Archives For Christmas

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

Echoes of Christmas

December 29, 2015 — 9 Comments

Rosary Basilica LourdesI love greeting people with “Merry Christmas” after the day itself has passed.

Most people are surprised—probably thinking that I slept through the celebration. Many Christians, however, respond with their own best wishes, in recognition that the celebration of Jesus’ nativity marks the beginning of a season of wonder.

The celebration of the Incarnation miracle is far too wondrous to be confined to a single day.

People often ask “how was your Christmas?” By that, most are inquiring as to whether it was enjoyable.

It is a profound question, if one truly reflects upon it.

As a child, I must confess that the quality of my “Christmas” was probably determined to large extent by the presents I received. I don’t remember many of the particular gifts—these many years later—but I do recall the anticipation I felt as we awaited Christmas Day and the glorious unwrapping.

As a parish pastor my perceptions of a “good” Christmas were determined in large part by the number and enthusiasm of the individuals attending the season’s special worship services. (I am not proud, of course, to confess this.)

In later, semi-retired days, I gauge the joy of each Christmas by the time spent with family. To have all the kids and grandkids near is magnificent. To be able to connect with our “extended family” is icing on the cake.

Obviously, I’m not alone in measuring the quality of my “Christmas experience” by the presence of family.

At the close of the First World War, as C.S. Lewis had finished recuperating from his wounds, he longed to be able to return home to Ireland to celebrate with his father and brother. The Armistice had been signed a month earlier, but delays prevented his arrival by December 25th. Nevertheless, he did manage to arrive for the Christmas season, as Warnie recorded in his diary two days later.

A red letter day. We were sitting in the study about eleven o’clock this morning when we saw a cab coming up the avenue. It was Jack! He had been demobilized, thank God. Needless to say there were great doings. He is looking pretty fit . . . In the evening there was bubbly for dinner in honour of the event: the first time I have ever had champagne at home.

Family can be a wonderful thing, although there seem to be an increasing number of people in our day who are a scourge to their families. My heart goes out to those who have lost their loved ones, or who have never experienced familial love in the first place.

These holiday seasons—filled with laughter and champagne for most—can be a barren emotional wasteland for many.

It is good for us all to remember that fact, and remain vigilant to draw the lonely into the light of our family campfires.

The Deep Joy of Christmas

I have said that as a child, I relished the anticipation of my gifts. Later in life I have focused on other matters in assessing whether or not my Christmas has been an exceptional one.

The fact is that the foundation for all of my happiness comes from an awareness of Christmas’ true meaning.

In a word, Emmanuel. God with us.

For me and my family, it simply would not be Christmas if we were not able to gather with our sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Jesus’ birth. That said, for believers in some Islamic and Buddhist nations where Christians are not free, the miracle of Christmas rings no less true.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, and the constancy of Christ’s grace are such an indivisible part of my life, that I often take them for granted. And so it is during Christmas.

The gift-giving and family can occupy the forefront of my thoughts. However, it is only because of the life-giving sacrifice of that innocent Child that events in this life possess the potential to have eternal significance.

Jesus came in humility. He came to serve. He came to suffer. He came to offer his own pure life to redeem our imperfect and corrupt lives.

That’s what Christmas is about, and that is why it is too wondrous for its celebration to be relegated to one brief day.

Religious Kitsch

October 13, 2015 — 7 Comments

socksAre souvenir socks a good way of celebrating one of the move pivotal points in human history? That’s right, stockings. Socks emblazoned with one of the most famous statements of Christian faith made during the past millennium.

Hier stehe ich!” “Here I stand” (on the clear message of God’s word). This was Martin Luther’s steadfast defense where his salvation on the teaching that we are saved by God’s grace and mercy, not by our own efforts.

Ich kann nicht anders.” I can do no other, Luther continued. He invited his adversaries to correct him if they could show him in error, according to the Scriptures.

We are beginning a season when many people are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. Some of the commemorations are quite noteworthy. Others . . . less so.

On the positive side, I rank near the top The Wittenberg Project, the restoration of the Old Latin School in the city where Luther preached the Gospel.

Near the other extreme, I have to place the “Here I Stand” socks. While I briefly considered purchasing a pair for one of my sons, my admittedly plebian sense of fashion saved me from doing so. (If you, on the other hand, find them tasteful or suitable for an acquaintance, you’ll find a link to the footwear below.)*

In his essay, “What Christmas Means to Me,” C.S. Lewis describes this sort of product. In his description of the “commercial racket” associated with the season, he writes:

I condemn it on the following grounds. . . . Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself – gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before.

Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

I understand that one person’s “rubbish,” though, can be another’s treasure. Still, as Edward Veith writes in The State of the Arts:

The problem with religious kitsch is that its cuteness and self-gratifying nature can domesticate and thereby distort Biblical faith. Christianity is not a sickly, sweet religion . . . The anemic figurines of Jesus Christ are poor testimony to His deity and His lordship.

