St Nicholas vs Santa Claus

I am not, by and large, anti-Santa. But this morning, I’ve been re-thinking him a bit (and not my thesis that Santa Claus is Jesus) and have decided to now pit him against St Nicholas of Myra (saint of the week here), whose feast day was a week ago.

My inspiration for this comes from a few things in my Facebook feed this morning. First, a great piece called ‘Why My Family Says “No” to the Santa Claus Myth‘ over at Sojourners, which gives spiritual and economic reasons to reject raising your children with a belief in Santa Claus. In the article, Tara C. Samples explains that, while the myth of a jolly elf bringing children presents may have served a purpose in Christianity’s past (although I doubt it, and get the sense she does too), today it only serves to reinforce economic disparity, consumerism, and commercialism.

In fact, Santa Claus has so become the focus of this, the most popular (though not the chief) feast of the Christian year, that two, admittedly awesome, brothers who have had their photo taken with Santa every Christmas for 34 years are Viral Nova’s Christmas heroes. I mean, it’s a cool tradition, and I like the idea of doing geeky, ‘kid’ stuff well beyond the acceptable age limit. But, really — Christmas heroes?

So then I watched an allegedly ‘heart-warming’ video of Westjet employees staging a Santa to buy gifts for people flying from Toronto to Hamilton.* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] It probably would have been have somewhat heartwarming if Sojourners hadn’t already warmed my heart in a different way. Instead, all I saw was consumerism being celebrated in the modern-day feast of stuff. People were crying over cameras. A kid who looked around 10-12 got an Android tablet (which strikes me as irresponsible on Westjet’s part; the parents may have already got him one OR have had a good, non-economic reason not to). One family got a ginormous TV and were weeping. Lots of people who have watched this video seem to have cried over it.

The only gift I thought was really great was the gift of plane tickets home for one lady. That’s better than just more crap to fill your house with.

And I get it. A fairly sizeable corporation spent its advertising money on making people happy instead of yet another billboard. People got what they wanted. Mind you, these are all people who seem to fly between Toronto and Hamilton,* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] so — unless family sprang for their tickets (as lovely, generous families do) — they are unlikely to be especially destitute.

So, 400 words in, here we go. Santa Claus has taken over Christmas.

And, with him, the cult of buying, of shopping, of consuming, of stuff, stuff, stuff. I want a choo-choo train. I want socks and underwear. I want a big screen TV. I want a new camera. I want, want, want. Me, me, me.

I still believe in gift-giving. I think it a lovely, happy tradition when friends, family, and loved ones choose to bless one another in the form of thoughtful gifts that reflect on that relationship. You know, wives who buy their husbands underwear the Lenten shade of purple. Or parents who pay for tickets for their children to go to live musicals which otherwise they would miss. Or friends who buy you that book you were dying to have  but couldn’t justify purchasing. Or you find that oddity that perfect for that one friend.

Gift-giving is an expression of love and caring.

But the cult of consumerism has gone too far when people in atheist countries go Christmas shopping and commit suicide over it all. And this is where Santa Claus drives us, because when he becomes the focus of Christmas, the gifts become the focus of Christmas, and thus the shopping and the conspicuous consumption, and the reinforcement of the unjust economic systems that we are all part of and none of us does anything about.

St Nicholas is far better.

St Nicholas of Myra is a bit of a tough character to untangle historically. As John Anthony McGuckin explains in his fantastic lecture on the saint (which I can no longer find), at some point all the Nicholases were put on the same date in the Byzantine calendar. As a result, their stories sort of blended into one another and he became a legendary figure of superholy proportions.

Here’s what we can say about St Nicholas the Wonderworker as an example for us, whether legend or fact:

  • He was on the Nicene side of the Arian-Nicene debate. St Nicholas upholds orthodoxy.
  • He was born wealthy but gave it all up (like so many Byzantine saints) to become a monk. He gave his wealth to the poor.
  • He was called out of monasticism to become Bishop of Myra (southern Turkey today). He was selfless and served his community as his spiritual discipline, not retreating from the world.
  • He gave dowries to young women to save them from being sold into sex-slavery, thus combatting an unjust socio-economic system (even if he could not change it at large, he changed it for them).
  • He saved young people from drowning — once again, selfless sacrifice serving others.

