, comfort and joy.

Today I offered this prayer:
God our Father, in your infinite love deliver us from the distractions that plague us, and grant us the peace and security which you alone can give. Protect us from all needless worry and anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming in glory of Emmanuel, your presence among us; for even now you are indeed among us, waiting for us even as we await your coming. Remain with us always...Amen.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What's This I Hear About Being Another Year Older?

Not to strut my stuff like a proud peacock (I've been known to do that), but today's my birthday! Let's hear it for me!

(smattering of hand-clapping among the chirping of crickets...Hey, I'll take that considering it's December, 28 degrees and snowing outside.)

Those among the readers who like me have their birthday fall in this Season of Light have yet another reason to celebrate. The older I get, and the more open I am to God's presence in and around me, the more I like this. Yet thanks be to God that I am still here and able to share what meager thoughts are in my head!

Some thoughts as I peruse the early round of well wishes on my Facebook page:

It's good to be alive and well, and not showing that much more the worse for wear at my age.

It's a blessing to have the ability to love who you are and what you do, and to be helpful to others.

It's a blessing, so the prayer goes, to stand in the presence of God (Who is everywhere) and praise Him in thanksgiving for the blessings above.

It's a challenge to look at the future. It's challenging to look around and know that my grandparents and many people I've known no longer walk in this world, and that my parents, my mother-in-law, and many of my contemporaries are struggling with concerns that might remain with them for the rest of their earthly life. I too struggle with the consequences of decisions I've made when I was younger and more full of myself than I was with others and with God. But I know that this too is a blessing. As time draws me inevitably closer to my appointment with the hereafter, I take the position that God is directing me toward those places and people I need to be among.

I give you, the reader, a gift of hope today. It comes in the form of an 18th Century hymn; and the story behind its composition could be likened to a setting in that time and place of It's A Wonderful Life.

The British hymnist William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote a total of 67 works over the course of his life. He was a contemporary of John Newton, the writer of Amazing Grace, penned after a stunning personal conversion experience. Cowper, whose fa­ther was cha­plain to King George II, went through the mo­tions of be­com­ing an at­tor­ney, but ne­ver prac­ticed law. He oft­en strug­gled with de­press­ion and doubt. One night he de­cid­ed to com­mit su­i­cide by drown­ing him­self. He called a cab and told the driv­er to take him to the Thames Riv­er. How­ev­er, thick fog came down and pre­vent­ed them from find­ing the riv­er (ano­ther ver­sion of the story has the driv­er get­ting lost de­liber­ate­ly). After driv­ing around lost for a while, the cab­bie fin­al­ly stopped and let Cow­per out. To Cowper’s sur­prise, he found him­self on his own door­step: God had sent the fog to keep him from kill­ing him­self. Even in our black­est mo­ments, God watch­es over us. This experience is reflected in the following text, reportedly the last hymn Cowper wrote.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

O fearful saint(s), fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.


You Light Up My Life

(Hanukkah, not the Debby Boone song)

I've had quite the busy work week, so this post is a tad late. However, the Jewish Festival of Lights is eight days long, so...

To set the record straight, there is a biblical reference to this major event in my Season of Light. The two Books of Maccabees (apocryphal) introduce this festival, first observed "on the 25th day of the ninth month; that is, the month of Chislev, in the year 148" (1 Macc 4:52, which recalculates in our present calendar system to 165 BCE).

The original festival was to rededicate the (Second) Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil". According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.

Perhaps the most central figure in the Books of Maccabees is Judas Maccabeus, who is neither king nor priest (he is the son of the high priest Mattathias), but a military leader, and likely the last heroic figure of the Old Testament. Indeed, this is the last historical event we can place with any accuracy before the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus.

The observance of this festival, however, is not the only thing by which Judas Maccabeus should be remembered. As the son of a high priest, he was gifted with a keen sense of knowing how to fight for a righteous cause, and for remembering the fallen in the aftermath of war (2 Macc 12:39-46). Specifically:

Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. (2 Maccabees 12:42-46, New American Bible)

This is significant because it represents a paradigm shift in theology. The resurrection of the dead had not been mentioned so directly before now. It was hinted at in the writings of the prophets, but this indicates that those writings had gained acceptance. This has in turn been handed down to posterity, with the hope that goes with it.

The candles of the Hanukkah menorah represent those eight days when the light of the Temple sanctuary was in peril of being extinguished, and the miracle that it didn't. It also prefigures the light of Christ, the Morning Star which will never set. And they are also lights of hope; hope for a deeper sense of compassion, joy, and peace. May this light be aflame in our hearts and never be extinguished.