Wednesday, December 31, 2014

O brave new world, that has such creatures in it!

So many servants for so few family

I have seen the future, and it's pretty disgusting:

The vision of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s colorful and often audacious CEO, goes even further. He sees Uber as the forerunner of a comprehensive on-demand economy, one in which the push of a smartphone button triggers the almost instantaneous arrival of any physical thing. “If we can get you a car in five minutes,” he has said, “we can get you anything in five minutes.” In 2014, Uber didn’t inch so much as leap and bound toward that goal.

If technology reaches that goal, Lord help us all.  Because getting you something in 5 minutes means several other somebodies must become servants to you in order to make it happen.

Think "Downton Abbey" on a world scale.

The goal of living in those mansions populated with as many as 40+ servants was to make the rooms look like no one lived there.  That's what kept them busy:  cleaning a room as soon as the family left it, so it continued to resemble a stage setting no character had entered yet.  Technology didn't directly replace that labor; shifts in the social order did.

Now technology is racing us back to that goal:  service for me, of anything in the world to me, as rapidly as possible.  Armies of warehouse employees for Amazon slated to be augmented by drone operators delivering your package directly to you!  How many people will it take to get you anything in 5 minutes?  And who is getting them anything they want in five minutes?

Do you need to ask?  Does anybody even care?  They're too busy getting it for us!  Maybe we can give 'em Sunday afternoons off, and Boxing Day once a year.

When Jesus said his followers must be servants of all, this isn't what he had in mind.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Refusing all comfort....

Because I have commented before on prosecutions for torture, I just want to say:  Yup.

This is probably the best we can do; but we should do it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Of knowledge and comprehension....

I have this framed, reproduced in cross-stitch.  I'm only sorry I can't give you a picture of that.

I reference this because it is an excellent article.  More and more I think the "conflict" between science and religion is a product of mistake and deliberate misconception (dating back to the 19th century idea that "reason" must replace the "superstition" of religion, an idea that actually has its roots in the 16th century Puritans, who used it to distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholic church).  But read the article, and draw your own conclusions.

Myself, I would like to ponder more on the final sentences:

“There is a certain value, as St. Ignatius says, in preferring scorn to praise,” he told RD. “That sense of humility—you’re better off when people hate you. I’m not there yet. But I get what he’s talking about.”
I think Ignatius was on to something.....

Fourth Day of Christmas

Sunday, December 28, 2014

T'he Holy Innocents

When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true: 'In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard: Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be consoled: They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)

But then consider how the medieval drama called "The Play of Herod" ends: the escape to Egypt, the hasty retreat of the magi, then the intrusion of the military into the village. The children are murdered and Rachel - the biblical mother - weeps and laments. A comforter is sent by God, but she refuses to be comforted because her children are no more. But this is not the end of the play. Did they somehow invent a happy ending? Nothing of the kind. The ending is not happy, it is a great mystery. For there is a Te Deum sung: "We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord." The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the lamenting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that (Hopkins again)

we are wound
With mercy round and round. . . .

they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?"--Gabe Huck

WE remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

--Book of Common Prayer

The Third Day of Christmas

Well, as long as we're cribbing from "The Bells of Dublin".... This one is certainly on it's way to being a modern Christmas classic. That's a good thing.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

St. Stephen's Day

A day late (barely), but still, another fitting song for the season (we have 12 days of this. I can keep it up if you can!)

Friday, December 26, 2014

The mensch, a virgin, and a god

I especially like to listen to this after watching something like "It Happened on Fifth Avenue," or even "It's a Wonderful Life."  For me, this is a new Christmas classic.

"Let us say for these twelve days, put the measurements away...."

The Night After the Night Before Christmas

I have a habit of picking up Christmas books at Christmas time.  It's not a good habit, or a bad one; but it has allowed me accumulate an eclectic shelf of stuff, some really good (Christmas at the New Yorker; A Literary Christmas), some which I should probably discard (no, I won't name names!).  Just before Christmas I grabbed a copy of Nikolai Gogol's The Night Before Christmas at my favorite bookstore.  This morning I opened it.

Now, recently, I'd read an article at Slate about how physics killed Santa Claus, not maturity or skepticism or older kids cluing in younger kids at school (I think that's how I heard it).  It strained credulity to argue young children are budding physicists who intuit the laws of the universe like velocity and volume and solids not being liquids (Santa in the chimney), but okay, whatever.  Of course it's "scientific," being based on one study by one scientist of a limited number of children, none of the conclusions of the study having been confirmed by further studies among other populations or anything like that (nor likely to be; how many people really want to find out why kids stop believing in Santa Claus as a scientific endeavor?).  But these kinds of discussions are often based on what is actually only anecdotal evidence, so take it for what it is and move one.  Besides, it was the end of the article that really caught my attention:

Shtulman says it’s an interesting question “whether children are as skeptical of the extraordinary properties of religious beings as they are of the extraordinary properties of Santa, at least later in development.” If they are, atheists who want to recruit new members to their growing movement should take note. Perhaps young children simply need to be exposed to a few more Grinches to encourage their natural skepticism.
Of course this is an old discussion.  Protestants have been accusing Catholics of "superstition" since the day of Luther and Calvin, and the Catholic church was at pains to distinguish its doctrines and proclamations from superstition since the days of Iraneus.  I won't belabor that discussion, except to say it's pretty much settled among anthropologists (you know, scientists), and bringing it up in atheist discussions is both de rigeur and kind of ignorant.  The argument of the article is that we can't possible accept any story that includes fantastical elements because, well....obviously, right?

