She speaks, yet she says nothing–what’s with that?

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. Whereas Pythagoras believed that reality at its most basic level consists of numbers, the Bible reports that God spoke the universe and all that it contains into existence. Moreover, when the Son of God entered creation to redeem and rescue it from evil, one of his followers identified him as “the Word” and wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

On the other hand, when a group of people defied God and sought to build a tower as a symbol of their defiance, God overturned their rebellion by causing them to speak different languages. Humble and loving people could have overcome this opposition by learning to communicate with one another, but arrogant people like the tower-builders each insisted that he or she was speaking the only proper language and that those who spoke another language were wrong. As a result, the tower was never built.

Since that time, languages have changed, mixed, spread, and in some cases disappeared. English is largely a blend of Germanic and Latin vocabulary and grammar, with some Celtic and other influences stirred into the mix as well. As a result of that mixture and of centuries of change, English contains many mysteries, such as the contradictory pronunciation of the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” New words regularly appear. The word “inflammable” means “likely to burst into flame.” At some point in the twentieth century, someone feared that people would misunderstand the word “inflammable” and shortened it to “flammable.” Now both words are in the dictionary, with identical meanings, even though it appears they should be antonyms rather than synonyms.

A friend of mine thought she could obtain an easy A in high school by taking classes in Spanish. After all, she spoke Spanish at home with her family every day. To her disappointment, she discovered that speaking Spanish at home was not the same as understanding Spanish. Her grammar was not up to her teacher’s standards, her spelling was incorrect, and her vocabulary was smaller than she realized. Getting a good grade in her own language turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected.

This week another blogger took me to task for referring to the meaning of the Greek prefix “anti” in the title “antichrist.” In the Greek of the New Testament, as written in the first century A.D., the prefix “anti” means “taking the place of,” not so much “in opposition to,” as it signifies in contemporary English. The blogger’s rebuttal of my comment surprised me so much that I did not respond, and now it’s water under the bridge, too late for a meaningful discussion. If I offended anyone by seeming too proud of my knowledge of Biblical Greek, I apologize. But the blogger’s suggestion that knowing Greek and Hebrew are not helpful for understanding the Bible carries things a bit too far.

On the one hand, to learn the commandments of God and to see that we have not kept those commandments does not require any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. The English translations convey that message quite well. To recognize Jesus as the Son of God who redeems and rescues sinners through his sinless life and sacrificial death also requires no special language skills. Once again, the translated Bible conveys that message effectively. To know of his victorious resurrection, his guarantee of eternal life in a new creation, and his ongoing presence in this world also requires no Greek or Hebrew studies. In this case also, the basic message is communicated flawlessly in any translation of the Bible.

Anyone who presumes to teach others about the Bible should go beyond these basics. Even if he or she does not learn to read Hebrew and Greek fluently, he or she at least should be capable of consulting reference books on the Bible and understanding their application. Not only does the Bible need to be translated from ancient languages into contemporary languages; information about the cultures in which the Bible was written needs to be learned as well. Misunderstandings of certain verses and conflicts between different interpretations of the Bible are reduced (but, alas, in a sin-stained world, not eliminated) by consulting the Bible in its original languages and contexts rather than trusting contemporary translations to convey the full meaning and nuance of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.

The other blogger mentioned a case in which a man from Athens corrected a preacher who referred to some Greek word or phrase from the New Testament. Because no details were included, I cannot tell whether the preacher was truly in error or if the preacher was kind and polite enough not to insist to the man from Athens that the preacher was correct in his interpretation. Consider a similar scenario: a person in France has studied Elizabethan English in order to understand the plays of Shakespeare. Now this French person is teaching a class on Shakespeare. A man from North Carolina challenges the teacher’s explanation of a certain line, insisting that he has spoken English all his life and is better qualified to explain Shakespeare than anyone who grew up in France. (By the way, Andy Griffith performed a wonderful routine about Romeo and Juliet in which, when Juliet exclaims, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefor art thou Romeo?” and Romeo responds, in a thick Carolina accent, “Why I’m right here.”)

