A date for Christmas

The Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born. The fact that shepherds were watching their flocks at night may hint that Jesus was born in February, when lambs also are born. This would be fitting, since Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But the shepherds’ nighttime watch could have happened any time of year, as the shepherds worked to keep their flocks safe from thieves and predators.

Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25. Traditionally, that date is the first day of Christmas, a twelve-day season that continues until January 5. Often Christians complain that the world has stolen Christmas from the Church, turning a sacred holiday into a secular orgy of commercialism and worldly excess. Others say that the Church first stole Christmas from the world. In the northern hemisphere, celebrations of the winter solstice were common. Days had been getting shorter and nights longer all summer and autumn; after the solstice, days begin increasing in length. Winter weather continues for a few more weeks, but spring is coming. It’s a good time for a party, although in modern times any excuse will do.

Some Christians become defensive about the holiday and insist that the Church created this holiday apart from pagan or worldly suggestions. Complicated calculations are offered to demonstrate that the birthday of Jesus was known (or assumed) from the date of his death on the cross, a date known to be near the spring equinox because it happened at the time of the Passover. Supposedly, this calculation was done early in Church history and produced Christmas celebrations among even the first Christians. But I have read the writings of the Church Fathers, and I cannot find any discussion of the celebration of Christmas before the fourth century of the Christian (or Common) Era. Moreover, that discussion is based on a misunderstanding of a verse in the Bible, a misunderstanding that the earliest Christians probably would not have made.

A priest named Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple when he saw an angel. This angel promised Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, one who would be an important messenger in God’s plan. (That son is known as John the Baptist.) The birth of Elizabeth’s son was a miracle, because she and Zechariah were beyond the age when people generally become parents. This miracle repeats that of Isaac, who was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety.

Six months later the same angel visited a young woman, probably about fifteen years old, in Nazareth. The angel again announced a miraculous birth. This time the miracle would be conception of a son without the participation of a human father, because Mary was a virgin betrothed (promised or engaged) to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel specifically told Mary that Elizabeth, her relative, was six months into her pregnancy. Mary visited Elizabeth, then returned to Nazareth. John was born to Elizabeth, and six months later Jesus was born to Mary.

Because Zechariah was a priest performing priestly duties in the Temple, some Christians assumed that Zechariah was offering the annual sacrifice for the Day of Atonement in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. Luke does not mention the sacrifice of atonement; he says only that Zechariah was burning incense. Nor does Luke call Zechariah a high priest; he notes that Zechariah was taking his turn to burn incense in the Temple, along with other priests. But, misreading Luke’s account, those Christians deduced that the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and John’s coming birth must have been in September, at the time of the Day of Atonement. Therefore, the announcement to Mary six months later would have been in March, John would have been born in June, and Jesus would have been born in December. These two announcements and two births fall near the two equinoxes and two solstices, allowing for celebrations near these events among Christians (although the announcement to Mary, dated to March 25, is easily overshadowed by the greater celebration of Easter the same time of year).

Does it matter when Jesus was born? The earliest Christians didn’t seem to consider the date important. Christians celebrate, not just a birthday, but the miracle of the Incarnation, the fact that God became human to reconcile humans to God. That miracle merits celebration at any time, but why not observe it after the winter solstice, when the days are becoming measurably longer? As Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light the darkness can neither comprehend nor extinguish, so Christians celebrate their Savior at the same time that other people celebrate for other reasons. J.

The Victorian Age, part three

Early in the Industrial Age, women and children were hired to work in the factories. Over time, society increasingly reacted against that system. In the previous centuries, families had worked together in agriculture or in craft-making. Now, the owners of factories set schedules for the workday. These realities combined to create a new perception, that of the ideal Victorian family.

In the United States, this image of the ideal family is associated more with the 1950s, with television programs such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. The Victorian Era essentially created this image of a family in which the man is head of the family but leaves the family in the morning to go work in a factory or an office. The woman remains home, tending to the house and the children. Older children are sent to school, where they learn reading and writing and arithmetic. After passing through adolescence, they fall in love and marry and raise children of their own—and once again, the man leaves each morning to work, and the woman stays home to manage the household.

