Morgendämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer theologirt.
Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit id es semper esse puerum.
Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
Semper idem sed non eodem modo.

VDMA

Verbum domini manet in aeternum. The word of the Lord endures forever.
1 Peter 1:24-25, quoting Isaiah 40:6,8. Motto of the Lutheran Reformation.


Fayth onely justifieth before God. Robert Barnes, DD The Supplication, fourth essay. London: Daye, 1572.

Lord if Thou straightly mark our iniquity, who is able to abide Thy judgement? Wherefore I trust in no work that I ever did, but only in the death of Jesus Christ. I do not doubt, but through Him to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Robert Barnes, DD, before he was burnt alive for "heresy", 30 July 1540.

What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Martin Luther, Dr. theol. (1522)

For the basics of our faith right here online, or for offline short daily prayer or devotion or study, scroll down to "A Beggar's Daily Portion" on the sidebar.

26 December 2012

The Twelve Days Of Christmas, 2012.

If you, like good king Wenceslaus in the song, look out on the Feast of Stephen -- that's 26 December, but we'll get back to that -- you might think Christmas is over. Already on the evening news on Christmas day the local stations are posting Christmas tree pick up sites and times. Some hang around for a week to give a festive atmosphere to New Year's Eve and Day, then come down. On 2 January, Valentine's Day candy is in the stores.

That fits with the world's Christmas season. The church has a little different season going on. December is largely taken up with Advent. The idea is preparation there too, but not as in buying presents and food. It's about a preparation of repentance for celebrating the coming in the flesh of God as Jesus who will die to save us from our sins, for the coming of faith in him into our hearts, and for the coming of Jesus again in glory to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day.

For which reason the colour of Advent is purple, the colour of royalty and also of repentance. Not his coming in history or our hearts or his return is prepared for by buying stuff.

Christmas Is Not Just One Day!

The church's celebration of Christmas does not begin with December and end on Christmas with New Year's tacked on. It begins on Christmas and continues for several days! Our Christmas manger scenes often have the "humble" shepherds and the "important" visitors -- called Magi, Wise Men, or Kings most often -- all there. But as the story reads, the Three Kings were not there at Christmas! They arrived twelve days later, 6 January, which we celebrate as Epiphany. These twelve days from Christmas through Epiphany are the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Now how did that happen? No-body knows. The thing is, Epiphany is a much older feast than Christmas, yet is now largely forgotten by most, lost in the shuffle by many, and celebrated by a few. Now how did THAT happen?

The Original Christmas.

Well, to me it looks like this. By the late fourth century after Christ, 6 January as the Epiphany existed. The earliest known reference dates from 361, and in those days the references indicate not just the appearance of the Three Kings -- epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning "appearance" or "manifestation" -- but rather the appearance or manifestation, the epiphany, of God, including his birth!

It's not that there wasn't Christmas, it's that this is "Christmas" as well as a celebration all the other events of the young Jesus up to and including his Baptism and his first public miracle at the wedding in Cana. A very big day!

Developments In The Western Church.

In the Western Church, these events began to be spun off from Epiphany. By the sixth century 25 December had become the celebration of his birth. His baptism began to be celebrated after Epiphany, so Epiphany itself in the West fairly early on narrowed its focus to the arrival of the Three Kings (Magi, etc.), who, not being Jews but Gentiles, give it the significance of the appearance or manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles.

I'm of English descent, but I was adopted by people of Irish descent, and my Dad, growing up pre-conciliar RC, always referred to Epiphany as "Little Christmas", an Irish custom from when 6 January in the pre-Gregorian calendar was also Christmas. In later life I was to find out this is one echo of all the stuff mentioned above. Growing up, decorations were always left up through Epiphany, and there was one more "Christmas" gift. I did the same in my house now. And I'll post about Los Tres Reyes (Spanish for The Three Kings) on 6 January, having been culturally adopted by the Puerto Rican contingent at university.

Developments In The Eastern Church.

This did not happen in the Eastern Church, where it retained its original character much longer, with many places much later adopting 25 December as the feast of his birth but keeping the celebration of his baptism on Epiphany, and in a few places yet keeping the Nativity on this day. And there's the added complication that 6 January in the older (Julian, as in Julius Caesar) calendar still used liturgically by the Eastern Church is 19 January in the Gregorian (as in Pope Gregory) calendar used in the West and now pretty much world wide as a convention.