A Cuban-born woman once asked me the rule for when the letter t should be pronounced like a d in English. Until that time I had not noticed how often Americans pronounce ts as ds. Say the sentence “I wrote a letter to my sister” with crisp ts and notice how odd it sounds. But if a rule exists about when ts sound like ds, I’ve never learned it. By the same token, Spanish speakers often distinguish “b as in burro” and “v as in vaca” because their bs and vs sound the same.

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. When we think casually about communication, we tend to think of a single message being sent from one person to another. But there are several versions of each message: the version the creator intended, the version actually produced, and the version received by the audience. To further complicate matters, there is the actual creator and the creator assumed by the audience, as well as the actual audience and the audience assumed by the creator. When carefully studying a message, all these versions and participants must be kept in mind. It’s a wonder that two of us can communicate at all in this crazy world. J.

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick was not Irish. He did not single-handedly convert all the Irish people to Christianity, nor did he drive snakes out of Ireland. He was not a bishop and probably was not a monk, although he supported the establishment of monasteries in Ireland. His day was not a major celebration in Ireland until recently, when the customs of Irish communities in other parts of the world were carried back to Ireland.

Patrick was British, born and raised in Britain in the years after the Roman Empire had withdrawn its forces from the island to deal with matters closer to home. When he was a boy, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish master, who kept Patrick for six years. After that time Patrick escaped, returned home, and apparently also spent some time living in a monastery in Gaul (now France). He felt a strong call to return to Ireland and serve there as a missionary. Patrick did not set out on his own; he was sent as a missionary of the church and received support for his work. While he was not even the first Christian missionary sent to Ireland, he has become the most famous. The strength of Christianity in Ireland during the following centuries led to the re-evangelism of Britain and Gaul after those lands had been overrun by pagan Germanic tribes.

During the 1800s, many Irish people fled their homeland for political and economic reasons. Coming to North America, they faced the same problems most immigrants face. They were viewed suspiciously as “un-American” by their neighbors, in large part because of their Roman Catholic beliefs. As a result, they banded together, helped one another find jobs and dwellings, built churches, and tried to teach their children Irish language and customs. They chose March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day (the anniversary of the missionary’s death in 461), as an opportunity to maintain their cultural identity. Over time, as they became increasingly part of the American fabric, their celebrations drew in community leaders, especially politicians. Saint Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in Chicago, Boston, New York, and even cities like Little Rock and Hot Springs, are a highlight of this time of year.

What are we celebrating? Some people view the day only as an opportunity to drink beer or whiskey. Others use it to participate in cultural events. Christians can also use this day to think of missionaries and of the mission opportunities we have in the world today. As Patrick willingly returned to the place where he had once been a slave to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so today also Christians share the freedom and forgiveness that belongs to us through Christ. J.

Time to change time

Daylight Saving Time was never a good idea. It has become increasingly irrelevant. Yet, for no good reason, most citizens of the United States of America will change their clocks this weekend, losing an hour of sleep, delaying sunset by an hour but also delaying sunrise by that very same hour.

For most of human history, people awoke at sunrise and went to bed at sunset. Candles and lanterns provided some illumination after dark, and there have always been people whose careers or preferences caused them to work late into the night and sleep past sunrise. For the most part, though, people have found it easiest and most natural to conform their schedules to the created patterns of day and night.

Ancient civilizations divided daytime and nighttime into twelve hours each. Away from the equator, daytime hours were longer and nighttime hours were shorter in the summer; daytime hours were shorter and nighttime hours were longer in the winter. About one thousand years ago, new technology produced clocks that could measure hours and minutes and seconds, keeping them the same length day or night. With this innovation, sunrise could be described as happening at a particular time, such as 5 a.m. in the summer, 6 a.m. at the equinoxes, and 7 a.m. in the winter. Still, noon was understood to be the time when the sun was most directly overhead, and midnight really was the middle of the night, happening precisely halfway between sunset and sunrise.

Rapid travel, particularly that of trains, brought another innovation. Travelers complained about having to change their watches at every new city, so the world’s governments agreed to divide the planet into twenty-four time zones. Now people can travel from city to city and expect the time to remain the same, except when they cross a time zone line. At that point, they suddenly gain or lose an entire hour. In most places, noon no longer happens when the sun has reached the meridian of the sky and midnight no longer happens in the middle of the night.

