Thursday, December 31

The New Year

The celebration of the New Year did not actually occur on the first day of January until after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582--and even then only in France, the northern Italian city states, Portugal, and the Spanish nations of Castile and Aragon. The new calendar and thus, the change in the celebration of the New Year, was not adopted in Scotland until 1600 and in England and its American colonies until 1752.

From the earliest days of the Roman imperial calendar, the New Year was instead celebrated on March 25--which is why September, October, November, and December are derived from the Latin words septem (seven), octo (eight), novem (nine), and decem (ten). This also explains why presidential inaugurations were once constitutionally scheduled to be held in March--and so it was from 1789 until the 1933 ratification of the Twentieth Amendment.

Throughout Christendom, the beginning of the New Year, regardless of when it was celebrated, has been set apart as a day of renewal--for vows, vision, and vocation. It was on this day that guild members took their annual pledge, that husbands and wives renewed their marriage promises, and that young believers reasserted their resolution to walk in the grace of the Gospel.

In Edinburgh beginning in the seventeenth century, revelers would gather at the Tron Church to watch the great clock tower mark their entrance into the New Year--which was the inspiration behind the relatively recent Times Square ceremony in New York. In Edinburgh though, the purpose was not merely to have a grand excuse for a public party, but rather to celebrate the truth of Epiphany newness.

Tuesday, December 29


"A Christian should follow his occupation with contentment. Is your business here clogged with any difficulties and inconveniences? Contentment under those difficulties is no little part of your homage to that King who hath placed you where you are by His call." --Cotton Mather

Sunday, December 27


Often called Childermas, this day on the Christian calendar has traditionally been celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is a day which solemnizes the slaughter of the children of Judea by Herod the Great following the birth of Christ (Matthew 2:16-17).

It has always been the focus of the Christian’s commitment to protect and preserve the sanctity of human life--thus serving as a prophetic warning against the practitioners of abandonment and infanticide in the age of antiquity, oblacy and pessiary in the medieval epoch, and abortion and euthanasia in these modern times. Generally set aside as a day of prayer, it culminates with a declaration of the covenant community’s unflinching commitment to the innocents who are unable to protect themselves.

Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children. Unwanted infants in ancient Rome were abandoned outside the city walls to die from exposure to the elements or from the attacks of wild foraging beasts. Greeks often gave their pregnant women harsh doses of herbal or medicinal abortifacients. Persians developed highly sophisticated surgical curette procedures. Chinese women tied heavy ropes around their waists so excruciatingly tight that they either aborted or passed into unconsciousness. Ancient Hindus and Arabs concocted chemical pessaries--abortifacients that were pushed or pumped directly into the womb through the birth canal. Primitive Canaanites threw their children onto great flaming pyres as a sacrifice to their god Molech. Polynesians subjected their pregnant women to onerous tortures--their abdomens beaten with large stones or hot coals heaped upon their bodies. Egyptians disposed of their unwanted children by disemboweling and dismembering them shortly after birth--their collagen was then harvested for the manufacture of cosmetic creams.

Abortion, infanticide, exposure, and abandonment were so much a part of human societies that they provided the primary literary liet motif in popular traditions, stories, myths, fables, and legends. The founding of Rome was, for instance, presumed to be the happy result of the abandonment of children. According to the story, a vestal virgin who had been raped bore twin sons, Romulus and Remus. The harsh Etruscan Amulius ordered them exposed on the Tiber River. Left in a basket which floated ashore, they were found by a she wolf and suckled by her. Romulus and Remus would later establish the city of Rome on the seven hills near the place of their rescue. Likewise, the stories of Oedipus, Jupiter, Poseidon, and Hephaistos, were all victims of failed infanticides.

Because they had been mired by the minions of sin and death, it was as instinctive as the autumn harvest for them to summarily sabotage their own heritage. They saw nothing particularly cruel about despoiling the fruit of their wombs. It was woven into the very fabric of their culture. They believed that it was completely justifiable. They believed that it was just and good and right.

The Gospel therefore came into the world as a stern rebuke. God, who is the giver of life (Acts 17:25), the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), and the defender of life (Psalm 27:1), not only sent us the message of life (Acts 5:20) and the words of life (John 6:68), He sent us the light of life as well (John 8:12). He sent us His only begotten Son--the life of the world (John 6:51)--to break the bonds of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:54-56). For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

Saturday, December 26

Boxing Day

Today is Boxing Day, an official holiday in Britain and Canada--and an unofficial one in many other parts of the Christian world. On this day boxes of food are delivered to the needy--and in days gone by were given to servants by their employers. The spirit of "Good King Wenceslaus" is demonstrated so that the entire community may celebrate with joy the manifestation of the Good News of Christmastide. In many places, churches organize the day to particularly serve the physical and spiritual needs of their neighbors and thus demonstrate that the Scriptural injunctions to exercise Word and Deed compassion are still very much in full force.

