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December 2 — Advent

Today’s Bible reading

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. — Titus 2:11-14

More thoughts for meditation concerning Advent

Protestants have issues with empty rituals. They had enough of the Catholic and Orthodox folks bickering about what is the right way to fold an altar cloth or some such nonsense. Actually, they objected to the “altar” itself, since it had become a replica of the Old Testament temple. Jesus fulfilled and transcended the Temple. The Lord’s presence makes the church, the people, the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul says. So empty rituals are a problem.

Nevertheless, a ritual season, like Advent has a lot of great things going for it. If those things become empty, coercive, or corrupted, then it is not so good. But during Advent, let’s not throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater (pun intended).

Rituals are not inherently wrong. Empty ritual is wrong, as is any ritual that replaces, obscures, or detracts from a vibrant relationship with Christ. Are rituals commanded in the church? No, not really. Baptism and communion, certainly come close. But God is not looking to see if we have completed the right rituals, God sees the heart. She seeks those who worship Him “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Rituals can be beneficial, but external rites should never be allowed to replace inner devotion.

All that being said, Advent has hundreds of years of history, prayer and practice that makes it a special time of the Christian year. It is one of those “sacred spaces” that are created by ritual.

Rituals (like spiritual disciplines, worship events, and seasons of fasting or prayer) are acts done with emotion and intention which help an individual or group connect with the Spirit in the context of faith, hope and love for the purposes of healing and transformation. Ritual is a means for our personal and collective voices to express our longing and creativity into the unseen dimensions of life, beyond our conscious minds and into the realms of spiritual awareness and connection with the image of God in us and creation. Rituals create “thin places” where heaven and earth kiss.

In our Advent meetings (Sundays, cells and other times) and on Christmas Eve, we create sacred places where we are enabled to release our unspoken hope and unacknowledged sorrow. The whole season of waiting for the blessed hope with the prophets, with John the Baptist, with Mary and Joseph, and with everyone in the story is a sacred place where our deeper selves are welcomed to rise up and feel our sorrows and hope.

Francis Weller writes: “We are creatures of ritual. We have been using rituals for tens of thousands of years. Ancient burial sites include careful placement of artifacts with the dead, such as bones carved and covered with ochre, pieces of flint for the hunt in the next world, food, and ornamented beads. In fact, grief for the loss of a loved one may have elicited our first ritual actions. There is something about ritual that resonates deep in the bone. It is a ‘language older than word,’ relying not so much on speech as on gestures, rhythms, movements and emotion. In this sense, ritual addresses something far more primal than language.”

Like our proverb says, “Without worship we shrink.” Participating in an alive Advent might be one of the most alternative things we can do.

More?

Resources from the Ignatians

Another Video about the origins and history of Advent.

Suggestions for action

Today, in the absence of communal rituals that hold and sustain our psychic lives, we often unconsciously fall into ritualized behaviors (nightly TV, Friday night at the bar, Eagles/Phillies games, videogame addictions, etc.). These patterns, however, do not carry what is required to make them soul-nourishing practices. In the end we will either participate in ritual deliberately, which binds us to soul, community, nature and the sacred, or we will be reduced to repetitive patterns of addiction, compulsion, or routines lacking in artistry and the renewal of genuine ritual. 

Check to see if you have an Advent replacement going. The resistance you feel to the discipline season may be more about how locked up you are than about how stupid the season is.

Here are some suggestions from Rod: The Advent pilgrimage: Five things to try

Day by day, journey with the rest of us. One way to do that is by praying together with Circle of Hope Daily Prayer. WIND and WATER are the same for Advent.

November 22 – Thanksgiving Day

Today’s Bible reading 

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. —Psalm 100:3-5

More thoughts for meditation about Thanksgiving Day

Without gratitude, we would not get very far along our spiritual journey, would we? It is one of the nicest things the U.S. government does for its citizens when it offers a federal holiday on the fourth Thursday of November to pause, give thanks, and celebrate what we have been given. George Washington made the first proclamation of Thanksgiving Day in 1789. It was celebrated on various dates from state to state until Abraham Lincoln synced them in 1863. Canada, as well as several other nations, have a holiday to give thanks around the traditional time of the harvest on different days.

