Friday, December 12, 2014

Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

I just saw a TV program that said the whole Bethlehem story was made up and that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th because it was a way for the Church to keep people from enjoying the ancient Roman Saturnalia feast and they put Jesus’ birthday on December 25th because it was the winter solstice when the ancient Romans celebrated the feast of the Unconquered Sun. Is all this true? It must be true because I saw it on television.

Yours truly, 

Virginia Schwarzpeter 

No, Virginia. 

All this is hogwash and balderdash. Saturnalia was a feast in honor of the god Saturn and was originally celebrated on December 17th. It expanded over the years to the 23rd, the feast of the Sigillaria. Saturnalia was a kind of feast of fools. In the 400’s (AD) an ancient Christian author, Macrobius, tells us a little about the feast. “The head slave of the household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the household gods, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household slaves had feasted according to the annual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.”

It was a wild time of the year. Everything was upside down. The ancient Romans disapproved of gambling and couldn’t get enough of it. Slaves were certainly not allowed to gamble. Yet on the Saturnalia, everyone gambled and slaves were allowed to gamble with their masters! Banquets were held and a lord of misrule was appointed who could order people to do outrageous things and who had to be obeyed. Gluttony and drunkenness were the rule for all. It sure sounds like a modern Christmas to me! Saturnalia even had its Grinches. Pliny the Younger, an aristocratic intellectual, went to his country retreat during the Saturnalia. It was just too noisy for him. “(I go to my villa at Laurentum) especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the license of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work or studies.”  Sounds like a real Scrooge.

Eventually this feast was extended to the Sigillaria on December 23rd. Sigillaria was a feast dedicated to gift giving. Little wax or clay dolls were exchanged, rather like greeting cards. Gift giving seems to have gotten out of hand as it always does. The feast was originally a throwing off of social status and expensive gifts would add the element of social class back to the feast, so simple gifts were usually given like the little wax dolls or gag gifts. Children received toys and simple things like writing tablets as gifts. (That sounds more like Hanukah than Christmas. I have heard Hanukah described as a celebration of socks and school supplies.) 

I don’t know. It sure sounds like Christmas to me. Wait a minute!  Christmas among the early Christians was not celebrated with the giving of gifts, and certainly not with drunkenness and gluttony.  Giving was more associated with the feast of St. Nicholas and perhaps with the Epiphany when the gifts of the magi to the Christ child were remembered. Dec. 25th was Mass. Hence the name, Christ-Mass. 

Well, what about the feast of Sol Invictus and the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year?  It is true that in the old Julian calendar the 25th of December was the shortest day of the year, but this was not associated with the feast of the unconquered sun until the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate who tried to establish the feast of the unconquered sun on December 25th as a sort of pagan anti-Christmas. 

In other words, it was just the opposite of what your TV show claimed. Christians weren’t celebrating Christmas on the 25th to distract believers from the Saturnalia or the feast of the unconquered sun. Pagans were trying to distract themselves from Christmas which was already well entrenched by the fourth century after Christ.   

So why did the Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December? Simple — because in certain places they celebrated the death of Christ on March 25. March 25th was celebrated and still is celebrated as the feast of the Annunciation on which the angel Gabriel told our Blessed Mother that she would be the mother of the Son of God. They celebrated the Annunciation, the Incarnation, when the Word was flesh and dwelt among us on the 25th of March, because that is when they believed Christ had been crucified.  

In the Hebrew calendar, that date was the 14th of Nissan. It was the anniversary of the first Passover, the Exodus and of the creation of the world. It was always thought that a prophet died on the anniversary of his conception and so, Jesus dying on the Passover, meant that he would have been conceived on the Passover and thus born nine months after Passover, the 25th day of December on the ancient Roman calendar.  

A further problem is that calendars were not coordinated in the ancient world. The Roman calendar had gone wildly of the tracks so that the beginning of summer might be sometime in fall. You didn’t know if it was today or half past three days from now. The 14th of Nisan was constantly re-calibrated according to the cycles of the moon and the sun and nobody quite knew what day it was when they compared calendars. Days of the week are a Jewish/Babylonian invention. Romans had ides and calends dividing their incomprehensible months into sort of double weeks of fourteen or fifteen days. Throw in the Egyptian calendars of which there were a few and the whole thing becomes an irretrievable mess. 

So, it makes great sense to celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December. It is quite possibly the time around which He was born, at least according to some early authors and it has great symbolic meaning in the sense of the Hebrew Scriptures. It has nothing to do with a Roman feast. 

