Thursday, December 29

New Year Celebrations

The celebration of the New Year did not occur on the first day of January until after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582—and even then only in France, the northern Italian city states, Portugal, and in the Spanish nations of Castile and Aragon.  The new calendar was not accepted until 1600 in Scotland and 1752 in England and America.  

From the earliest days of the Roman imperial calendar the New Year was 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).  

Throughout Christendom, January 1 was instead celebrated as a day of renewal midway through the Yuletide season—it was thus a day 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 Lord’s great Epiphany.  

In Edinburgh beginning in the seventeenth century, revelers would gather at the Tron Church to watch the great clock tower mark the last hours of Christmastide—which was the inspiration behind the much more recent Times Square ceremony in New York.  In Edinburgh, of course, the purpose was not merely to have a grand excuse for a public party, but was a way for the whole covenant community to celebrate the grace of Epiphany newness.

Wednesday, December 28

Thinking About Sanctity of Life Sunday

“The Modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.  Thus some scientists care for truth; but their truth is pitiless.  And thus some humanitarians care only for pity; but their pity--I am sorry to say--is often untruthful.” G. K. Chesterton

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter most.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” C.S. Lewis

“Do unto others as if you were the others.”  Leonardo da Vinci


Often called Childermas, this day on the Christian calendar has traditionally been celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  It is a day that solemnizes the slaughter of the children of Judea by Herod the Great following the birth of Christ.

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 torture--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 are 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).

Sunday, December 25

The Spirit of the Age and Christmas

This day,
In sadness borne,
We must confess:
The Spirit of the Age
Has crushed
The infant in the cradle.

And yet:
O glorious yet,
One day, in gladness shown,
We must profess:
The infant from the manger
Has crushed
The Spirit of the Age.

--Tristan Gylberd

Friday, December 23

The Conversion of the World

Christians have celebrated the incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus on December 25 since at least the early part of the third century—just a few generations removed the days of the Apostles.  By 336, when the Philocalian Calendar—one of the earliest documents of the Patriarchal church—was first utilized, Christmas Day was already a venerable and tenured tradition.  Though there is no historical evidence that Christ was actually born on that day—indeed, whatever evidence there is points to altogether different occasions—the conversion of the old Pagan tribes of Europe left a gaping void where the ancient winter cult festivals were once held.  It was both culturally convenient and evangelically expedient to exchange the one for the other.  And so joy replaced desperation.  Celebration replaced propitiation.  Christmas Feasts replaced new Moon sacrifices.  Christ replaced Baal, Molech, Apollo, and Thor.  The Gospel conversion brought transformation to cultures and kingdoms as well as hearts and souls.  His blessings flow as far as the curse is found.  Glad tidings of great joy, indeed.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

I love Advent.  I love Christmas.  I love Epiphany.  I love all the holiday holy days.  And I love everything that goes with them.  I love mistletoe, plum pudding, Stir-Up-Sunday, holly and ivy, Advent wreaths, nativity scenes, caroling, sleigh rides, Christmas trees, jingle bells, pecan pie, Martinmas, Little Pascha, wassailing, Twelfth Night, reindeer sweaters, fruit cake, twinkling lights, egg nog, gift giving, card exchanging, red plaid vests, Lessons in Carols, mantle decorations, Boxing Day, and Saint Nick.  I love all the beautiful sights, the wonderful sounds, the cherished recollections, the delectable tastes, the pungent aromas, the brisk winds, the early nightfalls, the sentimental old movies, the Chesterton poems, the big family reunions, the snug evensongs, and the chestnuts roasting on open fires.  I love the salutations of “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Noel,” “Joy to the World,” and even the occasional, odd “Season’s Greetings.”

I love it all—well, almost all.  I confess I’m not a shopper and I just about never go to malls, so I have a hard time reconciling the more commercial aspects of the season with my love of Yuletide.  So, no Black Friday, Blue Light special, Groupon, or Sweet Jack sales for me.  But, I love pretty much all the rest of it.

The fact that I love Christmas hardly makes me unique, of course.  Christmas is nearly everyone’s favorite time of year because it is adorned with so many special celebrations, happy memories, delightful stories, wonderful songs, and rich recipes.  It is a season of selfless giving, expressive love, and poetic joy.  It is a time for family togetherness, for snuggling up to the hearthside, for recalling legends and fables, and for celebrating the things that matter most. 

Of course, while many of the richest and most satisfying aspects of the season have passed into common practice, their meaning and significance have often been shrouded in forgetfulness, neglect, ignorance, superstition, or misunderstanding.  Alas, this has meant that their greatest pungency, power, and purpose has been lost to us.  But, this too has led to something I love: explaining all the whys and wherefores of our most cherished holiday traditions, observances, and rituals to others.  I love the surprise, delight, and insight that always comes with teaching and learning—especially at Christmastime.  I love the fact that at Christmas, the wonder and the promise of the Gospel is so easy to talk about, so easy to express, so delightful to exclaim.