By this time, efficient electric lights had replaced candles and lanterns. People found it easy to work or play late into the night. Rising with the sun became exceptional behavior rather than common. Given this change in habits, various governments experimented with changing the time once again. Pretending that they were “saving” daylight with the change, governments were merely tampering with time, making some locations experience midday and midnight up to two hours from the actual middle of the day or of the night.

Such tampering might have been justifiable in the twentieth century, but twenty-first century technology has made Daylight Saving Time pointless. Indeed, the next big change in our relationship with time could restore what was lost by previous changes. Thanks to the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and other inventions, the world could easily function with 1,440 time zones. Each of them would see noon and midnight occur within one minute of the actual midpoint of the day and of the night. A single world-wide time could be used to schedule all events of greater than local interest. (Why not Greenwich time, also known as Coordinated Universal Time (UCT)?)  Instead of promising that a television show would be broadcast at eight o’clock Eastern Time, seven o’clock Central Time, and so forth, the broadcast could be announced to take place at two o’clock UCT, and everyone would be able to convert that time into local time.

In fact, each home and business could have a timepiece in every room that shows both local time and UCT. Travelers with a GPS device would always be able to access both UCT and local time. For most people, the adjustment to a more natural flow of time would require no more than a month or two. Once this adjustment was made, time would remain stable and predictable in every place. No longer would we have to face two weekends a year in which our sense of time is wrenched and scrambled.

There is no reason to have the sun directly overhead at 1:30 in the afternoon or to have midnight closer to sunset than to sunrise. People who want to sleep late will sleep late no matter what the time is called; people that want to stay awake late into the night will stay awake no matter what the time is called. No daylight has ever been saved by Daylight Saving Time. Because it is possible, even easy, to return to a natural flow of time, it is time to do so for the common benefit of people everywhere. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.

Who said that?

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

At least I think Lincoln said it… I saw it on the Internet.

In a world of fake news and other misinformation, historical facts and quotes are as unreliable as any other information. Type the name of any famous person into Google, and among the results will be a page of quotes. But on most of those pages, the quotes will be listed without any source, and in some cases the creator of the site was misinformed. As a result, if you type a famous line into Google, you may see it attributed to any number of people. Google does not know everything—it links your search to other people’s assertions, and some of those assertions are wrong.

Often a profound or clever line from an obscure person is credited to a more famous person. In his book Funny People, Steve Allen provides a list of quips that he suggests were said by Groucho Marx. He then reveals that he, Steve Allen, was responsible for every one of them. He admits, though, that they sound funnier coming from Groucho. Many statements about liberty and the danger of government oppression have been attributed to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers of the United States. In more than a few cases, the lines were written and attributed to them long after they had died.

Ancient figures, including Socrates and Cicero, are sometimes quoted as deploring the state of their times, with young people failing to respect their elders, social morals on the decline, and a general lack of trustworthiness among the population. The point of the citation is to show that these problems have always been around, but, alas, the quote is a recent invention and was never said by Socrates, Cicero, or any other ancient sage.

I’ve approached people quoting Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious people of note, asking them in which document they found their quote. They admitted that they didn’t know where it was written, but they thought so-and-so had written it. In the case of Kierkegaard, the speaker told an audience that Kierkegaard had described Christian worship as a performance in which we are the actors and God is the spectator. When I spoke privately with the speaker, he admitted that he didn’t know where Kierkegaard had written that line, and I suggested that the speaker was probably misinformed. Years later I came across something similar in one of Kierkegaard’s works, with an important difference: Kierkegaard was discussing, not Christian worship, but Christian good deeds, which is an entirely different matter altogether.

(“Which is an entirely different matter.”)

Quoting out of context is as bad as inventing or misattributing a quote. Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often refer to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” They speak to the last three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in the woods and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Such speeches suggest that Frost encourages us to be unique individuals, to dare to be different, to refuse to follow the crowd, and so on. Frost recommends no such thing in this poem. Given the title, the poem could easily be read as an expression of regret and not a suggestion that we all should take the road less traveled.

