By John Rieping | 27 December 2015 |
'That special time of the year has arrived when people gather around and pass on fantastic tales about Christmas. I refer, of course, to the modern myth that the 12 days of Christmas are just a continuation of pagan Nordic "Yule" time.
Dangerously, I was asked to research it myself. So I did, and I do like to share with others, especially around the holidays.
A modern pagan Yule would be Dec. 20th to Jan. 1st. Those aren't the same dates as the traditional "12 days of Christmas" (evening Dec. 24 to evening Jan. 5), a period that actually adds up to 12 or 13 days, depending on how you count it up. That time for Christmas was defined by a council of Christian bishops in the city of Tours in A.D. 567, though originally the middle three of those days were for fasting -- not feasting. (The Christian holy day of Christmas itself began at least two centuries earlier. According to 4th century Patriarch John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Dec. 25 was believed to be the birthday of the messiah based on Roman records and tradition.)
In comparison, the ancient nordic Yule lasted only three days or less. The length was for as long as the alcohol they were drinking didn't run out. It began on a slaughter night of ritual animal sacrifice.
The medieval and modern version of Yule became 12 days in imitation of the traditional Christmas celebration, arguably beginning with King Haakon of Norway (920-961). The king converted to Christianity and made a law that from henceforth his pagan subjects would have to celebrate their Yule at the same time as the Christians celebrated their Christmas “and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines." (I guess he didn't approve of drinking on an empty stomach.)
Though Orthodox Christians and some Protestants still observe the traditional 12 days, Roman Catholics no longer officially do so. Since 1969, their Christmas season ends on a Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus, which is a few Sundays after Christmas. Because of that, the length of their Christmas differs each year. This year (2015), their Christmas season is 17 days long.
Meanwhile some Catholic countries in western Europe and Latin America celebrate Christmas for 40 days, a practice that began in the middle ages.
So why did Catholics change the official ending of their Christmas season? Ancient tradition long carried on by our Orthodox Christian siblings in faith.
For Orthodox Christians, Christmas falls on Jan. 7 on western calendars but Dec. 25 on their own, and it isn’t traditionally the biggest holiday of this time of year. More important is the day that Yeshua (Jesus) was revealed as divine during his baptism in the Jordan River, a day of Theophany. A holy day in January celebrating that event ends the Christmas season for Orthodox Christians, as well as now for Catholics. Christians have been celebrating that baptismal feast day since before the Christmas holiday itself existed.
I thought all of this might be interesting to others, whether your Christmas lasts one day, 12 days, many more, or none at all. Either way, may love find a home in your heart, and may that home have an open door for others to enter in as well.
By John Rieping | Published 7 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Few of the 300 writings by ancient Greek philosopher Epikouros survive today. One paradox said to be his we know only through an early Christian writer in North Africa, Lucius Lactantius (A.D. 250-325).
In it, the problem of suffering is posed as a riddle for those who believe any god cares for humanity.
"God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can," Epikouros allegedly wrote.
"If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful, which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful -- and so not a god.
"If he wants to and can, which is the only fitting thing for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"
Throughout history, many believers in divinity have proposed solutions to this mystery. But perhaps none match that offered by Christianity, insofar as every element of its message is in part a reply to the problems of pain and evil.
A drawback of this is that any quick or brief response to the scandal of evil falls short, both of the question and of the depth and breadth of Christianity's answer. Yet even Christianity admits it has only "partial" understanding of such divine mysteries (1 Corinthians 12:12).
So what can be said?
First, let us be honest here. When the paradox of Epikouros most hits us is not in a classroom or amid peace. It pierces when you lose someone you love and there's no remedy. It smashes in when we do our best or worst and the results are terrible beyond expectation. It crushes when we feel trapped in misery with no hope left.
In such moments, we don't want a rebuttal. We ache for restoration, if not immediately then someday.
This too Christianity promises, but that can fail to comfort when doubts overwhelm any belief in such assurances. Such skepticism can be fed by past disappointments, when our pleas for help seemed fruitless.
Hence the problem of pain can be a problem of perception.
Imagine, for example, a deathly ill child brought to doctors for a cure that requires an agonizing treatment. The boy resists, so the doctors ask the parents to hold him down. What betrayal he may feel as his supposedly loving parents, who gave him life and provide for him, seem deaf to his cries for escape.
Sometimes the healing we seek frightens us more than the sickness that devours us. We may prefer destruction to change.
Alternately, we may not even realize we're dying at all if not for symptoms that shout too loudly for us to ignore, like despised prophets of doom.
"We need crises," writes Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft, "for we have spiritual sleeping sickness and need frequent alarms.
To unravel the paradox of Epikouros, though, is not a task for the mind so much as the heart. Both are precious, but the wounded first need aid, not insight.
The instinct of Christianity has always been that the mystery of evil can only be understood at the foot of another mystery -- the cross. For Christians assert as true what seems foolish to some: God chose to become man to liberate humanity from evil by suffering and dying.
Reflecting on and reacting to this mystery of the cross is the greatest answer to the mystery of evil any Christian heart can find. Yet how often we believers look away, whether the crucifix before us consists of metal or flesh.
