Saturday, December 28, 2013

Patriarch Bartholomew I's Christmas Message

+ BARTHOLOMEW
By God’s Mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome
and Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Plenitude of the Church:
Grace, mercy, and peace from the Savior Christ, born in Bethlehem

Beloved brothers and sisters, children in the Lord,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
(Isaiah 9.5)

Many centuries ago, the Prophet foresaw and announced with enthusiasm and joy the birth of the child Jesus from the ever-Virgin Mary. Naturally, even then, there was no period of census by Augustus Caesar, no place to stay for the safety of the Holy Virgin who was carrying a child by the Holy Spirit. So the holy Joseph as her betrothed and protector was obliged to lead her to a cave, a manger with animals, “in order to give birth to a child.”

Heaven and earth received them, offering thanks to their Creator: “The angels offered the hymn; the heavens a star; the wise men gifts; the shepherds a miracle; the earth a cave; the desert a manger; and we the Mother Virgin.” The shepherds were keeping watch over their flock, protecting them throughout the night, while the angels were witnessing the Mystery in ecstasy, singing hymns to God. (From Vespers of the Nativity)

The sweetness of the Holy Night of Christmas once again embraces the world. And in the midst of human trial and pain, of unending crises, of passion and enmity, of concern and despair, it presents the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word as a genuine and timely solution. For He descended as dew in a field of cotton inside the womb of the ever-Virgin Mary in order to give rise to righteousness and much peace. (See Ps. 71.7)

In the silence and peace of that sacred night of Christmas, Jesus Christ – being without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, immaterial, ever existing and the same – enters the drama of history bearing flesh, being insignificant, simple, poor and unknown. At the same time, he comes as a “wonderful, counselor, almighty, prince of peace, everlasting father.” (Is. 9.6) Indeed, he comes as a human being, born of a Virgin Mother, to solve the complexity of sin and grant resolution to the impasse of life’s anxiety through His grace and mercy, while providing destiny, value, content, as well as an exemplary ethos and model for the human adventure.

The Lord assumed and sanctified all of human nature. The pre-eternal God condescended to become for us an embryo and be borne inside the womb of the Theotokos. In so doing, He both honored human life from its earliest stage and taught us respect toward humankind from its earliest conception. The Creator of all accepted to be born as an infant and be nurtured by a Virgin. In so doing, He honored both virginity and motherhood, spiritual and natural. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian exhorts: “O women, be as virgins, so that you may become mothers of Christ.” (Homily XXXVIII on Epiphany, PG36.313A)

So the Lord appointed the marriage of male and female in the blessed family. The institution of Christian family constitutes the cell of life and an incubator for the spiritual and physical health and development of children. Therefore, the manifold support of the institution of the family comprises the obligation of the Church and responsibility of leadership in every country.

In order for a child to be raised in a healthy and natural way, there needs to be a family where man and woman live in harmony as one body, one flesh, and one soul, submitting to one another.

We are certain that all spiritual and ecclesiastical, much like the vigilant shepherds of old, but also the leaders of our world, know and accept this divine truth and reality, which we once again proclaim from the Ecumenical Patriarchate during this Christmas period. We must all encourage the creation and function of natural families, which can produce citizens that are spiritually healthy and joyful, filled with sentiments of security, based on the feeling of safety provided by a strong and protective father as well as a nurturing and loving mother. We need families where God might find rest. We invite and urge the entire plenitude of our holy Orthodox Church to live in a manner that is worthy of their calling and do everything that is possible to support the institution of marriage.

Brothers and sisters, “the night is far gone; the day is at hand.” (Rom. 6.12) The shepherds are already headed toward Bethlehem in order to proclaim the miracle. They are inviting us to follow them “like other star-gazing wise men filled with joy” (From the Christmas Troparion of the 4th Ode), bringing “worthy gifts” “such as fine gold to the King of ages, incense to the God of all, and myrrh to the immortal that lay dead for three days.” (Anatolios, Vesperal Hymn at Christmas) That is to say, the gifts of love and our faith, which test us as Christians, especially as Orthodox Christians, in the ethos and tradition of the family, the Fathers, and the Church, which has always practiced the Orthodox way through the centuries and to this day holds together our blessed society, whose cell for sacred life and growth is the family.

Beloved brothers and sisters, children in Christ,
2013 years have passed since the birth of Christ in the flesh
2013 years have passed and, like then, Christ continues to be persecuted in the person of the weak by Herod and all kinds of contemporary Herods
2013 years have passed and Jesus is persecuted in the person of Christians in Syria and elsewhere
2013 years have passed and Christ still flees like a refuge not only in Egypt, but also in the Lebanon, Europe, America and elsewhere, seeking security in an insecure world
2013 years have passed and the child Jesus remains imprisoned with the two hierarchs in Syria, Paul (Yazigi) and Youhanna (Ibrahim), as well as the Orthodox nuns and many other known and unknown Christians
2013 years have passed and Christ is crucified with those who are tortured and killed in order not to betray their faith in Him
2013 years have passed and Jesus is daily put to death in the person of thousands of embryos, whose parents prevent from being born
2013 years have passed and Christ is mocked and ridiculed in the person of unfortunate children, who experience the crisis of the family, destitution and poverty.