In the Eastern Church the day is more commonly called the Theophany -- divine appearance or divine manifestation -- and is considered the third most important feast in the church's observance, Easter (Pascha) being first and Pentecost second. There ain't no Twelve Days of Christmas for our brethren in the Eastern Church, it's a Western thing, but on the other hand Theophany is more in line with the original of what we in the West call Epiphany, if we remember it to call it anything at all.

And Then Came Vatican II, Oy.

And to complicate it further, after a millennium and one half of usage, Rome, ever at the ready to tinker with the very tradition it says it conserves, decided at its last council, Vatican II in the 1960s, to make it a moveable feast, not on 6 January but on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January. So, if you listen to Rome (and if you listen to Rome, quit!) there ain't no Twelve Days of Christmas in the West now either! Nice going, guys.

For us confessional Lutherans -- those who seek to hold to the catholic, as distinct from the Catholic, faith and church -- while our latest service book, Lutheran Service Book, is infected with the latest Roman virus (please support research that a cure may be found in our time!) it appears that Epiphany has survived as 6 January.

So What's This Feast of Stephen Thing?

"Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the Feast of Stephen". Getting back to that, you think Epiphany got lost in the shuffle, what about this Feast of Stephen? It's 26 December, the day after Christmas. Why? Well, the Stephen remembered on this day is the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith, in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  It is the custom in the church to commemorate someone not on the day of his earthly birth but the day of his birth to eternal life -- generally called death in the world -- but in a case like Stephen the date is not known.  When that happens a date will be chosen for some other reason associated with the person.  For Stephen, the first person known to have been born to eternal life by martyrdom for his faith is celebrated right after the earthly birth of him who came to make eternal life available to us.

So Who's This Wenceslaus, Why Is He Good and Why Is He Looking Out?

Wow, has this guy got a story. Right here, call it ironic, coincidence, or one of those divine consistencies that look like loose ends until you know what they are, but he ended up being a martyr for the Christian faith just like the first one, Stephen, on whose feast he looked out.

Here's a short version of the rest. Wenceslaus, also Wenceslas, is English for his name Vaclav. He was functionally king of Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. But, as he was backed by the German Holy Roman Empire, his title was not actually king but duke, which is just below a king.

This was first via the Duke of Saxony and King of the Germans Henry the Fowler/Heinrich der Vogler. But then via his son Otto I, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on 2 February 962 by Pope, aka bishop of Rome, John XII -- who, btw, then turned on Otto. So Otto went back to Rome and had a layman elected pope instead as Leo VII -- Otto being used to naming bishops and abbots. Then, when John staged a comeback but died and left Benedict V on the papal throne, Otto went back to Rome yet again to get rid of Benedict and make them promise to quit electing popes without the Emperor's (his) OK! There's some hermeneutic of continuity for ya, to paraphrase another Pope Benedict, XVI. Otto was the first clear Holy Roman Emperor since Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse), who was crowned by the bishop of Rome Leo III on Christmas in 800 the first Imperator Augustus in the West since the Fall of Rome on 4 September 476 .

Wenceslaus being backed by such a power did not sit well with some Bohemians, including in his own family, all of them caught between changing religions along with their entire social order.

He's called "good" because he stayed with the Christian faith of his grandmother who raised him, St Ludmilla, who was herself converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius no less, the "Apostles to the Slavs". His brother Boleslaus (Boleslav) though stayed with the native Bohemian religion of their mother Drahomira, who had Ludmilla killed. Boleslav didn't like the Germans or their state-run Christian church. The martyrdom happened when Boleslav arranged to have Vaclav killed, then took the throne. But, he ended up having to work with the Germans anyway and then his son, also named Boleslav, became Christian and took over from him and established the bishop's seat in Prague!

The irony, coincidence, or divine consistency continues to our time. This man Vaclav who in his own time was killed for selling out to the Germans and their power and new religion is now the patron saint of the Czech Republic, which in 2000 established his feast day of 28 September as Czech Statehood Day, a national holiday.

