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.
Homo sum humani nihil a me alienum puto.
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. For what that stuff in the banner means, scroll to the bottom of the sidebar.

26 December 2017

The Twelve Days Of Christmas, 2017/18.

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 decorations 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 three three related things:  1) the coming in the flesh of God as Jesus who will die to save us from our sins, 2) the coming of faith in him into our hearts, 3) 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. His coming in history, in our hearts and his return are not 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, 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, as I was growing up in the pre-Vatican II RCC, 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. 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 still 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, the Roman church, 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 the Roman church (and if you do, 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!) 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, also since 2 May 2016 officially known by its short name, Czechia. 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.  Duke comes from the Latin dux, which means leader, and was first the title of military officers without a particular rank and then the title of those who ran a province just under the head of state.

"King" actually Duke Wenceslaus had this position 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 then turned on Otto. So Otto went back to Rome and had a layman elected pope instead as Leo VII.  Otto was kinda used to naming bishops and abbots himself. 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; "apostolic succession" in action. Otto was the first clear Holy Roman Emperor since Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse), who had been 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.  Which is why he's called "good" --  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 duke'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 in the RCC and we ape it sometimes. 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.

23 December 2017

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Fröhliche Weinachten 2017!

Here is the 2017 edition of my Christmas post.

First off, if your Christmas is a little rocky, or maybe not all you hoped it would be, good news -- you're not left out, you're right in there with the first Christmas!  That one was as rocky as it gets.  As we mentioned at the start of Advent, Joseph wasn't the glowing saint of paintings and icons, he was a working guy with a pregnant wife about to give birth, in town to follow the law and get counted in the census, with all the hotels full and no place to put his family up but a stable for animals, and after the baby was born they had to put him in a feeding trough for animals (that's what a manger is), and pretty soon they'll have to high-tail it out of town into political exile.  Christ knows all about when Christmas isn't so merry.

And that's just for starters.  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? Because it's nine months, the period of human gestation, after 25 March, which for reasons we'll get into in later posts was traditionally held to be the date Jesus' conception.  And it's pretty cool how that worked out for December.  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 he gives that body and blood as the pledge of that salvation.

Consider:  a child of God who does not overthrow his father but lives in perfect submission to his will; a child of God 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 from 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 as we look forward and try to make sense of our situation, so God reveals it to us. The Christmas liturgy will exactly sum this 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!

15 December 2017

O What's An Antiphon, 2017.

"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 the various things 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 how the Psalms were done, performed 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 the alternating choruses, but because the adult males were joined by boys who sang an octave higher than the adult males, hence it was called antiphonia, just like the term means.

Then, by about the 300s, they started adding another verse, generally a related Scripture verse, to each Psalm.  This verse was 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 that it really means, but is associated with the idea of two alternating choruses singing back and forth, and also, the added prefatory text and tune began to be called antiphon all by itself.

So now we have two new meanings of the word that have nothing to do with the original meaning. except that they arose from a performing unit that was organised according to the original meaning.  Confused? It gets worse, or better, as you may see it. Next, 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.

Four new meanings, none of them the original!  Enough to drive you nuts, right, or at least reach for the St Louis Jesuit stuff and call it good, huh? A word that means at the octave means alternating choruses except when it means added prefatory verses unless you mean the book containing the sung parts of the Mass except if you mean the book of chants for Divine Office. Don't worry, took me a while to catch on too.

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 back that my man Boethius seems to mention the practice.  Boethius was born the same year (480) as St Benedict, founder of the grand and glorious Order of St Benedict, the SOBs, I mean OSBs.  He's also the founder 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 Christian, 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 in the later sense.  (We all know Boethius would be Missouri Synod Lutheran to-day, right?) While he was awaiting execution Boethius 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, now posted annually 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.  But I digress.

OK Now the "O" Antiphons.

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, which, in case you're a little rusty, is the famous verse "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (English Standard Version 2001).

This verse is held to be prophecy of the Messiah and Jesus as its fulfillment.  By Christians.  In Hebrew, what is rendered as "virgin" is the (transliterated) word "almah", which is the sixth of seven stages of growing up ("elem" is the male form), and denotes a young female past puberty and marriageable, presumably a virgin since unmarried.   When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for Jews who spoke Greek, the common language of education, commerce, etc in the world they knew in the two or three centuries before Christ, called the Septuagint and which was later adopted by the Christian church, the Greek word used to translate almah is (transliterated) "parthenos", and means virgin.