It is this human pain, sorrow and affliction that our Lord came and once more comes to assume during this Christmas season. After all, He said: “As you have done to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters,” you have done to me.” (Matt. 25.40-41) It is for these that He was born of a Virgin, for these that He became human, for these that He suffered, was crucified and arose from the dead. That is to say: for all of us. Thus, let each of us lift up our personal cross in order to find grace and mercy when we seek His assistance. Then, the born Emmanuel, our Savior and Lord, will “be with us.” Amen. Christmas 2013 + Bartholomew of Constantinople Your fervent supplicant before God

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The Queen's Christmas Message 2013 AD



Christmas

"One night there went out over the stillness of the evening breeze, out over those white chalky hills of Bethlehem, a cry, a gentle cry, the cry of a new born babe. 'The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.' Earth did not hear the cry, for they did not know that a Child could be greater than a man; the sea did not hear the cry, for the sea was filled with its own voice; kings did not hear the cry, for they did not know that a King could be born in a stable; empires did not hear the cry, for only the very simple and the very learned - never the man with one book - know that the heart of a God can cry out in the cry of a Child. And they came with gifts - and adored, and so great was the majesty seated on the brow of the Child which lay before them, so great was the dignity of the babe, so powerful was the light of those eyes that shone like celestial suns, that they could not help but cry out: 'Emmanuel: God is with us.'

God revealed Himself to men again. This time He shone through the prism of the Incarnation and brought Divine life to human life. He who is born without a mother in Heaven is born without a father on earth. He who made His mother is born of His Mother. He who made all flesh is born of flesh. 'The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.' Maker of the sun, under the sun; Moulder of the earth, on the earth; Ineffably Wise, a little Infant. Filling the world, lying in a manger; ruling the stars, suckling a breast; the mirth of Heaven weeps; God becomes man; Creator a creature. Rich become poor; Divinity incarnate; Majesty subjugated; Liberty captive; Eternity time; Master a servant, Truth accused; Judge judged; Justice condemned; Lord scourged; Power bound with ropes; King crowned with thorns; Salvation wounded; Life, dead. 'The Eternal Word is dumb.' Marvel of marvels! Union of unions! Three mysterious unions in one: Divinity and humanity; Virginity and fecundity; Faith and the heart of man. And though we shall live on through eternity, eternity will not be long enough for the us to understand the mystery of that 'Child who was a father and of the mother who was a child.'

For the first time in the history of the redeemed universe is the Divine Life hypostatically bound up with human nature. That very life of God that passes from Father to Son in the eternal generation of the Trinity, now passes into the world and assumes a human nature like our own, graces it with the plenitude of His Divinity, and gives us that message of hope: 'I am come that you may have life and that in abudndance' - not the physical life which dies, but the spiritual life which endureth unto life everlasting. Men now began to hear answers to those terrible questions which the Greeks had asked: If God is alone, how is He happy? If He is one, what does He think about? If He is alone, whom does He love? The answer was the Trinity, that inmost life of God, that fullness and fruitfulness of Knowledge and Life which is the sourced of the ineffable bliss of the society of the Three Persons in One God. And as He who brought the secret of the Trinity walked over the earth seeking for a place to lay His head, while the foxes had their holes and the birds their nests, the world began to understand how much God must love the world when He sent into it His only begotten Son. And when He told men the story of the prodigal son and taught them to pray thus: 'Our Fatter,' then they realized what a blessed privilege it was to be a brother of Jesus Christ, and a son of the Father. And finally when men heard a cry ringing out over the muffled sound of steel sinking through sinews and fibers of hands raised only to bless: 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,' whey began to understand the worth of a soul. It was as if the lesson were being driven in their souls like a spear into His heart: the lesson that certainly, in the words of St. Augustine, if a 'man is sufficient for a God, then God ought to be sufficient for man.'"

-Fulton J. Sheen (The Life of All Living, pp. 40-43).

The Deeper Meaning of Christmas

by Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D

In the days of Caesar Augustus, an era of peace was established in the Mediterranean world after centuries of strife. But this peace was forged by the proud ambition of emperors and the edge of their armies’ swords.

Upon this stage appears a baby acclaimed as king by eastern dignitaries. Neither Caesar nor Herod will brook any rivals. So brutal hordes are sent to slay Him at birth, though He himself comes without armies. The thugs are thwarted, but only for a season. For the royal child is laid in a manger, and the wood of that manger foreshadows the wood of the cross.