"When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree, / They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary; / They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds and deep, / For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
"When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by. / They would not hurt a hair of him, they only let him die; / For men had grown more tender, and they would not give him pain, / They only just passed down the street, and left him in the rain.
"Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do,' / And still it rained the winter rain that drenched him through and through; / The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see, / And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary." (G.A. Studdert-Kennedy)
By John Rieping | Published 8 Nov 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
My thanks to those readers who called last week. Samuel of Tulare, California, asked for a list of books about Rev. Miguel Pro, SJ, who died for his faith in Mexico in 1926. I haven't read any -- just many articles. But one highly rated on the website www.goodreads.com is "Blessed Miguel Pro" by Ann Ball. Another book to consider would be "La Cristiada: The Mexican People's War for Religious Liberty" by Jean Meyer.
On Wednesday, someone online asked others to share their worst experience leading a tabletop role-playing game. The niche hobby combines elements of a board game with the storytelling of a game of "let's pretend." One person often acts as a kind of referee.
A few years ago I stepped up to lead one such game after one of our playmates moved away. But I decided to majorly re-invent the game we were playing. I worked for weeks writing about a new world of my own invention and filling it with peoples and mysteries.
Eventually the game began, and the adventurers portrayed by my real life friends found themselves in a foreign world they did not understand. I had imagined it would be, metaphorically, like a sandbox in which children can invent their own fun. So I gave them no guidance or help.
I realized they weren't having fun, so I planned during the week and even recorded a silly song to aid the storytelling.
We played a week later and this time I wasn't hands off. I used a forest fire in the story to try to force the lost adventurers into an ambush I thought they could handle. Instead my silly song scared them and they chose to nearly burn to death rather than face unknown foes.
That game session ended in a real life argument.
The third session went even more badly, and by the fourth week only one of my friends bothered to even show up to the scheduled game. The rest never offered an excuse.
The story had died.
Both before and after that experience, I've led enjoyable role-playing games for others. Yet that failed one is one I've pondered most in hopes of not repeating my mistakes.
And I see myself in the characters played by my friends.
When I lack guidance or direction, I too flounder. I want God or others to clearly point out where to go or what to do. Yet I'm not docile. If afraid, I rebel. If pressured, I rebel. If bored, I rebel. If uncomfortable, I rebel. If offended, I rebel.
But the divine creator of this world, unlike my fictional one, is trustworthy.
I suspect a frequent unspoken prayer is "God, lead me where I want to go and help me do what I want to do. Grant me adventures without serious danger, and heroism without prolonged hardship. I will taste the cup of suffering before me, then hand it back. Not your will, but mine be done."
Can you imagine a movie or book featuring a hero with that attitude?
Journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong."
He explained that some want a faith that is compatible with their social life, with practicality, with science, and so on. Yet they would be social, practical, scientific, and so on even without religion.
"They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already," he continued. "They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it. It is a very different matter when a religion, in the real sense of a binding thing, binds men to their morality when it is not identical with their mood."
God, grant us grace to be bound for glory.
By John Rieping | Published 18 Sept 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. ... For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
— Journalist and author G.K. Chesterton
A strange phrase we take for granted today is that of “finding one’s self.” One would think that the “self” is the one inseparable asset one has.
I can imagine easily losing my keys, but if I truly lost my head I would expect an axe or guillotine to be involved — far from a painless loss. The “self” is no less intrinsic. So how is it one can lose it?
A lazy glance at the Oxford American Dictionary reveals the self as “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others.” In other words, it is the core of one’s human nature as a unique person. As such, it clearly isn’t something we lose so much as forget or contradict.
In this, and other ways, our heart becomes a battlefield in which our very life is at stake. Can there be a more intimate war than one waged within?
In ancient times, I suspect, two popular strategies for “winning” this war dominated. One looked within or at humanity. The other turned to an ideal, divinity, or belief deemed greater than the self. Both have merits.
The human-centered methods of self-reflection or social discovery both help one to locate the self.
By introspection, we open our eyes to what feelings and thoughts drive our action and inaction. Once exposed, they find it harder to ambush us and lead us astray. With sustained effort, we may even learn to somewhat tame these otherwise wild horses within.
By social interactions, we reveal by our behavior many truths about ourselves that may not match our self-image. Virtues and vices cannot hide in the light. If we prefer the dark and so stubbornly close our eyes to them, then the hard consequences of some of our acts may yet reach us.
In contrast, the god-centered methods of devotion to a higher purpose or power can aid one in transcending or uplifting the self. After all, why focus on the self only to be limited to it like a prison? Instead the self becomes not the destination but the start of a personal quest. Through self-sacrifice and discipline, some claim to find enlightenment, fulfillment, tranquility, divinization, or an escape from the tyranny of the self. By losing one’s self in such ways, some paradoxically find it.
These human and god centered methods of finding the self are often kept separate, and even in opposition, to each other. Hence we may see philosophy at odds with theology, science vs. religion, pragmatism against idealism, and so on.