Gogol, the head of the Naturalist school in Russian literature, opens his Christmas story with a witch flying up and catching all but three or four stars in the night sky on Christmas Eve in her sleeve.  A devil then leaps up to the moon and puts in his pocket.

What are we to make of this?  It isn't possible.  It defies the laws of physics.  This must be a story for a child; a particularly credulous child.  And yet it is hardly that.  What's going on here?  My natural skepticism says I should toss this story aside; and yet, I read on.

In the same way our culture embraces Santa Claus.  Adults wink with Clement Moore, and even older children don't burst the bubble of belief that allows young children to accept the magic of Christmas morning.  Long after that bubble bursts, those children grow up to teach their children about Santa Claus.  If it were so harmful, so much a "superstition," surely the entire culture would have thrown the story over by now.  It isn't as if Santa Claus were a religious figure.  When you see Santa kneeling at the manger, the message is clear:  the secular world should bend a knee at the crib of the Christchild.  But you never see Santa in a live Nativity.

As for the "extraordinary properties of religious beings," what would those be?  The reality of God?  The existence of God?  Existence itself is an extraordinary property of the physical universe.  Can a physicist define "existence"?  Can science explain why life begets life, and yet inert matter cannot be "given" this thing called "life"?  Can science explain what death is, except the cessation of the activities we loosely call "life"?  What is more extraordinary than consciousness itself?  And what is that?  The emergent property of neurons?  The product of a critical mass of synapse connections?  Where does it come from?  Where does it go?

God is not Santa Claus.  No Christian doctrine teaches that God works as Santa does.   If God is extraordinary, that lies in the very definition of "God."  Santa is extraordinary, too, but ultimately just a mish-mash of stories.  When toys were made by hand in the barn out back,  Santa could have a workshop that cranked them out.  Buddy the Elf may strain to keep up his quota of Etch-a-Sketches, but it got hard to argue the elves were making those things we saw on TV.  Now car companies tell fanciful tales of how Santa could deliver a luxury automobile in a sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer.  Does even the most credulous child pay attention to this?  Or do they just pay attention to the idea that the universe is ultimately good, and just, and even kind?  And if you want to take that away from them, then you are worse than the Grinch.

Even Ebenezer Scrooge would cross the road to avoid you.

I'll let you know how the Gogol story turns out.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day 2014

There is nothing I can give you, which you have not; But there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look. Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me that angel's hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys too: be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. And so, at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.

--Fra Giovanni 1513

Christmas Day 2014

“Christ Climbed Down,” by Lawrence Fehrlengetti

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
and German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest of
Second Comings

Christmas Day 2014

In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims
the greatest care and solicitude should be shown,
because it is especially in them that Christ is received;
for as far as the rich are concerned,
the very fear which they inspire
wins respect for them.

The Rule of St. Benedict

YET if His Majesty, our sovereign lord,
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And say 'I'll be your guest to-morrow night,'
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! 'Let no man idle stand!

'Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall;
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a light.

'Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place!'

Thus, if a king were coming, would we do;
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleased, to think no labour lost.

But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All 's set at six and seven;
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain Him always like a stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge Him in the manger.

Anonymous, 16th century.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve 2014

And then at midnight, the priest comes out from behind the screen, and whispers to the person standing there; who passes the news on in a whisper, which spreads like flame, like ripples on water, across the expectant crowd:

"Christ is born.

"Christ is born."

Christ is born."

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable on that Christmas eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
stars were glowing, glowing, glowing.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

To that manger came then wise men,
Bringing things from hin and yon
For the mother and the father
and the blessed little son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks,
and sat beside the ass and ox.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Christmas Eve 2014

(Repeated from 2010)
I.  Organ Prelude
II.  Adeste Fidelis
III.  Invocation
IV.  Gloria, Mozart
V.  Hymn
VI.  Scripture  St. Luke 1:5-45
THERE was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, 9 According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. 16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. 20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. 23 And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.

24 And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, 25 Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.

26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible. 38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; 40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. 41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

VII. Magnificat (St. Luke I:46-55)
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

VIII.  Scripture St. Luke 1:56-67
And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.

57 Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58 And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.

59 And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. 60 And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61 And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62 And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. 64 And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. 65 And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. 66 And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying
IX.  Benedictus (St. Luke 1:68-79)
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,

69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;

70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:

71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;

73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,

74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,

75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,

78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

X.  Scripture St. Luke 1: 80; 2: 1-9
And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
XI.  Annunciato Angeli (St. Luke 2:10-12)
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
XII.  Scripture St. Luke 2:13
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
XIII.  Gloria (St. Luke 2: 14)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
XIV.  Scripture St. Luke 2:15-28
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. 26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, 28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

XV.  Nunc Dimmitis (St. Luke 2:29-32)
XLord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

VI.  Scripture St. Luke 2:33-40
And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. 34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; 37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. 40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

XVII. Gloria Patri
XVIII.  Apostle's Creed
XIX.  Collect and Festival Prayer
XX.  Hymn
XXI.  Epistle
XXII.  Offertory
XXIII.  Lord's Prayer
XXIV.  Te Deum Laudamus
XXV.  Benediction
XXVI.  Postlude

I have never thought of Christmas Eve as a time for a sermon.  Putting the sermon at the center of every worship service is a very Protestant idea, but even Protestants love the Service of Lessons and Carols of the Anglican Communion, and it eschews a sermon in favor of almost sola scriptura.  And there's the Lutheran v. Reformed split in Protestantism all over again:  the emphasis on liturgy in worship, v. the emphasis on the intellectual presence of God's word.  I stand uneasily with a leg in both camps, and whenever I led a Christmas Eve service I found it hard at first, and then easier later, to leave the sermon out.  But tonight....

