Seven swans a-swimming

Sylvester was the Bishop in Rome when Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan, ending the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Sylvester sent representatives to the Council of Nicaea and did not personally attend, but he agreed with its conclusions. Because of the freedom given Christians under Constantine, Sylvester was able to have churches built in Rome and to preach publicly without fear of arrest or other reprisals.
With new freedom come new responsibilities. The forces of evil in the world failed to extinguish Christianity through persecution, but the power of evil has several ways to attack God’s people. Sometimes comfort and luxury are greater threats to the Church than persecution. The cathedrals of Europe are maintained as museums for tourists to visit; very few people attend services in those buildings. Many American church buildings are nearly empty on Sunday mornings. Where opposition has not closed down Christianity, freedom and peace have seemed to smother it.
Jesus promises, though, that the Church will endure until the end of time. Whether we are persecuted like Stephen or protected like Sylvester, we remain safe in the hands of Jesus. As long as we cling to his Word and trust his promises, no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

Six geese a-laying

The season of Christmas will be half-over tonight, but the radio stations have already stopped playing Christmas music. The stores and malls that were decorating for Christmas in early November and even late October are now removing all their decorations and putting them into storage for the next ten months. Some families have even gotten rid of their Christmas decorations—I saw some Christmas trees lying on the curb last Saturday.
Americans tend to start things early and quit things early. We cannot be trusted to stick to the traditional pace of life through the year. It was once possible to hold off campaigning for President of the United States until after the first day of the election year; but campaigning and debates have filled the last several months of 2015, and already some candidates have dropped out of the race.
The next two days mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next year. People will bid farewell to 2015 and will ring in the new year with hope and excitement. May your Christmas joy linger through the holiday season, as we still have six days of Christmas to observe. J.

Five golden rings

Thomas Becket was named Chancellor of England by King Henry II in 1154. Eight years later Thomas was elected Archbishop of Canterbury. The relationship of king and bishop was tumultuous. Church and state in Europe were embroiled in a fight for power called the Investiture Controversy. (The failure of Henry’s son John to withstand opposition of Pope Innocent III in the same continuing controversy led to the signing of the Magna Carta, one of the most important documents in English history, in 1215.) Thomas was exiled from England for several years, but when he returned he was no more willing to obey his king. Thomas insisted that the Church had greater authority than the king.

During a government meeting, Henry reportedly exclaimed, “Who will rid me of this man?” Four people present at that meeting thought they would do the king a favor, and so they murdered Thomas in the cathedral at Canterbury on December 29, 1170. Henry recognized a political disaster when he saw one, and he made a great show of sorrow over the death of Thomas. Thomas of Canterbury, after his death, became a great hero of the English people. People made pilgrimages to Canterbury to honor his memory.

Again, the twelve days of Christmas do not guarantee easy and problem-free lives in this world. Like Stephen, though, the martyred Thomas of Canterbury is in Paradise awaiting the great Day of the Lord when all problems will be solved and all troubles fixed. In that promise is peace and joy. J.

Four calling birds

Older versions of the song called them “colly birds,” among other things, but most versions of the song published in the last hundred years have named them “calling birds.” At any rate, the fourth day of Christmas is also the festival of the Holy Innocents. Like the festival of St. Stephen, this day reminds Christians that we are surrounded by evil and by many dangers in this world.

After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star, seeking the King of the Jews. Some scholars think they came from Babylon and others from Persia, but there are two reasons to believe that these wise men (or Magi) were Arabs. First, the three gifts they brought are all native to Arabia. Second, the prophet who associated the coming King with a star was Balaam, who came from northern Arabia.

These wise men came to Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews. Herod feared competition so much that he executed members of his own family because he thought they were plotting against him. Herod told the wise men to find the King and to let Herod know where he was. The wise men did find Jesus and his mother in a house in Bethlehem. (No, they were no longer gathered around the manger when the wise men arrived with their gifts.) Warned in a dream, the wise men did not return to Herod; also warned in a dream, Joseph took the child and His mother to Egypt. In his rage at being tricked, Herod ordered that all the boys in Bethlehem “that had not yet reached their second birthday” be killed. In this way, he hoped to eliminate the true King of the Jews.

God permits tragedies in this world, even as he works to overcome all evil. There was sorrow in Bethlehem over the death of those young boys, but protection for Jesus promises a joy that far outweighs the sorrows and tragedies of this world. In whatever struggles you are facing, may God bring you Christmas joy. For we do have good news of great joy—a Savior, Christ the Lord. J.

