Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Symbols

In postings I wrote last year, we covered how Christmas is not the pagan festival of the birth of the unconquered sun; we also covered how the original "war on Christmas" was fought by the Puritans of England and continues on through fundamentalists in the United States. This year I thought I'd tackle some of the Christmas symbols that we know and love.

While it is true that some of the symbolism we hold dear might have pagan origins, this does not change the fact that we have fully Christianized them, "re-baptizing" them into things that point the way to Christ. Prior to his Incarnation, everything outside of the Jewish faith was pagan - it would be insane to stop using nearly everything because at one time prior to our knowledge of Christ we used certain foods or practiced certain customs. When we "test all things" in order to find the truth contained therein, then we can take a deep breath and say, "This is a tool (or event) that leads us to Christ." And, as St. Paul said, once we test something, "hold fast what is good." So, for Catholics the symbolism we love at Christmas isn't a continuation of pagan holidays, but re-baptized symbols that point the way to Christ.

Christmas Trees

It is true that many pagans worshiped trees - there are many today who do just that, whether they realize it or not. But this (mainly Germanic) tradition of tree worship took a significant change in direction in the 700s when St. Boniface chopped down Germany's "holiest" tree, the Oak of Thor. A small fir tree was starting to grow out of its base and St. Boniface said, "This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your comfort and your guide."

By the Middle Ages, Christmas plays would be held on Christmas Eve, which in those days was marked on the liturgical calendar as the feast day of Saints Adam and Eve. A tree would be used in the play, called a Paradise Tree and often decorated with apples, and this symbolized the tree in paradise of whose fruit we ate; it also doubled as the Tree of Life, of whose fruit we are promised to eat at the end of time. Much like how we have Advent wreaths and nativity sets in our homes, people desired to have this tree brought into their homes, as well. By the 15th Century, having a Paradise tree in your home was a common practice in certain parts of Europe. In the 1500s, Christmas trees were being decorated with candles to symbolize the light of Christ, and by the 1800s this custom was firmly established throughout France, Germany, and Austria. Needless to say, it spread throughout the world and symbolizes all the trees of our spiritual heritage: "the original Tree of Paradise, the burning bush which spoke to Moses, the branch of Jesse from which Jesus was born, the life-giving tree of the cross of Christ, and the tree which St. John the Apostle saw in the Book of Revelations whose leaves have medicine for the people and which yields fruit each month for the healing of the nations."

We also see in Christmas trees, often taken from evergreens (pine, fir, etc.), a symbolism that reminds us to stay steadfast in the faith; since evergreens withstand the harshness of the winter, they persevere, as we should persevere in our faith. There is also the thought that Christmas trees can remind us of Christ's death and resurrection (the tree is chopped down, but then rises again in our homes).

We will see this "hardy steadfastness" of the various plant life we use at Christmas as a common theme.

Other Christmas Plants and Flowers

Laurel is sometimes used in Christmas wreaths. The plant was once used in Roman times to symbolize victory and the plant began to symbolize Christ's victory over death. A wreath of laurel was a Roman symbol of victory and, like the plant, wreaths began to be used at Christmas to symbolize Christ's victory over death. Not having a beginning nor end, wreaths symbolize God's reign, as well as everlasting life. Ivy, since it grows by clinging onto other things, became a symbol at Christmas that represents our reliance on God, that we must cling to him. Holly (the green leaves with their red berries) became a symbol of the burning bush, as well as Christ's crown of thorns. Poinsettias are actually a Christmas tradition from the New World; the shape of the flower is supposed to represent the star of Bethlehem, and the red color is supposed to represent the blood of Christ (white flowers represent his purity).