Read carefully the following paragraph taken from a book written a little more than one hundred years ago. The book is called The Life of Reason, and the paragraph is found on pages 82 and 83; the entire book is nearly 500 pages long. The paragraph is part of a chapter called “Flux and Constancy in Human Nature,” the last of ten chapters in the section of the book entitled, “Reason in Common Sense.” Here is the paragraph:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”

I cite this paragraph, not to agree with it—I particularly dislike the disparaging remarks about savages and barbarians—but to see if the third sentence jumped out at you as something familiar. Poor George Santayana, who is remembered for only one sentence (which yesterday I saw attributed to Edmund Burke—that started me down this road). Some years ago I heard the same sentence quoted by three different speakers at the dedication of a library building, and I doubt any of those speakers could have said who Santayana was, when and where he lived, and what he meant by that sentence. It fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker; hardly anyone would care to advertise the sentiment that most people are either too young or too old to learn.

Or, as Julius Caesar once said, “There’s hardly any point in speaking, when people are going to remember it wrong as soon as tomorrow dawns.” J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

(Reposted from February 2, 2016)

Finding history with a metal detector

Let’s suppose that you got a metal detector for Christmas. You are waiting for the first nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon to take it out and explore with it. You know of a place nearby—maybe a place where a Civil War skirmish was fought—and you are eager to see if you can find some bullets or brass buttons or belt buckles.

Wait! Stop! Don’t do it until you know how to do it right. If you think you can find some stuff and bring it home and show it to people and impress them, you’re probably wrong. In a worst case scenario, you are actually guilty of vandalism and of destroying history.

Step one of the proper way to conduct historical research with a metal detector is to get permission of the owner of the property to search for items there. If the property belongs to a state park or a national park, forget about it—only professional archaeologists will be allowed to search there. On private property or maybe a city park, you may have luck getting permission. If you own the property yourself, you are free to do what you want, but you should still go about things the right way.

Having permission to search, you want to bring more than a metal detector and a shovel. Bring a camera, a pad of paper and a pencil or pen, and a set of small brightly-colored flags (orange is good) numbered from one to whatever.

When you arrive, chose a parcel of ground to search, and photograph it from several angles before you start searching. The “before” pictures are very important to researchers.

Sweep the area with your metal detector, and plant a flag on every spot where you detect an item. Don’t dig yet. When you have finished searching, take more pictures from several directions. Also draw a rough map of the parcel, showing the approximate location of every flag with its number. Your map does not need to be precise—the photographs will help with that—but it should show the relative position of the flags.

Next, one by one, dig up the objects that you found with the metal detector. Try not to move them as you unearth them. As each one becomes visible, take a picture of it where it lies. Try to include the flag in the picture with the number visible. Strive to make it clear exactly how the item is oriented within the parcel—maybe take every picture from the north, or in every picture make sure the flag is to the north of the item. Once you have photographed it in its place, you may remove it, clean it, wrap it, and bring it home.

Now, when a historian or archaeologist studies your items, he or she will be able to create a more complete account of the story they reveal. Knowing where they were in the parcel and how they were lying, the researcher will develop far more information than was possible just looking at the item without any context.

By the same token, let’s suppose that you decide to develop that weed patch or empty bit of lawn behind your house. When you start digging, you find some ancient stone tools, the kind that many people call arrowheads. (Most of them are too big to have been used on arrows. They were probably attached to throwing spears.) You might be tempted to scoop them up, throw them in a box, and show your collection to others later. But once you have moved them, they have lost nearly their entire value, unless you first document exactly how they were situated when they were discovered.

Once again, take some “before” pictures with your camera. Then flag each artifact and take more pictures. Photograph each item as it lies, and then you may carefully remove it. As you continue your project, keep track in the same way of every item you find. Only in this way can you preserve the story of what happened on your land long before you ever bought it and moved onto it.

Of course it would be even better if you invited some professional archaeologists to handle these items for you and for the sake of future researchers. Probably you are unwilling to delay your project for several months until they can work you into their schedule. Working with the discovered items the same way professionals would work with them is your best procedure. History belongs to all of us. Taking the trouble to preserve as much of it as possible is a task which also belongs to all of us. J.

Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

The last day of this month marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic act, posting 95 theses for debate on the campus of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation (aka the Lutheran Reformation or the Protestant Reformation). One of the most interesting facts about this event is that Martin Luther, when he wrote his 95 theses, was not yet “Lutheran.”