Three French hens

The third day of Christmas is also the festival of St. John. This John wrote one of the four Gospels, three epistles (including two of the shortest books in the Bible), and the Apocalypse or Revelation, the last book of the Bible. He presents himself in his Gospel as Jesus’ best friend, or “the disciple Jesus loved.” In fact he never mentions his name in the Gospel, which leads some scholars to question whether or not he wrote the book of Revelation, since in the first chapter of that book he mentions his name twice.

In the original Greek, and in most English translations, John’s writings contain the simplest words and grammar but express the most profound thoughts. His Gospel begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Only one of those words contains more than one syllable, yet the mystery of the Holy Trinity is stated with these words.

Early Christian histories and traditions say that John was the only apostle of Christ not to be martyred. Before dying, Jesus entrusted care of his mother Mary to John. After the resurrection, when Peter asked Jesus about John’s future, Jesus refused to answer, saying only, “What business of it is yours if I chose to let him live until I return?” John quickly points out that Jesus never said that John would not die, but because of his long life some early Christians believed that Jesus had meant John would not die.

The apostle John did die, and centuries later the emperor Justinian built a basilica where John was buried. Yet, like Stephen, John also is with Jesus in Paradise and will return when Christ comes in glory. On this festival day, Christians thank the Lord for faithful witnesses such as John the apostle. We rejoice to have his writings teaching us today about Jesus. J.

 

Two turtledoves

The second day of Christmas is also known as St. Stephen’s Day and Boxing Day. In Britain people give gifts and privileges to their servants. Some American families try to mark this day by leaving small presents for mail carriers, newspaper deliverers, and even those who carry off the garbage. The Beatles’ movie Magical Mystery Tour was first shown on television on Boxing Day in 1967.

The festival of St. Stephen reminds Christians that not all things in this world are merry and bright. We are still surrounded by sin, and Christ’s love for us makes us targets for those who hate Christ. Stephen testified to Jesus and his central place in God’s plan for the world. As a result, Stephen was stoned to death by the same authorities who had earlier condemned Jesus and handed him over to the Roman authorities, demanding his execution.

The martyrdom of Stephen is a sobering memory during the twelve days of Christmas. Yet Stephen is celebrated as one of those who is with Jesus, in the Father’s hands, in Paradise. Stephen died confident of the power of the Lord and confident in the promised resurrection. When Christ is seen in glory, Stephen will be with him, and he will live with Christ and all His people in a new and perfect world. Jesus has conquered death, and death cannot prevail against His people. May that good news enlighten your continuing celebration of Christmas. J.

A partridge in a pear tree

Christmas Day—the first day of Christmas—the Feast of the Nativity–the Festival of the Incarnation of our Lord: by any name, this is a special and holy day. For weeks people have been preparing to celebrate this day. For centuries, traditions and stories have been shaped around this day. Charles Dickens, Clement Clarke Moore, O. Henry, and Dr. Seuss have populated the holiday of Christmas with figures almost as familiar to most of us as the members of our own families.

Christmas can bring unhappiness at times. Some people remember family members and friends who are no longer alive to celebrate the holiday with the rest of us. Others remember family members and friends who are alive but are many miles away, separated by distance and by necessity. Still others remember family members and friends who are estranged by emotional distance, by disputes and disagreements, by grudges and feuds, by disappointments and dismay. Yet others yearn for people they have not yet met, sensing an emptiness and seeking the right person to fill that emptiness.

All these impediments to happiness can make Christmas less merry. Yet the true meaning of Christmas remains: good news of great joy for all people. A Savior has been born; he is Christ the Lord! This is a sign for his people: a swaddled baby lying in a manger. He has defeated sins and all evil, yes, even death itself. He provides for his people on the schedule he knows is best. He rules the universe and is coming soon to fix all that is broken and to make the world perfect forever.

Whatever ways you are celebrating this holiday, and whatever concerns make this day less merry for you, may the joy of Christmas shine in your heart and in your life. May it shine through you also to enlighten the lives of those near you. J.

 

Childhood Christmas memories

When I was a little boy, Santa Claus brought our Christmas tree along with the stockings filled with small gifts and candy. The whole family would go to church on Christmas Eve for the Sunday School program, and when we got home my parents would hurry me off to bed, warning me that “Santa won’t come until you’re asleep.” Then my parents would stay up for what seemed like hours. I would even hear my mother vacuuming, and I would wonder why she didn’t go to bed, since Santa wouldn’t come until she and my father were asleep.

In the morning the tree would be in the living room, lights glowing, covered with ornaments, and many family presents under the tree. Of course back then the Christmas tree was enormous—it towered all the way to the ceiling. These days I barely need a stepladder to touch the top of the tree. They just don’t make Christmas trees the same any more.