Viewing It All in (a Humorous) Perspective

sockeWhile surfing the net researching this peculiar item, I encountered an entertaining website where we see how the Catholic—Reformer struggle lives on today.

A Roman Catholic website comments on the same sort of socks—tastefully offered in the original German. The author of The Ironic Catholic writes:

With all due apologies to my Lutheran brothers and sisters: while this catapults you into a real race with the Catholics for kitsch, we will crush you like grapes in this arena.

It’s all good-natured, of course. I haven’t bothered to research Catholic variations on the footings quotations front, but I imagine they are equally pithy.

I did, however, find one prolific Roman Catholic author whose following statement might be just as suitable for a hat as for stockings.

“It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside-down.” (G.K. Chesterton)

_____

* You can order your own pair of “Here I Stand” socks here.

** The Ironic Catholic post is here.

Similes & Metaphors

December 16, 2014 — 10 Comments

agdeiSimiles are wonderful literary tools. Being able to compare two dissimilar things in a way that brings out subtle nuances and insights is quite enjoyable.

Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. (I don’t pretend others haven’t written these things, but I didn’t plagiarize them.).

A politician is like a weathervane.

Arguing theology is like having indigestion.

Disliking Narnia is like hating a feast.

Metaphors, of course, are far more powerful than similes. When we consider a metaphor we are pondering how two different things actually share some fundamental quality.

Comprehending metaphors requires the ability to think abstractly. A child—confined to a world of concrete concepts—cannot begin to think of their nation as a “motherland” or “fatherland,” as the case may be. Yet, those are powerful nurturing and bonding words that countless patriots have embraced throughout the centuries.

A simile might say “our country is like a family.” A metaphor suggests far more. In this case, it might convey that one’s allegiance to their nation should exceed their loyalty to their biological kin.

Nowhere is the magnificence of metaphors more manifest than in the way we talk about God. One of the most famous biblical passages is a straight forward example. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Jesus the Christ said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He also called himself the “Light of the world. Whoever follows me,” he added, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

It is a sad thing when a symbol loses its meaning. There is a prime example of that phenomenon in Oxford. And you can see it in the sign that hangs above a pub frequented by the Inklings.

No, not the Eagle and Child, which they affectionately referred to as the Bird and Baby.

After renovations to the Eagle and Child eliminated their privacy, the writers transitioned across the street to the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs trace their history back to the seventeenth century, and the latter is actually owned by St. John’s College. (It’s profits fund student scholarships.) In a 1963 letter, Lewis colorfully described the move thusly:

Mon 11 March it is. But note that our causeries de lundi are now permanently transferred to the Lamb & Flag. We were sorry to break with tradition, but the B & B had become too intolerably cold, dark, noisy, and child-pestered.

Sadly, when many people look at the Lamb on the pub’s sign, they fail to recognize it’s significance. The lamb carrying a cross-emblazoned banner is nothing other than the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

What, some may wonder, is the Lamb of God? The better question is “who” is the lamb. The symbol represents Jesus Christ himself. It hearkens to the declaration of John the Baptizer as Jesus approached the Jordan: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

To understand what it means to say “Jesus is the Lamb,” requires two things. First, a recognition that it is more than a simile; it is not simply that he possesses some of the attributes we would naturally associate with a lamb, such as gentleness. The second requisite is that we understand something about the Jewish sacrificial system.

For, Jesus being the Lamb of God means nothing less than that he is the true, complete, ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

And that is a wonder definitely worth pondering during this Christmas season.

It’s Still Christmas

December 29, 2012 — 10 Comments

nativity iconMerry Christmas!

One of the sad things about living in a secular nation is that people understand very little about the real meaning of Christmas. For example, many people take their trees down on 26 December, mistakenly thinking Christmas is “over.” In reality, the Christian celebration of the Nativity of Jesus only begins on Christmas Day!

The commercial world celebrates the season of Advent and deceptively calls it “Christmas.” These weeks, which should mark a spiritual preparation akin to Lent, are instead transformed into a frantic race to accumulate the perfect gifts to show others just how much we value each of them. And, since we love our family and close friends, there is a constant temptation to be far more extravagant in our gift giving than we can afford.

Returning to the season of Christmas, in which we find ourselves this day . . . we discover a brief occasion to focus our spiritual reflections on the singular Christmas miracle, the Incarnation. God becoming a human being. The Word through whom all things were created, becoming a mortal like the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve fashioned in his own likeness.

Christmas is, indeed, a glorious season.

C.S. Lewis had many insights into the Incarnation miracle. It is most certainly worthy of our serious attention. If it did not actually happen, Jesus should be dismissed altogether, for he claimed to be one with our heavenly Father. However, as Lewis declared in Miracles, “If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the Earth.”

One of the great literary treasures of the world is a precious book written before the year Anno Domini 318. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a treatise called “On the Incarnation,” which makes great reading and is readily available online. A fairly modern translation was written by Sister Penelope Lawson, an Anglican nun.