Caesar and Herod were bound to misunderstand Him. They climbed their way to the top, stepping on all who stood in their way. He emptied himself and plunged to the bottom, from the glory of heaven to the squalor of a stable. Pharaohs and Caesars strained towards immortality. Yet He who was Immortal by nature embraced mortality. The great ones of the world took every opportunity to exalt themselves. In the very act of being born, He humbled himself. To read more, click HERE.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas

When I was younger, I was always disappointed that Christmas was over so quickly and I often wished that Christmas could be celebrated for more than one day; little did I know that the Church does celebrate Christmas longer than one day. Continuing the Jewish tradition, Christmas is celebrated for eight days - so, Christmas is technically over on January 1 (the reason why we're asked to go to Mass on New Years). The feast is unofficially extended even longer because the season of Christmastide lasts until January 6, the feast of Epiphany.

I love being Catholic...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Happy Birth of the Unconquered Sun!

In our posting about the time when Christians banned Christmas, we learned that part of the Puritans' complaints was that Christmas isn't in the Bible and that it was really a holiday created by Rome - logically speaking, the Puritans concluded that "Reformed Christians" shouldn't celebrate "Roman" holidays, that to celebrate Christmas was to celebrate paganism. Let's take a look at these claims and examine them in context.

In our recent posting on the Ember Days, we discussed the Church's love and interest in nature, the harvest, and the seasons; the Church's fascination with Creation doesn't end with this world as we seek the New Creation of the world to come. In a pagan world which was mainly concerned with agriculture for work and sustainability, it would make sense that the various cultures through the centuries would be concerned with the weather and crop yield. In pagan societies, these concerns would be given over to various false deities with sacrifices, prayers, and offerings being given in order to obtain favor for the coming season or to ask for relief from drought or floods. These prayers for relief or celebrations of blessings would sometimes give themselves over to various festivals and celebrations. In parts of Northern Europe, where the winter months could be brutally cold with very short periods of sunlight available, the pagan cultures would make offerings or celebrate festivals in the hopes that the winter would be short and that the warmth and bounty of spring would soon be upon us; therefore, winter festivals were quite common in the pagan and Christian world.

The Church recognizes that "[f]rom ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history (NA, 2)" and that since God is Truth, all truth must be from him and return to him - that is why truth can never be subjective or arbitrary, because God is never-changing, so neither is eternal truth. Therefore with non-Christian religions the Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (NA, 2)." The Church believes that the truths found in earlier pagan cultures were ways in which God was starting to reveal himself to the Gentiles, preparing us in our long Advent towards his full revelation in Jesus Christ; therefore, we see that some truths in pagan thought point towards Christ, not the other way around (as so many present-day atheists think). Early Christian evangelists would use the writings of Aristotle and Plato in order to lead pagans to Christianity, as parts of their writings were not in opposition to the faith. Even St. Paul in his arrival in Athens shows that there was a bit of truth in the beliefs of the pagans.

So was Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Some Catholic scholars say yes, others say no, and still others say it's a little bit of both. It's true that the Church has often rebranded customs in order to evangelize; the Catholic Encyclopedia explains: The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. This is probably what Puritans found so offensive, but as we read earlier, the Church does not reject truths that come from other groups of people because ALL eternal truth comes from God; to rebrand something in order to teach pagans the truths of the faith is nothing new or offensive. Quite honestly, I don't care where Christmas came from - it's one of my favorite times of year and I love the liturgy during Christmastide. At Christmas we get to contemplate the great mystery that God Himself became man, humbling himself as a newborn; this Creator of the Universe was now helpless in the arms of his mother, nursing at her breast, and completely dependent upon Joseph and Mary to raise and protect him. Isn't that incredible? And he lived amongst us, laughing with us, crying with us, learning with us. He learned the psalms, he went to temple, he bumped his head and scraped his knees. He endured temptation in the desert and would sacrifice himself upon the Cross, so obedient was he to God's will. Out of love he did this, dying and then rising again to return to his place in heaven. ALL of this began to take form at Christmas and is so significant that we restarted how we count our years. The Bible doesn't say, "Thou shalt celebrate my birthday," or perhaps it's a rebranded pagan holiday - personally, I don't care because the birth of Christ is so much bigger than these arguments.

One of the pagan holidays that has always been mentioned as the "original" Christmas is the celebration of Saturnalia. This is a winter festival from Italy, dedicated to their god of agriculture, Saturn (Saturday, by the way, is also named after Saturn). The celebration originally began on December 15 in the original Roman calendar (the Kalendas Ianuarias), but when the Julian calendar was created in 45 BC, the holiday was shifted to December 17 and ran until December 23. Although this is close to the day of Christmas, it doesn't quite match up; even still, many modern-day atheists (and some extreme Calvinists) like to mention Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas.