Yeah, that's a short version. Oh, and what was he doing looking out on the Feast of Stephen? Checking things out after he woke up. But the rest of the story isn't told in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song. That was first published in England in 1780. Despite recent speculation, there is no evidence the gifts were code words for Catholic catechesis under persecution. Lyrical peculiarities come from its being an adaptation of a French song. It was introduced in the US in 1910, as part of the Christmas programme at Downer in Milwaukee, now part of Lawrence University.

The rest of the story is told in the carol by John Mason Neale, same guy who wrote O Come, O Come Emmanuel based on the O Antiphons posted about earlier. Small world, huh? Or another of those consistencies. Ain't it great when loose ends become consistencies!

Anyway, good duke Vaclav spotted a guy scrounging for food and asked his page where the guy lived. He then set out with his page to bring the man and his family some aid. The page started faltering due to the cold and snow, but when he followed in Vaclav's footsteps found the ground warm to his feet. Now how's that for being, uh, ablaze!

We Still Got 'em, The Twelve Days of Christmas!!

Guess what, you can still follow in the good king's footsteps. Neale's carol concludes:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

So let's get on with the Twelve Days of Christmas like, give him his due, Good King Wenceslaus!

NOW is when all the fun and festivities are supposed to happen! LEAVE those decorations up, right on up through Twelfth Night! That's the night of 5-6 January, in case you weren't counting, and yes, it's that from which the title of Shakespeare's great play is taken. So far, Twelfth Night has not been retitled First Sunday After The First Saturday In January Eve, though who knows, sillier revisionism happens all the time. Maybe even GIVE A GIFT to someone special for Epiphany, which in some places is the gift giving day, not Christmas, just as God gave himself to us and the Three Kings brought gifts to him. BAKE A CAKE; that's how Kings Cake started and still is done in some places. HAVE FRIENDS OVER -- you get the idea!

And like good king Wenceslaus, DO SOMETHING TO HELP SOMEONE IN NEED! If you don't know someone in need, ask your pastor, he will.  You don't have to live in a country that has Boxing Day to box up something helpful and give it to someone in need.  This custom began because boxes for collection of stuff for the poor were collected in mediaeval times at churches for distribution on the feast of Stephen, inspired by good Duke Vaclav's act of charity.

Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

The appearance or manifestation of God is just too big to contain in one day!!

And therefore the church doesn't, but extends the celebration of God's coming among us over twelve days, so don't let the world, or, sadly, some entities called church, take a bit of it away from you!

Textual Note: I am most honoured that The Lutheran Witness asked if they could print this post as an article in the December 2010 issue. That article is not the same as this post, but was based on the 2009 blog version of this post by their excellent editorial staff. The print version was approved by me, and you can read it online. Generally I revise the annual posts in my Blogoral Calendar somewhat from year to year, so this year's post is not the exact text of the printed version either.

23 December 2012

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Fröhliche Weinachten 2012!

Here is the 2012 edition of my Christmas post.

In addition to the many other things remarkable about Christmas, it is so rich in significance for the Christian faith that over time the church has evolved, unlike any other feast in the church calendar, three distinct masses, or divine services, at three distinct times of the day to contain it all.

That's exactly what the word Christmas is, a contraction of Christ's Mass. The first appearance of the word in English, Old English, to be exact, that survives is from 1038, Cristes maesse, which became Christemasse in Middle English, and now Christmas.

25 December is not Jesus' date of birth. The actual date is unknown. Scripture does not record it according to any calendar, although context clues would suggest sometime in about what we call October. But we just don't know, though many theories abound. From which I think it is safe to conclude that the exact and actual date of Jesus' birth is not important since if it were God would have seen that it got recorded in Scripture.

So why 25 December? Well, in the larger culture around the Hebrews in which Christianity first took hold, both the day and the general time of year already had religious significance. In a world ruled by Rome, every year at the time of the winter solstice was the Saturnalia. What's a Saturnalia? Originally it was held on 17 December and later expanded to one week. Saturn, known as Cronus to the Greeks, was the son of Heaven, Uranus, and Earth, Gaia. Saturn took power from his father Uranus/Heaven and castrated him. But a prophecy arose that a child of Saturn's would one day overthrow him, so to prevent this Saturn ate his children.

