Archive for December, 2007

Aionia mneme

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The mother of an absent friend is herself now absent, and the father is nearly so. Prayers, please, for Yatish and the rest of the Joshi family, and for the soul of Louise.

This photo is from my trip to London this last summer, where by fluke, they were stopping on their way back from a vacation in Italy. For a full account, go here and scroll down to where it says “Event #6”.

I also found this from a Christmas gift to which Georgie contributed a few years ago. I don’t generally take a lot of pictures, so this has become very meaningful to me.

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Memory eternal, Louise.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

nativity.jpgAnd it came to pass that Mary was enrolled with Joseph the old man in Bethlehem, since she was of the seed of David, and was great with the Lamb without seed. And when the time for delivery drew near, and they had no place in the village, the cave did appear to the Queen as a delightful palace. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.(Troparion from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, Byzantine rite)

A child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder; and his name will be called, the Angel of great counsel.

(Introit of the third Mass of Christmas Day, Roman rite)

Expect the media to bring up the usual historical “problems” with the Nativity account, according to Fr. Stephen Freeman, and don’t fret about it:

Literalism is a false means of interpretation (hermenuetic) and is a vain attempt to democratize the Holy writings. If they can be read on a literal level, then everyone has equal access to them and everybody has equal authority to interpret them. […] the seasons come and go and the media cannot resist speaking of what they do not know. And so they ask those who do not know to speak on their behalf. But if we would know Christ and the wonder of His incarnation, then we would do well to listen to those who have been appointed to speak and to hear them in the context given to us for listening – the liturgical life of the Church.

photo-6.jpgIn other news, blogging has been light the last couple of days because we’ve been madly scanning and shelving books. The Delicious Library and LibraryThing system has been fantastic, but most definitely less than perfect. One annoying thing is that even if Library of Congress data exists for a book, LibraryThing won’t always find it, requiring you to find it yourself on the Library of Congress website and enter it manually. For books that don’t have LC numbers, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do; is there a way that one can divine what the number will eventually be?

What’s also frustrating is that LibraryThing is in theory able to identify new ISBNs when a list is uploaded and add only those, and it does this successfully in most cases, but there are somewhere around ten books that are always duplicated when I add a new list. This afternoon I eliminated somewhere around fifty dupes, in some cases there being seven entries for one book.

Another issue: I’ve entered 718 books into Delicious (representing probably roughly half of what we have), and I’ve exported the catalog to LibraryThing on a fairly regular basis. This afternoon, LibraryThing showed 756 books; after eliminating the duplicates, I’m down to 702 in LibraryThing with 8 ISBNs it can’t find (European books, I think). That means there are eight books Delicious is listing in its catalog that for some reason LibraryThing isn’t picking up.

Nonetheless, we’ve been able to accomplish in a weekend what would have surely taken us a month on our own, and that’s most certainly worth it.

Finally–any other Leopard users out there finding that with the latest update, searching for files within the File Upload dialog appears to be broken?

Merry Christmas to all!

Mmmmm, Delicious

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Usually it’s my pal Gavin who posts this kind of thing, but hey, why not. Maybe he’ll blog about dead languages tomorrow.

Remember what I said about maybe getting Delicious Library going over the break? Well, it’s going… and going… and going. I’ve got 245 books entered in so far. Only about 6,342,351 to go.

The whole thing is pretty slick, actually. You enter books (or DVDs, or CDs) by title, author, ISBN number, or even by scanning the barcode with an iSight camera, and then it pulls the item’s data off of Amazon.com—cover, genre, publisher, series, retail value, description, etc. (all as available, of course). You can hand-edit anything you need to, you can update cover art by dragging an image onto the item’s entry, you can sort by any category you like, and so on. Other very practical features include easily being able to set up a “checkout” system for loaning out books, integration with Amazon.com Marketplace if you want to get rid of things, and so on. It will also make book recommendations based on what you have (with quick ‘n easy links to the product on Amazon.com, of course).

It’s not perfect by any means; Library of Congress or Dewey data would be nice, as would the ability to generate a bibliography, the genres imported from Amazon are not consistently accurate or useful—and it’s going to take a lot of hand-tweaking to make them useful. Custom fields would be a most appreciated feature. On the other hand, this is a version 1.5 product, and I’m told some of these things will be available in v2.0 (due within a couple of months, apparently). Also, you can easily export your Delicious catalog to LibraryThing, which does do Library of Congress and plenty of other things, enough so that it’s worth it to have both, really.