We always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for all twelve days of Christmas, so I suppose it made sense for it not to appear before Christmas Eve. We had other Christmas decorations up through much of December. My mother would cut evergreen branches and weave them into a wreath for the front door. We had a ceramic nativity scene on a card table in the living room. My father would hang lights on the spruce tree in our front yard. Some years I would make ornaments for that tree. My mother saved the plastic trays that came with the meat, and on a long December Saturday or Sunday afternoon she would give me some of those trays and her collection of cookie cutters. I would trace the cutters onto the trays, cut out the shapes, and color them with crayons. I’m sure that kept me out of the way while she baked Christmas cookies and peanut brittle and fudge.

My father took off one weekday in December so the family could go downtown. My parents liked to see the Christmas decorations in the stores, but they told me the reason for the trip was so I could tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas. The men who dressed like Santa Claus in the suburban shopping malls only worked for Santa, but the man in the downtown department store was the real Santa Claus. Santa always made me feel nervous when I was little. It didn’t help matters that my parents and I had to stand in line for an hour or more to get to Santa, surrounded by other children and their parents. Frankly, I would have been content to stay home and write Santa a letter, but the trip into The City was an important tradition for the whole family.

The Sunday School students practiced for the Christmas Eve program on Saturday mornings in December. The smallest children sang “Away in a Manger” and “God Loves Me Dearly,” and older children sang other traditional hymns. We also had speaking parts, most of which were verses from the Bible. A few children would be selected to portray Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, and the wise men. I cannot remember which of those roles I played over the years. I do remember saying the verses from Luke that Linus recites for Charlie Brown to explain the meaning of Christmas. I remember the pastor’s wife standing in the back of the church during rehearsals, shouting, “I can’t hear you singing!” My memory is probably exaggerating, but it seemed that she did that every song, every Saturday, every year.

On Christmas morning once everyone was awake—and most years that happened earlier on Christmas morning than on any other morning, expect perhaps Easter—we would sit in the living room and unwrap the gifts in our stockings. Those were from Santa Claus, and the tradition was to shout, “Thank you, Santa,” for each gift we opened. Then we would tackle the gifts from family, which were under the tree. My parents gave me practical things like clothes. My out-of-state grandparents gave me the best gifts—one year a chemistry set, another year an electronics kit, and still another year an electronic Battleship game. Only recently did I learn that those grandparents always sent a check to my parents, and my parents actually chose their gift.

Around noon my in-state grandparents would arrive. We would exchange gifts, and then every member of the family had to show what gifts we had already opened that morning. The gifts stayed under the tree for several days before they were gradually gathered into the household possessions. Each member of the family had a certain section under the tree where our gifts were left. Early Christmas afternoon, we would have a grand dinner, much like the meal we had eaten a month earlier for Thanksgiving. I had to try a little bit of everything, even the sweet potatoes, which I already knew I didn’t like. My grandparents would visit with us through the afternoon. Sometimes we would work a jigsaw puzzle together. Then we had supper: sandwiches and maybe some leftovers from the grand dinner.

Often my favorite Christmas gift was something small in the stocking. One year it was a book about a man who lived in a white house on a street where every house was exactly the same. Every time he tried to make his house look different—such as planting a tree in his front yard–all the neighbors liked what he did and imitated him. Finally, he painted his house purple. When the neighbors again liked his idea, they were able to agree to choose different colors for their various houses. I read that book several times that Christmas day. Another year I got a Slinky in my stocking. I loved playing with that all afternoon, watching it walk down the basement stairs. When more family dropped by that evening, one of my cousins tried to take the Slinky away from me. I held on to it, and it was ruined. I was heartbroken. Christmas was early in the week that year, but Santa came back on Friday night and left a new Slinky for me to find by the fireplace Saturday morning.

My household has developed its own Christmas customs. Some are like those I had as a boy; others are different. The Sunday School program is on a Sunday in the middle of December instead of Christmas Eve. We go to the early Christmas Eve service, the big candlelight service at midnight, and the Christmas morning service. Christmas morning is my favorite. Our preacher not only keeps Christ in Christmas, but he also keeps the Mass in Christmas Day. A smaller group of people comes, but the joy of the holiday is warm and genuine.

May each and every one of you have a Merry and wonderful Christmas this year. J.

Six Christmas movies

Of the dozens (if not hundreds) of movies that are connected with Christmas in some way, a few have become family favorites and holiday classics. I’m sure everyone who celebrates Christmas has his or her own list of favorite Christmas movies. These happen to be six that my family and I try to watch around Christmas most years.