Hey wait a minute, ain't there a big ancient Greek temple with a name like that?  Yeah, sort of.  That's the Parthenon, it's in Athens and was the temple of the city's patroness, the goddess Athena.  OK, so why ain't it the Athenon?  Well, one of Athena's epithets (a descriptive nickname) is Parthenos.  Where's that come from?  Parthenos isn't just a noun, it's a name.  So who's Parthenos?  There's two stories in Greek mythology.  According to one, she was one of three daughters of a guy named Staphylus, one of Jason's Argonauts (you know, Golden Fleece and all), living in Naxos, a Greek island between what is now Greece and Turkey.  So her sister Rhoeo turns up pregnant by Apollo, but dad thinks it was some local guy, locks her in a crate and sets it out to sea.  Later, Parthenos and her surviving sister Molpadia accidentally destroy a valuable bottle of dad's wine, and rather than be killed like their sister they decide to jump off a cliff, but Apollo steps in and saves them from a fatal fall and drops them off in Chersonesus.

Where's that?  Chersonesus means peninsula in Greek, and is the name of a town that's still there, in the western part of modern Sevastopol.  Heard of that in the news lately?  It's a major port, on the Black Sea, on a peninsula that's the tip of a peninsula called Crimea, and the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.  The modern city was founded in 1783 by Catherine the Great, written about elsewhere on this blog, and was given a deliberately ancient-sounding name from sebastos, Greek for the Roman term augustus, the title first given to the first Roman emperor Octavian, and polis, Greek for city.  But the august one is not Octavian but Catherine, who had regained Crimea back to Russia from the Ottoman Empire.  And so it remained until 1991.  Russia and the Ukraine were two members of the Soviet Union, and in 1954 Khrushchev transferred authority for Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine within the Soviet Union.  When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 Crimea remained with a newly independent Ukraine, but since 2014 is once again part of Russia.

So what's Apollo's interest here?  He saves the sisters of his lover Rhoeo.  Rhoeo survives her father's attempt to kill her, the crate crashes into the island of Delos, another Greek island between modern Greece and Turkey, and also the birthplace of Apollo.  She gives birth to a son, Anius, who becomes a priest of Apollo and a king of Delos.  Her two sisters become local goddesses in Chersonesus.  Upon which Molpadia gets a new name, Hemithea.  But in the other version of the story, when Parthenos dies, still a virgin, she enters the heavens as the constellation Virgo.  So why does one sister just get a new name but the other becomes a whole constellation?  Well, in the other version, Parthenos was actually not fathered by Staphylus but by Apollo, with Staphylus' wife Chrysothemis!  Gotta love Greek mythology, dude gets around, first the mother then a daughter!

Hey, what if both versions are right?  That would account for Staphylus' actions, knowing Apollo and not he is the father of Parthenos, so when one of his biological daughters turns up pregnant by the same god who bopped his wife, he loses it and casts her off to sea.  Well, regardless, Parthenos becomes not a name but a noun meaning virgin, and was applied as a descriptive nickname (aka epithet) to Athena as she had no husbands, consorts or lovers.

So that's why it ain't the Athenon, but the Parthenon.  A parthenon is where a parthenos lives.  And THE Parthenon is that of Athena Parthenos, Athena Virgin.  There you have it.  And Athena's real, which is to say Roman, name is Minerva anyway.

So getting back to Isaiah 7:14, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, there's a big and long-standing controversy about whether parthenos really translates almah.  Which is to say, does almah mean virgin?  The word almah is used only seven times in the entire Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and at that, in passages written hundreds of years apart and meanings often change over time. Fact is, almah may or may not mean virgin, and, Hebrew has another word (transliterated) betulah, that does mean virgin.  And that is not the word Isaiah uses in 7:14.  Also, the male form of almah, elem, is never translated as virgin but as young man (ISam:17:56, ISam20:22).

These and other arguments are sometimes used to discredit the virgin birth of Jesus to Mary, saying the Christian translation of almah as virgin alters the text to make it fit Jesus.  Well, guess what, the use of parthenos to translate almah is not of Christian origin; the Septuagint is a Jewish translation for Greek-speaking Jews and was completed no less than 132 years before Christ.  The New Testament was written in Greek, and when its writers quote the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) they quote it in the Septuagint translation.  So when Matthew quotes Isaiah in the phrase in question, he is using a Jewish source, not inventing a Christian one to fit the Christian narrative.

Fact is, the "plain meaning" of Scripture is not always so plain.  So what's the answer here, drag up a whole bunch of obscure old stuff to resolve it?  No, and even to the introductory extent I've dragged up old stuff above, that should make it clear that there is no resolution there, and draggers-up, aka scholars, reach various supportable conclusions.  And guess what, even if dragging-up were to resolve the parthenos/almah/virgin thing to everyone's satisfaction, that would still not resolve the larger issue!  Perhaps the reader night wonder, after all this there's worse, what's that?