This Victorian ideal family was always the exception rather than the norm. Certain jobs were designated as women’s work—secretarial duties, teaching in school (especially the younger grades), nursing, serving food in restaurants, and work associated with textiles and clothing. Division of labor according to gender was more pronounced in the Victorian Era than it had been before industrialism redefined labor. New definitions of masculinity and femininity generally found some inspiration and authority in older traditions. The Bible describes an order of creation that distinguishes male and female; but the noble wife of Proverbs 31 buys and sells. She runs the family business. She does more around the house than cooking and cleaning and changing diapers. She is not a Victorian housewife.

The Victorian ideal was never the norm. As it became the model for family life, though, it began to meet resistance. While voting rights were extended to more men, women also sought (and eventually obtained) the right to vote, and then to be elected into government as well. Other careers—and leadership within those careers—eventually opened to women. These women were not battling to overturn centuries of patriarchy and oppression. For the most part, they were balancing a skewed response to the traumatic changes introduced by industrialization. This would lead, in the twentieth century, to the feminist movement. In the twenty-first century, it would also produce confusion about gender that had not even been considered before Victorian times.

Victorians also invented the modern childhood. Children had always helped out on the farm or in the family craft. When they were barred from factories and sent to schoolhouses, their lives altered dramatically. No literature had been written for children until this era. Toys were not a big business before this era. Playtime and organized recreational activities only began in Victorian times. Santa Claus is a Victorian invention, far different from the Saint Nicholas that preceded him. Even when Victorians insisted that children were “to be seen and not heard,” they defined a difference between children and adults that had not been considered earlier. By the middle of the twentieth century, a generation gap would have formed, and that would later sort itself into a series of generations, competing with one another for their place in the world.

But two world wars and a great depression were needed before these chickens hatched in the Victorian Age finally came home to roost. J.

The Victorian Age, part two

The Victorian Age was, in some ways, an idyllic time in human history. Science and technology were providing many benefits, including improving nutrition and health. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was finally being preached in all nations. Courtesy and good manners were routine.  Fine arts were available to more people than ever before, from museums and public libraries to pianos in the average home. The average standard of living was improving. Hope was widespread that, in a few more generations, war and poverty and disease would be abolished around the world.

But the Victorian Age had a dark side. Part of that dark side was racism. Many educated Europeans interpreted Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, to mean that some humans are fitter than others and should rule over others. Even as slavery was abolished, a new wave of colonialism put much of the world under European control. Otto von Bismarck hosted a meeting in Berlin in which representatives of European nations divided Africa among themselves, leaving independence only to the Kingdom of Ethiopia and to Liberia—a country created by the United States to contain former slaves. India, Indochina, and Indonesia were similarly claimed by European powers, while native governments in Siam and China were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with European interests. Indeed, before Victoria became queen, the British had already fought a war in China to maintain their right to sell opium to Chinese people. (Imagine Mexico fighting and winning a war with the United States to guarantee the right of Mexican citizens to sell illegal drugs in the USA!)

The British spoke of the “white man’s burden” to provide “civilization” to the darker-skinned people of the world. While the British were willing to grant self-government to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (all populated and controlled by people of European ancestry), they delayed indefinitely the same sort of freedom to India and to other colonies in the British Empire. In 1857, the British interpreted a series of local protests in various parts of India as wide-scale rebellion, and the British used military might to increase their control of southern Asia. In the United States, jobs were provided for freed slaves and for immigrants from Asia and Europe, but every new wave of workers was viewed with suspicion and dread. American cities were divided into neighborhoods of various cultures—Irish, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, eastern European, Chinese, black, Jewish—and members of each culture stuck to their own kind.

Industrialization created problems of pollution and of an impoverished working class. In theory, capitalism provided relief by promising that the best workers would receive the highest wages and best working conditions, forcing employers to treat their workers well. Government regulations also helped to prevent abuse in the workplace. Among the most important regulations was recognition of labor unions—groups of workers united to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers. Meanwhile, voting rights were granted to a larger segment of society, giving common workers power to elect government officials who would protect their rights and provide relief to their grievances.