The Yule Log

The Danish ruled over England in the 11th Century and they left behind some of their words and traditions, like a word they used for Christmas: Yule. By the 13th Century, it was in the common vernacular in England and Scotland to refer to Christmas as Yuletide. For Anglicans and Catholics, this seems familiar to us because we use similar words, such as Christmastide, Eastertide, Embertide, Passiontide, Whitsun tide, and so on. There is always the charge that the Yule log and the word yule is associated with Scandinavian paganism, but the leading British historian on paganism, Ronald Hutton, said, "Nothing certain, however, is known, and there is equal doubt over whether it was originally attached to a midwinter festival which preceded the Christian one," so they don't know for sure; I guess it depends on your bias. At any rate, the yule log is a large log intended to burn for the twelve days of Christmas (from Christmas till Epiphany).

Kris Kringle

The other day I was wondering how Santa Claus got the moniker "Kris Kringle". As it turns out, it was another Americanization of the traditions of other lands. St. Nicholas, as we discussed last year, was a real person - a bishop from the 300s. Devotion to St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and he became known to the Dutch as Sinterklaas; we Americanized the pronunciation to be Santa Claus. Well, Kris Kringle is sort of the same thing. In many Catholic areas (like Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary, France, and Upper-Silesia in Poland), Christmas gifts are brought by the Christ Child. This figure was adopted because Catholic nations were feeling uncomfortable about the secularization of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. Called 'Christkindl' by the Dutch, the Americanized version of the name became 'Kris Kringle' - in America, the name became an alias of Santa Claus and by modern times, and in Europe the figure 'Christkindl' is no longer the Christ Child, but is now played by a woman dressed up like a queen, so sadly their attempts to fight the secularization of Christmas symbols has been a failure.

The Creche, or Nativity Scene

St. Francis of Assisi (b. 1181, d. 1226) started the first nativity scene. By the time of St. Francis, Islam had spread over a large portion of the world, including areas that were at one time Christian. As part of devotion or penance, many Christians traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimages, but the Muslims were often robbing or killing pilgrims. Eventually, the Holy Land would become off-limits to Christians; St. Francis' solution was to bring the Holy Land to Europe! For Christmas he assembled the manger scene, allowing Christians to pray in devotion to the place of Christ's birth without making the harsh and dangerous journey to Bethlehem. (In a similar way, the Stations of the Cross, which we pray during Lent, is also a Franciscan devotion he created for the same reason).

These are just some of the symbols we've come to embrace at Christmastime. Regardless of their origin, they've become symbols of our faith and remind us at every glance that our Lord is with us and he is victorious. As the evergreens and holly survive the harsh winters of the north, we are called to survive this harsh winter on earth until the Lord, victorious over death and the devil, will reign in power and glory forever and ever. Amen!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Adeste Fideles

Christmas Eve Service of Holy Eucharist at Westminster Abbey, broadcast live on BBC One, 24th of December 2013.

This leaves me awestruck. Full screen, full volume, and just absorb it all. Exquisite beauty that of which I've never experienced before. I must go there...



Friday, December 19, 2014

Stopping a War for Christmas

My older brother is very interested in World War II, as am I to a point, but over the past few years I've started to get really interested in the stories surrounding World War I instead. In my opinion, WWI is the war where the "old world" was exterminated. Kings fell, empires broke apart, and new nations were born. Nationalism, compounded by a family spat (the royalty of England, Germany, and Russia were all related) became one of the most devastating wars in modern history: 52% of the Allied Forces were killed or injured, as was 67% of the military of the Central Powers; and let's not forget the damage done to the countryside, the historic towns and cities of Western Europe, and the poor citizens that quite often have to bear most of the burden of these conflicts. In all, it is estimated that more than 35 million people, military and civilian, were killed or wounded in World War 1.

So, in the wreck of this carnage we have the story of Christmas 1914. Trenches were dug throughout great areas of Western Europe; there are patches of forest that are still off limits due to the amount of unexploded mines and bombs that still exist, and there are many areas in France, Belgium, and Germany that still bear the great craters and trenches of this war. The area in between the trenches was known as "No Man's Land". This is where death could be found. Trees, if left in the ground at all, were devoid of their branches, having them ripped off from the machine gun fire and bombs between enemy combatants.