If you’re a Mac user drowning in books, Delicious Library might very well be worth your time.

Rod Dreher: “what integrity really is”

Food for thought which speaks for itself.

U. S. News and World Report on a return to the old stuff

With a tip of the hat to the good folks over at Get Religion, I give you an article in U. S. News and World Report by Jay Tolson entitled “A Return to Tradition: A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths.”

Go ahead and take a moment to read it—it won’t take long. On a personal note, not to mention in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve met Roger Finke; his daughter and son-in-law are my godchildren, and his son and daughter-in-law are also dear friends. As converts to Orthodox Christianity, they themselves are part of this “return to tradition” of which the article speaks. (EDIT: the referents of “they” are Dr. Finke’s son, daughter, and in-laws; Dr. Finke himself is LCMS, not Orthodox.)

A few broad observations: it appears to be an article of faith for the mainstream media that Pope Benedict XVI’s liberalization of the traditional rite will ultimately have little to no effect, and certainly won’t catch on terribly well—it just means that a handful of old folks can now go back to saying their rosaries on their own while the ad orientem priest mumbles in Latin and a smaller handful of young militants can pretend to insert themselves into a tradition which was never theirs in the first place. This is not, of course, what Tolson says in so many words, but it certainly seems important to him to make sure to include a quote from somebody downplaying the significance of Benedict’s move.

Along the same lines, does the “return to tradition” mean a break from the “religious service provider” mentality, according to Tolson? Of course not. Tolson provides a quote from Finke that makes it very explicit that the cafeteria is by no means closed; it’s just that perhaps some people are trying to add a sit-down restaurant option for those who want it: “It’s a structured life, but it’s a structure they are seeking and not simply submitting to authority.” An earlier quote from IUPUI sociologist Sister Patricia Wittberg underscores this: “I think the future is with a group that is interested in reviving the old stuff and traditions in a creative way.” In other words, what we’re talking about is a group of people who are interested in tradition, but on their own terms. It’s less the received tradition and more the cherry-picked tradition; tradition-as-trapping rather than Tradition-as-authority.

In the interests of fairness, there is a fundamental conundrum that, some would argue, ensures that anybody who embraces a more traditional expression of Christianity is going to be engaging in a range of cherry-picking, cafeteria-esque behavior. “There’s nothing more un-Orthodox,” I’ve heard various people claim, “then intentionally converting to Orthodoxy.” In other words, if you’re converting to a faith in which you were not raised, you’re already cherry-picking; you’re already intentionally grafting yourself onto something else rather than accepting whatever tradition you received growing up. You’re asserting yourself onto an organic entity in such a way that ensures you will never be part of it. You’ve already chosen what it is you’re willing to submit to, and since you’ve already presumably left something else at least once, you’re tacitly reserving the right to do so again. It’s healthy, so the argument goes, to acknowledge that we’re all cafeteria believers of one form or another, and that there’s no other way you can be in this country, where religion is just another part of the marketplace of ideas.

I suppose to some extent this is true; I will say that for myself and people I know who have converted to either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism (or even people raised in either communion who have made a conscious choice to more fully “own” their faith), there is always a struggle to figure out how to live life more fully within the faith but also with an awareness of the reality of the world. That’s the struggle of any Christian at any point in history, really. As G. K. Chesterton might have put it, the struggle doesn’t invalidate the conversion any more than the rain invalidated the ark.

Finally—the following point is worth noting, as much as for how Tolson says it as what he says:

Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.

First of all, this assumes that there is a divide between belief and practice. This may very well be the case, but it’s a divide which would have been quite foreign to the early Christians, who were very aware that how one prayed and worshipped impacted how they believed. (Google Lex orandi, lex credendi if you don’t believe me.) As an Episcopalian praying the Rite II Eucharist Sunday in, Sunday out, in allowing myself to actually pray the liturgy, I was occasionally confronted by something in the text, and I realized that in order to keep praying it, I had to decide if I actually believed it or not. Did I actually believe the words of the Nicene Creed? Did I actually believe I was receiving the Body and Blood of Christ? Did I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? And so on. The more I decided that yes, I actually believed what I was praying, ironically enough, the less tenable of a position it seemed to remain an Episcopalian.

Liturgical practice is at once both the expression and the teaching of the faith held by the community; someone actively engaging it and praying it will of course find what they believe being influenced by it. That is the whole point, and it is a point easily lost on people who think that worship is all about style, taste, and aesthetic preference.