During the Victorian Age, many intellectuals anticipated further changes in society that would eliminate the problems of industrialization. These changes were all called “socialism,” although they were not all the same. Some socialists created small communities where people who worked together also profited together, sharing the benefits of their labor and supporting their neighbors in the community. In some cases, these communities became the property of the business owners, who also ran the company store, the schools, the municipal government, and even the churches. Other socialists envisioned new communities in which families would each have a private apartment for sleeping but would eat together in cafeterias and share public transportation between their dwellings and their workplaces or schools. One group, called the Fabian Society, predicted and encouraged small and gradual changes aimed at a new socialist world. Others, including Karl Marx, predicted and encouraged sudden violent changes in which workers rebelled against business owners and their partners, the government leaders and church workers. The workers would take control of society, have the government run businesses for a while (socialism), and then allow the government to wither and die while people shared the benefits of their work—“from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”

Japan began the Victorian Age as a nation closed to the world, carefully limiting the number of people who could enter Japan from other countries or who could leave Japan to visit other countries. This practice ended when an American gunship threatened violence unless Japan would sign a “Treaty of Friendship.” This embarrassment overturned the Japanese government, and the new leaders toured Europe and North America to see what was working in the rest of the world. They brought modern ideas back to Japan—modern schools, modern military training and equipment, modern government with elected officials but also a centralized executive leader, and the best modern economic system (which was capitalism). The government built factories but quickly sold them to Japanese corporations. They improved the status of Japan so quickly that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was able to overcome China and even Russia in military confrontations.

Japan joined the party late, but the nation still benefited from the good things the Victorian Age offered. In the coming century, Japan would also experience some struggles from the dark side of the Victorian Age, a dark side that would first be felt in Europe. J.

The clam in the middle of the storm

I have been absent from WordPress for several days, not because of a deliberate social media fast (a practice which meets with my approval), but simply because of the business of the season. In addition to the usual Advent and Christmas activities, some extra events have also been occupying my time. For one thing, I will be speaking this week at the funeral of a long-time church member; she asked me some months ago to speak at her funeral, and I promised to do so, neither of us knowing at the time that this would happen during the latter part of the Advent season. When her son called to let me know she had died and to repeat the request on behalf of the family, his words were tangled (as happens to most of us at stressful times). He wanted to say that the family would be honored to have me speak, but he kept saying instead that it would be an honor for me to speak at his mother’s funeral. Which it is, in fact, but I know what he was trying to say.

Last February, in the midst of a record-breaking spell of winter weather, two of my daughters moved into a new apartment. Most things have gone well for them in their new place, but this month they began finding that water was leaking into their apartment, soaking the carpeting and pooling on the harder floors. The apartment management sent repair specialists to find and fix the leak, but in a larger building with several units that task is harder than it is in a single-family house. As a result, we have been housing refugees this month—three cats and a dog, although the dog was only here part of the time. The dog managed to complicate matters, though, by breaking through a window because a neighbor of my daughters was walking his dog; this meant that my daughter’s dog needed time at a veterinary clinic, resulting in family being out on the road in the midst of several, tornado-bearing thunderstorms Friday night. All went well for my family, though, and we pray for those who suffered greater losses in those terrible storms.

Christmas decorations are going up in and around the house, although we seem to have more electrical problems than usual this year. The blue lights we string across the front of the house had segments that would not light. I suspect that many households that use this kind of decoration buy new strings of bulbs every year and do not try to store them and reuse them as we do. Then we had similar problems with the lights for the Christmas tree indoors. I was able to get one of three dysfunctional strings working. Another has a segment that will not light but is bundled together and hidden on the back side of the tree. The third one that refuses to work is being kept as a source for replacement bulbs, as a fair number of bulbs are burnt out. I assure them that I can relate. I shopped online for replacement bulbs, but they are hard to find; the only ones available include the bulb but no socket, meaning that replacement involves threading the tiny wires of the new bulb through the old socket. Cannibalizing the extra string clearly is the better choice.