At the time of this conflict, many Western Europeans were very religious - Protestant or Catholic, the Christian faith was still alive at this time. Pope St. Pius X and Pope Benedict XV both worked hard at promoting peace and begging Europe for dialog instead of warfare. The common story is that St. Pius, who died at the onset of World War I and already weakened from advanced age, died from the heartache over seeing Europe plunged into war. In 1914, his successor (Benedict XV) tried desperately to convince the European powers to broker a peace deal. Not finding anyone interested in peace, on December 7 he asked the European powers to consider at least a ceasefire for Christmas. Russia rejected the plan, so everyone rejected the plan.

As is often the case, the people don't want war as much as the various idiots in power do. Acting on God's grace, the soldiers themselves decided to engage upon a temporary truce for Christmas. An English soldier writing of the incident said that it was unauthorized, but most welcome; "the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable!" He said it all began just after midnight, Christmas, when the German soldiers started shouting across No Man's Land, "Merry Christmas, Englishmen!" The English shouted Christmas wishes back to them and then a miracle occurred - soldiers from both sides, unarmed, left their trenches and met together in No Man's Land, swapping cigarettes and stories in the light of a half moon. They all agreed that not a shot would be fired until midnight that night. A member of the Foreign Legion said, "Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where in days before there had been only rifle barrels."

A Christian work of mercy is the burying of the dead; men from both sides knew it was the right thing to do. Germans and Legionaries met to bury the dead and breathe a sigh of relief. Handshakes, laughter, and brotherhood abounded. Allies posed for pictures taken by Germans, who promised to send them copies after the war. After the dead were buried, the men lingered in No Man's Land, talking and playing cards. The men of both sides agreed that war was foolish, and that everyone had wives and children at home that they missed terribly and wished to see again. For the rest of the day, they spent the time reminiscing about home, sharing stories, and enjoying the peace and quiet of the day.

As the sun went down, soldiers returned to their trenches, but a band had been invited to the German trench, where they started playing French music, sending the French soldiers into wild cheers. Then the band started playing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Afterwards, one of the cooks with the Legion took out his harmonica and played a popular German song for the Germans to enjoy. Peace and joy remained with all the soldiers for the rest of the night and even until sunrise the next day.

The day in which we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace ushered in a day of peace that has been unparalleled in modern war. Especially in today's secular and pluralistic world, where less and less people know the Man who is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", I cannot imagine a similar truce occurring. Would we really stop killing each other and embrace in friendship and brotherhood for a secular version of the holiday that celebrates presents, winter, and ugly sweaters? But, when the Western world knew that the only way to God was through Jesus Christ and that Christmas was the day to praise God for his Incarnation...that is worth dropping your weapon and embracing your enemy. After all, Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of the Saviour who told us that we are to love our enemies and pray for them. For one brief Christmas Day in 1914, Christians from all walks of life and various faith traditions were able to follow that commandment to a 'T'.

Updated Reading List

Monday: A History of the American Episcopal Church (1935 edition)
Tuesday: The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer
Wednesday: Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History
Thursday: Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict
Friday: Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
Weekends: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

My "bathroom book": The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to "End Times" Fever

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our Lady of Czestochowa

The most famous icon in Poland is Our Lady of Czestochowa, which became known throughout the world after Polish-born Pope St. John Paul II visited it four times during his pontificate. Kept at the Pauline monastery at Jasna Gora, founded in 1382 in Czestochowa, millions of visitors from around the world pay a visit to her every year. This “Queen of Poland” became a symbol of the Polish people, often persecuted by their invaders and conquerors. Lech Walesa, face of the famous Polish labor union Solidarity, always appeared in public with a small lapel pin of “the Black Madonna”, seeking her intercession as he fought for freedom in Communist Poland. This storied icon has a fascinating past, caught in the middle of Poland's challenging history, and to this day remains a symbol of this proud nation.

Modern-day experts disagree on exactly how old the icon is, although most agree that it originated sometime in the ninth or tenth century. Popular devotion insists that the icon is much older than that, dating back instead to the time of Jesus. The most famous legend surrounding its origin is that St. Luke, author of the Gospel that shares his name, painted the icon upon planks taken from the table top used by the Holy Family. According to the oldest manuscript, the Translatio Tabulae written in 1474, the icon made its way from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fourth century by the efforts of St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine. The icon was found to possess miraculous effects when, during a Muslim attack upon Constantinople, the icon was hung on one of the walls of the city; the attackers were then routed by the city’s defenders.