This is what we have stayed awake for; and probably we will be asleep again when it happens.  This is what we were supposed to go out into the dark for; and probably we will stay with the sheep and attribute the angel's song to too much wine and too many late nights.  We will stay in and stare at the lights in our house rather than at the lights in God's sky, and we will miss the notice, busy as we will be worshiping the work of our own hands.  Even if we saw the star, even if we recognized it, would we set out, leave everything behind, find out what it meant, discover the new king, we who don't believe in kings at all anymore?  Would we fall down and worship, would we seek the home in Bethlehem, the feeding trough in the home invaded by smell shepherds coming late at night to tell us what they heard, sounding drunk and foolish and illiterate and not at all the right sort of people to be there.

Would we be the right sort of people?  Would we feel comfortable with the peasants in Bethlehem?  Would we wonder if we should have brought a gift, standing with the magi and their treasures?  Or would we just stay home, and stay asleep while wide awake.  If Joseph had not slept, would he have dreamed?  If we dreamed like Joseph, would we listen?  Or sleep in later that morning?

Christmas was once a public spectacle.  It still is for some churches:  word of the birth of the Christchild, of the first miracle of Christianity, is whispered from worshiper to worshiper at midnight.  Do we even bother to go out at midnight?  Isn't it too late, too cold, too much trouble?  We know how the service ends, do we really need to see it again?  Do we go to church on Christmas Day, even if Christmas comes on a Sunday?  Or do we stay home?  Isn't staying home easier?  Isn't staying asleep while wide awake easier still?

This time, for this occasion, we should wake up!  We should be fully awake!  We should run to the manger for the chance to see.  We should join our friends, not just our family, in worship and praise!  Christmas was once a public event, a spectacle, even.  The Puritans in England and then New England condemned it because it was kept in drunkenness and revelry, but at least it was still kept publicly!  Today Christmas is a family affair, a private matter, set around a tree and decorated with wrapping paper, or it is a failure and we despair.  Christmas is a time to be sad that you are alone, when the message of the gospels is that you are not alone, that none of us are alone, that each of us is our brother's keeper, our sister's friend, that there is nothing we need more surely and completely than each other.  What madness is it that we divide ourselves into units at this very time of year when we should be opening our doors to everyone, playing host to the world as we like to think we would have hosted the Holy Family so many centuries ago.  It us Los Posados played all over again, a metaphor for our times.  We are all inn keepers, and none of us have any room for those we don't know.

So this Christmas take joy, and let your spirit walk out among your fellow men, and take the spirit and the season and even the reason for the season out to those you don't know, out to those you don't see, out to those whose cries you never hear.  Make this a Christmas you will remember, by remembering them.  Honor the journeys of Christmas, of the Holy Family, of the Magi, of the shepherds, by making a journey of your own.  It will take you to a strange and new and wondrous place.  Glory to God in the highest!


The service is from the Evangelical and Reformed Hymnal.

Christmas Eve: "The Eerie Sound of Silence"

I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence ... We all went out ... and just stood listening ... All I'd heard for two months ... was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets, ... machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry Christmas', even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.
The words of Alfred Anderson, "last living veteran who'd been present at the 1914 Christmas Truce."

Christmas Eve

The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Where we are going is where we have come from....

I don't disagree with James Carroll here extensively (his book sounds interesting, but it's written for lay people, not for someone who's been to seminary; just sayin'.....), although I disagree with his interpretation of the Good Samaritan.  Still, this struck a chord:

Here’s what I recommend for every Christian: bring your Jewish friend to church with you, and let your Jewish friend listen to the text, and then ask your Jewish friend how they felt. Jewish folks listening to these very common texts—the Good Samaritan parable, the attack on the Temple, any number of them—or the way that polemical phrase, “the Jews, the Jews, the Jews” keeps showing up …
I've had two experiences with Jews in church.  One was at a Catholic wedding, where I ended up next to a Brooklyn Jew (just to identify our vast cultural differences, as I grew up in Southern Baptist East Texas, in the only town around with both a synagogue and a Roman church), and had to explain what I could (I didn't understand much of it myself, this being before I went to seminary) about the Catholic mass.

The other was at a Thanksgiving service, supposedly ecumenical, which meant the only non-Christian participant was a rabbi.  In the meeting of pastors before the service, he had specifically asked that God be referenced in a particular way (I honestly don't remember what he asked, but I think that's what it had to do with).  I was at pains to afford him this accommodation, but the pastor of the church where the service was being held and who felt himself to be in charge, said it was in a Christian church and mostly Christians, so they'd do it the way he thought best.

I only remember that I had to lead a prayer (every pastor present bobbed up to the pulpit and did some part of the service) and I pointedly followed the Rabbi's request.  As I said down next to him, he whispered a sincere "Thank you."

