Tuesday, December 26, 2006

December 26-31: The Witness Days

On the six days between Christmas Day and its Octave on 1 January, we remember five persons who have in various ways, by martyrdom or otherwise, born witness to the truth of the Christian faith.
(Note that the word martyros in pre-Christian Greek means simply "witness," and that it is not always clear whether early Christian uses of it (as in Revelation 2:13) ought to be translated broadly, as "witness", or in the narrow technical sense as "martyr", that is, someone who has explicitly chosen to die rather than to deny Christ as Lord.)

On December 26th, we remember St. Stephen (depicted in the print from the Nurenberg Chronicle), first member of the early Christian church to be put to death for his faith -- see Acts 6,7. He was "a martyr in will and deed."

On December 27th, we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles. It is commonly believed that, although he was imprisoned and beaten for his adherence to Christ, he lived to old age and died a natural death. He was "a martyr in will but not in deed," meaning that he was willing to lay down his life for his Lord, but was not called on to do so -- See M 20:20-28 = P 10:35-45.

On December 28, we remember the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by command of King Herod lest one of them prove a danger to his throne -- see M 2:16-18. They were "martyrs in deed, though not in will," and their deaths are a disquieting reminder that suffering on behalf of a good cause is not always restricted to those who have a choice in the matter.

The witnesses commemorated on these first three days are all from New Testament times. On the two days following, we commemorate witnesses from a later period in Christian history. Taking them in reverse order of days --

On December 31 we commemorate Sylvester, bishop of Rome from 313 to 335 -- that is, roughly from the Edict of Toleration issued by the Emperor Constantine to the death of the said Emperor, and thus the first bishop of Rome in the days after Christianity ceased to be an illegal and persecuted religion. With his term of office, we enter an era when to become a Christian is no longer to place oneself in automatic danger of being put to death by the government. However...

On December 29, we remember Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain in his own cathedral in 1170, for his defiance of King Henry II. The death of Thomas reminds us that a Christian, even when safe from pagans, can be in danger from his fellow-Christians.
Two recent additions to the Calendar are John Wylcif (31 Dec), a pioneer of Bible translation; and Josephine Butler (30 Dec), who came to the assistance and defense of women whom society had, in effect, declared outside its protection. Neither was (in the technical sense) a martyr. Both are witnesses.

In recent years, it has become the practice of some groups of Christians to give the First Sunday after Christmas precedence over the observance of these days, and so to postpone by one day those commemorations falling on or after that Sunday.

Again, presumably to avoid commemorations close to Christmas (just as we avoid them within seven days of Easter Day), some Christian groups have adopted alternate dates for some of these celebrations.

Thomas the Apostle: 3 July
Stephen the First Martyr: 3 August
John the Evangelist: 6 May
The Holy Innocents: 11 January (after the Magi on 6 January)
Thomas a Becket: 7 July

On January 1st, we celebrate the Circumcision of Christ. Since we are more squeamish than our ancestors, modern calendars often list it as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but the other emphasis is the older. Every Jewish boy was circumcised (and formally named) on the eighth day of his life, and so, one week after Christmas, we celebrate the occasion when Our Lord first shed His blood for us. It is a fit close for a week of martyrs, and reminds us that to suffer for Christ is to suffer with Him.

Copied from http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/12/26b.html

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jesus goes to the Mall & a Movie on Saturday

The picture at left is from the Des Moines Register's web site, and accompanied a story by Shirley Ragsdale. A United Methodist youth group took a life-sized cut-out figure of Jesus to a Des Moines mall on Saturday. The photo caption is below:

Samuel Ansong, 14, left, and Grayson McElroy, 14, of Lamoni United Methodist Church wheel a life-size cutout of Jesus through the lobby of a movie theater Saturday afternoon at Jordan Creek Town Center.

The story opened this way: "Jesus went to a mall and movie Saturday. As one might expect, he was welcome wherever he went."

Apparently the crowds in Iowa clapped and cheered to see Jesus (even a cardboard image of him) make an appearance at the festival in his honor.

Best wishes,
And (of course) Merry Christmas,
Mason Smith

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

December 5, Clement of Alexandria, Teacher and Apologist, 213 [?]