In the ninth century the icon would eventually find itself in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great – Charlemagne – and he would retain ownership of the icon until it was passed on to Prince Leo of Ruthenia, who would possess it until the eleventh century, when it was given to Prince Lev of Galicia, where it would remain in a fortress in Belz until the fourteenth century. The Tartars invaded and attacked the fortress; with arrows raining down upon the fortress, the icon was hit in the face and throat. Finding the damaged icon, Ladislaus of Opole took it from the fortress in an attempt to save it from future destruction, bringing the icon to Poland in 1384. Staying in the town of Czestochowa, Ladislaus felt guided to leave the icon there upon a hill named Jasna Gora, inviting the Hungarian Order of St. Paul the First Hermit (the Paulines) to Poland to take care of the icon. A monastery and fortress were built on Jasna Gora and the Paulines have been entrusted with the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa ever since.

In 1430, Hussite raiders attacked the monastery with viciousness, hoping to rob it of the riches they believed were offered as gifts of devotion to Our Lady. Not finding any riches, the raiders killed several monks, ornaments and votives attached directly to the icon were broken off and stolen, and Our Lady's face was slashed several times with a sword. Upon leaving the monastery, they took the icon, broke it into several pieces, and threw it on the ground in front of the chapel. Horrified by this blasphemous act, Greek icon writers from Rus were brought in to restore her. They fixed the wood together, repainted the icon, and adorned it with gold and silver before returning it to the monastery. She was restored several more times since the fifteenth century in order to remove the dirt and oil, soot, flaking paint, and damage done through climate changes, touching, and even tremors.

Scientists are still fascinated with the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, taking x-rays of her in order to learn more about her. They have found that the linden wood of the icon was older than the icon itself, and their x-rays have located several of the original holes in the icon that were used for holding votive candles. The encaustic technique was used on the original icon, which means that colored pigments were added to heated beeswax in order to create the icon6. When the icon was put back together after its destruction, the iconographers created an icon using multi-layers of tempera paints on a chalk primer, which was applied on a canvas pasted to the original boards of linden wood; however, the original damage done by the arrows and swords remain on the surface of the wood, so they were transferred to the new icon, as well.

The broken icon is held together with a Gothic-style frame that is “painted in vermillion with ornaments of stylized acanthus leaves entwined around a gnarled staff”. On special occasions the icon will be displayed covered in silver and gold-plated engraved sheet metal, which depict scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Scourging at the pillar, and the Crowning with thorns. In the icon Mary's mantle and dress are blue, a color that is often associated with Our Lady, and they covered in lilies – fleur de lis – which are symbolic for Mary, purity, virginity. Above Mary's head on her mantle is a six-point star, which is also a traditional symbol for Mary - Stella Maris - as well as King David. Jesus and Mary, both with halos, also have skin that’s darkened and discolored due age, people touching the icon, and soot from burning candles and votives.

For many Western Christians, especially non-Catholics, the use of icons is something that is unknown or perhaps misunderstood. Whereas the predominant devotional tool used in the Catholic West is statues, for Eastern Christians it has been the icon. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea in 787 AD, reaffirmed the veneration of icons in prayer and their use in the liturgy. St. John of Damascus (b. 676 AD, d. 749 AD), staunch defender for the veneration of icons, wrote in his Apologies that devotion to images is really devotion to the persons depicted, which traces itself ultimately to devotion to Christ.