As for that "the Jews, the Jews" stuff; oddly, that mostly comes up in John's gospel, which is one more reason that is my least favorite of the canonical four (come to think of it, John Lennon always bugged me, too.  Hmmmmm.....).  In the synoptics the favorite enemy is the Pharisees.  It took a report from a rabbi in Tyler whom I never met but a friend interviewed, to realize how slanted the gospels were toward the Jews; and it was my seminary education which pointed out (largely through the work of Dom Crossan) how anti-semitic the gospels were, especially since it was Rome who crucified Jesus, not the Sanhedrin.  Pilate couldn't have cared less what bothered the locals; he was determined to impose the Pax Romana.  But even in the 2nd century (likely date of John's gospel, the youngest of the four), criticizing Rome too sharply could get you the same as it got Jesus.

But Carroll is right, and we all (we=Christians, I mean) seem to be members of the Johannine community long after the fact, still distinguishing ourselves from Jews, especially whenever we decide they were Pecksniffs about "the law" (which most Christians don't understand, beyond blindly endorsing public displays of the Ten Commandments, without even knowing what all ten of them are, or why they are "commandments" while dietary and clothing laws are simply, well, irrelevant, actually).  We make sharp distinctions about "the Jews" without even thinking about why we do it.  I had a seminary professor who studied at Notre Dame University, and loved to tell the parents of visiting prospective students that the statute atop the main building was of "a nice Jewish girl."

It runs deep, our denials.

Still, I find the greatest challenge of ministry, and of simply living as a Christian, is learning to see through the eyes of the other, to literally be last of all and servant of all.  Interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, Carroll doesn't give any attention to that, even when he discussed Dorothy Day.

Which may, or may not, be an important lacunae.....

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba Libre!

Christians Interfering in Politics Division

Little noticed in all the press coverage (in America, at least) about what Obama just did for U.S. relations with Cuba (here it is all being covered as part of the horse race for 2016.  Well, of course, right?) is the role Pope Francis played in this.

It was the Pope who urged Castro and Obama to talk.  The Vatican facilitated discussions and the Pope was present for the final negotiations before the prisoner swap was made and a new relationship announced.  And both Obama and Castro thanked the Pope in their respective speeches.

Yet on "Morning Edition" and "The Diane Rehm Show" (Yes, my radio only picks up NPR.  Yes, it's broken.  Happy now?), there was no mention of the Pope at all, or only a very slight one.  There was a lot of attention paid to Marco Rubio and even to Jeb Bush, who doesn't even hold elected office right now.  But the importance the Pope played in this?


I think by now the narrative is set, and the Pope's efforts will disappear from public memory, at least on this side of the Caribbean.

Maybe Christians should stay out of public policy issues, huh?

*Rubio did make a glancing reference to the Pontiff's efforts, but if you didn't know the story, you'd think the Pope had only issued an approval of the rapprochement.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The twelfth revelation is that the Lord our God is supreme Being"

And after this the Lord showed himself in even greater glory, it seemed to me, than when I saw him before, and from this revelation I learned that our soul will never rest until it comes to him knowing that he is the fullness of joy, of everyday and princely blessedness and the only true life.  Our Lord Jesus said repeatedly, 'It is I, it is I; it is I who am highest; it is I you love; it is I who delight you; it is I you serve; it is I you long for; it is I you desire; it is I who am your purpose; it is I who am all; it is I that Holy Church preaches and teaches you; it is I who showed myself to you here.'  The number of these utterances went beyond my wit and all my understanding and all my powers, and it is supreme, it seems to me, for there is included within it--I cannot tell how much; but the joy that I perceived as they were revealed surpasses  all that the heart may wish and the soul may desire; and therefore the utterances are not fully explained here, but, according to the powers of understanding and loving which are given by the grace of God, may everyone receive them as our Lord intended.

--Julian of Norwich

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Meanwhile, back in the courtroom.....

Yeah, the Romans thought torture worked, too....

So, here's the problem with bringing a case for torture against Dick Cheney.  Let's start with the torture statute:

As used in this chapter—

 (1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

 (2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from— (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

 (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

Cheney never had any person within his custody or physical control, and upon whom he personally inflicted "severe mental pain or suffering."  Whether or not the jury decides he was wrong to rely on legal opinions which said what was being done by the CIA was not "severe mental pain or suffering" within the meaning of the law, how could the jury decide Cheney had anyone in his custody or physical control?  The U.S. government held them.  A jailer held them.

Dick Cheney didn't have custody or physical control of anybody.  Sorry, but he didn't.

Conspiracy?  There's a provision for that; good luck enforcing it. Here's the major problem with conspiracy:  it's an inchoate crime.  That means there doesn't need to be an action to have a conspiracy; a discussion will do.  What discussion hangs Dick Cheney up by the law stated above?  What conversation convinces a jury that Cheney is as guilty of torture as the guy holding the bucket of water and pouring it ever so slowly for the 178th time? And was that conversation a conspiracy?  Or a functioning government?

And by the way, your jury pool comes from these people:

A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

By a margin of almost 2 to 1 — 59 percent to 31 percent — those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence.

 In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”  
Cheney was protecting the United States of America from terrorists.  That's his story and he's sticking to it.  Sure it sounds like the stone you carry around to keep elephants away (seen any elephants?  That stone works!), but do you want to be the prosecuting attorney facing a jury that probably has the attitude torturing terrorists is not a bad thing?  You can imagine you're in a Rod Serling movie and crazy people like Cheney get punished because good always prevails.  But Cheney wasn't a military officer, and he acted (assuming arguendo that he did) as he saw fit, and as he was told the law allowed.