Titus Flavius Clements (later known as Clement of Alexandria) was born into a pagan Athenian family which valued learning and education. He was highly educated and well trained in classical philosophy. Upon his conversion to Christianity he began to seek out teachers, wandering from Greece to Magnae Graecia and then to the east to study under Assyrian, Palestinian and Hebrew Christian teachers. He ended up in Alexandria where he came to study at the Catechal School of Alexandria under Pantaenus, the dean of the school. With several periods of exile during times of persecution he remained in Alexandria and succeeded Pantaenus as the dean of the Catechal School.

Clement worked to combine the best of pagan Greek and Roman learning & science with the Christian faith. He saw it his task to demonstrate to pagans that Christianity was intellectually respectable and philosophically rigorous, and to Christians that Christianity was not only for the uneducated, but that Christians must no longer "fear philosophy as children fear a scarecrow." He was willing to go far in his affection for the Greek philosophers as to say that "the Law is for the Jew what philosophy is for the Greek, a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ." For Clement the Greek philosophers understood the truth revealed in God’s creation. God had, in fact, planted seeds of the Truth in all rational creatures, though these seeds were not sufficient to bring them to divine truth. [Stromata]

One of the key debates within the Alexandrian religious community concerned the teachings of the Gnostics who held that the essence of Christianity was a a secret knowledge passed down from initiate to intiate. Clement did not condemn the Gnostics outright, though he did dissent from their denigration of the physical. For him evil was not merely the failure to subordinate the body to the mind. Instead he argued that the Gnostics had gotten their gnosis [the Greek word for knowledge] wrong. Orthodox Christianity held the true gnosis, the Gnostic gnosis was false. This implied for Clement, that there was very much about Christianity that was philosophical and intellectual, and at times he stated that ignorance was in fact worse than sin.

Today this prayer is said by many in the Church:

O God of unsearchable mystery, who led Clement of Alexandria to Find in ancient philosophy a path to knowledge of your Word: Grant that your Church may recognize true wisdom, wherever it is found, knowing that wisdom come from you and leads to you; through our Teacher Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Source: http://www.bethel.edu/~letnie/AfricanChristianity/EgyptTheologiansClement.html

Monday, December 04, 2006

December 4: John of Damascus, Hymn-Writer, Defender of Icons, 750

Also known as John Damascene, St John of Damscus was a Greek theologian and the last of the great Eastern fathers. Born into a wealthy Christian family in Damascus about a generation after the armies of Islam had conquered the area, he lived his entire life under Muslim rule. He inherited his father’s positions as chief financial officer for the caliphs of Damascus and chief representative of Christians in the city. In 716, however, he left (or was compelled to leave) the court and became a monk at Mar Saba, a monastery in the hills near Jerusalem, where he was later ordained a priest. Most of the rest of his life was spent writing hymns and theological treatises.

The Iconoclastic Controversy was raging around the time St John entered Mar Saba. The earliest of his theological works was a series of three "Apologetic Treatises against those who decry the Holy Images”, written in response to an edict issued by the Byzantine emperor forbidding veneration of images or their exhibition in public places. An online article in Christian History & Biography summarises John’s defence of images:

From his distant post in the Holy Land, John challenged this policy [iconoclasm] in three works. He argued that icons should not be worshiped, but they could be venerated. (The distinction is crucial: a Western parallel might be the way a favorite Bible is read, cherished, and treated with honor—but certainly not worshiped.)

John explained it like this: "Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord's passion in mind and see the image of Christ's crucifixion, his saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify."

Second, John drew support from the writings of the early fathers like Basil the Great, who wrote, "The honor paid to an icon is transferred to its prototype." That is, the actual icon was but a point of departure for the expressed devotion; the recipient was in the unseen world.

Third, John claimed that, with the birth of the Son of God in the flesh, the depiction of Christ in paint and wood demonstrated faith in the Incarnation. Since the unseen God had become visible, there was no blasphemy in painting visible representations of Jesus or other historical figures. To paint an icon of him was, in fact, a profession of faith, deniable only by a heretic!
"I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter," he wrote. "I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

After prolonged controversy, political intrigue, and bloodshed, the Second Council of Nicaea decided the issue in 787. John’s position was accepted: iconoclasm was condemned and a statement produced which justified icons by reference to the tradition of the church and quotations from the Fathers.