The United States’ version of the holiday includes a unique mythology providing the central imagery for the festivities which include parades and feasts of traditional foods, usually shared among relatives. The central narrative is a re-telling of a poorly-documented account from 1621 of a treaty between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony that included a feast of thanks, friendship, and some food the Pilgrims needed.

The development of Black Friday (invented in Philadelphia!) and expansion of it to the whole weekend has also moved backward to encompass Thanksgiving. So now we are subjected to a four-day extravaganza of consumerism (and don’t forget football, its violent twin) rather than a day of thanks. Circle of Hope has a heavy streak of buy-nothing day among us as a protest to the overshadowing.

So on Thanksgiving, we look back to a sordid history of relations between Europeans and the natives of New England and we can look forward to an onslaught of consumerism. Because of this, the day becomes even more important. We must rest. We must be grateful. We must celebrate the many “feastworthy” things we have experienced this year. God is good. Let’s be grateful for the good that is given.

More?

An article from Indian Country Today Media Network “What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale” [link]

US Congress’ Legislative Process [link]

A history of the movements surrounding the Puritans and Separatists [link]

Conservative talk show host Michael Medved tries to do some reconstruction of the myth:

Suggestions for action

You can do it. See beyond the traditions, good and bad, and give thanks. Let whatever distresses you go for a few minutes and list the things for which you are grateful. Dwell on them as slowly as possible. Smile.

October 31-November 2 – All Saints Day

Today’s Bible reading

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 11-12:3

More thoughts for meditation about All Saints Days

All Saints Day is one of the major festivals of the Christian Year. When we say “saint” we mean Bible-based designation of anyone who is a faithful believer. So this feast serves as a commemoration of all God’s servants who have departed this life in faith. In Revelation 2:10 John says, “Be faithful unto death, and will give you the crown of life.” So the symbols of the crown of thorns and a crown of victory often mark the day and remind us of our own victory over death.

On November 1 we honor all the saints who have gone before us—as in this transhistorical blog! All Saints Day is central to a three-day observance that used to commonly be called “Hallowmas,” (the short form of All Hallows Mass). It is preceded by Hallowe’en (short for All Hallows Eve) and is followed by All Souls Day. The whole triduum is mainly a “memorial day” for remembering the people of faith who have gone before us. Not only are we inspired by them to triumph over our own troubles, we use the day to encourage one another to keep faith in the face of death.

Commemorating the martyrs of the faith with a regular holy-day began as early as the 4th Century. All Hallows Day, the feast of All Saints, on the first of November, used to be celebrated in the spring. But in the eighth century it was transferred to November (in places connected to Rome), where it became the climax of the autumn season, a harvest festival celebrating everyone planted with faith and now gone to seed. With this move, the church attempted to override the European traditions of communing with the dead. As Christians expanded from their original territories, the church confronted pagan rites that appeased the “gods” of death and evil spirits. They did not simply speak out; they instituted alternatives. All Saints Day was placed on November 1 in 835; All Souls Day on November 2 in 998.

Over the centuries this celebration has been overlaid with the church’s imagination about the “immortality of the soul” and how a person satisfies the requirements for “going to heaven.” It has also been overlaid with all sorts of pre-Christian and non-Christian observances of death and the afterlife. In the United States, there is, at present, a renewed interest in Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, which are the days of the three-day observance that are most prone to abuse. They have become major holidays filled with lights and parades. So the whole holiday is worth studying, so we don’t fall into nonsense (or just swallow it whole) and don’t allow the church to lose honor because it is tied to nonsense we can’t explain.

Here are some of the problems:

  • All Saints Day (Nov. 1): Some people considered this celebration of all the saints, known and unknown, to be a very powerful day against the forces of evil, since all the intercession of the company of heroes could be called upon at once. The concept of All Saints Day is connected to the doctrine of The Communion of Saints. This is the Catholic teaching that all of God’s people, on heaven, earth, and in the state of purification (Purgatory), are spiritually connected and united. They are just as alive as those on earth (their body dead, but their immortal souls alive), and are constantly interceding on our behalf.

Jesus has introduced his followers into an eternal now, but our full experience of that awaits the final day when the dead are raised. We will always be embodied spirits, as we were created to be.