A Miracle on 34th Street (1947) begins with the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City and ends on Christmas Day. A gentleman who looks like Santa Claus also claims to be Santa Claus. A mother and her daughter are skeptical of his claim, for obvious reasons, but when the man is committed to an institution for his belief, their neighbor (an attorney) takes up his defense. The movie tackles commercialism and cynicism in the modern observation of Christmas. Although it has no distinctly Christ-centered message, it still inspires a sense of genuine holiday spirit. Starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) lost money at its original release, but it gained popularity when it was shown repeatedly on television each December due to a failure to protect the movie’s copyright. A man is in despair over a large amount of money missing from his business. His guardian angel views a summary of the man’s life, then intervenes to rescue the man from attempted suicide by showing him how poor the world would be if he had never been born. Elements of this movie are widely imitated in movies and television shows. Although the movie completely fumbles the truth about angels, it is still an enjoyable production, and it does provide some cultural history for the first half of the twentieth century. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

A Christmas Carol (1951) is the classic story by Charles Dickens that has been filmed a number of times. Ebenezer Scrooge is a dedicated and driven businessman who has no use for Christmas and little regard for his fellow man. The ghost of his dead partner arranges for Scrooge to be visited by three spirits representing Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. His experiences with these spirits entirely changes Scrooge’s personality, including his enjoyment of Christmas and his concern for his neighbors. The 1951 version is vivid with its depictions of the Christmas spirits. Starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, with a small part played by Patrick Macnee, who also introduces my family’s recording of the movie.

A Christmas Story (1983) is based on the writings of Jean Shepherd, writings which I read in elementary school before the movie was made. The first time I saw the movie, the events in the story seemed strangely familiar, until I remembered reading parts of the book. A Christmas in the late 1940s is remembered by an adult Ralphie, with all the exaggerations that a child’s mind contributes to perception and memory. The movie does a splendid job of taking literally the descriptions from the book. The visit to Santa Claus at the store is almost identical to the visits to Santa I remember from my childhood. Starring Peter Billingsley as the young Ralphie.

The Lion in Winter (1968) takes place on and around Christmas, but there is no Santa Claus, no guardian angel, and no sudden change in personality after dealing with Christmas spirits. The year is 1183, and King Henry II of England has gathered his family for the Christmas holiday with consideration toward choosing an heir among his three sons: Richard, Geoffrey, and John. (Two of the three will reign after Henry.) King Philip II of France also attends this family holiday, as does Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Filled with rivalry, deception, and plans within plans, the family gathering reveals the darkness of the human heart. The script is rich with vocabulary and rhythm that seem appropriate to the medieval setting. Starring Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry, and Timothy Dalton.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) helps my family and I to remember the reason for the season. (Before this movie was available, we watched Jesus Christ, Superstar, for the same effect.) From his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his death on the cross and his resurrection, Jesus Christ is shown bearing the sins of the world to defeat evil and rescue humanity. Some critics complained of the realistic depiction of Christ’s sufferings, but for many believers the reality of the suffering makes the point of the movie more convincing. Directed by Mel Gibson (whose hands appear as those of the soldier nailing Jesus to the cross), and starring Jim Cariezel as Jesus.

Many more movies could be listed, but these six are those that I am trying to see this Christmas time. J.

But can you prove it?

Christians believe in God, but can we prove that God exists? Christians believe that God is known only through Jesus Christ, but can we prove that our religion is right and that all other religions are wrong? Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Word, the only reliable source of information about God, but can we prove that the Bible is true and dependable, without any human errors?

One problem with proof is that it is difficult to judge. No one is impartial on these questions. People either believe these things or they do not believe them. Much evidence can be offered to show that God exists, that he is known only through Jesus Christ, and that the Bible is God’s Word. Christians find great comfort in this evidence. Unbelievers seem always able to counter with evidence against Christianity which they find more persuasive. Frequently, conversations involving God and proof degenerate into two clear lines of battle, each side convinced that it is armed with the stronger and better evidence for its position.

A second problem with proof is that God is above such matters. Proof relies on reason and logic, and reason and logic themselves have their origin in God. God is not less than reasonable, but he is more than reasonable. Therefore, reason cannot fully grasp the truth about God. The existence of God cannot be detected in a laboratory. He is the Almighty Being, not the subject of some experiment. If some people are unable to detect God in the universe, the problem is not with God. The problem is with the method they are using to search for God.

The third problem with proof is that believers do not need proof. We already know from experience that God exists, that he is known through Jesus Christ, and that the Bible is God’s Word. We take these things for granted, because their truth is a familiar part of our lives every day. You need no proof that your best friend exists, or that the members of your family who you see every day exist. You encounter them and interact with them. In a similar way, Christians encounter God and interact with God, making proof of his existence entirely unnecessary.