Well, it's whether, virgin birth or no virgin birth, the Isaiah prophecy applies to Jesus at all, and rather is telling Judah's King Ahaz that before this woman's son is grown Ahaz will have defeated his enemies, which is about eight centuries before Jesus!  You know, the Greek mythology in the culture of that time and place is full of stories of male gods impregnating human females -- we've just seen the story of the word parthenos itself contains such stories -- and also is full of stories of miraculous births and children of gods, some fully divine themselves and some a combination of human and divine, so what if Christianity is really just another version of a Greek mythological story with a Jewish surface this time, just what one would expect from a Hellenised Jewish culture?  Hold that thought.

OK Now the "O" Antiphons, Really.

Anyway, of the various versions of the O Antiphons it was the Benedictines who arranged what has become the standard one.  This happened at the Floriacum, aka Fleury Abbey, in France, which is still in operation, one of the few that survived the French Revolution.  The pattern is, a different antiphon each day at Vespers from 17 through 23 December, right up to Christmas Eve. Each one starts with a salutation of Christ by "O" and a verse on one of attributes in Isaiah Christians consider to apply to the Messiah, culminating in God-with-us, Jesus. In order, with the Isaiah passages on which they are based, they are:

O Sapientia (Wisdom) IS 11:2-3 and 28:29,
O Adonai (Lord) IS 11:4-5 and 33:22 ,
O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) IS 11:1 and 10,
O Clavis David (Key of David) IS 22:22, 9:7 and 42:7,
O Oriens (Morning Star) IS 9:2,
O Rex gentium (King of the Nations) IS 9:6. 2:4 and 64:8,
O Emmanuel (God With Us) IS 7:14.

Now looky here --   it's Advent, right, and late in it, and about to be Christmas, so 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 be (there) to-morrow! Benedictines man, are we good or WHAT!   Some say it's coincidental, but lemme teya, nuttin like that happens coincidentally around Benedictines.  Ever.

Back in the Middle Ages we English amped this up a bit, starting the series on 16 December and adding another antiphon at the end, O virgo virginum, O virgin of virgins.  We English step right into the whole virgin thing!  Not just virgin but virgin of virgins!  Well, that's us for you. 

Two things about this.  One, this practice was followed in the Church of England for centuries, until the Liturgical Movement, better called the liturgical bowel movement, held sway in Advent 2000 with the introduction of "Common Worship", in which it is abandoned for the usual format.  In true Vatican II style, Common Worship offers what is better called Pastiche Liturgy, all kinds of forms and options, a little of this a little of that, pick and choose as you see fit -- as if this creates anything in common -- and replaces without officially replacing the traditional liturgy whose English instance is the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

Two, when added to the acrostic, it becomes Vero cras, truly to-morrow, which indicates the acrostic isn't an accident or fluke.  And most important, the conclusion of the O virgo virginum antiphon provides the conclusion of this whole matter.  It reads:

Filiae Jerusalem quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

Yeah yeah, I'll translate.  Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me?  Divine is the mystery that you discern.  The first part of the antiphon addresses her, not Jesus, and asks quomodo fiet istud, how can this be, and continues Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem, ain't never been nobody like you and ain't never gonna be neither.

Whoever wrote this verse, no doubt an English Benedictine since it dates from before the formation of the Church of England from the church in England, puts in her mouth what her response would be and what our response should be.  Why do you ask how this can be and marvel at me?  It's not about any of that or about me, it's a divine mystery you're looking it at, which means it is beyond human explanation.  Or as she said at Cana in a similar situation (JN 2:5), quodcumque dixerit vobis facite, whatever he tells you, do it.

This blog takes up the significant differences between the Christian narrative and mythological narratives of miracle births, sons of gods, etc., in its Christmas post, and we leave this as a preparation for that, in keeping with the O Antiphons themselves.  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, no monks needed for Vespers!).  The popular Advent/Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (often sung in Latin as Veni, veni Emmanuel, and for God's sake don't say WAYNE-ee, it's VAY-nee) is a composite of the whole O Antiphon series!  The hymn text is of obscure origin, paraphrases of the O Antiphons date back to the 800s, and a translation of it by John Mason Neale, an Anglican "priest" and all around helluva a guy, was paired with a pre-existing tune also of obscure origin, resulting in the hymn as we have it now, by Thomas Helmore in 1851.

O what an antiphon!  Enjoy!

05 December 2017

Hell Yes There's A Santa Claus. 6 December 2017.

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 was a town in Lycia which was in what is now the southwestern coast of Turkey.

Huh?  Howdya get from Turkey to the North Pole?  Howdya get from a pastor to a guy flying around in the sky with presents?  Hey, that's just for openers, there's way more!  Settle back, this is gonna be fun.

From pastor to a guy in the sky.