And he didn't violate the torture statute, because he didn't torture anyone.   Oh, maybe he conspired to; if you want to convince a jury that ordinary governmental operations can be treated as a criminal conspiracy by the next Administration, if they've a mind to.  That's a door we really shouldn't open, no matter what.  Does no one else remember the Special Prosecutor statute was allowed to lapse largely because it brought us the blue dress and "I did not have sex with that woman!" and a lot of discussion about how a prosecutor with a mandate can always find something to criminalize?

And always remember, Cheney didn't cheat the American people, or betray them, or act against them directly in any physical way at all.

Now, what do you convict him of?  Evil?  Cruelty?  Obnoxiousness?  Bad judgment?*

There may be some other statute you could try; undoubtedly there are several.  I'm not a federal prosecutor, I wouldn't know where to begin to look.  But unless you prove a conspiracy between Cheney and some CIA agent who actually poured the water, you'll have a hard time making a case that can lead to a conviction.  And the counter-argument to your prosecution is that you are criminalizing policy and a former Administration, deciding because you have the power to prosecute that your political opponents deserve to be treated as criminals simply because you don't like their policy decisions.

This all reminds me of a conversation in a comic book once, where the bad guy (I think it was Dr. Doom) has fled the scene after creating chaos and destruction, and the good guy explains there's nothing to be done, because trying to take over the world isn't a crime.  And it isn't, actually.  We came close to making it one at Nuremberg, but that was the outcome of a war, not the reason for the war.  Dick Cheney's political and policy beliefs may be vile and repellant and even deeply un-American.

But I don't see how we make them criminal.

I'd like to be wrong; but I don't see how I am.

*Another reason you won't get a conviction:  people are convinced torture is just an extreme form of interrogation.  Read the definition in the law again:  it says nothing about questions, makes no assumption that torture is used to extract information.  That's a two-edged sword.  Cheney will argue that what he did wasn't torture precisely because it was interrogation, while implicitly arguing torture that leads to information is "good," whether it is torture or not.  In reality, of course:

“The important thing to stress about the use of that it is unrelated to ‘getting information.’ Torture is used in counterinsurgency to terrorize a population . . . [it's] a preventative measure to suppress resistance by terrifying the insurgents, breaking their will to continue.” And America has a long, ignoble history of doing it.
And so we're quite comfortable with it.  And that isn't going to change in a courtroom anytime soon. 

And so this is...whatever you make of it

Look out, he's going off half-cocked again....

First, let me say there is no dearth of "old" Christmas carols (which were a type of song, not some Middle English religious term) available on recordings.  Both of the songs mentioned in this Slate article are known to me from the Kingston Trio's Christmas album (I have A LOT of Christmas albums), and the Windham Hill "Winter Solstice" series started out using expressly non-Christmas carols for its instrumentals (and the whole thing blew up when the songs got too specifically religious, and it was wrenched back to the original concept.).  Christmas carols, in fact, were delegated to a separate series of recordings called, yes, "The Carols of Christmas."

And then there's all the great stuff from Bach and the Baroque composers, Christmas music but not, by dint of unceasing play, "Christmas music," if you catch my drift.  And that's not to mention the medieval chant and polyphony (and forgive me for using those terms too loosely), as well as American and English "folk" songs, recorded by Anonymous 4 (I told you I had a lot of Christmas music), not to mention all the modern stuff about Rudolph and snow and horses.  Why, there isn't even a mention of the baby Jesus in the whole soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

My point being:  can we just go back to everybody enjoying Christmas as they wish to?  Religious, non-religious, atheist, agnostic, consumerist, pacifist, bread baking-ist (hello!); what have you-ist?

Charlie Brown is actually good instruction in this.  He's not cheered by the season, but nobody really knows why, or much cares.  Finally, when he snaps and Linus recites the nativity story from Luke, Charlie Brown feels better.

But it still ends with a festive Christmas tree, which is about as religious a symbol as the Easter bunny.  Does anybody feel cheated by that?

How you enjoy Christmas is up to you.  And what you enjoy about it is up to you, too.

There was some "bonus" content at Slate, about an atheist enjoying a "godless" Christmas.  Yeah, whatever.  The next time every Protestant (i.e., non-Roman Catholic) church in America is open for regular worship when Sunday is also December 25th, we can talk about how "religious" a holiday Christmas is.

I know:  every year somebody insists we must put the "CHRIST" back in "Christmas."  I want to tell them we should put the "MASS" back in it, too.  I mean, fair is fair.

As for the music:  the group mentioned in that Slate article sounds interesting, if only because it prompts memories of medieval English tunes from a recording I used to listen to years ago on a radio station in Austin.  Still wish I'd chased down those albums when I had the chance.

I have A LOT of Christmas music, and the stranger the better.  French tunes are especially good, because they aren't as drummed into our ears as the English/America stuff is.  But honestly, whatever makes you happy.  All the attendant foofaraw surrounding Xmas is meant to be an expression of celebration, an exuberance of joy, a time for festivity.  If your idea of festive is food and drink and singing, I think the grown up baby born in the manger would join you.  If you don't want him there, close him out and get back to what you were doing.  If you don't think he would want to be there, then I have nothing more to say to you.

Keep Christmas; but keep it as you wish to.  There are no rules about this, and no one is policing you.  Religious as I am, I still laugh at the lighted plastic baby Jesus manger scenes I used to see in rural Illinois this time of year.  Something about shoving a 100 watt bulb up the backside of a plastic baby just REALLY brings Christmas close to a person.  It's also about as "religious" as our Christmas symbols get, so....