What about the scholars who say that there was journey to Bethlehem and that part of the story was thrown in just to make the prophecy about the messiah being born in Bethlehem come true? All I know is that the Christian author St. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD), a Palestinian Christian, said in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family stayed in a cave outside of Bethlehem. So, from the first days, Bethlehem and its cave were venerated and are still venerated to this day as the site of Christ’s birth. 

In 135 AD, the Emperor Hadrian built a shrine and planted a sacred grove of trees at the site venerated by the first Christians of the Holy Land in order to obliterate the memory of Christ there, just as he built a pagan temple over the site of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. He sure went to a lot of trouble to obliterate nothing if there was nothing there in the first place. 

Once again, Virginia, I remind you not to get your religion from TV. I am always amused that the pundits of our enlightened time know so much more two thousand years and  ten thousand miles distant from the actual events than do people who lived there a century after the fact. They hate us and always will. Bad mouthing Christians makes for good entertainment, just as did when they used to throw us to the lions in the Roman amphitheaters.  

It strikes me as humorous that we now celebrate Christmas beginning in November and by December 17th we are in full swing.  By December 25 we are so sick of Christmas that we can’t wait to get the tree down. It seems that the world really has decided to celebrate the drunken, gluttonous, gift-giving-gone-wild holiday of the Saturnalia, so let me ask you Virginia, which one are you going to celebrate this year?

Rev. Know-it-all

Friday, December 5, 2014

Can you recommend a good Catholic University?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Can you recommend a good Catholic University?  Little Leroy has finally decided to leave home. He is only 53 and has never been away from home, and so of course we want send him to a good Catholic College where he will be safe and his brain will not be fried by strange new ideas. 

Louie and Alma M. Whiffenpoof

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Whiffenpoof,

My sainted mother always said if you haven’t anything good to say then say nothing at all.   (Imagine the sound of crickets chirping)……………………As for new ideas? Very few Catholic institutions of higher learning, so called, have had a new idea since 1965.

I remember my college days at Crayola University here in Frostbite Falls.  I took a philosophy course offered by Dr. Siegfried Hansen. He said, “Zuh great Kvestion of 20th zenchury philosophy…” In English that is “The great question of 20th century philosophy is….. ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’” 

I raised my hand and said “Because there is no nothing! Nothing cannot 'be' by definition.”  To which he responded, “Wrong!”  and continued his lecture pacing back and forth expounding in a soothing monotone. I dropped that class like a bad habit. 

In our times education has gone from bad to worse in most places, especially in the liberal arts. I know. I am an aging hippie who taught at a university for 25 years. Don’t ask questions. We young radicals asked the questions and figured out the right answers that our parents and teachers were hiding from us. You young folks don’t have to ask any questions. We tenured revolutionaries will tell you what to believe.

I have just heard a wonderful example of this enlightened attitude that I and my Aquarian generation have tried to instill in younger minds, now middle-aged, who are teaching minds yet younger than they how to petrify their own brains.

It seems that a male studentgot into it with his ethics instructor, Cheryl Abbate,   when she made a list of ethical questions on the blackboard regarding philosophy and modern political questions such as gay rights, gun rights, and the death penalty.

 “We had a discussion on all of them – except gay rights,” reported the student.  “She erased that line from the board and said, ‘We all agree on this.’” 

End of discussion. 

After class he told the teacher that he thought they should have included the issue of gay rights. Long story short, she told him that, “You can have whatever opinions you want but I will tell you right now – in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments will not be tolerated,” she said. ‘If you don’t like it, you are more than free to drop this class.” The student dropped the class.

“I understand that other people have very different views than I do and that’s understandable, but when a student is not allowed to have an open discussion in a discussion-type class on a specific issue because it’s regarded as homophobic – that really irks me,” said the student. 

The teacher defined ethical behavior in such a way as to restrict speech in a university classroom, a Catholic University classroom. Years ago I wrote an article about the transvestite beauty contest at DePeter University, a local Frostbite Falls Catholic University. The event was featured on the front page of the student newspaper. The gala event ended with a drag ball in one of the university dormitories on campus. The president of the school called me upset, not that I had questioned the wisdom of having such an event at a Catholic University, but that I had made the event public and upset one of his donors. It was not important to the reverend father that he was raising funds under false pretenses nor that he was allowing behavior inappropriate to life at a Catholic institution. He was simply upset by the bad publicity. The most astonishing part of my conversation was that he insisted that he could do nothing about it, neither the full-color full cover picture of a very scrawny boy in a wig, makeup and a rather skimpy women’s bikini bathing suit, nor the transvestite dance in a university-owned dorm, because of (get this) academic freedom. 