Whom would you rather take as your inspiration this holiday season? An elf who reinforces our greed, instilling it in our children when very young, or a saintly bishop who gave up his wealth to dedicate his life to God and the service of the poor?

And then, let us ask ourselves: Are we seeking to live in the example of Christ, our king and leader, and his saints through the ages?

*Who flies from Toronto to Hamilton? Maybe Toronto was their layover. I hope so. Seriously, people. Take the GO Train. [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.]

Christmas Day 11: ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’ by St Ambrose

Amongst the many delights of Christmas gifts this year, such as the 6-DVD box set for Avengers Assemble and a toy pirate and Hobbitus Ille, I received two volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library from my uncle — Miracle Tales from Byzantium, ed. and trans. Alice-Mary Talbot and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (including ‘Miracles of Saint Thekla’, ‘Anonymous Miracles of the Pege’, and ‘Miracles of Gregory Palamas’) and One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas, ed. and trans. Peter G. Walsh with Christopher Husch.

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is an exciting venture, like unto the Loeb Classical Library, original language with an English facing-page translation. Its scope is medieval literature, Latin, Greek, vernacular. I already own the series’ Rule of St Benedict, and if I knew Old English, I would go for The Beowulf Manuscript — including not only Beowulf but the other texts therein.

And so, here on the penultimate day of Christmas, I present to you One Hundred Latin Hymns, Hymn 5, ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’. Although not cited as being by Ambrose when quoted by Augustine, fifth-century sources tell us that this hymn is by the Bishop of Milan. Walsh affirms the likelihood of Ambrose establishing 25 December the feast of the Nativity in Milan, a practice already occurring in Rome at the time:

Give ear, O king of Israel,
seated above the Cherubim,
appear before Ephraim’s face,
stir up thy mightiness, and come.

Redeemer of the Gentiles, come;
show forth the birth from virgin’s womb;
let every age show wonderment;
such birth is fitting for our God.

Not issuing from husband’s seed,
but from the Spirit’s mystic breath,
God’s Word was fashioned into flesh,
and thrived as fruit of Mary’s womb.

The virgin’s womb begins to swell;
her maidenhead remains intact:
the banner of her virtues gleam;
God in his temple lives and stirs.

From his chamber let him come forth,
the royal court of chastity,
as giant of his twin natures
eager to hasten on his way.

First from the Father he set forth,
then to his Father he returns;
he sallies to the realms below,
then journeys back to God’s abode.

You are the eternal Father’s peer;
gird on your trophy of the flesh,
and strengthen with your constant power
the frailties of our bodies’ frame.

Your manger now is all aglow,
the night breathes forth a light unknown;
a light that never night may shroud,
and that shall gleam with constant faith.

For more on Ambrose the hymn-writer, see my posts here and here.

Christmas Day 8: The Significance of the Incarnation

Happy New Year!

I’ve been writing these in advance, which means that what I post today is something I’ve known about for days but really only just read around the time of writing. Just to keep it real, right?

And today, as Epiphany draws ever nearer, we need to reflect, as I have had us do a few times already, on what Christmas is all about. And it’s all about the birth of God as a Man-child. The Incarnation of the Creator of all that is, has been, and ever shall be. The Alpha and the Omega. He became one of us, that we may become like Him.

Over at Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a very good post has gone up on this topic: ‘Wright Was Wrong: The Significance of the Incarnation.’ I recommend you read it. And enjoy 2013!

The Seventh Day: New Year’s Eve, Queen Elizabeth, the BCP, and hospitality

As 2012 turns into 2013, let us remember to memorable anniversaries of this year: HM Queeen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In the spirit of this Christmastide, I would like to turn your attention to the Queen’s Christmas Message of this year.