May it be unto you according to your faith.  Because everybody trusts in something.....

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Advent Interlude

This has nothing in particular to do with Sunday (which I spent cleaning up leaves and hanging Xmas lights on the house; still not finished with the latter, thank you very much....), but I keep hearing that "conservative evangelical Christians" are ruining public education.

I keep failing to find any sign of it.

I know the polls say people love them some Creationism, but those "polls" are always only one poll which everybody quotes but nobody understands (or gets the numbers right).  Nobody relies on one poll during any election season, but one poll is supposed to reveal the complexity of the American public in the opinions of 1000 people who answered their telephones.  And the poll is proven true because the next poll by the same pollster a few years later reveals substantially similar results.   Which you would expect from substantially the same questions.*

It's never proven by an election, however.  Most polls, in that case, are wrong about something, and what they get wrong is quickly swept under the rug as the results prove whatever some pundit says they prove, prior predictions and polls being forgotten in the rush to explain what just happened, with reference only to what just happened and not what was predicted by the polls.

So forget the polls and the scary numbers of people who supposedly think the earth was created in six days and rests on the back of turtles all the way down.  If it were true that so many Americans believed that, Ken Ham wouldn't need the state of Kentucky to reinstate their tax breaks for his Ark Park.

But if it isn't the great unwashed (democracy is great until people get involved!) whom we must fear, then it's the school boards and the textbooks.  I have been teaching the products of the Texas public school system for over 10 years now. I have yet to meet a student who "can't think" because they believe so firmly in creationism they "...have to suppress everything that they can see in nature to try to get a world view that's compatible with the adults in who they trust and rely on for sustenance."  Maybe there are some somewhere, from some back of beyond tiny school district in Texas; but I have yet to meet them, and I've been meeting and teaching at least 30-90 students five terms a year for the past 12 years.  I'm sure somewhere in those 5000+ students I'd have noticed some who couldn't think because they were suppressing everything they see in nature.

The problem with the public school students I meet is precisely that they don't know how to think, but that failure to think is a product of the school reforms championed in Texas by Ross Perot (remember him?  He did more harm to Texas than Rick Perry ever thought of doing), school reforms taken to Washington by George W. Bush and continued under Barack Obama, committed against the whole nation.  Students aren't taught to think because the entire emphasis of education is on data, knowledge, and the ability to stuff as much of it into young skulls as a French goose's liver will hold.

Oh, wait, sorry; crossed metaphors there.  Still, it holds.  When my daughter was in private school, the elementary school was exemplary and well tuned to the students in it, all of them backed by highly motivated families but in an educational environment geared to young children.  When she entered middle school, the direction of the school changed (under the direction of the school's board) and the emphasis switched to force-feeding the geese.  It was Ross Perot's reforms on steroids because, after all, what are you paying a private school for?  Such education doesn't place a premium on thinking, it places a premium on data retention.  It places a premium on knowing, not on understanding.

I struggle every year just trying to get my students, whether they are from Texas public schools, or have spent their lives in the private school where I teach a college course, to understand rather than simply remember.

Their struggle has nothing to do with conservative evangelical parents.

More and more I'm convinced the power of these conservative evangelicals is equal to the power of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and all the rest of that ilk:  they have power only because we say they do.  The actual audience for Fox News is at least one-third less than the audience for the lowest rated of the big three networks.  Any program on Fox News that drew the audience it gets now, including O'Reilly's, would be dropped from the major networks in a heartbeat.  And yet we declare that Fox News runs the world, and act as if the real enemy of progress and liberalism and reason is Roger Ailes.

Which is to say we still face the problem Thoreau identified over 150 years ago; thousands of us are hacking at the branches of the tree of evil, for every one person who is hacking at its roots.  Excessive fear is creationism running rampant is not at the root of any problem we have in America today.

Creatonism is a very stupid idea.  I've yet to meet one student who espouses it and clings to the anti-rational anti-science attitude it takes to support creationism.  I present my students with challenging ideas and force them to think, something a class recently told me make their heads hurt.  I know there are very closed minded people out there; they are a greater minority than we imagine.  But they are nowhere near a majority.

I grew up in East Texas, among tee-totaling Baptists who didn't think liquor should be sold in stores closer than the other side of the county line (because it's less of a sin if you have to drive to get it, thus weeding out the worthy from the unworthy; or something), people who took the Bible as literal, even as their livelihood depended, directly or indirectly, on engineering and geology and oil exploration and extraction.  I knew a number of very devout, religiously conservative engineers who nonetheless talked about geology and science as rationally as Bill Nye ever did.  It's rather surprising how easily people can divide their sensibilities into neat compartments.  There were fundies among us, but no one took them very seriously.  Most people simply divided their thinking into neat compartments and went on their merry way extracting money from the ground beneath them.

Nye's complaint, and response, is basically a variant on "Somebody on the internet is wrong!"  It's the discovery that there are people in the world who don't think as you do, and how dangerous that is, and how much of a burden it puts on you to stamp those people out because if you don't, they might actually exist!  They might propagate their idea, and not yours!  And then what???!!!????