The guy in the sky with presents has nothing to do with Nicholas of Myra.  That is an adaptation from old Germanic folklore, the Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd), in which during Yule, a feast around the Winter Solstice, the gods rode, distributing good and/or bad, in most versions led by Odin (Woden, Wotan) on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.  So there you go, long-bearded guy, leading a bunch of guys, in the sky, from the North, on flying animals.

Gotta tell ya, my favourite version has the leader of the Wild Hunt being a Brythonic king, Herla, who spends about three centuries on the "other side" and comes back to find all these Angles and Saxons around and wonders what's up with that.  This is from Gaulterius Mappus (English: Walter Map) in C12, in his work De nugis curialium, distinctio prima (On the Trifles of the Courtiers, part one).  He was an English courtier himself, went to the University of Paris, and heard a lot of "trifles" in a lot of courts.  Hey, the Romans left so the Brythons hadda do something to keep order so they invited us!  Us Angles anyway, the Saxons can speak for themselves.

This Germanic folklore is also the origin of characters associated with Santa Claus.  In North America it's generally nice elves, but in Germanic versions the bad stuff got individuated into Krampus, a demon-like guy who shows up the night before 6 December (Krampusnacht) to jack around with (in varying degrees depending on which version) bad kids, or more recently starting in 1850 in Holland, Zwarte Piet, Black Pete, said to be a Moor (remember, Spain ruled the Netherlands in the past), who began more Krampus-like but is now an amusing assistant and helper.

"Nick"names.

OK "everybody knows" that "Santa Claus" has his origins in the stories about St Nicholas.  For example the nickname "St Nick", or "Santa Klaus".  Nicknames in some languages come from the last rather than the first part of a given name, so in German Nikolaus becomes Klaus rather than as in English Nicholas becomes Nick.  What about the "santa"?  That comes from the Latin sanctus, as a noun meaning a saint, or in German, Sankt.  So, we have an English version of a German nickname for St Nicholas, Sankt Klaus, morphing through a West Germanic (read: Dutch) variant Sinterklaas into "Santa Claus" in English.

Hey, nickname, Nick, the whole idea comes from the particular nickname Nick maybe, right?  Wrong.  A logical guess, but logic though always consistent with itself is not always consistent with reality.  "Nickname"  comes from ekename, meaning "another name", which became nekename in Middle English, which is "nickname" now.

There, you're already set for some seasonal fun with friends!  Bring this up, and when you do, don't call "St Nick" a nickname, call it a hypocorism, or hypocoristic.  Huh?  OK OK, there's three kinds of nicknames, hypocorisms, diminutives and monikers.  The first reflects a bond between the parties, the second reflects smallness as a sign of either affection or contempt, the third are nicknames that become names in themselves, for example someone whose given name is Frank, not as a nickname for Francis as it originally was. But be careful how you have this kind of fun.  Done in a wrong way, you may be taken for a uselessly overeducated pompous crashing bore (a cruder two-syllable word beginning with "a" may also be used) and we wouldn't want that.

Nicholas of Myra.

Anyway, also "everybody knows" that he went around giving anonymous gifts to kids, either tossing them over the transom (that's a window over a door, used for ventilation, hardly ever see them now) into their shoes left by the door, or tossing them down the chimney (don't see many of them now either) into the stockings hung by the fireplace to dry, from which we get the tradition of putting shoes out or hanging stockings to get gifts from a guy who goes around.

But, what was his point in doing that, so there'd be kids like you see in the commercials, waking up in nice homes and being all happy with getting new stuff for Christmas?

Hell no. So who is this guy?  OK, Nicholas was born 15 March 270 in Patara, Diocese of Asia.  Huh?  Isn't a diocese a church thing?  No it isn't; that came later and is still around.  Patara was a town on the southwestern coast of what is now Turkey.  It was named from its legendary founder Patarus, a son of Apollo, and was a major seaport and centre of Apollo worship complete with an oracle of Apollo almost as important as the one at Delphi.  It's mentioned in Acts 21:1-3 as a port on the travels of Sts Paul and Luke.  "Diocese" is the name of administrative units of the Roman Empire created by Emperor Diocletian -- he liked the word because it sounds like his name -- and the Diocese of Asia, Dioecesis Asiana in Latin, lasted from 314 to 535 when Emperor Justinian (boy has that guy got a story but it's covered elsewhere on this blog) abolished it.  The area was Helenistic (read: Greek) in language and culture.

St Nicholas came from a wealthy family, lived in nearby Myra, 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 likely would not end up wives and mothers in nice households, and likely would end up as prostitutes. So the gifts had a real serious practical edge to them, to help turn lives around by giving them a start their circumstances or parents couldn't.

So what's a dowry?  Well, ever heard of paraphernalia?  Probably brings to mind assorted odds and ends, or gear related to something else, or, (yeah I know, too many ors) if you have a certain background, bongs and pipes and roach clips and stuff, but the word originally refers to part of a dowry.  Great - what's a dowry?  If you've been fed the revisionist "politically correct" crap passed off as education these days, it may call to mind money and/or property that a wife brought along with herself to be the property of her new husband.  Actually, it was quite the opposite.