Orthodox Christianity and anti-Catholicism

stpeterwith-key.jpgiconstandrewnewbrand.jpgFirst off, a brief explanation of what this post is not: it is not an examination of the issues surrounding the lack of unity between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Churches in communion with the See of Rome. There are plenty of other people willing to go there; I’m not, at least not today. This post will mention some of the issues which exist, but it will neither focus on nor analyze them.

It is also in no way a polemic against any particular individuals; the problem of Christian disunity is everybody’s problem, and however we may be convinced of how that came about, blame is never going to accomplish as much as charity and humility. If we are to be “little Christs” even to those with whom we cannot partake of Holy Communion, we must act in love. That said, Our Lord wasn’t one to sugarcoat. Therefore we must speak the truth, but we must do so in love or it is worthless.

And so, my point: when an Eastern Orthodox Christian frankly and openly acknowledges issues which divide East and West, this is not de facto anti-Catholicism. This is not to say that there isn’t anti-Catholicism among some Orthodox, any more than Roman Catholics can fairly say there aren’t any anti-Orthodox among their number. There are some embarrassingly hostile anti-Catholics among the Orthodox; those, for example, who see that there have been differences in practice and expression between East and West since just about day one, and subsequently conclude that the West has been in grave error from the beginning. No question about it, this exists, and as much as is possible, other Orthodox should work to counteract that.

Be that as it may, when an Orthodox Christian tells his Roman Catholic brother, “There are these stumbling blocks which exist for us in terms of papal supremacy/the Immaculate Conception/created grace/etc. which are, from our perspective, obstacles to unity,” assuming that the context is appropriate for the exchange, this is not automatically an example of Orthodox hostility towards Rome. It could very well be that the person has taken a hostile tone, but an attempt to discuss the issue and in particular, a subsequent “sticking to one’s guns” does not in and of itself indicate hostility.

It is true that such discussions are not likely to solve anything; presumably an Orthodox is convinced of the truth of the Orthodox position and a Catholic of the Catholic position. It is true that people far better educated than I ever will be have chosen to swim the Tiber rather than the Bosphorus, but it is also true that others with the same class of education, given access to the same evidence, have chosen New Rome over Old Rome. For example, I have heard some suggest that Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan’s conversion to Orthodoxy was really a product of an inherited anti-Catholicism which was ultimately too strong to overcome; I suppose it would be just as easy to suggest that Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was effectively a product of a Western enculturation which was too strong to overcome. Charity, I find, is lacking in both assertions, as well as in a parallel assertion, that if someone like Pelikan or Newman had truly considered the evidence “in faith,” they would have chosen differently.

There are real issues which divide Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and there are practical consequences of those issues.  To acknowledge this is not to be hostile to whichever side one has not chosen; it is simply to admit reality.  I suggest, however, that for those of us who aren’t bishops, we’re better off frankly acknowledging the issues, agreeing to disagree (however sadly), but then further acknowledging that, while lacking the power to formally resolve any issues, we can work to cultivate the unity that would already have to exist before formal procedures would ever do any good (think of the Council of Florence). False ecumenism isn’t helpful; I’m not sure something as lofty-sounding as “dialogue” is really going to get laypeople anywhere, and there’s certainly nothing we can do about concelebration or communion. Conversation and cooperation, however, in the context of treating each other as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of what issues our bishops might have with each other, might just accomplish something.

We’ve got to be able to talk openly and honestly without fear that points of disagreement and recognition of reality are going to be automatically interpreted as hostility. If we can’t do that, conversation and cooperation won’t get far. We must truly walk in love just as Christ loved us.

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible” (updated)

reportcard.jpgSo, the good news is that for all of my handwringing about Greek this semester, it wound up being more of a bright spot on my transcript than I would have thought. It’s still a variety of “B” rather than a variety of “A”, but it’s a better variety than I figured possible, and it’s certainly not a variety of “C”. I’m still probably going to try to sit in on third semester Greek again next fall as a refresher (since, because of scheduling issues, I can’t take the fourth semester until next year), but the unmitigated disaster I was convinced was inevitable on Wednesday afternoon appears to have been nonetheless avoided.

unchristmas.gifThere’s an article in the Associated Press about Protestants who don’t celebrate Christmas (hat tip: Dr. Philip Blosser), and it provides an interesting overview of the history of Christmas celebrations in the United States. In a nutshell, Protestant America was at best uncomfortable with and at worst hostile towards Christmas until the 19th century, when it shifted towards being more of a secular, family holiday and less of a religious observance associated with Catholics. In other words, it was largely because it took on commercial aspects (at least according to this piece) that its liturgical trappings were tolerated. Still, despite this “domestication,” certain Protestant groups retain the objection into our own time:

Christians like the United Church of God reject the holiday [because they] say divine instruction, rather than culture and society, should determine whether the holiday is appropriate.

