Posts tagged with: christmas

Figures 015 Melchisedec King of Salem blesses AbramThe folks at RELEVANT magazine wonder, “What would happen if the church tithed?”

The piece explores in some depth the point that tithing is really about the radical call to Christian generosity, pointing to the biblical example of the Macedonian church: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)”

I was just reading from the Little House books last night to my son, and one of the chapters I read included the narrative of Laura’s missionary church in western Minnesota as the recipient of Christmas gifts from a church in the more established parts of eastern Minnesota:

There had never been such a Christmas as this. It was such a large, rich Christmas, the whole church full of Christmas. There were so many lamps, so many people, so much noise and laughter, and so many happinesses in it. Laura felt full and bursting, as if that whole big rich Christmas were inside her, and her mittens and her beautiful jewel-box with the wee gold cup-and-saucer and teapot, and her candy and her popcorn ball.

Giving can really mean the world to the recipient, and it is a significant spiritual exercise and discipline for the giver as well.

As to the RELEVANT question, Ron Sider offered his own answer in 2005, and the needs and possibilities identified have not substantially changed in the meantime:

If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.

As I’ve said before, seeing evangelism as something for “leftovers” isn’t quite right, but the point still stands that to whom much has been given, much is expected. And American Christians have certainly been given much.

In his latest Forbes column, Rev. Robert A. Sirico explains why despite the tragedy in Newton we can speak of joy during this Christmas season:

When we ask our bewildered why? – we are not looking for data points.  Even less should we offer glib responses in the face of this shattering loss – this modern-day slaughter of the innocents. We are, instead, seeking the meaning in the face of thismysterium iniquitatis.  The meaning we seek is not so much the significance of evil as the meaning, the value and the dignity of those young lives, of our lives – indeed of life itself.

And it is precisely here that the words of the Gaudete, have their effect – if we take the time to ponder what it means.

The ultimate response to the evil made manifest at Newtown, or at the shopping mall in Portland, or at Columbine, or in the abortuaries, or in the concentration camps, or anywhere that  evil holds sway over humanity at any time and in any place whether exposed or hidden going all the way back to the beginning of time – is the love made manifest precisely in the midst of so broken and dented a world where such things are conceivable.

The full text of his essay will also be published in today’s Acton News & Commentary. Subscribe to the free, weekly commentary and other Acton publications here.

In today’s culture, there is always an abundance of news stories about the “War on Christmas.” In my commentary this week, I address that concern and the lack of understanding of the deeper meaning of Christmas. Here’s a highlight:

Every December cultural warriors mourn the incessant attacks on Christmas and secularism’s rise in society. News headlines carry stories of modern day Herods banning nativity scenes, religious performances, and even the word “Christmas.” Just as a majority of young people profess they will have less prosperity and opportunity than their parents, many people now expect less out of Christmas. Continual bickering over holiday messaging in corporate advertising itself points to a shrinking and limited Christmas.

Yet these problems are signs on the way to important truths, if we have the eyes to see. Record spending and debt, whether in Washington or the home, allude to a society trying to fill an emptiness of the heart. Even our disappointment in poor leadership in America reminds us that we crave a true King and are expectant of a greater day.

In 2010, I penned a related essay “Why the Nativity?” That post delves even deeper into the theology of the incarnation and the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Christmas is a hard time for many people because expectations for joy and changes in their life are so high. In my own life, I count myself among those that have had a difficult time at Christmas because I’m so reflective and I realize life isn’t always how I want it.

There is a sign in front of the church that I attend that reads, “Jesus is all you want, if Jesus is all you have.” I find that the more I deeply ponder the incarnation of Christ, the more I am amazed and my heart is transformed.

I quoted Charles Wesley in my commentary in where he called Christ the “desire of every nation,” and “joy of every longing heart.” The hymn is of course, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” The words are beautiful and I’ve always loved Wesley’s hymns because they deal with the deepest hopes of the heart and he personalizes the person of Christ for all.

Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to ThePulp.it for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Saturday, December 25, 2010
By

L’Accorche-Choeur, Ensemble vocal Fribourg. Veni, Veni Emmanuel is a synthesis of the great “O Antiphons” that are used for Vespers during the octave before Christmas (Dec. 17-23). These antiphons are of ancient origin and date back to at least the ninth century.