Dowry, the word, derives through older forms of English and French from the Latin word dos and its older Greek cognate dosis, gift, and in Greek this specific type of gift or dosis was called pherna.  Dowries are a universal custom in human history dating back to earliest records anywhere.  While specifics vary from time and place to time and place, it is a gift (donatio) of inheritance given between the living (inter vivos) as opposed to because of the death (mortis causa) of the donor.  In this case, from the bride's family to both the groom and/or his family and to the bride herself.  Some of it is to help with the establishment of the new family unit, so that all of the financial burdens of marriage (onera matrimonii) don't fall all on the husband and/or his family, and yes, that could be a source of misuse.  But the rest of it remained the wife's only, and was to insure that she would not be left financially helpless should the new husband and family treat her poorly or victimise her.  Precisely the opposite of the modern misconception.

That part of the dowry, dos in Latin and pherna in Greek, that was hers and not either the husband's or in-common property is called the parapherna, which means "beyond the pherna (dowry gift)" in Greek, which Latin retained, with the plural paraphernalia.  So that's what a dowry is and how it functions, and what paraphernalia is.  Yeah, I suppose if she had some good pipes they stay hers.

Anyway, 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 the heresy of Arianism. That was the belief that Jesus as Son of God was neither equal to God the Father nor co-eternal with Him, as the doctrine of the Trinity maintains.  And what did the council do, say wow look at how those Arians connect with people and attract them, 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, as some "Lutherans" do now?

Hell no, again.  St Nick was among the most vocal standing for the catholic faith (not to be confused with the Catholic Faith) against Arianism and Arius (the "bishop" who was its main proponent and from whom it is named) himself, which led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed we confess at mass (not to be confused with 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 from 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, as he is more commonly called in Mother England.

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.  Nicholas was at the council, he's 151st on the list of those attending, and he did strenuously champion the catholic faith, but, the slapping Arius thing has no basis other than legend.  Not well attested, as they say.  So no, it's not "Slap a Heretic Day". 

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.

After his death.

Not to mention that after his death 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. It was a very popular, and profitable, site for pilgrimages.  But by 1087 Myra was overtaken by Sunni Muslim powers, the Seljuk Turks (you didn't think this Islamic thing was anything new, did you).  The Eastern Roman (aka Byzantine) Empire was pretty much losing control of Asia Minor generally at this time, and so 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 the remains were removed by pious sailors to whom St Nick himself appeared telling them to keep the saint's remains under Christian control, or by pirates looking to sell them for a big profit.  Probably pirates, but let's call them entrepreneurs, sounds better.  In any case, they only took the big pieces, and those arrived in Bari on 9 May 1087.

Good for the local pilgrimage industry!  The Venetians wanted in on the action, and during the First Crusade (1095-99), originally called to repel the Seljuks, sailors scooped up the fragments and brought them to Venice, started saying his remains were actually brought to Venice, with only an arm left in Bari, and built a big church about it which is still there. An examination in the 1950s revealed the skeleton in Bari is intact. In 2005 British analysis of measurements from that examination showed that Nicholas was right about five feet six inches tall.  In 2012, scientific examination of both sets of remains verified they are from the same skeleton.

And the myrrh secretions continue in Bari. Vials of it are for sale (of course) and have been taken all over the world, sometimes in the belief that they can work miracles.  The secretions may be from the body, or, may be from the marble itself, since the tomb is below water level in the harbour town, and seeps by capillary action.

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.  Restoration and excavation have been going on since Tsar Nicholas I of Russia began in 1863 at St Nicholas Church in Demre, built in 520 on the site of Nicholas' church.  In 2017, Turkish archaeological excavations revealed frescoes detailing his life and what may well be the grave from which the raiders took his remains.  More work is planned.  While both St Nick's stated wish to be buried there and the questionable removal of his remains are noted, it has been noted too that it would be real good for that descendant of the pilgrimage industry, tourism.

Indeed there is both a statue of St Nicholas and "Santa Claus" in town!  In 2000, the Russian Federation, then barely a decade old following the end of the Soviet Union, in recognition of the longstanding veneration and importance of St Nicholas in Russia, donated a new bronze statue of him for the St Nicholas Church in Demre.  But in 2005 the town's mayor removed it for a statue of Santa Claus, more recognisable for tourists.  After Russian protests, the statue was relocated but on a smaller pedestal near the church.  Turkey now allows Eastern Orthodox liturgy to be celebrated there, which it is on 6 December.

So when do I get my presents?