So, from all of us here in beautiful Franklin, “Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntaries. Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivities." Blessed Yuletide!

Thursday, December 22

Chesterton and Christmas

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was surely among the brightest minds of the twentieth century—a prolific journalist, best-selling novelist, insightful poet, popular debater, astute literary critic, grassroots reformer, and profound humorist.  Recognized by friend and foe alike as one of the most perspicacious, epigrammatic, and jocose prose stylists in the entire literary canon, he is today the most quoted writer in the English language besides William Shakespeare. 

His remarkable output of books—more than a hundred published in his lifetime and half again that many afterward—covered an astonishing array of subjects from economics, art, history, biography, and social criticism to poetry, detective stories, philosophy, travel, and religion.  His most amazing feat was not merely his vast output or wide range but the consistency and clarity of his thought, his uncanny ability to tie everything together.  In the heart of nearly every paragraph he wrote was a jaw-dropping aphorism or a mind-boggling paradox that left readers shaking their heads in bemusement and wonder.

But Chesterton was not only a prodigious creator of characters; he was also a prodigious character in his own right.  At over six feet and three hundred pounds his romantically rumpled appearance—often enhanced with the flourish of a cape and a swordstick—made him appear as nearly enigmatic, anachronistic, and convivial as he actually was.  Perhaps that was a part of the reason why he was one of the most beloved men of his time—even his ideological opponents regarded him with great affection.  His humility, his wonder at existence, his graciousness and his sheer sense of joy set him apart not only from most of the artists and celebrities during the first half of the twentieth century, but from most anyone and everyone.

He was amazingly prescient—predicting such things as the mindless faddism of pop culture, the rampant materialism permeating society, the moral relativism subsuming age-old ethical standards, disdain of religion, the unfettered censorship by the press (as opposed to censorship of the press), the grotesque uglification of the arts, and the rise of the twin evils of monolithic business and messianic government.  It seems that his words ring truer today than when they were first written nearly a century ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chesterton was not his prodigious literary output, his enormous popularity, or his cultural sagacity.  Instead, it was his enormous capacity to love—to love people, to love the world around him, and to love life.  His all-encompassing love was especially evident at Christmastime.

Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s authoritative biographer and friend asserted, “Some men, it may be, are best moved to reform by hate, but Chesterton was best moved by love and nowhere does that love shine more clearly than in all he wrote about Christmas.”  Indeed, he wrote a great deal about Christmas throughout his life—and as a result his love shines abroad even now, nearly three-quarters of a century after his death. 

He wrote scintillating Christmas essays, poignant Christmas verse, and adventurous Christmas stories.  He wrote Christmas reviews, editorials, satires, and expositions.  He wrote of Christmas recipes and Christmas presents and Christmas sermons.  They all bespeak the stalwart faith, the abiding hope, and the infectious joy he drew from the celebration of Christ’s incarnation.

Wednesday, December 21

St. Thomas’ Day

Though he was doubter at first, the Apostle Thomas (c. 10-60) came to believe that Christ was not only risen from the dead, but proclaimed Him “my Lord and my God.”  

His anticipation of the full revelation of the Kingdom has been celebrated on December 21 since at least the fifth century.  Traditionally this has been a day for well-wishing—friends, neighbors, and loved ones going out of their way to remember other and to bless one another.  Though Christmas cards were a Victorian innovation, they were originally conceived as a kind of St. Thomas’ Day gesture of kindness, encouragement, and graciousness.

Sunday, December 18

Comfort, Comfort

Comfort, comfort ye my people,
speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
comfort those who sit in darkness,
mourning 'neath their sorrow's load;
speak ye to Jerusalem
of the peace that waits for them;
tell her that her sins I cover,
and her warfare now is over.

For the herald's voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
bidding all men to repentance,
since the kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way!
Let the valleys rise to meet him,
and the hills bow down to greet him.

Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain:
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign,
For the glory of the Lord
now o'er the earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that his word is never broken.

Johann G. Olearius, 1671; trans. Catherine Winkworth, 1863

Schaeffer and Worldview

On this day in 1979, Francis Schaeffer gave an historic speech which would form the basis of  his landmark book A Christian Manifesto.  He asserted that "the basic problem with Christians in this country" over the last two generations or more has been that "they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.”  The result has been a kind of hesitant hit-or-miss approach to the dire dilemmas of our day: “They have very gradually become disturbed over permissiveness, pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and finally abortion.  But they have not seen this as a totality--each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much larger problem.”

He said that part of the reason for this was: “They failed to see that all of this has come about due to a shift in worldview--that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think a view the world and life as a whole.”

When the subject of worldview comes up, we generally think of philosophy.  We think of intellectual niggling.  We think of the brief and blinding oblivion of ivory tower speculation, of thickly obscure tomes, and of inscrutable logical complexities.