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible,” said Clyde Kilough, president of the United Church of God, which has branches all over the world. “The theological question is quite simple: Is it acceptable to God for humans to choose to worship him by adopting paganism’s most popular celebrations and calling them Christian?”

I have to say, there’s a part of me that has absolutely no problem with this attitude. What reason do Christians who reject the liturgical calendar as a whole have to keep Christmas as an observance? Aren’t they trying to have it both ways? Here’s the follow-up question, though—do these same groups reject Easter? If not, why not? It seems to me they’d have to, to stay consistent.

Here’s what is, for me, the money quote:

[T]he mainline Protestant churches have learned to accommodate Christmas. But the change came from the pews rather than the pulpit.

Christmas benefited from a 19th century “domestication of religion,” said University of Texas history professor Penne Restad, in which faith and family were intertwined in a complementary set of values and beliefs.

Christmas became acceptable as a family-centered holiday, Restad said, once it lost its overtly religious significance.

At the same time, aspects of the holiday like decorated trees and gift-giving became status symbols for an aspirant middle class. When Christmas began its march toward dominance among holidays, it was because of a change in the culture, not theology.

“In America, the saying is that the minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister,” Restad said. “This was more of a sociological change than a religious one. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church (emphasis mine).”

The minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church. That’s a mouthful, folks, and one that strikes me as bearing some real consideration.

All that said, I have to say I’d love for the guys at Get Religion to offer their thoughts on this story; I’m sure there’s a lot here I’m missing.

UPDATE: Fr. Stephen Freeman has some words which are directly applicable to the matter at hand:

…[T]radition is not only normal – it is inevitable… We cannot, without great violence, declare that there will be no traditions. This has been sought through the centuries by various iconoclast regimes (Puritans come to mind the easiest). But they never completely succeed. Today, the descendants of Puritans will seek Christmas trees whether they believe in God or not. The tradition is stronger even than the belief. But the tradition wasn’t given in order to destroy the belief, but to live it out.

My blog has nothing to do with HGH, baseball, steroids, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Brangelina, TomKat, X-Files, or the Sybian

But it’ll be interesting to see how much search engine traffic I get now that all those things are listed in a post title.

(That said, it might be about OK Soda.)

End-of-Finals-Week miscellany

In a nutshell: Greek not so good, Syriac very good.

cursivegkms-640w.gifGreek this semester (my third) has been a war over a particular person getting to make a particular point, fought in such a way so that it is those in the classroom who have been the collateral damage, and the final was very much a final salvo. I’m being deliberately vague for a lot of reasons; suffice it to say I did the work, put in my time, and learned a lot, but it is questionable how much of a high point it will wind up being on my transcript. Oh well; it happens.curetoniansyriac-640w.gif

By contrast, I handed in my Syriac final feeling quite chipper, on the other hand, and I felt quite justified in my chipperness when I saw the posted grade this morning.

Now I get to spend the break reviewing Latin for next semester. Opto, optare, optavi, optatus. Sum, esse, fui, futurus. Femina, feminae, feminae, feminam, femina

Dr. Liccione has an essay entitled “Freedom, evolution, and original sin” which he posted yesterday. It’s the kind of thing which, when I read it, makes me think things along the lines of, “You know, maybe things could be worked out between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy within my lifetime…” I’m not qualified to engage the post on any kind of a theological or doctrinal level, but I do want to point out a few things.

Kecharitomene is an interesting word in Greek. If my Greek teacher were to ask me to give its syntax on a test, I would say that it is a feminine singular participle, perfect tense to show completed aspect, passive voice, in the vocative case, agreeing in gender, number, and case with the unexpressed subject (being the Virgin Mary), and it is being used attributively.

What in the world does all of that mean?