For centuries on end, the custom in many areas has been, and in some places still is, to exchange gifts, or at least give gifts to children, on 6 December, the Feast of St Nicholas, in honour and imitation of his well-known gift-giving.  So what happened?  The Reformation, that's what.  Among the many things needing reform was excesses relating to the saints and relics thereof, so Luther proposed the Christkind, Christ-child, to refocus on Christ as the gift-giver and for whom the mass (masses, actually, but that's covered in other posts) in celebration of his birth are what Christmas, Christ's Mass, is named.  Well intended, but the infant Jesus no more goes around delivering presents than St Nicholas does. 

Later non-Lutheran reformations did away with saints days altogether.  Of course, Christkind won't deliver gifts if you stay up and wait for it, so you gotta go to bed.  The custom caught on in Catholic areas as well, and remains in some areas.  Overall, the main effect is, it relocated getting gifts from St Nicholas' Day to Christmas or Christmas Eve, that's where that came from.  Also, Kris Kringle -- that's a mispronunciation of Christkind and its diminutive Christkindl, that's heard sometimes as a name for, guess who, Santa Claus.  Also the origin of "Secret Santa", a custom found in workplaces and other places.

Lately, even in Germany "Santa Claus" is taking over, as Weinachtsmann from American-style advertising. 

Conclusion.

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, and religion is just culture and myth taking themselves way too seriously?

Or, is it that the stories and myths are taken way too seriously and their point is lost? 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 at all.

Point is, none of that is the point. Somewhere in there is a pastor from a wealthy background who, in response to the gift of salvation through faith in the merits of Christ that God had given him, was a steward of the gifts God had given him.  Good works because we are saved, not in order to be saved.  Somewhere in there is a pastor who wanted the gratitude for the gifts given through him to be directed to Christ who is the gift of God who saves, and not to an abstract value such as "being a good person", or to himself, neither of which saves. 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 the merits of whose death and resurrection we are saved (the Gospel).

Hell yes, Virginia, 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.

02 December 2017

Advent 2017. Away in a Feeding Trough.

Here's the 2017 version of my Advent post.  We'll look at why we even have an Advent, what it is, the various ways it has been and is observed, and what it shows about the proverbial "real" meaning of Christmas.

Why Have An Advent?

Scripture records the birth of Jesus, but it records no direction to celebrate either it or a preparation for it. But it records no prohibition of doing so either. The Christian Church has evolved various practices to commemorate one of its most outrageous claims, that God became Man in Jesus, the Incarnation, and, considering the magnitude of what is celebrated, has evolved a season of preparation for it universally, both Eastern and Western church. These celebrations have taken on various forms in various places, and even various forms over time in the same place. But they all have the same idea, for Christ's church to celebrate to-gether and proclaim one of the world- and life-changing events of Christ. Which is the idea of all of the church's liturgy.

What Is Advent?

Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means a turning toward, a coming, and translates the Greek word parousia, which designates not the coming of Jesus at his birth but his coming again to judge the world on the Last Day. Advent is in fact a preparation for three comings of, or turnings toward, Christ, and the three will culminate in three distinct liturgies for Christmas, Christ's Mass. No other season or celebration in the church year is like this.

Here are the three. 1) Our Advent preparation for the historical coming or birth of Jesus culminates in the celebration of that event in the mass in the night, Midnight Mass. 2) Our Advent preparation for the coming or birth of Jesus in the heart of believers, in us, culminates in the mass at dawn, as evidenced in the first believers, the shepherds who went to the manger. 3) Our Advent preparation for his second historical coming, in judgement and in glory, which has been the subject of the final Sundays of the church year before Advent, culminates in the mass during the day, which celebrates the eternal generation of the Son in the Trinity in the being of God, in which redeemed Man will fully participate after the end of time.

Advent then precedes Christmas as Lent precedes Easter, a time of repentance and preparation. For both seasons, church vestments etc are purple, the colour associated both with penance, our part, and royalty, his part as King of kings. However, the purple is the darker royal purple rather than the Roman purple of Lent, the colours like the seasons they reflect being both similar yet distinct in kind of event to which they lead.

In some places recent usage has varied, derived from the rite of Salisbury in England. Salisbury is called Sarum in Latin, and the Sarum Rite has a hybrid liturgy of English and French influences following the Norman Conquest in 1066. It's part of a massive change in history.  Duke William II of Normandy, aka the "Conqueror" and King William I of England, the first of the Norman kings of England, created the diocese out of two earlier ones and appointed a fellow Norman its bishop, "Saint" Osmund, the Count of Seez and Earl of Dorset and his Lord Chancellor, with the approval of Pope Gregory VII. Well sort of approval. This was part of the Normans' rather systematic assertion of control over everything -- more on that below.