I don’t know if DePeter University still has the transvestite beauty contest and drag ball, but they do now offer a minor in queer studies. I wonder if the reasons for Catholic teaching about same-sex teaching are highlighted and clearly explained in this bold, new academic department. (By the way I am not making any of this up, except for the name of the school, whose real name I bet you could never guess.)  

This, I believe, is the heart of the matter. Academic freedom in some places means the freedom to discuss only what the new pseudo-orthodoxy demands. The same academic freedom that allows behavior which for two thousand years has been thought contrary to the Gospel prohibits discussion of what has been perceived for the same twenty centuries as the obvious meaning of the Gospel.  

This is crazy. To say that the academic freedom permits boys to think they are girls but forbids other boys to say they think that is bizarre. It is just as bizarre as saying that sex has nothing to do with the birth of children; just as bizarre as saying hormone shots and mutilation will turn a man into a woman or vice versa; just as bizarre as pretending that ejecting a student with a varying opinion from class is a form of tolerance.

If you look at human physiology, the nature of gender is quite clear. If you look at the political correctness of our time and the convoluted definition of academic freedom that forbids students to express the teachings of the Church in a Catholic university philosophy course in this age of new-speak tolerance, it is clear that we are a religious culture that has lost its mind and lost its way. We no longer have the right to call ourselves Catholic — that is universal — because we have cut ourselves off from those who have gone before. We live only in the present age, not the past and the future. Unlike our Lord, we are no longer the same “yesterday, today and tomorrow.” We are just a fad. We may be modern, but we can no longer claim to embrace the fullness of humanity.  We cease to be Catholic in the most basic sense.

Human beings have experienced sexual dysfunction since Adam and Eve left the garden, but as far as I know this is the first generation to define dysfunction as normal. The only people not welcome in church are those who have not sinned and thus have no need of a savior. People with their moral shortcoming and their disordered appetites are welcome in the church; the embrace of Christ extends to all, except to those who say I have not sinned. For a Catholic sin is not the greatest problem. The greatest problem is a refusal to recognize sin in oneself. This kind of pride is called hubris and it invites disaster.  

This aging hippie recalls an old Bob Dylan song from 50 years ago “A hard rain’s a gonna’ fall.”

Rev. Know-it-all

P.S. To my fellow ageing hippies, “Power, brother” (I mean I hope your electric scooter has enough battery power. Keep on truckin’)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Should I go to my cousin's wedding?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

My cousin Nigel is being married in a forest in Colorado by a druid. I am being urged to go to the wedding by the whole family. Nigel was raised as a Catholic as was the whole family, though he and most of the family go to church only sporadically. Still, they claim the name of Catholic. His girlfriend with whom he has been living for the past two years has no religion to speak of and doesn’t want to jump through all the hoops that the Catholic Church requires, marriage preparation, classes, letters from pastors, forms to fill out, affidavits to swear. She says it’s all just man-made rules and why should those really matter when two people are in love and planning a life together.  The family is furious with me. They say I am ruining the whole event with my disapproval. Should I go just to be supportive and to preserve family unity?

Phil Anderer
Dear Phil,

Why should all the Catholic rigmarole really matter when two people are in love? Simple. They won’t be in love for long and if they aren’t interested in the rigmarole and the hoops, what makes them think that they will stay together when it is no longer convenient?

For Catholics marriage is, or at least used to be, a big deal. I was raised on stories of St. Thomas More, a most embarrassing saint for our time. He gets in the way of so much, like ecumenism. His canonization is a reminder that the Church of Rome, founded on the rock of Peter is different than the Anglican/Episcopalian Church founded on the hormones of Henry the Eighth of England.  Rent the movie “Man for All Seasons” if you’ve never heard of Henry and Thomas, two friends if ever two there were.  Henry was a king, a great renaissance king, madly in love with his queen, Catherine of Aragon.  Catherine and Henry had child after child, but only one survived infancy, a girl, Princess Mary. Henry was worried that he had no male heir to succeed him, and face it, Catherine had put on little weight and wasn’t quite the beauty she used to be. Renaissance kings had no problem finding a date on a Saturday night, married or not. Henry had quite a few special friends and quite a few children by them. Still there was no heir.