Others like to mention the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun). Roman Emperor Aurelian established this feast on December 25 in 274 AD, and the earliest calendar we have that shows Christmas being celebrated on December 25 was in 354 AD - many have interpreted that to mean that Christmas came after people were celebrating Dies Natalis Solis Invicti - however this is not supported by the historical evidence. For instance, Pope Saint Telesphorus (who died in 137 AD) instituted the Midnight Mass at Christmas, so one can assume that Christmas was being celebrated at least by the second century, earlier than the feast of the Unconquered Sun. Other Church Fathers have also attested to the early celebration of Christmas and you can read all about this in Dr. Taylor Marshall's free e-book God's Birthday: Why Christ Was Born on December 25 & Why It Matters.

So where did the rumor of Christmas being Saturnalia or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun come from? Sadly, the charges became most popular after the Reformation. We read in When Christians Banned Christmas that throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, various Puritan and Presbyterian ministers routinely condemned Christmas as a pagan holiday and invention of the pope. This continued in the 18th Century as Lutheran minister Paul Ernst Jablonski also tried to popularize the idea that Roman Catholicism replaced a pagan holiday with Christmas. However, the Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Talley, professor of Liturgics at the Episcopalian General Theological Seminary in New York, wrote in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year that there is good reason to believe that the Emperor's establishment of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun was actually in response to the celebration of Christmas; it was created to diminish Christmas.

Probably the best book on the Roman Empire that I've ever read is Caesar and Christ, written by Will Durant - a man who believes that Christianity is mainly warmed-over paganism - and even he lends credence to the idea that the Empire was trying to make Roman paganism more attractive than Christianity:

The old religions still claimed a majority of the Empire's population...under Aurelian a modified Mithraism [cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra] captured the Roman state. Around the year 178...paganism made a lusty attempt to defend itself against Christianity. We know of it only through Origen's book 'Against Celsus'...[Celsus] felt that the civilization which he enjoyed was bound up with the old Roman faith, and he resolved to defend that faith by attacking the Christianity that was now its most challenging enemy.

In other areas of the book, Durant repeats that various emperors saw the Empire's only chance of survival was to return to her ancient faith and several attempts were made at squelching Christianity so that paganism could thrive again. Honest research is starting to show that Christmas more than likely existed before the establishment of the Sun feast, which itself was established in order to compete with Christmas.

So, was Jesus really born on December 25? And if so, how do we know that? Early theologians in Rome came up with the date of Christ's birth using Scripture and the writings of the earliest Christians. In St. Luke's Gospel, he writes that Zacharia was serving in the temple during the "course of Abias” (Lk 1:5). Dr. Taylor Marshall explains that "Scripture records [the course of Abias] as the eighth course among the twenty-four priestly courses (Neh 12:17). Each shift of priests served one week in the temple for two times each year. The course of Abias served during the eighth week and the thirty-second week in the annual cycle...Josef Heinrich Friedlieb has convincingly established that the first priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the destruction of Jerusalem on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Thus the priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the second week of Av. Consequently, the priestly course of Abias (the course of Saint Zacharias) was undoubtedly serving during the second week of the Jewish month of Tishri—the very week of the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of Tishri. In our calendar, the Day of Atonement would land anywhere from September 22 to October 8."

Scripture says that John the Baptist was conceived after Zacharia finished his course in the temple, about the end of September, which would make John's birthday sometime in June (the Church celebrates it on June 24). When Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John, the Virgin Mary went off to stay with her (Lk 1:24-27, 36); this makes John the Baptist six months older than Jesus. June 24 plus six months equals December 24/25; December 25 minus nine months equals March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (the day that the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and she said 'Yes' to being the Mother of God). The Church treated this day as SO important in the Western Christian world that at one time March 25 was celebrated as NEW YEARS! In fact, England celebrated New Years' on March 25 up until as recently as 1752!

The calculation that the birth of Christ was on December 25 seems very convincing, but we don't know the date of his birth for sure (although some are completely convinced it was 12/25). Additionally, the evidence against Christmas being an early pagan celebration seems equally convincing. The Puritans and other Calvinists were willing to reject Christmas simply because it was Catholic and not specifically addressed in the Bible, missing the entire point of the holy day. I think Pope Francis did an excellent job explaining the significance of Christmas the other day and it bears repeating here:

Christmas is the celebration of the presence of God who came among us to save us...The birth of Jesus is not a fairytale! It is the story of a real event, which occurred in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Faith allows us to recognise in the Child born to the Virgin Mary the true Son of God, made man for our love. In the face of the child Jesus we contemplate the face of God, who did not show Himself to us in strength, in power, but in the weakness and fragility of a newborn. This is our God, who comes so close to us, as a child. This Child shows the trust and tenderness of the boundless love with which God surrounds each one of us. This is why we celebrate Christmas, reliving the same experience of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Along with many fathers and mothers who work hard every day, making many sacrifices; along with the young, the sick and the poor, we celebrate, because it is the celebration of our encounter with God in Jesus”.