The end of civilization as we know it, of course.  I grew up among those people (see the tee-totalling Baptists mentioned above.  Two popular jokes about Baptists in my home town:  why do you take two of them fishing?  Because if you only take one, he'll drink all your beer.  And when do two Baptists NOT speak to each other?  In the liquor store.); I recognize the type.  I also recognize the danger:  and it doesn't come from know-nothing Creationists.

The status quo is a far greater danger to us.  The tree of evil has deep roots, roots that lie even in us.  Maybe we would do better to start there, rather than worry about all those others.

*and thanks to the rustypickup, we can say that yes, it does matter what questions are asked:

The results show far more nuance, variation, and doubt than is commonly supposed. Most Americans do believe God created us. But the harder you press about historical claims in the Bible, the less confident people are. The percentage who stand by young-Earth creationism dwindles all the way to 15 percent.

Friday, December 12, 2014

'Tis the season to be linking....

And on how much "A Christmas Carol" 
is an influence on our sentimentality, and not our charity....

Every year about this time I pull down my copy of the New Yorker Christmas collection (and now I have the New Yorker on CD!  If only I can find the time to search it for what I want to read.  Well, it was remaindered at $10.00 instead of the original $100.00, so how could I pass it up?) and read Mencken's "A Bum's Christmas."

As ever, I highly recommend it.

And alongside that Yuletide offering which reminds us, again, of how only the "worthy" "deserve" our charity, even at this time of year, I would add this article at Slate, about letters to Santa and the charities which, in the early 20th century, evaluated them.

If you keep in mind it was Mother Jones who led the "Children's Crusade" to T.R.'s home in upstate New York, from which he turned them peremptorily away, you will better appreciate, I think, the tenor of the times.

And perhaps remember, again, that we will always have the poor with us; and we will always use them as whipping posts for our more charitable notions.

Consider it an Advent meditation.

The Middle Days

More or less in response to this:

But while this Syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in it's true and high light, as no imposter himself but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines.
I wanted, on this day of Advent, to mention this.

Paul wrote:  "Is it possible that I, an Israelite, descended from Abraham through the tribe of Benjamin, could agree that God had rejected this people?"  He then likens the Gentile Christians (us) to a wild branch grafted to a tree that is Israel.  "Remember," he says, "it is the root that supports you."

Remember.  But we forgot.  We took a Jewish prophet like Isaiah and decided he could only be talking about Jesus.  And with all those clear prophecies, how could the Jews have missed the Messiah?  And Christians got into a habit of drawing old/new comparisons:  the old way of the Jews being empty and sour, all in contrast to our shining selves.

Advent makes us face this. Our generation must do so with the Holocaust as witness.  We can love Isaiah as a Jewish prophet talking to Jews, still.  Vatican II taught that the writings of the prophets have their own value, entirely apart from the New Testament.  And John Paul II has affirmed--along with the apostle Paul--that God's covenant with the Jews is a living reality.

What then of these Advent readings from Isaiah?  Try reading Isaiah in light of what the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews wrote:  "Attentive to the same God who has spoken, hanging on the same word, we Jews and Christians have to witness to one same memory and one common hope to the one who is master of history.  We must also accept our responsibility to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah by working together for social justice."

To prepare the world for the coming of whom?  And how?

--Gabe Huck

What's so funny about peace, love, and a little historical understanding?

"little silent christmas tree"

So I stumble into this argument again, about Christmas being Saturnalia for Christians, and that sends me to my archives where I finally dig this up (I really need to index this stuff), which I repeat again this year in hopes that repetition will make a dent in ignorance (I'm not holding my breath.  "Engines of our Ingenuity" this morning, often a fairly well researched program, repeated most of the baseless nonsense about Christmas trees and Christmas traditions.  One day I'll just give up).

First, let's note there's a disagreement over whether Christmas was set atop "Sol Invictii" (per a comment at Salon) or the Saturnalia.  The two become interchangeable in these arguments, which is tedious but typical.  So:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.

The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.] 
The first observance was in Egypt, not Rome.  I don't know that anyone thinks of Egypt as a hotbed of observance of Roman customs, especially since the Romans didn't do that much to export their religious customs to the hinterlands of the Empire.  Beyond declaring Caesar the "Son of God," they pretty much left local religious practices alone.  The discussion of the feast at New Advent goes on to conclude (the history is quite complex) that the feast (not the reference to the day of birth) reached Egypt between 427 and 433.  Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in 395.  About the time the Roman Empire was coming apart, in other words.  And this may or may not be wholly accurate, but it is useful in placing Alexandria in historical context:

In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. Temples and statues were destroyed throughout the Roman empire: pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death, and libraries were closed. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus complied with his request. One theory has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum were destroyed about this time.
Not sure just how popular a Christian holiday placed atop a pagan one would have been, even some 40 years after such events.

I mention this not to seal a counter-argument to the prevailing ones, but to point out just how complex history is, and how much we over-simplify it.  We rush in where angels fear to tread when we decide we understand history as a simple narrative that only became complex when we arrived on the scene.

Back, then, to New Advent; the Natalis Invictii (not "Sol") was celebrated in Rome on December 25. It reached the peak of its popularity in 276, but the earliest mention of a Christmas observance on that date is in Rome in 354.  Given how much of the church was actually operating at a grassroots level (the churches around the Empire were tenuously connected to each other, not bound by the authority Rome now exerts), and, for example, the story of how the people pressed Augustine into service as their bishop (he was not imposed on them by Rome), and that was in the late 4th century, one might well accept that people used to celebrating on December 25 simply shifted their celebration to a new god.