Henry apparently had a child by a girl from a noble family named Mary Boleyn. After the baby was born Henry lost interest.  Mary did have a younger sister, Ann, who was fascinating.  She however was not going to be one more in a string of royal mistresses. She wanted a ring on her finger and a crown on her head. She got what she wanted, though that crowned head was cut off after a marriage of about three years. She made herself far less fascinating by yelling at the king and failing to produce a son. She only managed to produce another daughter, Elizabeth. Still, before the disaster unfolded, Henry was besotted and having failed to receive an annulment from the pope, he declared himself head of the church in England at Ann’s urging and gave himself an annulment from his marriage to Queen Catherine.  All his subjects were expected to swear an oath of supremacy, declaring the King the Supreme Head of the English Church. Sir Thomas More resigned his position as chancellor of England and refused to swear the oath. All the bishops of England save one bishop, John Fisher, and all the members of the government and even all the members of Sir Thomas’ family swore the oath. Thomas alone refused. 

He was accused of the sin of pride. He alone would not swear.  Did he think himself better than all the Christians in England, better even than all the bishops, save one, of England? When asked why he would not swear the oath, he simply said that his conscience would not allow him to do so.

They asked, “Is your conscience better than all others?”

Thomas replied, “No, but it is my conscience. You must answer to God for your conscience and I must answer to God for mine.”  

“Sir Thomas, will you not come along for the sake of fellowship?”

To which Sir Thomas said, “If I go along with you for the sake of fellowship and one day we stand before God, and you are admitted to heaven for following your conscience, while I am sent to hell for disobeying mine, will you then come along with me for the sake of fellowship?”  
I am a Catholic. I believe that marriage is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman that can be ended only by death, if that relationship in fact exists.  I believe that relationship exists not simply for the mutual good of those who enter it, but that it exists primarily for filling heaven with children for God and for the stability of the human family in which those children of heaven are nurtured.  My ancestors have believed this for 1,300 years since St. Boniface cut down the sacred oak tree 25 miles from where they lived. All my ancestors have taught me that marriage is a religious covenant, not simply a civil contract. Remember that a contract means “I give you that you might give me.” When the transaction is ended, the relationship is ended. Prostitution is a perfectly reasonable contract.  A covenant means “I give you myself that you might give me yourself.”  It ends only when there is no more self to give, at the death of one of the covenanters. I believe that marriage is a covenant, and since it is a covenant it is profoundly religious. It does not admit divorce.
Civil marriage permits divorce and thus can never be more than a contract, an exchange of goods and services. It is never religious. In my understanding it is not even marriage. Why ever would you expect me to be a witness to a parody of my most deeply held beliefs? Civil marriage is a novelty invented by the French Revolution in its attempt to destroy the Catholic Church. Why would you ask me to participate in an event designed to destroy the  institution I hold most dear and has given birth to my culture and even my very self? Why would you ask me to violate my conscience, when I have not asked you to violate yours? If you understand things differently, I have no objection. I simply disagree because of my conscience.

What is a civil marriage, a marriage that admits the possibility of divorce? I don’t understand civil marriage. Once it had to do with inheritance. Those born outside of a civilly recognized marriage could not inherit. This is no longer so. Virginity and chastity were once respected. People were looked down on by society if they lived together without some form of marriage. This is no long true either. It is quite common; in fact it is the norm for people to have sexual relations and to live together without any form of marriage.

So what is gained by marriage? Civil marriage and most non-Catholic marriages, including Eastern Orthodox marriages admit the possibility that the marriage will fail. As far as I know, only Catholics say that by marriage, two people are entering into an indissoluble marriage. Only Catholics, as far as I know, believe that save for the intervention of death, marriage is something that can be entered only once.

Civil marriage means nothing in our times. It does not mean that now we can begin physical intimacy, nor does it mean that we will be committed to each other for the rest of our lives. As far as I can tell it means nothing, except for perhaps the good intentions and wishful thinking of all involved. 

Why must I deny my conscience and thus risk my immortal soul in order to attend a party with friends and family? I don’t disapprove of your actions. I simply don’t understand their purpose. Please hold me excused. I bow to your conscience. At least let me keep faith with mine. I ask no less than I am willing to give. I will not try to stop your civil marriage. I will not interrupt the ceremony. I will assume that you are obeying the dictates of your conscience.  But don’t ask me to accept your conscience as my own. You will surely go to heaven if this marriage you are entering is done in good conscience. I will surely go to hell for participating as a witness in what I regard as violation of my own conscience. 

In 1535, Sir Thomas More became Saint Thomas More when, for the sake of his conscience, he was beheaded at the order of his good friend, King Henry the Eighth. His last words were “I die the King's good servant, but God's first.”

 Dare I echo his final words:  Let me live as your good friend, but God’s first.

Rev. Know-it-all