That's right, ate his children. But Saturn's wife, Opis, known to the Greeks as Rhea, hid their sixth child Jupiter, known to the Greeks as Zeus, on Crete and gave Saturn a big rock in a blanket instead. Yeah, he ate it. Jupiter/Zeus thus survived and, with his five brothers and six sisters, all called Olympians from their hang out Mount Olympus, did indeed overthrow Saturn/Cronus and his own five brothers and six sisters, all twelve called Titans. (If you're hearing modern words like Titanic and Olympics in here, you're right.)

Now in the Greek version of this story the losing Titans got sent to Hell, well, Tartarus actually, meaning a deep place. But in the Roman version Saturn escaped the rule of Jupiter/Zeus and the Olympians and went to Rome where he established a rule of perfect peace called the Golden Age. In memory of this perfect age, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, when no war could be fought, no business conducted, slaves ate with their masters, and everybody set aside the usual rules of propriety for eating, drinking, gift giving and even getting naked in public.

Right after this came Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, The Day of Birth of the Unconquered Sun, celebrated on 25 December, which in the calendar of the time was winter solstice, the day with the shortest daylight hours of the year, demonstrating that darkness cannot completely overcome light. A number of the early Christian Fathers, St Cyprian among them, spoke of the parallel that Jesus the Son of God and Light of the World was born on the same day as the physical sun and light of the world, neither to be overcome by the forces of darkness.

In addition, other religions in the Roman world had a god's birthday on 25 December, for example the Babylonian sex goddess Ishtar, and the Persian mediator god Mithras, whose mystery cult was popular in the Roman army and carried throughout the Empire. On top of that, the barbarians living to the north of the formal boundaries of the Roman world (sorry, Germanic types) where Winter is harsher had their own winter solstice observances.

So it can look like the whole Christmas thing originated with the Christian Church adopting and adapting familiar material from the world around them, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Saturnalia, and the widespread observance of Winter Solstice, to create a time of celebration for the birth of Jesus. Is that it then? Is Christmas and the observances that go with it simply another step in the evolution of stories about the sun and light not going away but coming back, gods getting born and golden ages, another recasting of universal human themes -- maybe just like Christianity itself?

Don't think so. But also I don't think it is at all necessary to become defensive about the fact that other new life and new light stories pre-existed it, or to insist that Christmas was entirely independent of them, or (yeah, I know, too many ors) to fasten on to one or the other of the many attempts to theologise, like Cyprian, the date of 25 December.

Consider. What did Saturn do? Here's a god who had kids all right -- then ate them to prevent them from doing to him what he did to his own father. In contrast to the stories Man makes up about gods, the story God reveals to Man is just the opposite!  Man is a creation, not a child, of God, lost in his own nonsense, some of which he encapsulates in mythology and some of which he considers the latest of enlightened thinking, Man who will thus destroy himself, to avoid which God becomes Man in Jesus, whose body and blood will be given for our salvation on the Cross that the creation of God may become children of God, and in the mass as the pledge of that salvation.

A child of God who does not overthrow his father but lives in perfect submission to his will;`who does not banish his father's rule but proclaims his kingdom; a God who does not eat his child in fear but gives him to us in love so we could eat his body and blood as the food of eternal life, a real golden age to come; a mother who has to hide her newborn son not from God but Man for his survival. And the imagery of light, not validating all sun gods but demonstrating that even in its fallen and broken state Creation still shows that the Creator will not be overcome no matter how the darkness gathers.

These pre-Christian observances are not the real roots and story of Christmas, but rather aspects of God's truth written into both Man and Nature even in its fallen state, which we now see in retrospect point to the truth we could not see in prospect, looking forward and trying to make sense of our situation, so God reveals it to us. Which the liturgy will exactly sum up in the Introit, the introductory Scripture passages, for the first mass of Christmas: Why have the Gentiles raged, and the people devised vain things? -- The Lord has said to me, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten Thee (Psalm 2:1,7. See below, or with my fellow geeks and wannabes, vide infra).