That is why we celebrate Christmas. Christianity isn't just a book - it's a relationship, a living out of our baptismal promises. And so if it's not in the Bible, or it was once called Saturnalia or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, or if it was invented by a pope, so what? The fact remains that God loves us so much that he became one of us and lived amongst us in order to save us. Shouldn't that be celebrated?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Our Lady of Coatlallope

Today is the feast day of the apparition of Our Lady to St. Juan Diego in 1531. A book on the apparition that I highly recommend is Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love. The book goes into the story of the apparition and an account of the miraculous image left upon Juan's tilma. An aspect of the apparition that I think is amazing is the name Our Lady chose when she revealed herself to St. Juan - the Spanish believed she called herself "Our Lady of Guadalupe", which is a river in Spain - however, some theologians muse if this was a mistranslation of the native word Coatlallope, which means "one who treads on snakes". This is profound, as we hear a reference of this in the protoevangelium:

I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel (Gen 3:15).

The following is a homily given by Father Samuel Medley, SOLT, is a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and is currently based in Hythe, Kent, United Kingdom & "borrowed" from Catholic.org:

Amalekites. Not very nice people. Sacrificed baby's to the god of darkness. God sent Abraham to them to make them extinct.

Aztecs. Also not too nice. Sacrificed people by ripping their still-beating hearts out of their chests to placate the god of darkness, Tezcatlipoca. For one feast they sacrificed atop of the great pyramid of Tenaochtitlan 80,000 people in three days with a line of victims stretching 2 miles long. God sent his Mother to them to save them from extinction.

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It commemorates the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a little native man, Saint Juan Diego, of the Aztec people.

Her coming to the Aztecs heralded the conversion of over 10 million people in a few years.

In a few decades the people that were a war[r]ing culture, intent on conquering different tribes of peoples to find more victims for sacrifice, had become peace loving and God fearing and had replaced human sacrifice with the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

We need her again today.

Italy. France. Spain. They will all be extinct in two hundred years. These traditionally Catholic cultures are literally contracepting themselves into extinction.

It is a demographic fact (each couple has 1.39 children) that they will no longer exist if they continue to sacrifice their children to the devil with contraception and its result - decriminalized abortion.

With such a drastically low population rate they will undoubtedly disappear like the Amalekites because they kill their own children.

They need the Mother of God. Now.

Today, I will be standing outside an abortuary here in England holding an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, praying peacefully the Rosary, begging the Mother of God to obtain once again, the conversion of millions from murdering their own children on the temple of convenience to the god of darkness.

We need to beg the Holy Mother of God to intervene in human history and save us from destroying ourselves. It was she who conceived and bore the Savior of the human race, and she continues to bring Him again and again mercifully into different historical situations.

To not act is itself an action. It is a grave omission, a decision to ignore the mass murdering of our generation. We must all do our part, or face the ensuing disaster for our inaction.

May the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patroness not only of the pro-life movement, but also the patroness of the New Evangelization, obtain for mankind once again, the end of a culture of death with the dawning of a culture of life.

----- Father Samuel Medley, SOLT, is a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and is currently based in Hythe, Kent, United Kingdom. He is a speaks to groups around the world on Blessed Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Visit his homily blog http://medleyminute.blogspot.com or his blog on sexual ethics http://loveandresponsibility.org

Saturday, December 7, 2013

When Christians Banned Christmas

It's hard to believe, but at one time in history some Christians had banned the celebration of Christmas. In order to understand how this came about, we must look at some religious history and its influence on the modern Western world. I want to be clear in this discussion that any mention of the various Protestant faiths and reformers are not meant to be insulting or disparaging, but are just a historical account of the events that took place; I am not judging anyone and only want to help explain why certain things are the way they are today. It cannot be overemphasized that the influence of the Puritans and certain early American Protestant leaders greatly affected the way in which American Christians celebrate Christmas even today.

Our story starts off with the English Puritans. Most Americans are familiar with the Puritans because of the famous Thanksgiving story of their coming to the new world on the Mayflower, however most of us are unfamiliar with their presence in England; that history is very ugly. The most extreme of the English Reformers, the Puritans can trace their religious views to John Calvin. They rejected any sort of hierarchy and practiced Sabbatarianism, which devoted all of Sunday to worship, condemning any work or activities. Puritans believed that the Church of England held on to too many Catholic "corruptions" and they desired to purify English Christianity from these "unbiblical" practices. At the close of the English Civil War (1642–46), the king was executed and the Parliamentarians took over, allowing the Puritans to exert their power over the rest of England; in 1647, the Puritan government banned the celebration of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun in England. All shops and markets were told to stay open on December 25 and anyone caught holding or going to a Christmas church service would suffer a severe penalty. In London, things were so strict that soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets and told to seize any food they thought was being prepared for Christmas. All Christmas decorations were banned - like trees, wreaths, holly, and mistletoe - as well as a variety of food typical to the British celebration, such as mince pies and figgy pudding. It's hard to believe, but even ministers would be arrested for trying to preach on Christmas.