Our Savior, the Dayspring from the East,
has visited us from on high,
and we who were in darkness and shadow
have found the truth;
for the Lord is born from the Virgin
(Exaposteilarion, tone 3)

The video features the Romeiko Ensemble, a Byzantine choir, performing hymns for the Feast of the Nativity in 2006 at the Hellenic Library in Athens, Greece. About those Byzantine brims:

The cantors (psaltes) wore wide-brimmed hats (skiadion) or tall “bullet” hats (skaranikon) and dressed in special cloaks (kamision and phelonion) girded with a belt (sfiktourion). This cantors’ costume tradition was lost after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 leaving the cantor dressed only with a black robe (rason) of the Eastern Church. However, for the first time since the Fall, Yorgos Bilalis has joined forces with costume designer Fatima Lavor-Peters to recreate these Byzantine vestments as they are described in several treatises or depicted on Byzantine frescoes and manuscript miniatures.

More on worship in the early Church here on the Liturgica.com site.

Blog author: jballor
Saturday, December 25, 2010
By

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 24, 2010
By

In his annual Christmas commentary, Rev. Robert A. Sirico examines the meaning of a season “prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.” A shorter version of this article was published on Dec. 21 in the Detroit News. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter Acton News & Commentary here.

The ‘Small’ God Who Brought Heaven Down to Earth

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

Some years ago I found myself at a fashionable dinner party in Los Angeles where the lamb was roasted to perfection, and the deep, rich red Australian wine complimented it to a tee. The conversation around the dinner table was likewise high-minded and it did not take this largely secular gathering very long to turn their attention to the Christian sitting in their midst. With all the graciousness and condescension she could muster, my dining companion turned to me and said, “I am not a believer, of course, but I have long admired your Church’s care for the poor and suffering and the generosity and effectiveness of your social agencies who tend to human needs without regard to the belief or non-belief of the recipient.”

Had she stopped there I would have humbly received her acknowledgement and we might have moved on to the dessert in the same spirit of conviviality we had begun. It was when she smiled, drew a breath and said, “Yet — ” that I knew all had not been said that needed saying from her perspective.

“Yet,” she continued, “how is it that Christianity, whose priests invented the scientific method, and who built the institutions of the hospital and university, can hold to the idea of such a small God?”

The pugnacious New Yorker in me wanted to reply to the effect that, “Well even a small God is bigger than no god.” But I knew that would not go down well, and that the issue was not about “size” after all, but about meaning and, ultimately, Truth.

Feeling something like I imagined Flannery O’Connor did when confronted with collapsed-Catholic Mary McCarthy’s observation about the Eucharist as a impressive symbol, O’Connor retorted, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”

Instead I swirled my shiraz and asked, “Whatever do you mean?”

She responded: “Well, all this stuff about God being born as a baby. This business about the ineffable inhabiting time and space. It just seems so small, so concrete, so … improbable.”

The lady had it right, or more precisely, she had it half right. The doctrine of the Incarnation is indeed a scandal, not to say improbable, to the modern mind that does not yet grasp the immensity of the concept or the enormity of its impact on all that would follow from it throughout history from that first Christmas to this one.

That the eternal God should deign to co-mingle in time and space with humanity does tell us something, not about the ‘smallness’ of God, but about the inestimable dignity of the human person who is created in the image of the Lord of History. Thus it tells us about the importance of human history to eternity; of the relation of the visible world to the invisible one; and of the way the mortal life we each live here and now determines our immortal destiny.

This season, which pulsates with nostalgia, memory, sadness as well as with a deep and abiding sense of profound joy and human meaning – and does it all at once – is a season prompted by the very Incarnation of God’s Love, a love that goes beyond words, but rather is a Word – the Logos – that became flesh.

It is for this very reason that the Christian faith which emerges from this proclamation about God’s entrance into the human condition, could build institutions and cultures aimed at concretely reverencing each and every human person from the very first moment of their existence in the womb, in all their vulnerability and potential, without regard to their ethnicity or some other accidental factor. It is the belief stipulated in that memorable passage from Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He has … set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

This idea can easily be dismissed by armchair sociologists and village atheists as the ranting of a Christian who presumes his message of the enfleshment of God to be true and therefore universally appealing.

But more than appealing it is compelling. As it was to my non-believing dinner companion who, in admiring the social consequences of institutional Christianity (from the university education she received that enabled her to articulate her critique in the first place, to the transforming of personal almsgiving into the massive worldwide network of social care and education, and even to the moral and justifiable denunciations against Christians for their failures to live up to the demands of the Gospel) she was in some inchoate way acknowledging the core idea of Christmas: that in the fullness of time, Heaven came down to earth to reveal man to himself and invite him to the simple, discrete yet world-changing concept of love.