  • Hallowe’en (October 31): Many customs of Hallowe’en reflect the Christian belief that on vigil before the feast of all saints we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us. Various customs developed related to Hallowe’en in the Middle Ages. For instance, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. Some say this is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.” The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own.
Witch costumes 1910

Hallowe’en features many characteristics of the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, for which All Saints Day is the alternative. The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. People believed that on October 31, the boundary between the alive (summer) and the deceased (winter) was so thin it dissolved, and the dead became dangerous to the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops. The observances would frequently involve bonfires, into which bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them. For the Druids, October 31 was New Year’s Eve, a night of evil and terror when all hell broke lose. Goblins and ghosts were abroad that night, while witches celebrated their black rites as the spirits and souls of the dead roamed the earth, especially dead children and babies. To frighten the evil spirits and to bolster their own sagging spirits, people created a din with bells, horns, pots and pans (just as many still do at midnight on December 31st) and kept the bonfires burning to frighten the witches or perhaps burn them if they were caught. On the afternoon of October 31st, village boys would go from house to house collecting fuel for the midnight fires. Everyone was expected to contribute some peat or “coal pieces” to help burn the witches. Those who did not received dire warnings of the evil consequences that might follow.

In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul says, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” This at least implies that there is no interim place where disembodied souls are left waiting to enter heaven or hell. The Bible says many times that our death is like falling asleep and our resurrection is like waking up. The interim is is of no matter to our timeless God, it is like an instant, even if, according to our earthbound understanding, it is a thousand years.

  • All Souls Day (November 2): This day is also called the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos. Most people use it as a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed, as in creating an “altar” with a picture of your sainted mother. People may go to the cemetery for a picnic or have a party featuring the favorite foods of the departed, placed as offerings on the altar. Mexico has an especially rich tradition for this day, so you may be familiar with pan de muerto (traditional pastries), and cempasuchitl (marigold flowers: used for the vibrant color that can guide the dead to the right place and their traditional uses for healing in Aztec medicine). Officially, this is a day to pray for the departed who haven’t made it to Paradise, who are awaiting their purification in purgatory, which, in itself, is a problem.

Unofficially, people think the Day of the Dead is the day when adult ghosts are loosened to roam the earth. People take to the streets to mock them. The fiesta is full of humor calling death la calaca (skeleton) or la flaca (skinny). Paintings and figurines depict skeletons in everyday life. Stories and cartoons show how humans have cheated or defeated death. The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and brought them out during a month long ritual associated with today’s observance. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth and to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during this part of the year. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

In the Bible we are warned us not to go to spirits and soothsayers in Isaiah 8:19: “Should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” The Bible warns us not to consult with (or make inquiries of) the dead, as is often done on the Day of the Dead.

Want more?

Share Faith sums it up with another description.

Eddie G explains the Day of the Dead.

Suggestions for action

Ralph Vaughn Williams hymn For All the Saints is the classic hymn for All Saints Day. Spend a few minutes meditating with it and praising Jesus giving us life and courage to face death, especially for our faith.

We have a chance on All Saints Day, not only to remember those heroes of the faith (like in Hebrews 11), but to remember beloved saints we have lost personally. It is a good day to look back and show honor and respect as well as to mourn. We remember all the saints who don’t have a specific feast day. We remember the spiritual ancestors who inspire us on our journey. We remember the partners in our church as well as members of our extended Christian family who have died. What’s more, we can ponder our own deaths and what spiritual legacy we would like to leave. We are one of all the saints, too!

Many groups, especially Asian Americans, use All Saints Day as an opportunity to remember and respect family members who are elderly or who have lived in other generations. This might be the occasion for telling about where our families have come from and lived, what their lives were like, and what values that we honor they have passed on to us.

May 20 — Pentecost

Image result for pentecost

Today’s Bible reading

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. — Acts 1:14

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. — Acts 2:1-4

More thoughts for meditation about Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday is a commemoration and celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the early church. It is the birthday of the church.

