For the holiday season this year, the Acton Institute has a very special window display facing Veteran’s Park and Fulton Street in downtown Grand Rapids. The window display, “Wise men still seek Him” features a rare nativity set, Cathedral glass-inspired paint, and more. Acton’s president and co-founder, Rev. Robert Sirico, inspired the work, wanting to create a proper display for his personal precepio (extended nativity scene).
It’s said that in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi invented the first nativity scene, bringing together a living reenactment of the birth of Christ. Since then, these simple or ornate sets have graced the homes of many families throughout the world in all lands. (more…)
Indeed, by entering the Earth in human form, nay, in infant human form, born to the house of a carpenter, Jesus provides a striking example of the order of Christian service — of the truth and the life, yes, but also of the way. (more…)
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.
The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”
Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.
It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.
Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.
What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.
The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),
I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.
“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”
(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)
The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.
Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.
Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.
There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.
As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.
Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”
Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.
On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:
The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:
The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.
From the Holy Land, sung in Arabic. Merry Christmas to all PowerBlog readers and our blogging crew!
St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:4-7
Brethren, when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir of God through Christ.
By Cassia the nun, from the Great Vespers for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ
When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.
In his essay, “Intellectuals and Socialism,” Friedrich Hayek asked how it was possible for a small group of people to have such influence on the ideas and politics that affected millions. He argued that it was because the socialists influenced the “influencers”–those “secondhand dealers in ideas” like the press, educators, and editors, who spread socialist thought into the mainstream.
A parallel can be seen in the cultural battles over religious symbols during the Christmas … I mean, the holiday season. One would think from media coverage that there exists an overwhelming consensus that religious symbols have no place on public property. But the reality is quite different. There may be a clear consensus among the secular intelligentsia, but it doesn’t hold for most Americans.
A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans are perfectly happy with displays of religious symbols and believe it is fine for schools to celebrate religious holidays.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 76% of adults believe religious symbols like Christmas Nativity scenes, Hanukkah menorahs and Muslim crescents should be allowed on public land. Just 13% disagree, and another 10% are undecided.
Eighty-three percent (83%) believe public schools should celebrate religious holidays. This figure includes 47% who think the schools should celebrate all religious holidays and another 36% who believe they should only celebrate some. The question did not single out which holidays should be celebrated and which should be excluded.
Only 14% think the public schools should not celebrate any religious holidays.
Additionally–news for retailers: “Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 72% of adults prefer “Merry Christmas,” while 22% like “Happy Holidays” instead.”
So why the widespread sense that Christmas is the holiday that must not be named? It’s another example of a small minority of Scrooge-like secularists spreading their gloom to the rest of us in the guise of enlightened tolerance, a secular Uniculturalism that strips America of our traditions and vitiates the human experience.