And I have messages to prepare for other audiences, which is why WordPress sinks lower on my list of priorities. I was reading one message this weekend before sharing it and discovered a typo that Word’s spellcheck failed to notice. Speaking about the Biblical encouragement to rejoice (and I say it again: Rejoice!—Philippians 4:4), I described how that word seems sometimes like a commandment, like the commandment not to be anxious. Both these messages, I said, are promises and not commandments. We should not put extra pressure on ourselves, trying to rejoice, trying not to worry. Instead, we understand that Jesus has already fixed our problems. For that reason, we rejoice and do not worry. Speaking of the “peace at the center” that comes from having Christ at the center (of our lives and of our holiday observances), I wrote about the clam in the middle of the storm. There is potential for a great message based around that picture, but I haven’t had time to write that message; I simply changed the word “clam” back to “calm.”

As time permits, I hope to finish my series of world history posts, wrapping up the Victorian Age and carrying through the twentieth century—World Wars, the Great Depression, post-modernism, and globalization. But I have already created an outline for yet another book, one which will focus on philosophy, especially questions about truth and how we know what is true. Among other things, this book will acknowledge the possibility (popularized in the Matrix movies) that we are living in a simulated world and not in reality. Given current scientific understandings of general relativity, subatomic physics, quantum mechanics, and the nature of time, the simulation theory is not far-fetched; moreover, it may mesh nicely with a creationist, young-earth perspective. But that writing will not appear until next month.

Blessings to each of you in your Advent observances. J.

The Victorian Age, part one

She was still a teenager in 1837 when Alexandrina Victoria’s uncle died and she became Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. By this time the royal authority was more ceremonial than governmental, yet this queen became the symbol of an era, an era during which it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This saying was literally true, as the nation had claimed lands in the western hemisphere (Canada, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, British Honduras, and British Guiana), in Africa, in south Asia (India and Burma), in east Asia (especially the port of Hong Kong), and in the south Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand). At no time during the twenty-four-hour day was the sun failing to shine on British soil. Its preeminence in worldly politics made the saying figuratively true as well. British power was balanced in Europe by France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Ancient China and the new United States of America also had their place in the grand scheme of things. But for most of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful and important nation on earth, and Queen Victoria was the most power and important person in Britain.

The Industrial Revolution and the European age of exploration had helped to make Britain great. Enlightenment ideas regarding human rights and equality, limited government, and a capitalist economy all contributed to the greatness of Britain as well. Britain shared her greatness with the world, and accomplishments from the rest of the world added to the triumph of civilization in the United Kingdom. Human triumphs increased each year, and it seemed unlikely that human progress would falter or fall anytime soon.

The heyday of modern thought had arrived. Science had triumphed over superstition. Astronomy, chemistry, and biology all contributed to make students wiser than their predecessors, and it seemed that all science needed to do was continue refining its techniques to place the final details on its picture of the world as it truly works. These scientific discoveries were harnessed into technology. Travel was faster and safer than ever before. Electrical power had been tamed and forced to serve humanity. Communication flew from city to city at the speed of light. Photography captured accurate records of images, and ways were also being found to record sound. Travel through the air was within reach, and travel to the moon—and beyond, to the stars—was no longer unthinkable. Education was reaching more and more people. Cheap paper made newspapers and magazines available, and also allowed the mass distribution of new novels and of classical texts. Everything was becoming the work of machines: factory work, agriculture, and even warfare. Humanity was coming ever closer to achieving its full potential… or so it seemed at the time.

This optimism was felt in international politics. The Congress of Vienna resolved Europe’s problems after the Napoleonic wars, ensuring that the powerful governments would no longer battle one another in endless wars. A new liberal notion, called nationalism, was added to the other Enlightenment ideas of human rights and limited governments. Nationalism said that a nation—a group of people with common language, religion, culture, history, values, traditions—could live together in one place under a government of their own people, rather than having to live as part of someone else’s country. Nationalism was breaking apart empires like the Ottoman Empire, while at the same time it united countries such as Germany and Italy, both long fragmented into smaller pieces of property, each with its own government. German unification included brief border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. Afterward, Otto von Bismarck of Germany pledged faithfulness to the same balance of powers affirmed in Vienna half a century ago. The United States endured a painful and destructive Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century, but most powerful nations were able to push war to the fringes—to the nationalist revolution in Greece, the border conflict between Russia and the Ottomans in the Crimean region, the British effort to end the resistance of Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boer War), and similar struggles in India, China, and other places far from the homeland of Enlightenment.