John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). Jesus confirmed this prophecy with the promise of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in John 14:26. He showed Himself to his followers after His death on the cross and His resurrection, giving convincing proofs that He was alive. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit, from whom they would experience His abiding presence and receive power to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:3-8). After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and joined together in prayer in an upper room. During the Jewish festival of Pentecost (Shavuot) just as promised, the sound of a violent wind filled the house and tongues of fire came to rest on each of them and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. They experienced ecstasy and were given the power of communication, which they used to begin the ministry for which Jesus had prepared them. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples burst out of their fear, out of their room to tell the world. This was the beginning of the missional community of Jesus, the church.

Suggestions for action

Christian churches celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, realizing that God’s very life, breath and energy live in believers. John 20:19-23 may be the core of the message about our risen Savior supernaturally appearing to the fear-laden disciples. Their fear gave way to joy when the Lord showed them His hands and side. He assured them peace and repeated the command given in Matthew 28:19-20, saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23).

The celebration of Pentecost Sunday reminds us of the reality that we all have the unifying Spirit that was poured out upon the first-century church in Acts 2:1-4. It is a reminder that we are co-heirs with Christ, to suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him; that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7); that we are all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13); and that the Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead lives inside believers (Romans 8:9-11). This gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised and given to all believers on the first Pentecost is promised for you and your children and for all who are far off whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:39).

Receive the gift. This video suggests a variety of ways you might be touched.

The Wind section in the Way of Jesus is all about taking further steps in the Spirit.

May 10 — Ascension Day

Today’s Bible reading

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11

More thoughts for meditation about Ascension Day

Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter, although some Christian denominations have moved the observance to the following Sunday.

N.T. Wright thinks Ascension Day is important and he suspects you don’t. His theology is so seldom-considered that it might be important for us to study the following section of his book Surprised by Hope. Consider what Luke says happens to Jesus after he rises from the dead and see if it changes how you see the world.

Jesus ascending into heaven

“Many people insist—and I dare say that this is the theology many of my readers have been taught—that the language of Jesus’ “disappearance” is just a way of saying that after his death he became, as it were, spiritually present everywhere, especially with his own followers. This is then often correlated with a nonliteral reading of the resurrection, that is, a denial of its bodily nature: Jesus simply “went to heaven when he died” in a rather special sense that makes him now close to each of us wherever we are. According to this view, Jesus has, as it were, disappeared without remainder. His “spiritual presence” with us is his only identity. In that case, of course, to speak of his second coming is then only a metaphor for his presence, in the same sense, eventually permeating all things.

What happens when people think like this? To answer this, we might ask a further question: why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer is not just that rationalist skepticism mocks it (a possibility that the church has sometimes invited with those glass windows that show Jesus’s feet sticking downward out of a cloud). It is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view. Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth; the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied, risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge. They discovered through their own various callings how his new way of running things was to be worked out. It wasn’t a matter (as some people anxiously suppose to this day) of Christians simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has some times been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But neither is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshiping Jesus in a kind of private sphere.

Somehow there is a third option…We can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism. This indeed is what twentieth-century English liber­alism always tended toward: by compromising with rationalism and trying to maintain that talk of the ascension is really talk about Je­sus being with us everywhere, the church effectively presented itself (with its structures and hierarchy, its customs and quirks) instead of presenting Jesus as its Lord and itself as the world’s servant, as Paul puts it. And the other side of triumphalism is of course despair. If you put all your eggs into the church-equals-Jesus basket, what are you left with when, as Paul says in the same passage, we ourselves are found to be cracked earthenware vessels?

If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord—and that’s what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit—what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called “the insolence of office” and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn’t work. (I see this all too frequently among those who bought heavily into the soggy rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.) Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church­ when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him— only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Je­sus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

You could sum all this up by saying that the doctrine of the trinity, which is making quite a come back in current theology, is essential if we are to tell the truth not only about God, and more particularly about Jesus, but also about ourselves. The Trinity is precisely a way of recognizing and celebrating the fact of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from while still identified with God the Father, on the one hand (he didn’t just “go back to being God again” after his earthy life), and the Spirit, on the other hand (the Jesus who is near us and with us by the Spirit remains the Jesus who is other than us). This places a full stop on all human arrogance, including Christian arrogance. And now we see at last why the Enlightenment world was determined to make the ascension appear ridiculous, using the weapons of rationalism and skepticism to do so: if the ascension is true, then the whole project of human self-aggrandizement represented by eighteenth century European and American thought is rebuked and brought to heel. To embrace the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.