A participle as a verbal adjective; in English we end participles with “-ing” and then use them in conjunction with the verb “to be” to express various tenses periphrastically. If I say, “I am walking,” “am” is the finite verb and “walking” is the participle–it’s attributing the characteristic “walking” to me rather than expressing it directly as a finite verb, whereas a single finite verb in Greek, “baino,” says all of that on its own—the “o” ending indicates that it’s first-person singular, so the subject is already implied, and it in the present tense, so it doesn’t need the helper verb “to be.” In Greek, you would use the participle perhaps to express a parallel thought to the main idea of the sentence (e.g., in “The turkey being cooked, we will now eat dinner”, “being cooked” would be expressed as a participle), often to indicate a present state before an action is taken (my Greek teacher likes to use the example that instead of “Take the money and run,” Plato would say, “Taking the money, run!”), and also to attribute verbal characteristics to people. Think of the movie “The Running Man,” and you’ve got the idea. Kecharitomene is an example of this last use—the verb is being applied to the Virgin Mary as an attribute, and therefore is singular and feminine, since in Greek adjectives must agree with what they modify in gender, number (singular/plural, as in “I/we”), and case. This is direct address, and that case is called “vocative.”

Participles, while not being finite verbs, have tenses like finite verbs; we usually think of tenses as expressing time, but Greek (at least how my teacher taught us) is a little more granular, expressing both time and aspect, aspect being the state in which the action is being performed. There is simple aspect, which means that the action is done once; progressive or repeated aspect, which means that it occurs continuously or over and over, and completed aspect, which means that the action is, well, done to completion. “I am walking” is present time, progressive or repeated aspect. “I was walking” is past time, progressive/repeated aspect. “I walked to the store” is past time, simple aspect. “I have walked home” is present time, completed aspect. And so on. Kecharitomene is in the perfect tense, which indicates present time, completed aspect. One thing about Greek, though, is that participles, if they communicate time at all (outside of the indicative mood, tenses lose connotation of absolute time and only have to do with aspect) communicate time relative to the main verb. “Chaire, Kecharitomene!” being a greeting (“Chaire” is the imperative form of the verb which means “rejoice,” used idiomatically in Greek to mean “Hello”), there’s not really a main verb, so an argument can be made that we can’t really say anything about the time in which this action was performed, only that it is done to completion.

There are two grammatical voices in English, active and passive. In the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb; “I throw the ball.” In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb; “I am thrown the ball.” Greek has both of these as well (plus a middle voice, where the action is performed reflexively or causatively or there’s some other special meaning being communicated). Kecharitomene is passive, which means the Virgin Mary has received the action of the verb; somebody else has performed the action (presumably, God).

Having now explained the syntax, the base meaning of the verb conjugated as Kecharitomene is “endow with grace.”

Therefore, if we were to try to incorporate every last nuance of the above into a literal English translation of “Chaire, Kecharitomene”, it would come out to “Hello, woman completely endowed with grace (don’t know when that happened, it’s just the way it is)!”

Doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, does it? Regardless, Dr. Liccione’s summary of the implications is worth a glance:

[The Virgin Mary’s state of being kecharitomene] is sola gratia: a direct product of divine power divinizing. And it is itself but the most proximate effect of…the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of that divine person who is Mary’s Son, a process in which we are all destined to participate, thus becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Amen! Others can hash it out further.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is an interesting figure, even to the Orthodox; Fr. Seraphim Rose was quite critical of him, and others (such as Fr. John Meyendorff, I believe) evidently thought he hit the nail on the head. I’ve never read any of his works myself, but I don’t claim to have any particular interest in the creation vs. evolution issue. If we are to understand time as a part of creation, and if we are to understand the Fall as having corrupted all of creation, then presumably time was part of what was corrupted, as well as how we perceive it. For all I know (and I wasn’t there), the Genesis account is exactly and literally what happened, but we’re on the wrong side of the event to be able to see empirical evidence of it. I don’t know, and it frankly is irrelevant to me, having no bearing on the personal struggle to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Maybe that’s a shortsighted point of view, but there we are.

Moving on…

I’m still stewing deep in thought about my Greek class. I can’t really go into a lot of details because the players would easily identifiable, and I don’t want to go there. What I will say is that after the first year of Greek (assuming use of a introductory textbook like Hansen & Quinn, which appears to be the closest the Greek world has to a standard like Wheelock’s is for Latin), I can imagine a very compelling case being made for Religious Studies departments having a second-year sequence running parallel to a Classical Studies department’s sequence. For example, this semester, we spent roughly three-fourths of the term on Plato’s Ion, and the last three or four weeks on the New Testament. That’s all well and good for classicists, but let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of love left over for anything written Anno Domini, and I believe I would have ultimately benefited more from the ratio having been reversed, particularly since the fourth semester, as taught here, is radio station WHMR, all Homer, all the time.

