The month that leads to the holiday of Christmas has become the most beloved period of the year in the west. It is a time of socializing, holiday-themed entertainment, and feasting.
In fact, the period has become so intense that many become quite weary of it by the time the actual day of Christ’s birth arrives. Some people reach December 25 feeling stressed out by holiday activities, annoyed by the monotony of holiday music, and bloated by weeks of excessive eating. On December 26, the ultimate symbol of Christmas festivity, the Christmas tree, is tossed into the garbage and life returns to its normal, non-festal mode.
This is not how Christmas was celebrated historically. The weeks leading to the holiday were kept as a period of penitential abstinence and expectation, of waiting. And this meant fasting. This practice, largely ignored by most of modern Christendom, was the means toward the fullest and most joyful celebration of Christ’s birth. The adage even arose that in order to feast, one must learn first how to fast. Continue reading
In a recent post on his excellent blog, Joel Miller confronted the scandal many make in our contemporary culture about the historical veracity of images and accounts of Jesus’s birth. An Orthodox Christian, Joel has much to say about western Christianity from an eastern Christian point of view. That goes for his most recent piece, which responds to an Atlantic magazine article (“Your Christmas Nativity Scene is a Lie,” December 13, 2015) “exposing” the historical inaccuracies of nativity scenes throughout America during the holiday season.
The author of the Atlantic article “reveals” to his large audience that the depiction of an ox and an ass in many such scenes is not supported by the “evidence” of the Gospel accounts, but, as Joel Miller notes, totally misses the very scriptural foundation (Is. 1:3) for these animals regarding the Messiah whom so many rejected. The point is, an icon is not a photo snapshot. It is a revelation or proclamation of a reality that includes but goes beyond the immediately visible. “It’s curious,” Joel observes, “that people who at times snicker at wooden literalism become so woodenly literal.”
Indeed. Continue reading
If the Puritans proved themselves the enemies of Christmas (see my previous post on that), they did so in part because their particular form of theology had been severed from the roots of ancient Christianity. As ironic as it is, the Protestant Reformation that inspired them cut a large part of modern Christendom off from the faith of the early Church.
The reformers, of course, believed they were restoring that faith. They looked at contemporary (sixteenth-century) Roman Catholicism and concluded it had deviated dangerously from it. Doctrines like sola scriptura (the authority of “scripture alone”) were devised by Luther and other Protestant fathers to correct these deviations. This is all well known to any college undergraduate who has been through a course in western civilization.
What is not taught in most American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian) colleges, however, is how far Roman Catholicism itself had departed from what was for eastern Christians the standards or norms of the ancient faith. Continue reading
Recently the internet was humming with commentary about a challenge issued to Starbucks to honor the celebration of Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, an Evangelical Protestant Christian, posted a video in which he decries the coffee giant for what he considers its “war on Christmas,” evidenced in the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of the holiday on its seasonal red cups. (I myself do not find the challenge very compelling, not due to any lack of sympathy for Mr. Feuerstein or allegiance to Starbucks, but to the fact that when I stand in the store waiting for my coffee I observe that the cup in question is framed by shelves loaded with a seasonal roast called “Christmas Blend”).
In any case, it is hard to believe that the holiday could really disappear from American culture any time soon. If nothing else, it is far too great a cultural institution. It is rooted too deeply in what modern Americans value. It enhances, for instance, domestic life. Christmas is an opportunity for family togetherness, cozy times by the fireplace sipping hot drinks, listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, enjoying the blinking of holiday lights, and opening presents. And all of these domestic pleasures are of course mediated by our consumer economy, which shifts into overdrive the day after Thanksgiving to produce, market, and distribute an immeasurable amount of holiday stuff.
However, these twin themes of contemporary Christmas–domesticity and consumerism–were not always a part of its celebration. I will write later about its significance in ancient times. Here I would like to reflect on its more recent history during the past couple of centuries. It is a history that will be unexpected for some Christians who have responded positively to the censure of Starbucks. Continue reading
It has begun. In fact, it has been going on for a couple of weeks now, since the celebration of Black Friday. The world around us is celebrating Christmas. Malls are ringing with carols. Restaurants are humming with patrons. Offices are cheerful with festivity. That December 25 is still weeks away does not really matter. The world loves a party, and Christmas provides a month of opportunities. It is delightful, and there is no other season of the year like it.
The world is celebrating what in the course of two thousand years has become the central holiday of winter. (Even in Australia, where it is summer: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way; summer in Australia; on a scorching summer’s day”!). Yet as it does so, it impoverishes its very understanding of the world, or cosmology.
Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, a holy day (“holiday”) for Christendom since earliest times.
Nicholas was an early fourth-century bishop, a victim of pagan persecution, and a saintly defender of the poor and the afflicted.
The following is a traditional icon of him, still used in Orthodox Christian worship today (the scenes around the borders depict events from his life):
It is remarkable that his image was ultimately transformed in our post-Christian Christendom to look like this:
How did this happen? What historical changes occurred to change the fourth-century ascetic into a symbol of indulgent consumerism?