Meanwhile, old Pope Greg was having a hard sell on his championship of clerical celibacy and the supremacy of church, meaning the Roman Church under the pope, over state among the Germans -- hell, he excommunicated Heinrich (Henry) IV, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, not once but twice -- and so as not to spread his efforts too thin he cut the Normans some slack. How's that for "apostolic succession"! And oh yeah, Greg's a "saint" too in the Roman church.

William as a duke in Normandy was still under the French king, Phillip I, (duke ranks just below king) but now as king of England, which he was crowned on Christmas 1066, he was on an equal basis. William also messed up our good Germanic language English by making French the language of the ruling class, which it remained for about 300 years, and by the end of his reign (1087) about 90% of England was under a French-born aristocracy with which he replaced the native English one, forever changing English  culture. Yeah, the Anglo-Saxon culture was an import too, but hey, we Angles were ASKED by the original English to come over from Germany, and gave the place its name, Angle-land, England. The Saxons and Jutes can speak for themselves. But I digress.

The Sarum rite Scripture readings and other prayers proper to the day are different than the Roman rite, as is the colour of vestments, not purple but blue. This use of blue as the colour for Advent has had a more general usage in the West in recent years, though with the Roman propers. Well, not the traditional Roman propers, but the new ones from its three year cycle from the 1960s, which is the basis of the common new lectionary for all heterodox liturgical churches and which will not be considered here.  One can look them up and put on a little Simon and Garfunkle or other holdovers of the time if one is so inclined.

So, several problems with the use of Sarum blue.  One, it does have an historical precedent, but that precedent is not a happy one.  Two, the use is inconsistent, being Sarum colour but Roman readings, but the ones from the 1970 novus ordo, not the traditional ones. Three, being inconsistent it is not historical either but rather a modern pastiche, as post-Vatican II liturgy generally is, of something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, in this case literally.  Four, the blue with its symbolism of the sky unduly weights the symbolism of the liturgical colour toward the second coming, the parousia, which is a theme of Advent but one of three, whereas the penitence and preparation symbolised by purple is common to all three themes of Advent.

The Old Advent, "St Martin's Fast".

In fact, Advent in the West used to be even more like Lent. From the fourth or fifth century or so there was, and as we shall shortly see still is in the Eastern church under the name Nativity Fast, a 40 day time of fasting and penance much like Lent. In the Western church it started on 11 November, the feast of St Martin of Tours, Martin Luther's baptismal namesake, with the day being something like Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, in Lent. The fast started the day after.  This "quadragesima sancti Martini", the forty days of St Martin, died out by the late Middle Ages, and Advent as it is generally known now in the West took shape.

To this day, in some places the traditional main dish for Christmas is goose. In fact, one of my favourite phrases in English, not suitable for reproduction here, derives from this custom, let the reader understand. The Christmas goose may derive from Advent when it was St Martin's Fast. Martin didn't really want to be a bishop, and is said to have hidden himself in a flock of geese from those seeking him to persuade him to accept the post, whose noise nonetheless gave his location away. So goose became the main food for St Martin's Day kicking off Advent.

There is still an echo of the original Advent in the "last Sundays of the church year" in November, which have the general theme of looking forward to end of times and the second coming.

The Eastern Church follows to this day a similar, but not the same, 40 day pattern of a season of preparation and penitence before Easter and Christmas, and our former Western "St Martin's Fast" was closer to it. In the Eastern Church, it isn't called Advent, but the Nativity Fast, and lasts 40 days, just like the St Martin's Fast, but they count them consecutively, from 15 November to 24 December. That's why it also has a similar but not the same nickname: 15 November is the day after the feast, East or West, of St Philip the Apostle, so it is sometimes called "St Philip's Fast". The liturgical colour is neither purple nor blue, but red.  Also, where in the Western church the liturgical year begins with the First Sunday in Advent, in the Eastern church the liturgical year begins 1 September.

The Current Advent.

Anyway, each Sunday emphasises a different aspect of the preparation and the comings noted above. Below are listed the Scripture passages used for the Introits and Scripture readings. Roman usage (which Rome ditched at Vatican II) has the same Introits but varies as noted from ours in the Epistles and Gospels for the Western Advent.

I had never understood this variation and mentioned that once in the combox on a blog. Pastor Benjamin Mayes responded citing Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, p.438, which states our usage follows the Comes attributed to St Jerome and its final version, The Lectionary of Charlemagne, which Rome later modified to accommodate its new feasts.

What's a comes (pronounced KO-mays)? It's a Latin word meaning companion, here, a companion book of readings for mass to the rite's service book itself. Now we more commonly call such a book a Lectionary, from the Latin for "readings". The list of the readings is still often called by its Greek name, pericope, meaning section, here, the sections of Scripture appointed to be read.