The basis for this ban was that the Puritans (and some other Reformers) believed Christmas to be unbiblical and an invention of the Catholic Church; even the name (from the Old English Cristes Maesse - 'the Mass of Christ') was found offensive. Modern-day Calvinist theologian Dr. Scott Johnson said, "Christmas was accurately depicted [by the Puritans] by such names as the Profane Man's Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Papist's Massing Day, Foolstide, the Old Heathen's Feasting Day, the Multitude's Idle Day, and Satan's Working Day," in his book X-Mas: The Biggest Pagan Holiday/Holyday of the Year. Calvinist theologian Brian Schwertley wrote: The reason that Christmas became a church holy day has nothing to do with the Bible. The Bible does not give the date of Christ's birth. Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to celebrate Christmas. Christmas (as well as many other pagan practices) was adopted by the Roman church as a missionary strategy. Presbyterian pastor and theologian Greg Price said, "Scripture and history are brought to bear most specifically on the celebration of Christ-mass, demonstrating why it is a sin to celebrate this day," and said that Christmas was part of "paganism and Babylonian Christianity". In Kevin Reed's book Christmas: A Biblical Critique, he said that "to call yourself Reformed while you hold on to this Roman Catholic/Pagan monument of idolatry makes for a serious contradiction in your testimony -- as the best Reformed churches have always disciplined those (in accord with Scriptural teaching) who broke the second and fourth commandments by keeping antichristian festival days like Christ-mass, Easter, etc. These are modern-day Calvinists writing this stuff, so we shouldn't be surprised that their ancestors, the Puritans, felt the same way about Christmas. Let's look at some more of their teachings:

...concerning festival days findeth that in the explication of the first head of the first book of discipline it was thought good that the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, with the feasts of the Apostles, Martyrs, and Virgin Mary be utterly abolished because they are neither commanded nor warranted by Scripture and that such as observe them be punished by Civil Magistrates. Here utter abolition is craved and not reformation of abuses only and that because the observation of such feasts have no warrant from the word of God. (The Acts of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, December 10, Session 17, 1638)

I would to God that every holy day whatsoever besides the Lord's day were abolished...Those holy days have been so tainted with superstitions that I wonder we tremble not at their very names. (Martin Bucer, cited in William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship, 1633)

The word Christ-mass is enough to cause such as are studious of reformation to dislike what shall be known by a name so superstitious. Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? i.e., Christ and Antichrist? (Increase Mather, a man partly responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, in his 'Testimony Against that Prophane and Superstitious Custom of Christ-mass Keeping')

By communicating with idolaters in their rites and ceremonies, we ourselves become guilty of idolatry...Forasmuch, then, as kneeling before the consecrated bread, the sign of the cross, surplice, festival days, bishopping, bowing down to the altar, administration of the sacraments in private places, etc., are the wares of Rome, the baggage of Babylon, the trinkets of the whore, the badges of Popery, the ensigns of Christ's enemies, and the very trophies of antichrist, -- we cannot conform, communicate and symbolise with the idolatrous Papists in the use of the same, without making ourselves idolaters by participation. Shall the chaste spouse of Christ take upon her the ornaments of the whore? Shall the Israel of God symbolise with her who is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt? Shall the Lord's redeemed people wear the ensigns of their captivity? Shall the saints be seen with the mark of the beast? Shall the Christian church be like the antichristian, the holy like the profane, religion like superstition, the temple of God like the synagogue of Satan? (George Gillespie, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, in his 'A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies')

The Puritan reign of terror in England and Ireland ended in 1661 with the restoration of the British monarchy. Needless to say, it was quite uncomfortable for the Puritans to stay in England. All laws restricting the celebration of Christmas were rescinded and the British people happily celebrated the birth of Christ once again. Several additional laws were passed to punish religious minorities (Catholic and Protestant) and due to this hostile environment, the Puritans (and other oppressed people of England) left their homeland for a new life in North America. The anti-Catholic beliefs about Christmas were brought to the new world by the Puritan immigrants at the Plymouth colony. Wanting to create a land where Christianity would be free from Catholic contamination, the Massachusetts Bay colony quickly made sure to ban the celebration of Christmas: ...it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county. Christmas was outlawed in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681; this anti-Christmas sentiment could be found in New England as late as almost the twentieth century, forcing children in Boston to attend school on Christmas Day as recently as 1869.