For those interested in finding out, I can recommend a website that lays it all out. It makes for very interesting reading, especially in the wake of the Black Friday rush for the malls!
In any event, finding a pair of images better suited to tell the history of the secularization of Christendom would be hard to find.
Image credits: Wikipedia and Multi-Lingual Living
Since my last post in the aftermath of the Parish shootings a new atrocity has been committed by Muslim radicals, and this time in America. The married couple who massacred fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, did so in the name of ISIS, at least according to this morning’s news. Regardless of their motivation (which may never be fully known), reports further reveal a “gleeful” response on the global internet in recent days by ISIS supporters, some of whom, once again, identify the victims of this attack (and who were doing nothing more threatening to Islam than attending a holiday party) as “crusaders.”
As I’ve said in earlier posts, there is no point in taking the ravings of fanatics too seriously. But the readiness of terrorist sympathizers to affiliate the San Bernardino victims with the crusades, those Christian wars against Muslims nearly a thousand years ago on the other side of the planet, reminds us of the need to keep our historical memory clear of errors.
So, let me say three things about the crusades that will clarify their significance for the identity of the west and Christendom generally.
- First, The crusades were fought during the course of only two centuries, from the First Crusade of 1096 to the fall of the last crusader outpost of Acre in 1291. This chronology alone demonstrates how secondary and even accidental they were to the character of Christian civilization, which had flourished for a millennium before they occurred. During those first thousand years wars were not waged by Christians in the name of their faith. The only possible exception–the one that “proves the rule”–was the defensive war against Persia fought during the seventh century by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius to push back a pagan aggressor and recover from it a sacred object for Christians, the True Cross (on which Jesus was reputed to have been crucified). And, of course, during the first three centuries of Christendom Christians altogether lacked the military and political resources to wage war. The crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, therefore, are not necessarily characteristic of Christian civilization, and as I will argue more directly in point three below are even an aberration within it.
- Second, the crusades were a re-conquest of lands earlier conquered by Muslim Arabs fighting a jihad, or religious war, against Christians. The lands that today make up much of the Arab world were once populated by Christians. This detail is often lost on modern evaluations of the wars. Those lands had “originally” been conquered by the pagan Roman Empire, and when that empire converted peacefully to Christianity beginning in the fourth century the populations there became Christian ones. Known to historians as Byzantium, the Christianized eastern Roman Empire of Constantine and his successors was the main target of the Muslims who, following Muhammad’s example of violent religious expansion, exploded out of Arabia during the seventh century and rapidly overran Christian Palestine (Jerusalem fell in 637), Christian Syria (Damascus fell in 634), and Christian Egypt (Alexandria fell in 642). Arab Muslim assaults on the citadel of Constantinople itself in 674 failed, saving Byzantium and the rest of eastern Christendom from Islamification. In 732, Frankish ruler Charles Martel defeated the invading Arabs at the Battle of Tours (located in modern day France), saving western Christendom from the same fate.
- Finally, the crusades were an aberration of traditional Christianity, which, as everyone knows, contains in its New Testament scriptures (again in dramatic contrast with the Muslim Koran) not only no calls to arms, but commandments to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek. This aberration is revealed historically by the fact that religious wars did not only not occur for the first thousand years of Christendom (unlike Islam, which launched religious wars from its inception), but that they never occurred in the history of eastern Christendom at all. Their occurrence in the west coincided almost directly with the event known as the Great Schism, which separated western Christendom from eastern Christendom. This event, occurring formally in 1054 (that is, only about one generation prior to the opening of the First Crusade), consolidated two distinct cultural units. Western Christendom was thereafter shaped by Roman Catholicism (at least until the Protestant Reformation shattered its unity five hundred years later) and eastern Christendom was shaped, as it always had been, by Orthodox Christianity. The Great Schism was an event of huge significance in understanding the history of Christendom and the formation of modern western civilization, though, strangely, it is usually ignored when making assessments of the place of the crusades in that history. And if people in the west ignore its significance, we should perhaps not be too surprised when the jihadists of our time do so as well!
The fact is, Orthodox Christendom has never supported the concept of holy warfare, or killing in the name of God. There have been plenty of atrocities and abominations committed by Orthodox Christians over the centuries. But the Orthodox Church has never formally launched a crusade. As a matter of fact, her faithful were more than once victims of them. (To learn about the Roman Catholic crusades against Orthodox Christians, readers can listen to my podcast episode here). Nor, it bears emphasizing, has she ever instituted an inquisition to persecute and punish heretics. Nor has she fought religious wars against schismatics such as occurred in the horrible “wars of religion” between Roman Catholics and Protestants for two centuries in western Christendom on the eve of the Enlightenment, and which contributed significantly to the loss of confidence in Christendom and the rise of a modern effort to secularize it.
But that is another story, to be discussed in another post.
Image credit: National Public Radio