Every year, HM Elizabeth gives a lovely Christmas message, which goes through the major news for the monarchy and the Commonwealth, and then concludes with a reflection upon Christmas itself, tying the theme into a popular Christmas carol. Last year, Her Majesty focussed upon the importance of forgiveness, which is at the centre of the Christmas story, for God sent us a Saviour, not a statesman or a philosopher. This year, she turned our attention to community and bringing people together to celebrate this feast, just as the angels called the shepherds to join Mary and Joseph at the manger.

Queen Elizabeth called us to bring into our homes those who are alone this Christmastide. For the first time, my wife and I actually took heed of this very Christian vision of hospitality at what has become yet another festival of the modern pagan Cult of the Family. I can actually say that I practise what I preach, here! We had a Canadian friend who studies in Glasgow come over from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day, and for the dinner on Christmas itself we invited over an Italian girl we’d met at church on the 16th. She was working on Christmas until 5:00 and had no plans that day. And so we opened up our home and invited in two friends, one from our days in undergrad, one of just over a week.

This sort of hospitality is common to many cultures and should imbue the fabric of Christian community. At Christmas, as Christina Rossetti says ‘love come down.’ As John 1 puts, God the Word ‘became flesh and pitched His tent among us.’ We were not left alone in the darkness and sorrow of our sin, but brought into relationship with the living God. Therefore, in light of the Incarnation, we should open up our hearts and homes and lives to those around us, even when it makes us uncomfortable. What is the point of a sacrifice for which you do not suffer?

Furthermore, the revelation of Jesus Christ led to a long meditation upon Scripture that resulted in a vision of God as three-person’d. If we pray with John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, Three-person’d God’, we should realise that communion, koinonia, lies at the heart of the Godhead, of the unmoved mover, of the one who made everything — including ourselves. And with God as our true Father, all fellow-Christians — if not, indeed, all the human race — are siblings. Therefore, these festivals in the Cult of the Family call us to open up our doors and kitchens and dining tables to the much wider family that is bound by more than blood, in remembrance of the Trinity who reorders our hearts and loyalties beyond the merely human.

All of this I have thought for a while, and I actually, finally acted upon it! And there was HM Queen Elizabeth II exhorting us all to do likewise in light of the Incarnation of God as an infant.

Therefore, in remembrance of the 350th anniversary of the 1662 BCP, let’s say a prayer for the Queen, a woman not young with a busy and important job:

Almighty God, whose kingdom is everlasting, and power infinite; Have mercy upon the whole Church; and so rule the heart of thy chosen Servant Elizabeth, our Queen and Governor, that she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory: and that we, and all her subjects (duly considering whose authority she hath) may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey her, in thee, and for thee, according to thy blessed Word and ordinance; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sixth Day of Christmas, Commemoration of John Wycliffe

Although not Christmas-themed, here’s a pithy saying attributed to John Wycliffe (1320-1384) to get you through the sixth day of Christmas:

Englishmen learn Christs law best in English. Moses heard Gods law in his own tongue; so did Christs apostles.

Indeed, one could easily join Wycliffe in this and point out that the Scriptures were put into Latin as a task of translation so the common folk could understand them. And they were similar put into Old English in the Early Middle Ages.

So John Wycliffe and his successors such as Tyndale and Coverdale stand in line with Christian tradition, with the anonymous Latinisers and Jerome, with the anonymous translators of the Coptic Bible and the Syriac Peshitta, with Cyril and Methodius.

He was, in this respect, a very Catholic man.

Huzzah for English Bibles! Let us thank the Lord for Wycliffe, whose endeavours would come to full fruition in Tyndale and beyond.

The Fifth Day of Christmas: ‘Christmas Poem’ by G K Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.

Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost—how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wife’s tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

From: G K Chesterton’s Works on the Web

The Third Day of Christmas: A Sermon of Gregory of Nazianzus

For the Third Day of this Twelve-day Feast, I bring to you a sermon attributed to St Gregory of Nazianzus (aka ‘the Theologian’, c. 330-390). The more common Nativity sermon you will find in Orthodox books and floating around the internet is that of St John Chrysostom (347-407). I think this one is also well worth reading, and will mix things up a bit. Merry Christmas!

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.

Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation. (Taken from www.ancient-future.net)