The same optimism prevailed in the United States. Believing that a Manifest Destiny gave them preeminence over North America, Americans defeated the Indian tribes and the Mexican government, soon stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans across the continent. The Civil War ended with the abolition of slavery, and industrialization helped to conquer the economic costs of the war. Education brought science, literature, morality, and patriotism to the growing population. Before the end of the century, America had become a world power, defeating the Spanish Empire, offering freedom to the island of Cuba while adding Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands to America’s domain.

Optimism was felt in religious spheres as well. Some Christian scholars, building upon the Enlightenment, purged the Bible of superstition and distilled from it ethical guidance for human life. Others held firmly to the historic teachings of the Bible, laboring to bring Christ to people everywhere. Christians countered the oppressive effects of capitalism and industrialism, delivering food and medicine and Gospel comfort to the poor, encouraging business owners and governments to defend the rights of the working class, and rescuing sinners from the evils of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The same fervor sent Christian explorers into the depths of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the south Pacific lands. The brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ; they also brought medicine, scientific knowledge, and the benefits of civilization while working to counter slavery and other oppression and to gain knowledge of the geography, resources, and populations of previously-unknown portions of the world.

This was the Victorian Age: a time of optimism, accomplishment, and unceasing progress. Science and education would improve life for people everywhere. Heaven on earth was achievable. Queen Victoria’s death early in the twentieth century seemed little more than another ceremonial passing of the torch to the next generation. People did not realize how quickly their optimism could be overturned. J.

When a wise man lost his head

[This post is a report from three years ago. I’m glad to say that the wise man in question has kept his head intact through the ten-and-one-half months of storage and is doing fine on display.]

When I was a child, my parents did not play Christmas music until Thanksgiving Day. That tradition continues in my household. On the other hand, Thanksgiving weekend always saw the appearance of the ceramic manger scene, another tradition I have continued. The manger scene belongs to the twelve days of Christmas, not to the season of Advent. Moreover, the manger scene is historically inaccurate, with the wise men arriving in Bethlehem at the same time as the shepherds. (Matthew 2 records that the wise men found Mary and the child (not newborn infant) in a house in Bethlehem.) The church I attend has solved the later problem by placing the wise men and their camels across the chancel from the manger scene with shepherds, sheep, and other barnyard animals. But my display at home has them all: Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, and assorted animals.

Most of the scene consists of ceramic pieces made for the family by my mother-in-law some years ago. But two of the angels are Lladro figures. Their colors nicely match the style of the other figures, so we have always included them in the scene.

These ceramic pieces all survived the Cinco de Mayo fire of 2017. Our insurance company paid to have them professionally cleaned. They came back individually wrapped in bubble wrap, each surrounded by a layer of paper. I’ve chosen to keep the same wrappings, although prior to that they were wrapped only in tissue paper and never came to any harm.

But this year, when I checked to make sure I had the right box, the top figure made a clanging sound as I unwrapped it. Seeing that it was one of the Lladro angels, I feared the worst. But when I got the box inside and fully unwrapped the angel, I saw that she had dropped her harp. It had been glued to her hands, and the summer heat must have softened the glue. No harm done, so far.

I continued unwrapping figures and placing them into the scene. Then I came across a piece that had broken, in spite of the bubble wrap and paper protection. I gasped or sighed, I don’t recall which. A voice from the bedroom called, “What’s broken?” I answered, “A wise man lost his head.”

A wise man lost his head. It happens sometimes. In this case it was a clean break and can be repaired with glue. Other times when a wise man loses his head, the damage is not so easily fixed. Insults shouted in a fit of anger are not easily erased. False charges and accusations do not easily fade, even after a sincere apology. One might argue that a truly wise man or woman would never fly off the handle in such a manner, but these things happen. We try to be wise; we try to watch our words. On some occasions, though, we fail.

Christians live under forgiveness. Christ has atoned on the cross for all our sins. Christians also share forgiveness. Jesus told his followers to forgive, not seventy-seven times, or even seventy times seven times (490), but an imaginary number that might as well be translated “seventyleven times.” We remain sinners, living in a sin-polluted world. From time to time, even the best of us lose our heads. Thanks to God’s grace, forgiveness is the glue that puts our heads back where they belong. J.