The idea, in other words, that this date was "stolen" or appropriated by church officials, is actually one rooted in pernicious Puritanical anti-Papist thinking.   Even the idea that Rome took up pagan practices and therefore such practices aren't "really Christian" is a Puritanical one.  If you want to see clearly, take off the blinders.

If anything, Rome settled the date for Christmas on other churches as its authority spread.  In the 4th century, as Christmas celebrations were springing up around the Christian world (New Advent details the history for Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Cyprus, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Alexandria), many of the celebrations were observed in January, not December.  Somewhere in there you get the 12 Days of Christmas, a period of celebration we would do well to resurrect.

As for Christmas tree and "pagans," I will be so bold as to quote myself:

The tree is a seasonal decorative item.  Rather like the concept of communion, it springs not from some cultural icon co-opted by the new dominance of Christianity in the dark places of ancient history, but from Christian sources:  specifically, the Genesis story and the Paradeisbaum inspired by German morality plays and the veneration of Adam and Even in the Eastern church which spread, unofficially, westward.

CHRISTMAS Eve is the feast day of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They are commemorated as saints in the calendars of the Eastern churches (Greeks, Syrians, Copts). Under the influence of this Oriental practice,  their veneration spread also to the West and became very popular toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. The Latin church has never officially introduced their feast, though it did not prohibit their popular veneration. In many old churches of Europe their statues may still be seen among the images of the saints. Boys and girls  who bore the names of Adam and Eve (quite popular in past centuries) celebrated their "Name Day" with great rejoicing. In Germany the custom began in the sixteenth century of putting up a "paradise tree" in the homes to honor the first parents. This was a fir tree laden with apples,  and from it developed the modern Christmas tree.

That first connection, to traditional stage decorations, is not to be overlooked.  The tree really is just a seasonal decorative item, just as Christmas in America is now just a time of year, with almost no connection to either Christ or the Roman Mass.

As Penne Restad documents it in Christmas in America, the small tree put up in German households on Christmas Eve (feast day of Adam and Eve) became the dominant feature of room-filling tableaus in 19th century America, tableaus complete with landscapes made of dirt hauled in for the purpose (think of Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters" hauling in dirt to build the Devil's Tower in his living room.  Now cover it with snow....).  It was never more than an excuse for decoration,  in other words.

There's also the fact that, at best, you are only likely to see "Chrismon" trees in Christian churches, and then only in the worship space of some Protestant churches.  You may find a decorated tree in a Christian place of worship, but odds are the decorations are specifically religious symbols, and even then the tree may (or may not) be up near the altar or pulpit.  It's a secular decorative item, not a religious "Xmas" item at all.

So the tree we get so manic about now is as American as Santa Claus and 24 shopping days 'til Christmas.

By the way, the earliest reference to a "Christmas tree" in English that I know of is Coleridge's, in the 19th century.  There are stories that Prince Albert brought it to England from his Germany, and so it became popular in that country (although Dickens never mentions one), and it became wildly popular, as Restad documents, in America.  It couldn't have dated back to pagan days in Germany and gone unnoticed by the rest of Europe until the 19th century.

Our Christmas celebrations are just a mess of traditions.  We might as well enjoy them, rather than play amateur scholars and try to dissect them.  Most of our attempts to do that betray our prejudices (against the Pope, or against an "impure" Christianity) and our sheer ignorance of history.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A funny thing happened on the way to the Denial of Responsibility Party....

Charlie Pierce was right, the Senate Report tried to put the onus of blame for torture on the CIA alone. Which means, of course, no one is responsible because whoever did it was "rogue" and we can't name them, anyway.

Fortunately, Dick Cheney will have none of it:

"The notion that the committee's trying to peddle, that somehow the agency was operating on a rogue basis, and we weren't being told or the President wasn't being told, is just a flat out lie," he later added.
The CIA is ever so grateful for the clarification.  Now, if we could just get the DOJ to enforce the law:

As used in this chapter—

 (1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

 (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

I still don't see how you redefine what's detailed in the Senate Committee Report as "interrogation techniques" and not "torture."  Or why we should allow administrations and agencies to come up with their own definitions when it is convenient.

I mean, Cheney just handed them the case on a silver platter.  We're still a nation of laws, right?  Or does that only apply to certain men?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Idiots will be with us always, too....

Last week, Perry studied income inequality and economic mobility with experts Scott Winship, Erin Currier and Aparna Mathur. In the Post interview, he was asked about the growing gap between rich and poor in Texas, which has had strong job growth over the past decade but also has lagged in services for the underprivileged.

“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he said. He cited statistics showing that since he took office in 2000, wages have increased among all four income quartiles.  He said a young man who dropped out of high school in South Texas could make more than $100,000 a year as a truck driver.

 Perry acknowledged that the richest Texans have experienced the greatest amount of earnings growth, but dismissed the notion that income inequality is a problem in the state, saying, “We don’t grapple with that here.”
Perry is probably thinking of this:  "For ye have the poor with you always."  Mark 14:7a.  But Jesus was clearly thinking of this:
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.
Deuteronomy 15:11

And why will the poor never cease out of the land?  Because God has ordained poverty?  Or because humans are sinful and selfish, and not even the children of Abraham ever tried to establish the year of Jubilee?  Besides, Perry leaves out the rest of what Jesus said:

For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.
It's true that, in Texas, "We don't grapple with that here."  But it hardly makes our indifference Biblical.

The Bible would call it "sinful."