To be fair to the Puritans, they weren't the only ones who found Christmas offensive and, bizarrely enough, 'unchristian':

Christmas. This is the name of the day on which is wont to be celebrated the idolatrous Romish sacrifice of the mass, in honor of the birth of Christ. As nearly as can be now ascertained, the day was first set apart for this purpose by the authority of the bishop at Rome...But as Protestants, we long ago abjured the authority of the Pope of Rome, and we still utterly repudiate his right to legislate for us, either over our consciences or our conduct. (The Reformed Presbyterian magazine, January, 1851)

The Romish Church, in opposition to the word of God, has a great multiplicity of annually returning sacred seasons. The 25th day of December is one of those seasons; at which time, originally, a heathen festival was held. 'This day was next baptized into a Romish mass for the birth of Christ...The absence [in the Bible] both of the date and command, makes it as clear to us as a sunbeam, that the natal day of our Saviour, even were it known, should not be honored by any religious observance whatsoever. (The Associate Presbyterian Magazine, February, 1879)

Observance of Christmas, or the lack thereof, was one way to differentiate among the Christian sects of Colonial and 19th-century America. Anglicans, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and Lutherans, to name just a few, did; Quakers, Puritans, Separatists, Baptists, and some Presbyteriansdid not. An 1855 New York Times report on Christmas services in the city noted that Baptist and Methodist churches were closed because they "do not accept the day as a holy one," while Episcopal and Catholic churches were open and "decked with evergreens." New England Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher remembered decorative greenery as an exotic touch that one could see only in Episcopal churches, "a Romish institution kept up by the Romish church." (Slate.com)

Christmas wouldn't become a legal holiday in New England until 1856 and some schools stayed open on Christmas Day until 1870, until at which time it had become a federal holiday. For many non-Catholic Americans, the celebration of Christmas seemed a foreign concept thanks to this heavy influence from the Puritans, Calvinists, and other radical Reformers. As Christmas traditions started to take on more secular tones, more and more non-Catholics started to feel more comfortable celebrating the holiday.

I find it interesting that the world is starting to reestablish this "Christmas isn't special" attitude once again; you see this by how many businesses are open on Christmas and by how many new movies now debut on Christmas Day. It seems as though, in their enthusiasm for purifying Christianity, these Reformers ushered in our current secular society by making all of these holy traditions seem "superstitious". Many modern-day non-Catholics reject the Puritans and radical Calvinists and have embraced the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Grace Communion International, in a long explanation on whether or not celebrating Christmas is a sin, stated, "Christians who keep Christmas are not pagans...They honor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."

However, there is one charge by Calvinists that needs to be addressed, and that will be saved for another posting; it is the claim that Christmas has pagan roots and many of our Christmas traditions can be traced back to pagan origins. I believe that this subject matter deserves its own posting, so that'll wait until next time.

Time and time again, we can attribute many of the problems we have today to our divisions. ...that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (John 17:21). May we finally find the humility and beg for the graces needed in order to reject the notion of "the duty of separation" so that, with one united voice, we may bring the Gospel to all the world. Only in a fallen world ruled by Satan would the celebration of the birth of Christ cause so much division, hatred, and bigotry.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber

This is an unparalleled eyewitness account of just what transpired at the Second Vatican Council. The author's integrity and objectivity won him exclusive interviews with a great number of the Cardinal and Bishops, whatever their allegiance within the Council. The title neatly sums up the fact that Vatican II, and the documents of Vatican II, were shaped largely by the liberal ideas of the Fathers from the Rhine lands. In The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, the strategies of the liberals in promoting their ideas come through on every page. Father Wiltgen's journalistic masterpiece shows clearly the two main theological forces that were at work in the church before the Council, during the Council, and after the Council, and which remain very much at work in the Church today. To purchase it, click HERE.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jolly Ol' St. Nick

"St. Nicholas the Wonderworker" is beloved by Christians of both East and West. This saintly man was born in the third century in the town of Patara, which is in present-day Turkey. The only child of his wealthy parents, they died young due to an epidemic, and Nicholas gave all the wealth and property that he inherited to the poor. A devout Christian, he was made bishop of Myra at a young age; strong in his faith, he would suffer exile and imprisonment under the persecutions of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Whether in prison or ministering to his diocese, Nicholas was an active and tireless shepherd to his flock. In 325, the Council of Nicaea was called to deal with a rupture in the Church; Arius was a priest from North Africa who taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but was instead God's most perfect creation. This confusion grew from Arius' home in North Africa and spread throughout the Christian world; passions ran so strongly that fights would break out and there was a real danger that the heresy would divide the Church and destroy the faith. Finally obtaining political stability, Emperor Constantine didn't want to replace civil strife with religious strife, so he implored the bishops of the Church to gather together and settle the matter once and for all. Most attendees of the Council were from the East, although some in the West attended with the blessings of Pope St. Sylvester I; about 300 bishops attended altogether, many of them crippled and disfigured after surviving the last persecutions.