The most important of John’s theological works is The Fount of Wisdom, the last part of which, Exposition of the Catholic Faith, was immensely influential in both the East and the West. A work of research and synthesis rather than original thought, it collected views of the Greek Fathers and presented them in a systematic and logical manner. It was a compendium of respected theological understandings. After being translated into Latin in the 12th century as De Fide Orthodoxa, it was cited by authoritative medieval theologians Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. The De Fide was thus a valuable source in the formulation of Western medieval theology.

Among St John’s hymns is one that is frequently sung at Easter, “The Day of Resurrection”.

The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.

St John of Damascus is sometimes regarded as the last of the Church Fathers. He was declared a “Doctor of the Church” in 1890 by Pope Leo XIII. A portal to the writings of St John of Damascus is found here. There are differences of opinion regarding important dates in St John’s life. Several online sources say he entered Mar Saba in 726 or later but, according to the three books I have at hand, that happened in 716.

The prayer for this day:

Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, Set forth with power by your servant John of Damscus; that we, with him, confessing Jesus to be true God and true Man, and singing the praises of the risen Lord, may, by the power of the resurrection, attain to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore.

This post is based on the latter:

J. D. Douglas, gen. ed. New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Zondervan, 1978).

David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford UP, 2004).
Bert Ghezzi, Voices of the Saints (Doubleday, 2000).

Source of icon: Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries, an online exhibition from Virtual Museum Canada; Theme 7: Jesus, the True Image; Jesus, the Image of God in John of Damascus.

Source of prayer: Praying With the Saints, by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker.

For all of the above, I'm indebted to StatGuy's post of April 19th, 2006, at http://magicstatistics.com/category/christianity/prayers-liturgy/prayers-of-the-saints/

Lectionary Readings for Advent

As we move into Advent (Sunday was the first day of Advent for this year) the Daily Office Lectionary of The Book of Common Prayer shifts from Year Two, back to Year One. This is the start of the Christian year, and a good time to begin a lectionary program. Below are the readings for each day of the first week of Advent. Each reading is in five parts: Morning Psalms, Evening Psalms, Old Testament reading, New Testament (usually epistles) reading, and a Gospel reading. So the first week looks like this:

Sunday (Dec. 3)
146, 147, + 111, 123, 113 (these are the Morning and Evening Psalms)
Isa. 1: 1-9, 2 Peter 3: 1-10, Matt. 25: 1-13.

Monday (Dec. 4)
1, 2, 3, + 4, 7
Isa. 1: 10-20, 1 Thess. 1: 1-10, Luke 20: 1-8

Tuesday (Dec. 5)
5,6 + 10, 11
Isa. 1: 21-31, 1 Thess. 2: 1-12, Luke 20: 9-18.

Wednesday (Dec. 6
119:1-24 + 12, 13, 14
Isa. 2: 1-11, 1 Thess. 2: 13-20, Luke 20: 19-26.

Thursday (Dec. 7)
18:1-20 + 18: 21-50
Isa. 2: 12-22, 1 Thess. 3: 1-13, Luke 20: 27-40

Friday (Dec. 8)
16, 17 + 22
Isa. 3: 8-15. 1 Thess. 4: 1-12, Luke 20: 41—21: 4

Saturday (Dec. 9)
20, 21:1-7 (8-14) + 110:1-5 (6-7), 116, 117
Isa. 4: 2-6, 1 Thess. 4: 13-18, Luke 21: 5-19.

You’ll notice that the readings are chosen with some care. Often the OT readings will shake hands with something in the Gospels, or a reference St. Paul makes in one of his letters.

The lectionary readings can be found online at the Presbyterian Church USA’s web site under Daily Lectionary http://www.pcusa.org/devotions , or from the Daily Office of the Mission of St. Clare http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Andy is back from Haiti

After a week in Haiti with Christian Flights International friends, I got back just in time to drive down to Georgia for Thanksgiving. Jennifer Tucker kept a journal of our goings-on that you may wish to see. And I've post a few thoughts and pictures at Your Family Blog. In the photograph to your left, I'm working on improving the water system with Andy Long, a math professor from Northern Kentucky University, who with his wife Anna and their son Thaddeus, is on a work sabbatical in Ranquitte, Haiti, for nine months. Check Andy Long's journal!
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