Luther’s theses were written in response to an Indulgence being sold in the area (although not in Wittenberg itself). Indulgences were receipts for money given to the Church as an act of Penance. Penance was an idea rooted in early Christianity, from the days when the Roman government was persecuting Christians. During a time of persecution, some Christians would drop out of the Church and act like their pagan neighbors. Faithful Christians risked imprisonment, torture, and even death for denying the many pagan gods and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. When the time of persecution ended, some of the drop-out Christians would return to the Church expecting forgiveness for their sin of denying Christ. When reminded that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father,” these sinners would remind Church leaders that the Church is about the forgiveness of sins, and that even Peter had denied Christ but had been restored to the Church. As a compromise, Church leaders agreed that the drop-outs could return, but only after they had shown that they were truly sorry for their sin. Their acts of sorrow—almost an initiation back into the Church—were called Penance.

The new teaching of Penance raised a question about what happened to Christians who died before they completed their Penance—were they saved or lost? Church leaders acknowledged that they were forgiven for their sins, but they taught that Penance could be completed after death in a place they called Purgatory. (The Italian poet Dante located Purgatory on a mountain in the south Pacific, directly across the Earth from Italy.) When persecution was no longer a problem for Christians, the ideas of Penance and Purgatory were extended to all sins. A Christian confessed his or her sins, was absolved (promised forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice), and then was assigned Penance to complete the process of forgiveness. During the Crusades, fighters who went to battle the Muslim Turks were promised a Plenary Indulgence, meaning they would not have to spend any time in Purgatory. People unable to go to war were promised a similar Indulgence for contributing money to the preparation of a warrior. Following this procedure, Indulgences became a way for the Church to raise money for various projects. The Indulgence which Luther protested was granted by Pope Leo X to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk; he was also a Doctor of Theology who taught in the University of Wittenberg. He was disturbed by the claims of John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who was selling the Indulgences and exaggerating their importance. Tetzel claimed that the Indulgences he sold could free deceased relatives from Purgatory and that they provided forgiveness for the most vile of sins. At this time, universities had not yet established football and basketball teams, but they competed in debate. Luther hoped to prompt a debate regarding Indulgences and about the general ideas of Penance and forgiveness. He could not have anticipated the enormous results that his 95 theses would produce.

As I wrote above, Martin Luther was not yet “Lutheran” when he wrote his 95 theses. He still accepted without doubt the existence of Purgatory. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope as head of the Christian Church on Earth. Most significantly, Luther still approved of the teaching that penalties must be paid by sinners to complete the process of forgiveness. In the 95 theses, Luther distinguished between penalties assigned by Church leaders, which they could then revoke, and penalties assigned by God, which Church leaders could not revoke. Only later would Luther understand that all penalties for sin were paid by Jesus Christ on the cross and that no penalties remain for those who trust Christ’s promise of forgiveness.

Among the 95 theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences… Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” He went on to suggest that, should the Pope wish to remove souls from Purgatory, he should do so out of love and not for the sake of money.

Luther did not intend to create a division in the Church; he wanted instead to unite Christians around the true teachings of the Bible. By 1519, Luther’s writing showed a full understanding of the completeness of God’s forgiveness, made available through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He was unafraid to challenge any Church authority that placed doubt on God’s forgiveness. In his secular trial in 1521, Luther demanded to be shown from the Bible where he had erred. He would not consent to be instructed by popes and church councils, as he declared that they had contradicted one another and were sometimes mistaken. Luther had a prolific career of writing, teaching, and preaching. He also made mistakes, and no one considers his writings inspired as the apostles and prophets were inspired. Yet Luther’s affirmations of the Bible’s doctrines about forgiveness, spoken in opposition to Church traditions and teachings, started a Reformation movement in the Church that is still profoundly important five hundred years later.

When Lutherans list the important writings about the Bible that define their understanding of Christian doctrine, they do not include Luther’s 95 theses. For that matter, when Luther commented about which of his writings he considered worth saving for future generations to study, he did not include the 95 theses. Instead, Martin Luther and Lutheran leaders after him selected the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, both published in 1529, to be Luther’s most important work. The Small Catechism was written to teach children the key doctrines of the Church. The Large Catechism covers the same doctrines, but does so at a level for adults to read and contemplate.

In the coming weeks, as time permits, I plan to share and comment upon selections from Luther’s Small Catechism. Those words, rather than the 95 theses, are the best way to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. J.