Nicholas at the First Council of Nicaea

The issue of the divinity of Jesus was hotly debated: was Christ God? Was he just a man? Was he both true God and true man? Arius was asked to present his teachings to the Council - perhaps once the Council Fathers heard what he had to say, they would all come to agree with his personal interpretation. Arius' teachings explained that Jesus Christ was a creation of God, that he is not consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father, and therefore not like him or equal in dignity; Jesus was not co-eternal, and references to him being the "Son" of God were merely a figure of speech. Upon hearing these teachings, Nicholas approached Arius and struck him in the face! For his outburst, Nicholas was removed from the Council proceedings and from his episcopal duties until several Council Fathers experienced a vision of Jesus and Mary having sympathy for him.

The First Council of Nicaea would condemn the heresy of Arianism and its decrees, in part, form the basis of the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches almost 1,700 years later. (In 381, another Council held in Constantinople would "finish" the Nicene Creed by addressing a similar heresy that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit). Sadly, Arianism plagued the Church for another 400 years before finally disappearing, but resurfacing once again in several sects of the Protestant Reformation. In my own opinion, I think Arianism is starting to spread again - this idea in the West that Jesus was a great guy with some wonderful teachings, but nothing more than that...just a man.

St. Nicholas would continue to live a life of holiness and charity, fulfilling his duties as bishop before passing away from this life on December 6, 343; his relics are interred in the church of San Nicola in Bari, Italy. Because of his reputation for charity and holiness, many stories abounded throughout the land; one famous story is of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to a poor man with three daughters. In those days one needed a dowry to marry and the better the dowry, (usually) the better the husband and standard of living. Since this man couldn't afford any dowries for his daughters, they were destined to a life of slavery or destitution and begging. One night, three bags of gold coins were tossed through the man's open window, landing in shoes that had been placed by the fire to dry overnight. Now having the dowries, the women would not have to suffer injustice any longer. This act of charity, attributed to Nicholas, evolved into the tradition of children in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands leaving their shoes or stockings out on December 6 so that St. Nicholas can fill them with chocolate coins or small gifts. In Poland and parts of Germany, children dress up as the saint and beg door-to-door for donations for the poor. While most of Europe marks St. Nicholas Day on December 6, in the United State, Great Britain, and elsewhere, the tradition of St. Nicholas' visit was moved to Christmas Eve after he was replaced by the more secular Santa Claus.

Who is Santa Claus?

So, how did a bishop of the Church eventually become the secular Santa Claus? After all, he was highly revered in the East and West for roughly 1,200 years: in the year 1126 the Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland in the city of Garðar; on Columbus' first voyage, he dedicated a port in Haiti to the saint (Môle-Saint-Nicolas); the city of Jacksonville, FL was originally named St. Nicholas Ferry by the Spaniards! So what changed? Sadly, the Protestant Reformation is what changed. Protestants have a different understanding of the communion of saints than what Catholics and the Orthodox believe; in most Protestant faith traditions, feast days of saints were perceived to be something superstitious and from Rome, so they were usually rejected. Thus, since the United States was founded mostly by Protestants, our nation didn't grow up with a history of St. Nicholas visiting children on December 6.

However, in the early 1800s a nostalgia & curiosity grew in New York for "the old days" when the Mid-Atlantic was a Dutch colony. Rediscovering the history of the area, many people longed for books and paintings that had to do with Dutch culture and traditions (like St. Nicholas, or as the Dutch called him, Sinterklaas). Authors like Washington Irving created stories involving a new version of St. Nicholas that didn't really resemble the bishop from Turkey at all; this is where the legend originated of St. Nicholas coming down the chimney. On December 6, 1810, an artist was commissioned to create the first American drawing of St. Nicholas, and the saint was drawn putting presents into children's stockings hung by the fireplace.

In 1821, a book was released in America that told of "Sante Claus" who arrived from the north on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. In 1823, the modern conception of Santa was further developed with the release of the poem T'was the Night Before Christmas. Throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the modern era, Santa would be portrayed in magazines and newspapers as a fat man with a long, white beard, red suit, clay pipe, and large sack of toys for children. He lived at the North Pole and came in a big red sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (nine, if you count Rudolph). Although Christmas was a holiday in the Catholic & Orthodox world, most American Protestants - influenced by the English Puritans - didn't celebrate it until the 1850s (more about this in a future posting). However, as the holiday took on more and more secular tones (and less Catholic ones), many Americans started to warm up to the idea of celebrating Christmas. Today it is very common to see this secularized version of Christmas, created in the United States, celebrated throughout the world...and the most familiar "icon" of the entire holiday is jolly ol' St. Nick - Santa Claus.

For more information on the real St. Nicholas, please consider checking out the St. Nicholas Center, which has a large collection of biographical and historical information on St. Nick and the various traditions and celebrations connected with this patron saint of children, sailors, prisoners (and those wrongly condemned), and of women hoping for marriage. St. Nicholas, pray for us!