The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Often in the church we have been so keen to stress the presence of Jesus by these means that we have failed to indicate his simultaneous absence and have left people wondering whether this is, so to speak, “all there is to it.” The answer is: no, it isn’t. The lordship of Jesus; the fact that there is already a human at the helm of the world; his present intercession for us—all this is over and above his presence with us. It is even over and above our sense of that presence, which of course comes and goes with our own moods and circumstances.

Now it is of course one thing to say all this, to show how it fits together and sets us free from some of the nonsense we would oth­erwise get into. It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imag­ine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact an embodied human—actually, a more solidly embodied human than we are—but absent from this present world. We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world than the one our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us. The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. And though the move “up” from vice chairman of the board to chairman of the board may indeed mean that at last you get an office in the penthouse suite, it would be quite wrong to think that “moving up” in this context meant merely being a few feet farther away from terra firma.

The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment West­erners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces, and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C. S. Lewis of course did a great job in the Narnia sto­ries and elsewhere of imagining how two worlds could relate and interlock. But the generation that grew up knowing its way around Narnia does not usually know how to make the transition from a children’s story to the real world of grown-up Christian devotion and theology.”

Suggestions for action

What do you think? Can you do some theology with N.T. Wright? 

Pray: Thank you for the living hope you give me—you have gone before me and I will go behind you, you intercede for me and remain present with me, you will come again.

For some of us, Wright’s theology is very hard to understand. He refers to all sorts of thinking we have not studied, past and present: Plato, the Enlightenment, scientific materialism and various breeds of Christian theology. Don’t give up! Try taking the time to slowly move through Wright’s material again and see what begins to come clear to you. If you talk to someone about it, you might understand even more. Let him help you make sense of today’s Bible reading.

April 1 — Easter Sunday

Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?

Today’s Bible reading

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. — Romans 6:3-5

More thoughts for meditation about the origin of Easter

Was Easter actually borrowed (or rather usurped) from a pagan celebration? Some Muslims sometimes claim that Christians compromised with paganism to dilute the original faith of Jesus.

Their argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English and German names for the celebration (Easter in English and Ostern in German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is the Christian Passover festival.

Christians always contextualize their faith in one way or another — we express our message and worship in the language or forms of our culture. But that does not mean we compromise our doctrine. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to the way of Jesus. After all, Christians speak of “Good Friday,” but they are in no way honoring the worship of the Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.

But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that neither the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection nor its name are derived from paganism.

Easter is a celebration with ancient roots

The usual argument for the pagan origins of Easter is based on a comment made by the Venerable Bede (673-735), an English monk who wrote the first history of Christianity in England, and who is one of our main sources of knowledge about early Anglo-Saxon culture. In De temporum ratione (On the Reckoning of Time, c. 730), Bede wrote this:

In olden times the English people—for it did not seem fitting that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s—calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath … Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

The first question is whether the actual Christian celebration of Easter is derived from a pagan festival. This is easily answered. The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. So if “Easter” (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of “Eostre” can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.

Why the name Easter is not “pagan” 

The second question is whether the name of the holiday “Easter” comes from the blurring of the Christian celebration with the worship of a purported pagan fertility goddess named “Eostre” in English and Germanic cultures. There are several problems with the passage in Bede. He has a sketchy knowledge of pagan festivals, which he freely admitted.

As it turns out, there is no evidence outside of Bede for the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe. Scholars suggest that the Anglo-Saxon Estor-monath simply means “the month of opening” or “the month of beginnings.” There is no evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles in March or April.

There is another objection to the claim that Eosturmonath has anything to do with a pagan goddess. Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after gods, such as Wednesday (“Woden’s day”), the names of their months were either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning “wheel,” referring to the turn of the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solmónath (roughly February), meaning “Mud-Month”; or referred to actions taken in that period, such as Blótmónath (roughly November), meaning “Blood Month,” when animals were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.

Another problem with Bede’s explanation concerns the Saxons in continental Europe. Einhard (c. 775-840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne, tells us that among Charlemagne’s reforms was the renaming of the months. April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.