We call this coming of God into Man's flesh the Incarnation, from the Latin that means exactly that, to become in the flesh. To be born. For which another word is Nativity, from the Latin to be born. Christ comes into Creation, into the flesh, is born into our world, on three levels: his historical birth in the flesh as a human baby, his spiritual birth in the hearts and souls of those justified by faith because of Christ, and his eternal birth or generation from the Father in the Godhead.

Consequently, the church celebrates a mass for each of these three, as it prepared for them in Advent.

The First Mass of Christ's Mass, at midnight.
The Historical Birth in Bethlehem.
Introit Psalm 2:7. Psalm verse 2:1.
Collect
O God, Who hast made this most sacred night to shine forth with the brightness of the true Light, grant, we beseech Thee, that we may enjoy His happiness in heaven, the mystery of whose light we have known upon earth.
Epistle Titus 2:11-15.
Gospel Luke 2:1-14.

The Second Mass of Christ's Mass, at dawn.
The Spiritual Birth in the Believer.
Introit Isaiah 9:2,6. Psalm verse 92:1 Septuagint, 93:1 Hebrew.
Collect
Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we, who are filled with the new light of Thy Incarnate Word, may show forth in our works that which by faith shineth in our minds.
Epistle Titus 3:4-7.
Gospel Luke 2:15-20.


The Third Mass of Christ's Mass, during the day.
The Eternal Generation in the Trinity.
Introit Isaiah 9:6. Psalm verse 97:1 Septuagint, 98:1 Hebrew.
Collect
Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that the new birth of Thine only begotten Son in the flesh may deliver us who are held by the old bondage under the yoke of sin.
Epistle Hebrews 1:1-12.
Gospel John 1:1-14

May I take this opportunity to wish all who visit this blog Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Fröhliche Weinachten!

10 December 2012

O What's An Antiphon, 2012.

Antiphon is a word transliterated from Greek words that mean "opposite voice". What does this mean? Or for you non-Lutherans, what does that mean?

The Original Antiphon.

Well, originally, which is to say in ancient Greek music theory, it means something sung on both a given pitch and also an octave higher, like C and the next C on a piano. That's antiphonia, as distinct from symphonia, singing in unison, or paraphonia, singing on a pitch and a fifth higher, like C to G on a piano.

Doesn't seem to describe what we mean by antiphon, does it? So how did we get from what the word actually meant to what we mean by it now?

What Happened Next.

It all starts with the Psalms.  They aren't just texts, they're lyrics, all that survives of musical compositions whose music is lost. They have a parallelism in structure that suggests they may well have been performed by alternating singers or groups of singers. As Christian worship emerged from the synagogue, that's exactly what how they were done, performance of the Psalms by alternating choruses. Oh well then there you go, alternating choruses so they called them antiphons, right?

Not right.  They were not called antiphons from alternating choruses, but because the adult males were joined by boys, hence it was called antiphonia, because the boys sang an octave higher than the adult males, just like the term means.

Then, by about the 300s, they started adding another verse, generally a related Scripture verse to the Psalm, sung by all before, and generally after, each Psalm verse or two. Before you know it, antiphon doesn't have a bloody thing to do with octaves which is what it really means, but is associated with the idea of two alternating choruses singing back and forth, and also with the added prefatory text and tune which was called antiphon all by itself.

Confused? It gets worse, or better, as you may see it. Books containing the texts to the sung parts of the Mass came to be called antiphonales, and books containing texts to the spoken part of the Mass were called lectionaries, literally, stuff that is read, not sung. Then, antiphonale came to mean a book of chants for the Divine Office (Matins, Vespers, Compline etc) as distinct from a graduale, a book of the chants for Mass.

Enough to drive you nuts, or reach for the St Louis Jesuit stuff, huh? A word that means at the octave means alternating choruses except when it means added prefatory verses unless you mean the book of chants for Divine Office. Don't worry, took me a while to catch on too -- and I was a music major in the pre-conciliar Roman church.

Some say antiphonal singing of the Psalms started with St Ignatius of Antioch, who was an Apostolic Father and traditionally is said to have been a student of St John the Apostle. It really only caught on in the Western Church with St Ambrose, who compiled an antiphonale, yeah that word again and here with a different meaning yet, that being a collection of stuff suitable for antiphonal, as in alternating choruses, singing.