Sister Penelope prevailed upon C.S. Lewis to write an introduction to her translation, in which he said, “This is a good translation of a very great book.” The full volume, complete with Lewis’ outstanding preface, is available. Here is just one of his gems:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

Still, as wonderful as Lewis’ introductory comments are, the greatest treasures here are the bishop’s teachings about Jesus. To whet your appetite, taste the following wisdom from Athanasius’ own introduction to his work:

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.

You can read the entire work at this site. Have a blessed Christmas season!

space trilogyChristmas is the season of giving, and as a grandfather I can truly say it’s more wonderful to give than to receive. Those little smiles and squeals of joy are precious indeed.

Sadly, many children (and adults) will be forgotten this season. Worthwhile programs to reach out to the overlooked are sponsored by countless churches and communities. One of the most highly regarded, Angel Tree, provides gifts to the children of men and women who are incarcerated. These innocent children are already suffering due to the poor choices of adults; God alone knows how special the most modest Christmas gift might be to these little ones.

That is one end of the spectrum—those who have little. Equally sadly, many children (and adults) will overindulge this season. They will bury themselves under piles of soon-to-be-forgotten presents. Most will also bury themselves further under mounds of debt.

C.S. Lewis colorfully captured this quandary in “Xmas and Christmas.”

And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians [British] profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

Striving for balance in gift exchanging is important. For years now my father has said it’s unnecessary to give him Christmas or birthday gifts. It’s true. He’s able to purchase whatever he wants, and even the most thoughtful gifts are either redundant or undesired. He’s grateful, of course, but only out of courtesy. Last month, for his birthday, I took him up on his words. Instead of spending money on a gift, we made a special donation to the Gideons in his honor. He was delighted. I’ve known others who made the same request, that gifts intended for them be diverted to the benefit of others. It’s a grand custom.

After the homily on selflessness above, it may sound strange to hear that there is a Christmas gift I would like to suggest you consider giving to yourself. Actually, I’d advise a friend or loved one to purchase it for you, but since you probably haven’t encouraged them to subscribe to Mere Inkling (yet), I must satisfy myself with advising you to check out this special offer.

During the holiday season, HarperOne is running a special on C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (often referred to as the Space Trilogy). You can get them in various digital editions for only $1.99 each. Quite a bargain. And it leaves you plenty of resources to practice the truth that it’s better to give than receive.

Out of the Silent Planet, the first of these science fiction works, was the first Lewis book I read. A friend in a college fellowship group suggested it, and it introduced me to one of the greatest mentors a person could ever have! The books are available through this link: Cosmic Trilogy.

Oh, and if the Cosmic Trilogy is already in your library, or not your cup of tea, they are also discounting an illustrated edition of The Screwtape Letters.

The Trilogy is suitable for Christian and secular readers alike. It’s not overtly “religious.” In fact, in his C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide, Walter Hooper says many of the intial reviewers of the title were rather confused about its intended meaning. (This despite offering positive reviews.) One person who did comprehend its significance was an Anglican theologian named Eric Mascall. In a 1939 issue of Theology he wrote:

This is an altogether satisfactory story, in which fiction and theology are so skillfully blended that the non-Christian will not realize that he is being instructed until it is too late. It is excellent propaganda and first-rate entertainment.

I’m certain he meant “propaganda” in the most positive, pre-war sense. Actually, one does not need to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth to appreciate the series. If you’ve never read it before—and you don’t have a 100% aversion to the science fiction genre—the two dollar price means you’ll rarely have a better opportunity.

C.S. Lewis on Xmas

November 28, 2011 — 15 Comments

Advent has begun! As the Christian Church celebrates its “New Year,” it’s fun to look at C.S. Lewis’ essay, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus.” He describes the predicament of secularized western civilization. Reversing the spelling of “Britain,” Lewis points out how a new holiday has displaced a profound holy-day.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound, [the Niatirbians] have a great festival called Exmas, and for 50 days they prepare for it (in the manner which is called,) in their barbarian speech, the Exmas Rush.

When the day of the festival comes, most of the citizens, being exhausted from the (frenzies of the) Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much as on other days, and crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas, they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and the reckoning of how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine.

A few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast.

But as for what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, this is not credible. It is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and so great things (as those involved in the Exmas Rush), in honor of a god they do not believe in.

Niatirb might just as well be the Setats Detinu. We see the same signs all around us. One shocking fact is how the secular seasonal movies now do not even feel compelled to offer the slightest nod to the true meaning of the season. Santa, for many, has utterly eclipsed the Babe in the manger. And “Christ” has literally been crossed out of Xmas.

May this entertaining portrait remind each of us of the true significance of the approaching season. And, may God also use the season of Advent to prepare our individual hearts to receive the most priceless and precious Christmas gift ever given.