The name is basically “spring holiday”

One theory for the origin of the name Easter is that the Latin phrase in albis (“in white”), which Christians used in reference to Easter week, found its way into Old High German as eostarum, or “dawn.” There is some evidence of early Germanic borrowing of Latin despite that fact that the Germanic peoples lived outside the Roman Empire. This theory presumes that the word only became current after the introduction of either Roman influence or the Christian faith, which is uncertain. But if accurate, it would demonstrate that the festival is not named after a pagan goddess.

Alternatively, some suggest Eosturmonath simply meant “the month of opening,” which is comparable to the meaning of “April” in Latin. The names of both the Saxon and Latin months (which are calendrically similar) were related to spring, the season when the buds open.

So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their Passover holiday what they did—doubtless colloquially at first—simply because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth. A contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans refer to December as “the holidays,” or the way people sometimes speak about something happening “around Christmas,” usually referring to the time at the turn of the year. The Christian title “Easter,” then, essentially reflects its general date in the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor of a supposed pagan deity.

[Thanks to Anthony McCroy, Christian History, 2009]

Suggestions for action

The Christian commemoration of the Paschal festival rests not on the title of the celebration but on its content—namely, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is Christ’s conquest of sin, death, and Satan that gives us the right to wish everyone “Happy Easter!”

Sometimes we have renamed the day “Resurrection Sunday” so people can get some separation from chicks, bunnies and other fertility symbols. Resurrection Sunday makes candy hidden in baskets full of fake grass seems as innocuous as it should be. Like Jesus followers in the past, we also make our own decisions about how we want to live in our culture and present Jesus to it.

Our general mentality is generosity. We are not only transhistorical (thus, this blog) we are genuinely interested in the genius behind most expressions of life in Christ. Having a joyful celebration of new life budding from the cold earth seems like a good way for people in the northern hemisphere to celebrate resurrection! On the other end of the spectrum, keeping faithless imagery and thinking away from the most important and spiritually-potent day of the year could be a sincere way to commemorate the Lord’s resurrection. The resurrection is the constant that spans the spectrum.

February 14 — Ash Wednesday

Today’s Bible Reading and an excerpt

Read Isaiah 58

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?

More thoughts for meditation about Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the deep season of Lent. If you attend one of our observances, you will be given the opportunity to make the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes collected by burning last year’s Palm Sunday palms.

The symbol is meant to remind us of our need for repentance, the need to turn and go in a new direction. We made the ashes out of the palms we used last Palm Sunday, when they symbolized our hope in Jesus being a triumphant king. As ashes, they remind us that we often get things wrong and we often need to turn around, to repent and concentrate our attention on how to depend on God in our lives more actively. Like the people in Jerusalem who greeted Jesus during his final entry into the city, we all want Jesus to be a visible, easy-to-know-and-follow king who is always the winner, always leading a joyous parade. But as we all know, that parade from last Palm Sunday — as is true with every Palm Sunday parade, leads not to our easy discipleship, but instead to the cross where something far deeper than our desires to win is won for us.

We can’t live lives marked by Jesus and stay on the surface of things, following rules, trying to be right/good. Jesus told the Pharisees that just wasn’t a viable option. He said such an ambition would be a delusion because our hearts are the problem. We need something new to happen at the depths of us. Jesus is calling for a new way of being altogether. We must go to the heart of things and to the heart of ourselves, turn away from our ideas of what’s best and turn to the Living God.

More from Rod for those who feel too bad to be involved in Lent: [link]

Catholic Lent for beginners

Suggestions for action

If you are not eager to attend an observance, make yourself do it. If you can’t go at night, go in the morning to one of the Catholic rites. Lent is a season for getting your body to go the direction of your faith. Wear the cross.

February 13 – Mardi Gras

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Judges 6:33-40

Then the Lord’s spirit came over Gideon, and he sounded the horn and summoned the Abiezrites to follow him.  He sent messengers into all of Manasseh, and they were also summoned to follow him. Then he sent messengers into Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali too, and they marched up to meet them.