If believers do not need proof, and unbelievers do not acknowledge proof, then why even discuss the existence of God or the other beliefs that Christians regard as important? Two reasons can be given to look at the proof. First, it reinforces and strengthens faith to consider the proof of what is true. Second, it makes conversation possible between believers and unbelievers. Those who have firmly decided not to believe will not be swayed by the most convincing evidence. Others, however, are willing to maintain an open mind. As they consider the proof, they might meet God himself and find themselves in a relationship with him.

Of the many ways of demonstrating the existence of God, four classic proofs are seen by Christians as fully convincing. First, the existence of creation requires that there be a Creator. No one can build a watch by dropping the pieces of a watch into a bag and then shaking the bag until chance brings the pieces together to form a working watch. Likewise, believing that the sun, the moon, the earth, and all the living beings on the earth are merely the results of a string of random events requires far more faith than belief in a Creator. The very order in the universe is a second proof for the existence of a Creator. Creation attests to the intelligence and wisdom of God, to his creativity and sense of beauty, and even to his sense of humor. Third, the existence of personality in some created beings reveals that the Creator also must have personality. As a stream does not rise above its source, so personality cannot randomly appear in the universe. It must have its origin in something similar. Fourth, the distinction between good and evil, between right and wrong, is proof of the existence of God. People do not make their own rules—or, when they do, other people point out that those rules are wrong. For anything to be wrong in the universe, there must first be a Source of what is right. Wrong is then identified as anything that contradicts that Source or rebels against him.

Granted that a God exists, how is one to know which of the many religions in the world are correct? Are they each right about some things and wrong about others? Are they merely stating the same truths with different cultural forms? Or is one religion clearly right, making all the other religions wrong? Those who study religion often distinguish between beliefs, practices, and ethics. While beliefs and practices vary greatly among religions, ethics seem to be roughly the same in all religions. All religious people believe that what is holy should be honored. All religious people believe that they should be kind and helpful to one another. The “Golden Rule”—that each person should treat others the way he or she wants to be treated—is stated by nearly every great religious teacher throughout history. Religious people know that they should do what is right. They know they should not do what is wrong. Most religions, however, teach that if someone has done something wrong, they must try again to do what is right. The uniqueness of Christianity is the message of redemption. Only Christians believe in a God who sacrifices himself to rescue his people from all that is wrong. Other religions tell stories about gods visiting their people. Many religions tell stories about the death and resurrection of a god. Only Christianity proclaims that God won a victory over evil and shares that victory with undeserving sinners. For this reason, when discussing religious teachings with unbelievers, it is helpful to skip over the proofs of God’s existence and start with Jesus of Nazareth: the proof that he existed (which few historians doubt), the proof that he began the movement which is known as Christianity, and especially the proof that Jesus died and was buried, but on the third day he rose again from the dead.

What proves that the Bible is God’s message to his people, a book to be treated differently from all other books, a book to be used to evaluate all other books? Only the Bible and the Quran claim to be God’s true messages. (They contradict each other. The Christian Bible identifies Jesus as the Son of God, but the Quran quotes God as saying that he has no sin. Both books cannot be right.) Buddhists and Confucians and Daoists and Hindus have spiritual writings, but they are not considered to be truth in written form. Of course anyone can write a book that claims to be a message from God. The fact that the Bible says it is God’s Word should not, by itself, convince anyone that it truly is God’s Word. As a historical document, though, the New Testament reliably reports what early Christians believed. The four Gospels began to be circulated at a time when some people could still remember seeing Jesus and hearing him speak. Even if the New Testament had no authority as God’s Word, the New Testament still describes the respect Jesus had for Moses and the prophets. He regarded them as authoritative, to be trusted and obeyed and followed. He used them as the source for all reliable information about God. In the same way, Jesus himself authorized apostles to be his messengers. He gave them authority to share his message as Moses and the prophets had earlier been given authority. The attitude of Jesus toward Moses, the prophets, and the apostles shapes the attitude of Christians today toward the words and the message of the Bible.

Many more things can be written on all three of these topics. In fact, long books cover these and other religious issues. This, though, is intended just as an introduction of one way to discuss proof as it relates to Christian beliefs. When discussing such truth, many unbelievers will try to lead the conversation away from Jesus. They would rather talk about ethics, or about science, or about different cultures and their different beliefs. For the Christian, the Key is Jesus. When talking about religion, we want always to be talking about Him. J.