The "O" Antiphons.

OK. Now to the "O" antiphons -- antiphon here in the sense of the prefatory text itself. There are various versions in various places going back centuries, so far that my man Boethius mentions the practice.

I say my man because the title of my doctoral dissertation is "On a Contemporary Boethian Musical Theory". Boethius was born the same year as St Benedict, founder of the grand and glorious Order of St Benedict, the SOBs, I mean OSBs, as well as of the wider even grander and gloriouser "Benedictine tradition" found cited in all the recruiting material of universities sponsored by the Benedictines, like the one I graduated from. (A false comparative and a dangling participle in the same sentence: we Benedictines may not always follow the rules but we know what the hell they are.) That would be 480 or thereabouts, in case you got lost there.

Boethius died in 524 or 525, depending on who's counting. It would have been later except the Western Roman Emperor, Theodoric the Great, who was an Arian, had him executed on grounds of treason for conspiring with the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justin I, who was orthodox and catholic, as distinct from Orthodox and Catholic because we all know he'd be Missouri Synod Lutheran to-day. While he was awaiting execution he wrote his most famous work, On the Consolation of Philosophy. You can read a lot more about all this in a post I added in 2011, called Boethius, Terence, Wheel of Fortune, posted a little before 23 October, the feast of St Boethius in some places. Why is my namesake Terence, who'd be my patron saint except he ain't a saint or even Christian, in there? Because he had a lot to say about Fortuna, the goddess who is the "fortune" in Rota Fortuna, or Wheel of Fortune, that Boethius takes up.

OK Now the "O" Antiphons.

But I digress. Some form or another of "O" antiphons have been around for almost the entire history of the church.  The Biblical basis is Isaiah 7:14, but the Benedictines arranged what has become the standard, one each at Vespers each day from 17 through 23 December, right up to Christmas Eve. Each one starts with a salutation of Christ by "O" and one of his Biblical attributes. In order, they are: O Sapientia (Wisdom), O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Morning Star), O Rex gentium (King of the Nations), O Emmanuel (God With Us).

Now, it's Advent, right, and late in it, and about to be Christmas. So looky here -- starting with the last antiphon, from the day before Christmas Eve, go back each day and put the first letter of each attribute of Christ to-gether and what do you get? Ero cras, that's what. Latin, and guess what that means in English -- I will come to-morrow! Benedictines man, are we good or WHAT! The whole series sums up the Advent preparation then concludes it, right down to a Psalm-like acrostic in the titles!

Never heard of such a thing? Sure you have. We sing it all the time! No monks or Vespers needed (though if you're fortunate enough to be in a parish that has Vespers, don't miss it!).  The popular Advent/Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is a composite of the whole series!

06 December 2012

Hell Yes There's A Santa Claus, 6 December 2012.

6 December is the feast of Bishop St Nicholas of Myra. Yeah, jolly old St Nick, except Myra is not at the North Pole, but a town in Lycia which was in what is now the southwestern coast of Turkey.

OK "everybody knows" that "Santa Claus" has his origins in the stories about St Nicholas, "St Nick" or -- nicknames in some languages coming from the last rather than the first part of a given name -- Santa Klaus morphing into Santa Claus, and he went around giving anonymous gifts to kids tossing them over the transom into their shoes, which is where putting the shoes out or hanging stockings comes from.

Now what was his point in doing that, so there's be kids like you see in the commercials waking up in nice homes and being all happy with their yet more stuff for Christmas?

Hell no. St Nicholas came from a wealthy family, and as a pastor gave pretty much all his inheritance away to help poor children and families. And particularly, in those days, poor girls without a dowry would likely not end up wives and mothers in nice households, and likely would end up as prostitutes. So the gifts had a real rough practical edge to them, to help turn a life around by giving them a start their circumstances couldn't.

And the same guy who did this -- whaddya wanna call it, outreach, winning souls, meeting needs -- also was at the Council of Nicaea at a time when it seemed the whole church was heading into heresy of Arianism. And what did they do, say wow look at how those Arians connect with people, maybe we should quit worrying about all these doctrinal barriers we put up and preach and worship more like they do but with our content?