More thoughts for meditation about Mardi Gras

Like Gideon’s trumpet, the season of Lent calls all the tribes together to resist the enemies of God. Though we seem weak, we are strong. The most unlikely weaklings will dance in the street in the face of the powers attempting to dominate them. Mardi Gras is appropriately uproarious, if you see it right. In some sense, to be a Jesus follower is to be a fool, to use your clowning to unmask the powers-that-be who pretend they are very serious entities when, in fact, they are just a breath and have a master.

The Eve of Lent became a time to hold off the inevitable, even to mock and diminish the authority of the spiritual season “imposed” on everyone which begins on Ash Wednesday. In Europe, the church of the Middle Ages had a lot of power to impose the rigors of an enforced fast during the 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. Before the fast began, people partied and did things they shouldn’t do in order to get those things out of their system before they committed (or were forced to commit) to doing the things they should do.

One of the things many people did (and still do) was eat all the foods they wouldn’t be seeing for a while during their Lenten fast. In Pennsylvania Dutch territory a “fastnacht” came to be the name of a donut instead of the title of the day: Fast Night or Lent Eve. Unfortunately, “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras in French) came to be a day to store up as much of the past as possible, so one could endure the season of moving into what is next. Instead of being shriven on Shrove Tuesday, many people are just like Peter, trying to keep Jesus (and themselves) from going to Jerusalem.

Suggestions for action

Jesus’ journey to the cross is the ultimate pilgrimage into what is next. Let’s respond to the trumpet and move with him. Let’s keep in mind his concerns, so we don’t get stuck in what is merely human. There’s nothing wrong with being human, of course, unless we don’t have in mind the things of God. If people think you are a fool, that might be a good thing.

January 6 — Epiphany

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Matthew 2:1-12, Matthew 3:11-4:4 .

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him….

baptismAt that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

More thoughts for meditation about this day

Epiphany is a Greek word that means “manifestation.” It celebrates two manifestations of God: 1) When the magi worship Jesus and present him gifts, they do it because God is made known, born in the baby. 2) When Jesus is baptized and John reports the voice of God denoting Jesus as his own Son, that is another significant epiphany.

In the history of the church, the holy day called Epiphany went two routes, as the church became  separated during the turbulent time after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the late 400’s. The churches in the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean developed separate identities. You can trace them through the Eastern “Orthodox” churches and the Roman “Catholic” church. In the Roman Catholic Church, Epiphany is usually celebrated on the Sunday between January 2-8. If you want to follow the traditional twelve days of Christmas, you celebrate it on January 6.  The orthodox Churches have the same idea but on different days.

The different days came about like this. In the late 1500s Pope Gregory declared a new calendar to correct the inaccuracies in the old Julian calendar (which dated to Julius Caesar in 45BC). The Gregorian calendar added 12 days to the year and reset the functional spring equinox to March 21 so Easter could be properly observed. Most civil authorities eventually adopted the calendar, although Greece took over 300 years to do it.

Some Orthodox Churches still date events according to a revised Julian calendar. It is part of their identity. So many, but not all, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on or near what is January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. As of 2012, there is a difference of 13 days between the modern Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar. Those who continue to use the Julian calendar or the equivalents mark December 25 and January 6 on what, for the majority of the world, is January 7 and January 19. For this reason, many people in Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova celebrate Christmas on what, in the Gregorian calendar, is January 7.

All this goes to show that getting manifested is not that easy for God! Being born among humankind is subject to our politics and science. We might consider the date the celebration should be on to be more important than the reason for the celebration! We might divide up the church over an obvious change that needs to be made in the calendar just because we do not respect the person who suggested the change. It might take us a long time to get to the place we should have started: worshiping at the manger and hearing the voice of God at the baptism.

An article with a lot more: http://www.crivoice.org/cyepiph.html

Suggestions for action

Appreciate the epiphanies the wise men and John the Baptist had. They happened a long time ago, but that history is yours, too — for the whole human race! We are invited into what God did in Jesus when we remember and allow ourselves to be part of the story.

Appreciate your own personal epiphanies, the many ways God has been manifested to you! The Spirit of God is revealed in creation, in the stories, teachings and practical applications of the Bible, in the people of the church, and directly spirit to Spirit. Maybe you could write an account of how you came and worshiped or heard the voice of God.