Merry Christmas. And God bless us, everyone. Here’s hoping that all readers have enough to keep them warm and safe this holiday season and throughout the coming year. By all means, if you have more than enough, it might warm your soul to share with those less fortunate. My new Acton commentary:

Scrooge and the Ghosts of Charity

By Bruce Edward Walker

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Thus spoke the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, coincidentally the genesis of the greeting: “Merry Christmas.”

The novella has been in print since its publication nearly 170 years ago, and has inspired countless stage, television and cinematic adaptations. Its cultural significance often is cast reductively as “those who have should share with those who don’t.” While nearly all holiday broadcasts seem to support this assessment, a closer reading of Dickens’ actual text reveals something a bit more complex, including the negative impact government-allocated charity has on personal giving.

That Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful businessman in the story is indisputable. He and his partner, Jacob Marley, filled the respective voids in their lives with the pursuit of profits. The reader can’t be certain as to the reasons why Marley myopically dedicated his life to earning money, but we know he died a wealthy man who may or may not have been forced to pay for his skin-flinted, uncharitable ways by wandering the Earth after death bound in chains festooned with account books and money boxes. (Scrooge has a head cold and, perhaps, indigestion, and may or may not be dreaming/hallucinating the apparitions of Marley and the three subsequent phantoms.)

What the reader is told, however, are details of Scrooge’s – in modern parlance – dysfunctional past, and how it formed him into a lonely, cantankerous near-recluse who employs his wealth as a shield against the human interaction which has injured him in the past. For it isn’t the possession of money that makes Scrooge a miserable man, it is his lack of human connection. His disconnection from his family leads to his single-minded pursuit of income, which, in turn, leads to the breakup with his fiancée, further perpetuating his loneliness.

But money isn’t the means to the happiness that Scrooge witnesses fleetingly in his own past or in the present circumstances of his nephew, Fred, and his employee, Bob Cratchit. As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past survey events at Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the phantom observes that Fezziwig “has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” Scrooge responds that it wasn’t the spending of money that made his employer’s party so successful but that “his power lies in words and looks.”

And, from his fiancée: “You fear the world too much…. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

When Scrooge visits the present, he observes the cruel circumstances of an indifferent Earth, but also the power of humankind to transform it with optimism: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or town, and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.”

And Scrooge witnesses Fred defend his uncle from the uncharitable assessments of his wife and guests:

I am sorry for him: I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He doesn’t lose much of a dinner…. [T]he consequence of his taking a dislike to us and making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old office or his dusty chambers.

As the Spirit of Christmas Present prepares to leave, the ghost introduces Scrooge to the two waifs, Ignorance and Want, hiding in his coats. “Have they no refuge or resource?” asks Scrooge, to which the Spirit echoes Scrooge’s earlier interrogative to the men seeking a charitable donation from the businessman: “Are there no prisons? … Are there no workhouses?”

Readers for decades have interpreted this line as another indication of Scrooge’s selfishness and miserly ways. This interpretation isn’t helped by the numerous visual adaptations of Scrooge as willingly hoarding his money out of spite for the poor, disadvantaged and under-industrious. But what if Scrooge actually has a point – if one relies on government programs to help the poor, how can one be blamed for asserting “I gave at the office” rather than ponying up at the Salvation Army drum or the church collection basket, or buying a Christmas goose for the laid-off father of the family at the end of the block?

It’s easy to turn one’s attention from a community’s immediate needs if there is an assumption that one’s taxes are doing the job that might better be done through charitable contributions. Dickens acknowledges during Marley’s visitation:

“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

Eventually Ebenezer Scrooge awakens and reenters the world of humankind, a kinder, gentler individual who willingly gives of himself – and portions of his earnings – to benefit the families of his nephew and employee, and further donates to the charity whose solicitors he had chased from his office the day before.

Scrooge’s transformation is a personal epiphany—perhaps brought about by the supernatural, but personal nonetheless. His observations of the deprivation of his fellow man lead him to realize government’s limitations as a protector of the poor and needy. Government doesn’t lead Scrooge to adopt Christian principles of charitable giving, but it is government that absolves him of guilt for not initially meeting the responsibility of caring for his fellow man.

Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.