No, St Nick was among the most vocal standing for the catholic faith against Arianism and Arius himself, which led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed we confess at mass. So next time someone says we gotta get rid of all this hang up on doctrine and liturgy and get with the mission field and outreach, take a bloody clue from St Nick.

Or Wilhelm Löhe, whose half-fast Lutheran church body found him just not quite with it and stuck him in a little town in Bavaria, from which he arranged spiritual and temporal missionaries all over the world and worked mightily for authentic Lutheran liturgy and doctrine, whose good effects are bearing fruit to this day.

Funny thing is, there's about as much myth and stories about St Nicholas himself as there is about Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, if you will.

On the gifts thing, some versions of the story say it was at one time, for a poor man with three daughters, some say it was three times as each daughter grew up, some say it was through an opened window, and some say the third time the dad was waiting to see who was doing this so Nick tossed it down the chimney and it fell in the girl's stockings hung by the fire to dry, but other versions say the dad found out who it was only to be told by him to be grateful to God, not him personally.

On the Arius thing, some say he slapped Arius and was thrown in jail for it, whereupon Jesus and Mary appeared to him, loosened his chains, gave him a copy of the Gospels and a bishop's stole (omophorion) respectively, and when the Emperor (Constantine, no less) heard of it released him and reinstated him, but others say this was a vision to Constantine directly, and some say to all the "bishops" at the Council.

Not to mention after his death, when even the real St Nick got caught up in commercialism. He was buried in Myra, and it is said that every year his remains exude what is called myrrh, a rose-smelling watery liquid, to which miracles are attributed. In 1087 Myra was overtaken by Muslim powers -- the Eastern Roman Empire was pretty much losing control of Asia Minor generally at this time -- and his remains were removed to Bari, in Italy on the southern Adriatic coast, which had been under Byzantine control but had been taken by the Lombards and Normans. Stories disagree whether these were pious sailors to whom St Nick himself appeared telling them to keep the saint's remains under Christian control, or pirates.

Good for the local pilgrimage industry though. The Venetians started saying his remains were actually brought there, with only an arm left in Bari, and built a big church about it. An examination in the 1950s revealed the skeleton in Bari is intact. And the myrrh secretions continue there. Not to mention, on 28 December 2009 the Turkish government announced it will seek the return of the remains from the Italian government, to Demre, the modern town near Myra's ruins. While St Nick's stated wish to be buried there is noted, and the questionable removal of his remains, it has been noted too that it would be good for that descendant of the pilgrimage industry, tourism. Indeed there is both a statue of St Nicholas and "Santa Claus" in town!

What does this mean, a Lutheran might ask. A bunch of saint stuff coming out of the decadence and corruption against which the Reformation stood? Or does it show that be it St Nicholas or Santa Claus, the whole thing is simply story and myth, elaborated by a culture as a means of transmitting certain values, with religion being culture and myth taking itself way too seriously?

Or is it that the stories and myths are taken way too seriously and the values lose their point? We can get all caught up in whether it was three daughters on three times, or three daughters on one time, through a window opening or down the chimney into stockings, whether Jesus and Mary came with the Gospel book and the omophorion to Nick himself or in a vision to the Emperor or came anywhere to anyone, whether he struck Arius or was even at the Council at all.

Point is, none of that is the point. Somewhere in there is a pastor from a wealthy background who was a steward of the gifts God had given him as a response to the gift of salvation through faith in the merits of Christ God had given him -- good works because we are saved, not in order to be saved -- and who directed gratitude for the gifts through him to Christ who is the gift of God who saves, and not to an abstract "value" or himself which don't. And somewhere in there is a pastor, call him "bishop" or whatever you want, who stood fast for the truth of Jesus as God and Man by faith in whose merits in his death and resurrection we are saved (the Gospel).

Hell yes there's a Santa Claus. It's you, me, us, St Nick and the whole communion of saints. So get out there because you're saved and do something for somebody in a tight spot, and stand for the pure Christian faith and worship confessed in our Confessions, among which is the Nicene Creed btw, instead of all the bogus feel-good happy-clappy crap and Vatican II wannabeism.