In Latin and Hebrew, the title of a text is usually the first word or two of the text, called the incipit, which means "it begins" in Latin, rather than a separate title. Accordingly, some of the Sundays of the church year are called from the first word of the first proper text to them, the Introit. The Sundays of Advent, Lent, and after Easter are  nicknamed from their Introits. This practice has fallen into disuse with many churches following Rome's 1960s revisionism of the lectionary. Or one can as my former synod did abolish Introits altogether!

Another similarity between Advent and Lent is that a little over halfway through these preparation/penitential seasons, the coming joy peeks through in the readings, starting with the Introit, and so the liturgical colours reflect that with the purple yielding for that Sunday to rose or pink, which is also why the so-called Advent wreath has a rose or pink candle among the rest. It's for the third Sunday in Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday from the incipit of the Introit for it, which means "rejoice" and quotes Philippians 4:4-6. The Lenten parallel with rose vestments is Laetare Sunday, from the incipit of the Introit, Laetare Jerusalem, which means "Be joyful Jerusalem" and quotes Isaiah 66:10-11.

Psalm numbers in the old Roman usage followed the Septuagint, whereas we follow the numbering of the Hebrew Bible. That usage counts what we call Psalms 9 and 10 as one psalm, likewise 114 and 115, and divides both 116 and 147 in two, so between 10 to 148 the numbering is different by one. Since Vatican II Rome generally uses the Hebrew Bible numbering too, but below both will be given in the format: Hebrew numbering (Septuagint numbering).

Here are the names and readings of the Sundays in Advent, with this year's dates.

Ad te levavi. The First Sunday of Advent. 3 December 2017.

Introit Psalms 25 (24):1-3 psalm verse 25 (24):4, Epistle Romans 13:11-15, Gospel Matthew 21:1-9.

(Roman usage Gospel Luke 21:25-33, our second Sunday Gospel.)

Populus Sion. The Second Sunday of Advent. 10 December 2017.

Introit Isaiah 30:30 psalm verse 80 (79):1, Epistle Romans 15:4-13, Gospel Luke 21:25-36.

(Roman usage Gospel Matthew 11:2-10, our third Sunday Gospel.)

Gaudete. The Third Sunday of Advent. 17 December 2017.

Introit Philippians 4:4-6 psalm verse 85 (84):1, Epistle First Corinthians 4:1-5, Gospel Matthew 11:2-10.

(Roman usage Epistle Philippians 4:4-7 Gospel John 1:19-28, our fourth Sunday readings.)

Rorate coeli. The Fourth Sunday of Advent. 24 December 2017.

Introit Isaiah 45:8 psalm verse 19 (18):1, Epistle Philippians 4:4-7, Gospel John 1:19-28.

(Roman usage Epistle First Corinthians 4:1-5 Gospel Luke 3:1-6, our third Sunday Epistle, the Luke passage not used by us.)

Away in an Animal Feeding Trough, or, The Real Meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is a warm time filled with comfort, family, presents, good food, along with our religious sentiments, for many of us. Christmas as in the event we celebrate was nothing like that. It was rough. Joseph wasn't the glowing saint of paintings and icons, he was a working guy with a pregnant wife about to give birth -- I've been there twice and that ain't easy under any circumstances, and my observation would be it ain't easy being the about-to-deliver wife either.  He was in town to follow the law of foreign rulers and get counted in the census, with all the hotels full and no place to put his family up but a stable for animals, and after the baby was born they had to put him in a feeding trough for animals. That's what "away in a manger" was. A manger is a feeding trough for animals, the word coming into English from the French to eat, in turn from the Latin to chew (mandere). Fact is, our word "munch" has the same root.

So the King of kings is put in a feeding trough for animals in a cold stable. You don't make up this kind of stuff. Humans who are gods in myth are emperors and such, not working class kids born in a barn. Top it all off, this child "away in a feeding trough" will one day give himself to be the food of eternal life, giving his body and blood for us to eat and drink at mass as the pledge and promise of our salvation through the merits of his death and resurrection. Guess it kind of fits then.

For those of you whose Christmas isn't going to be all warm and cozy and filled with cheer, guess what, you're right in there with those at the first Christmas. That was a little rough too. Born in a stable, a feeding trough for a crib, and pretty soon his family having to high tail it out of town into political exile too. So you're not excluded at all, and you can take it right to him, because he knows all about when Christmas isn't so merry, or happy, as the English say. And he also knows all about how merry and happy don't really get determined by what happens in this life, on Christmas or any other day!

To Thee have I lifted up my soul, in Thee, O my God, I put my trust. Let me not be ashamed, neither let my enemies laugh at me, for none of those that wait on Thee shall be confounded.

Psalm 25 (24):1-3 as used in the Introit for the First Sunday in Advent.  Ad te levavi, to Thee have I lifted up ...