It also occurs to me that one thing from which my beloved Hansen & Quinn textbook could benefit, faithful and constant companion, friend, and projectile over the last year as it has been, would be something of a supporting library along the lines of what’s available for Wheelock’s. It’s also quite amusing, looking back at the sentences I slaved over for hours in September 2006; if anyone would like an exact count of how many ways Homer can send the brothers into the battle in the country on the road with books, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.

OK. Enough for now. Finals week is over, Deo gratias, the syntax of “deo” being that it’s an indirect object “to/for” dative, and in the singular number you decline that deus, dei, deo, deum, deo…

Christmas extended in both directions

nativityicxc.jpgAlden Swan, who does some interesting blogging about Christianity and culture, posted a piece called “The Joy of Christmas Insanity.” Here’s an excerpt:

I was speaking with someone a week or so ago about how fast Christmas seems to be coming; it always seems to catch me by surprise, which just adds to the stress. […] Christmas now begins in late October or early November, and by December it’s in full swing, with parties, decorations, music, movies, concerts, shopping and food. It is an all-out celebration, involving all aspects of our lives. Those who are of other religions (or no religion) have by now realized that “the train, it won’t stop going…” and they either join in ignoring the religious aspects, or live in misery.

Eating, drinking, singing, spending lots of money buying gifts, giving to charity, all can be expressions of joy, even if we don’t realize it.

For those of us who are Christians, I don’t think we need to detract at all from the secular aspects of the holiday; I think that joy, even the non-spiritual version, is something that humans need to express for their emotional health. In America, we’re a pretty joy-constipated bunch. So, let everyone celebrate. But, Christians indeed have a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world (I think it’s okay to have both), and we get to express that, too.

Think about all that for a moment. Christmas gets going in October—I was noticing a few Christmas decorations out shortly before Halloween, as I recall—and “is an all-out celebration” basically until the shopping season wears off, sometime shortly after New Year’s.

As Mr. Swan also puts it, “It seems that there are two ways to deal with the oncoming train: either we live in denial (and get creamed), or we run headlong into it.” For purposes of contrast, let me offer the following as a possible third way.

On 15 November, Orthodox Christians (those following Byzantine practice, anyway, since Western Rite does things a little differently) begin to observe the Nativity Fast, or Advent. It is a forty day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Much like Great Lent before Easter, ideally we abstain from animal products (although often, in practice, this fast is not as severe as the Lenten period), hopefully our parish situation is such that we are able to attend additional services throughout the week to make up for spiritually what we are denying ourselves physically, and we look for ways to be Christ to those who need it.

Some understand this period to be penitential, for the purpose of self-examination; it is also often explained as a time where the faithful prepare themselves for the coming of Christ into the world. However it is understood, on 25 December, the faithful participate liturgically in the moment where eternal reality and historical reality intersected, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observe this, as we observe all major feasts, with a Divine Liturgy; Christmas is the “Christ Mass,” after all. Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood and dwell within us.

Then, after all this preparation, the party starts. Remember “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Well, that’s what we actually do. Maybe not with lords a-leaping in a pear tree, but after the forty days of fasting, we’re ready to celebrate in body and soul. Gifts and singing and dancing and rich food and sweets and so on now have a spiritual context, and we’re thankful for it. The Bridegroom is now with us, and we feast. It is truly “a joy which is of a different nature than that of the world.”

For us, feasting and fasting must be understood in terms of each other—fasting prepares for feasting, feasting has been prepared for by fasting. Great Lent and Easter are the same idea on an even bigger scale. On a smaller, day-to-day level, this plays out even in how we receive Holy Communion: if we intend to commune on a Sunday, we prepare for that feast with prayer and by fasting starting the night before.

Without intending to offer judgment, compare this to our cultural mindset where we extend Christmas in both directions, starting the party in the October and going on for two and half months or so (by which point we’ve probably gained twenty pounds).

One more wrinkle—if you’re following the Julian Calendar, you celebrate on 7 January, by which point the secular party has completely stopped and everybody has moved on. I’m told there’s a real spiritual peace in observing the Nativity at a time when the world has finally quieted down; I can only imagine.

Not that Mr. Swan has asked my opinion, but it seems to me that we need not convince ourselves that our only options are to grumpily swim against the tide or to surf the wave.


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