When we contemplate the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, we meditate upon what the icon is trying to tell us. The imagery of this icon is known as ‘hodegetria’, Greek for “she who shows the way”; it is an iconographic depiction of Mary holding Jesus. The Virgin Mary is depicted holding Christ in her left arm, forming a throne for him, and pointing to him with her right hand, always leading us ultimately to her Son. Our Lady gazes at us; the Child Jesus, holding the Gospels and giving us a blessing, has his head turned towards Our Mother, but his eyes turned towards us, inviting us to him. We see the New Adam and New Eve beckoning us, drawing us closer, where Christ blesses us, he who reveals himself to us in the Scriptures. The physical characteristics of the icon also speak to us: the sword slashes on Our Lady's face are seen as a sharing in the suffering of her Son; their darkened faces are seen as the effects of being wounded by our sins.

Our Lady of Czestochowa is intertwined with Polish history. In 1655, the Swedish Lutheran Army invaded Poland in order to “save” it from the Catholic religion. The Swedes, working with the cooperation of many Polish princes eager to obtain larger fiefdoms, much of Poland fell to the invading army – until they reached the monastery at Jasna Gora; barely 300 defenders repelled multiple attacks by 3,000 invaders, and after 40 days of failed assaults, the invaders retreated. Many attribute the monastery’s miraculous defense and the repulsion of the Swedish invaders from Poland to Our Lady’s intercession.

In 1920, Russia amassed a large army on the Vistula River, planning an invasion of Warsaw. On September 15, on the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows, an image of Our Lady appeared in the clouds above Warsaw. Worried that this was proof that Warsaw would be protected by Our Lady’s intercession, the Russians withdrew their troops. Our Lady of Czestochowa has been credited with this ‘Miracle of the Vistula’. She has also been credited with saving the city of Czestochowa from plague and pestilence; “the original accounts of these cures and miracles are preserved in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora”.

As Poland continued to struggle under invasions and being partitioned, it was their firm Catholic faith that kept them going, leading them to believe that they would be free from oppression one day. Jasna Gora became the spiritual capital of Poland and Our Lady was declared the Queen of the Polish Crown in 1656. The Second Vatican Council gave a new term to Our Lady – Mother of the Church – and Poland’s own St. John Paul II would routinely refer to her as such. Mary has had such a pivotal place in Polish history, most notably in the devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa, that it is hard to find a Pole who doesn’t know and love this icon. The symbolism of the icon, with its call for us to come to Christ through his mother and through the Scriptures, reaches into the heart of all mankind. Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Mother of the Church, please pray for us.

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References:

Catholic Encyclopedia. (1910). The Second Council of Nicaea. Retrieved from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11045a.htm

Duricy, M. (2013). Black Madonnas: Our Lady of Czestochowa. Retrieved from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/olczest.html

Lorene, G. (1989). American Czestochowa. (Doylestown, PA: Polstar Publishing Corp. 1989).

Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary. (2006). Miraculous Icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Retrieved from http://www.piercedhearts.org/treasures/shrines/czestochowa.htm

Simmons, S. (2002). Star of David. Retrieved from http://www.aish.com/jl/sp/k/48942436.html

Trinity Iconography Institute. (2011). Virgin Hodegetria; The Wayshower. Retrieved from http://www.trinityiconographers.org/five-specific-icons/virgin-hodegetria-the-wayshower/

Walsh, B. (n.d.). The Black Madonna of Poland – Our Lady of Czestochowa and Jasna Gora. Retrieved from http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/blackma.htm

West, P. (2013). History of the Black Madonna. Retrieved from http://www.hli.org/2013/08/history-black-madonna/

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Christmas Favorites

It's the second week of Advent and Christmas will be here before you know it! So, I've dragged out all those great DVDs that I've been collecting over the past few years:

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Frosty the Snowman
A Garfield Christmas
Claymation Christmas Celebration
Mickey's Christmas Carol
Pluto's Christmas Tree
Elf
A Christmas Story
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Laurel & Hardy in March of the Wooden Soldiers
Miracle on 34th Street (the original)
It's a Wonderful Life
A Christmas Carol (with Patrick Stewart)
The Honeymooners Christmas Party

Thanks to the internet and Netflix, I can also enjoy some movies and shows that I don't own just yet, such as:
Ernest Saves Christmas
A Muppet Family Christmas

Here's to getting into the Christmas spirit!