Friday, December 25

On Christmas Morn

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven's eternal King,
Of wedded maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

--John Milton

Thursday, December 24

Christmas Gifts

Exchanging gifts--specially wrapped in beautiful foils and papers--were a feature of Christmas celebrations from as early as the fifth century. A reminder to everyone within the community of faith that “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” the gifts well represented the character of the incarnation itself--the most glorious act of selfless giving that could ever be possibly imagined. Thus, gift giving was originally conceived as an act of covenant renewal and commitment.

Silent Night

It was on Christmas Eve in 1818 that Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr composed Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht--Silent Night, Holy Night, to be sung at the village church in Oberndorff, Austria, the following day. Since then the carol has been translated into more than ninety languages and dialects.

However, there has been much lore and legend surrounding the composition of this quintessential Christmas carol. Franz Gruber (1787-1863), the composer of the tune, gives the definitive version of the story in a signed statement issued by him: “It was on December 24 of the year 1818 when Joseph Mohr, then assistant pastor of the newly established St. Nicholas' parish church in Oberndorf, handed me a poem, with the request that I write for it a suitable melody arranged for two solo voices, chorus, and a guitar accompaniment. At the time, I was attending to the duties of organist for the parish and was at the same time a schoolmaster in Arnsdorf. On that very same evening the latter, in fulfillment of this request made, I handed to the pastor this simple composition, which was thereupon immediately performed and received with all acclaim.”

Saturday, December 19


Carols are Yuletide songs which are usually narrative and celebratory in nature with a simple spirit and often in verse form (I've posted a list of some of my favorites over on the Eleventary Blog). The term carol has a varied and interesting past and is derived from several words that include the idea of dancing as well as singing.

It has been often mentioned that the first carol was sung by the Angels to the shepherds on the night of Christ's birth. Mary's song, the Magnificat, could also fit in the category of early Christmas music.

The idea of caroling from one home to another seems to have started sometime during the 18th century or earlier. Carolers would visit each house of a parish on Christmas Night to sing songs of the Nativity and to call forth blessings on every home. The term wassail means "Good health!" Carolers would often receive food, money, and drink--as thanks for the spreading of good cheer.

Thursday, December 10

Magnalia Christi Americana

Just over three hundred years ago the American Puritan pastor Cotton Mather completed a book of historical reflection he had worked on “in snatches” for a little more than four years. Toward the end of 1693 he became convinced that in order to facilitate a spiritual reformation in the life of the American church—and those abroad—a survey of the heretofore untold “mighty works of grace” needed to be made public. Though it would not be published until 1702, Magnalia Christi Americana is clearly marked by the concerns of the fin de sciecle—or end of the century—in which it was written.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Then, as now, the speculations of men ran to the frantic and the frenetic. Ecstatic eschatalogical significance was read into every change of any consequence—be it of the weather or of the government. Apocalyptic reticence was chided as faithlessness, while practical intransigence was enshrined as faithfulness. Fantastic common wisdom replaced ordinary common sense, and plain selfish serenity replaced plain selfless civility.

Mather wrote three hundred years ago, but he wrote in a time very much like our own. What he wrote was a jeremiad—a stern warning. It is a mode of address that we would do well to hear and heed. Though his subject was a survey of the ecclesiastical history of New England—from the founding at Plymouth, the establishment of culture at Boston, and the erection of institutions like Harvard to the desperate struggles of the frontier, the disputations of heretics like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and the wars against the Indians—his purpose was the restoration of the original vision of the pioneers who had come to America to “set a city on a hill.” He desired, first and foremost, to revive the traditions of the “New England way” and the fervor of the old “errand into the wilderness.” His fear was that the growing prosperity of the land had “softened the resolve and hardened the hearts” of the “heirs of the Pilgrims and Puritans.”

Reading Magnalia Christi Americana is thus satisfying on several levels. First, it affords readers insight into the colonial era unclouded by the palimpsests of modern skeptics and cynics—instead, the remarkable achievements of our Pilgrim and Puritan fathers is confirmed through the lens of faith.

Second, it reveals the breadth and depth of the spiritual foundations upon which American liberty was based—freedom was clearly not conceived in a worldview vacuum.

Third, it recasts the image of American education—its character and its purpose—by recalling the remarkable early days of classical and covenantal learning at Harvard and Yale.

Fourth, it presents a lucid literary approach to the task of writing history—one that became a model of moral philosophy for many of America’s finest historians and writers in the years to come.