In fact, a worldview is as practical as potatoes.  It is less metaphysical than understanding marginal market buying at the stock exchange or legislative initiatives in congress.  It is less esoteric than typing a book into a laptop computer or sending a fax across the continent.  It is instead as down to earth as tilling the soil for a bed of zinnias.

The word itself is a poor English attempt at translating the German weltanshauung.  It literally means a life perspective or a way of seeing.  It is simply the way we look at the world.

You have a worldview.  I have a worldview.  Everyone does.  It is our perspective.  It is our frame of reference.  It is the means by which we interpret the situations and circumstances around us.  It is what enables us to integrate all the different aspects of our faith, and life, and experience.

Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock said: “Every person carries in his head a mental model of the world, a subjective representation of external reality.”

This mental model is, he says, like a giant filing cabinet.  It contains a slot for every item of information coming to us.  It organizes our knowledge and gives us a grid from which to think.  Our mind is not as Pelagius, Locke, Voltaire, or Rousseau would have had us suppose—a tabla rasa, a blank and impartial slate.  None of us are completely open-minded or genuinely objective.  “When we think,” said economic philosopher E.F. Schumacher, “we can only do so because our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas with which to think.”  These more or less fixed notions make up our mental model of the world, our frame of reference, our presuppositions--in other words, our worldview.

Thus, a worldview is simply a way of viewing the world.  Nothing could be simpler.  But by raising the issue when he did and how he did, Francis Schaeffer altogether altered the terms of the theological debate in America and ushered in a new wave of reform.

Wednesday, December 14

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Every day, from December 25 to January 6, has traditionally been a part of the Yuletide celebration. Dedicated to mercy and compassion--in light of the incarnation of Heaven’s own mercy and compassion--each of those twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany was to be noted by selfless giving and tender charity. In many cultures, gift giving is not concentrated on a single day, but rather, as in the famous folk song, spread out through the entire season.

In that delightful old folk song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, each of the gifts represent some aspect of the blessing of Christ’s appearing. They portray the abundant life, the riches of the Christian inheritance, and the ultimate promise of heaven. They also depict the essential covenantal nature of life lived in Christian community and accountability--but perhaps not as specifically as you may have been led to believe. Though theories vary on the origin of the song (it first appears sometime during the advent of Protestantism in Tudor England) it is likely an urban legend that it was intended to be a secret catechism song during those difficult times of persecution.

That rather fanciful interpretation of the song has attached very specific and very dubious meanings to the symbols: the partridge in a pear tree, for instance, is taken to be Christ, Himself. It is supposed that in the song, He is symbolically presented as a mother partridge feigning injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings--an expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so." The two turtledoves are taken to represent the Old and New Testaments. The three French Hens supposedly symbolize faith, hope, and love. The four calling birds are said to portray either the four Gospels or the four evangelists. The five golden rings are supposed to be the first five books of the Old Testament the "Pentateuch." The six geese a-laying are said to be the six days of creation while the seven swans a-swimming are taken to be the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The eight maids a-milking are supposed to be the eight beatitudes while the nine ladies dancing supposedly represent the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The ten lords a-leaping are naturally taken to mean the Ten Commandments. The eleven pipers piping are supposed to be the eleven faithful apostles and the twelve drummers drumming are either the tribes of Israel, the elders of Revelation, or the points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

Most of these well-intended interpretations are likely just wishful thinking. For one thing, all of the first seven gifts actually refer to birds of varying types. The fourth day's gift, for instance, is four "colly birds," not four "calling birds" (the word "colly" literally means "black as coal," and thus "colly birds" would be blackbirds). The "five golden rings" on the fifth day refers not to five pieces of jewelry, but to five ring-necked birds (such as pheasants).

But, even though symbolic maximalism likely goes too far, it is equally excessive to assume that the song is "strictly secular," as one debunking web site dubbed it. Indeed, secularism in sixteenth century England was about as credible then as an Elvis sighting is today. The answer to overly-anxious allegorical apocryphalism is not the equal and opposite error of overly-anxious rational reductionism. Symbols don't have to mean everything in order to mean something--nor do they have to mean nothing.

Very likely, this delightful folk song was just intended to generally and joyously portray throughout the Yuletide season the abundant Christian life, the riches of the Church's covenantal inheritance, and the Gospel's ultimate promise of heaven. Sing, therefore, with new gusto and zeal. For, "every good and perfect gift comes from above." Even partridges, pear trees, and leaping lords!

Wednesday, December 7

Pearl's Infamy

 On this day in 1941, "a day that will live in infamy," a surprise attack by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thrust the United States into the conflagration of the Second World War.  

At anchor in the harbor was nearly the entire United States Pacific fleet.  In the attack that lasted for just over one hour, several ships were sunk, two hundred airplanes were destroyed on the ground, and almost 3,000 people lost their lives.  

Seventy years later, Americans still remember--with solemn resolve, gratitude, and hope.