This is not ultimately the position of Christianity however. Nor could it be. A central claim of this oddball religion is that the one God and creator of all chose to also become a genuine man of a particular time and place. By doing so, Christians claim, he showed to us both God and a perfect human.
As a result, the Christian way of finding one’s self is simultaneously human and god centered. Within, around, and above should be the focus of believers, Christianity claims, and without all three we will be lacking (1 John 4:20).
The incarnation of God as a man, as believed by Christians, was not only to present an example or teacher however. The God-man also came as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the demands of justice for each of us so that humanity could receive the offer of forgiveness, healing, and a glorious life after death. To sum it up in one word: mercy.
I think then we will never find ourselves without it.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes... / It is enthroned in the heart of kings; / It is an attribute to God himself; / And earthly power does then show like God’s / When mercy seasons justice.” (William Shakespeare, “The Quality of Mercy”)
By John Rieping | Published 19 July 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“I grew up in church. As a child, going to church felt natural. But recently, Christianity has been a hard ‘thing’ to swallow, if that makes sense. I noticed that you're probably Catholic ... Have you always been very spiritual, or did you have ‘bumps in the road’? How did you come to believe?” — An online reader
British author G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap... When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.”
Our very lives as young children rely on whether those who care for us are trustworthy, and whether they are or not we want them to be so. They may tell us God or Santa Claus exist and some of us accept this as truth initially, for we may not know either divinity or Santa personally but we know our parents. So we believe.
But times come when our child-like faiths quake, because we have learned the imperfection of our parents, ourselves, others, or life itself. A contradiction or unsatisfied question births one doubt or many. If no remedy is sought or found, our trust in what or who we’ve believed wavers or dies.
All who live beyond childhood must pass through this in some aspect of our beliefs. This is not because of lost innocence and ignorance, which are commonly blamed. Rather it is because children accept a world handed onto them by others and are not held responsible for what they’ve received. It is not so for adults.
The world may exist before us no less than for kids, but our understanding and response has become something we pay the price for. There is always a cost for convictions, and a higher one for having none at all.
As a child, was I interested in spiritual topics like angels, miracles, and so on? Yes, as well as equally fantastical ones like magic, unicorns, elves, dragons, and more — not to mention androids and alien life forms. Children tend to have a hunger for both clarity and possibilities.
Did I ever question the existence of God? I did. Repeatedly as a young child I’d imagine God did not exist and linger dizzily on the edge of that cliff staring at the ramifications. Yet I never jumped off.
Franciscan friar William of Ockham, England, proposed that, in the absence of certainty, a solution with the fewest assumptions should be favored. This “razor” of his remains popular with scientists to this day. And I have never leapt into atheism because I believed then and now that God is both the most rational and the simplest explanation for so much I have encountered and learned of existence.
Whether hard to swallow or not is irrelevant. In my experience, it is the simplest truths that are the most difficult to embrace. We often create complications instead as a labor-saving device.
My first major crisis of faith came around age 10 when I decided I didn’t want to join my family for Sunday morning Mass. I locked myself in the bathroom — the only lockable room.
My mother and sister pled with me through the door to no avail. So my dad said to leave me be. John may not be going that day, he said, but that didn’t mean the family wouldn’t. He herded my family out the door and I could hear our automobile start up and go.
At that moment, I reflected. I did not want to go to church. I had other activities I wished to persist in instead. But did I believe in God? I searched my depths and I did. Yet whether or not one believes in God, the consequence of that belief remains a choice. Thus came a point of decision: did I love God?
I did, and realized then I wanted to worship God — not because of family but out of love. So I unlocked the door and ran into the street, chasing after my family.
That would not be my only such rebellion, but resolving them has always involved a sincere search for answers, whether within or outside, and the choice to respond to what I uncovered.
The word “crisis” comes from the Greek word for “decision” (krisis) or “decide” (krinein). A crisis is a healthy and normal opportunity to grow in one’s convictions. Fear not.
By John Rieping | Published 5 Oct. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
DEAR JOHN: I guess I would most accurately be described as agnostic. I want to believe, though, which makes me skeptical right off the bat, because I have to be even more discriminating…
I've had times where I really thought I believed, like powerful epiphanies I just *knew* were the real thing. Now, I don't even know.
It's like, when I believe enough to let it influence my actions, I can't get rid of the nagging feeling I'm wrong and giving into something that isn't the truth so that I can stop feeling so lonely. But then, when I decide it's all bull and feel like there's nothing out there, and we just *want* to believe it to assuage our existential angst, I have the nagging feeling I'm risking something really serious (Pascal's wager comes to mind).
I wonder if existential angst isn't an inevitable result of our brains having evolved to make us fit for a world that, for humans at least, seems so different from the one we now occupy. Because civilization changed things drastically and rapidly, and survival in the traditional sense is less of a concern, affording us way more time to, well, think. And religion has flourished due to our discomfort at the prospect of being alone in the unknown.
Or maybe the idea of a deity/religion really does come close to the truth, and so is the cause of and solution to that angst. -- P.C.H.
DEAR P.C.H.: If spirituality depended upon civilization to flourish, I think history would be much different. But beliefs in the supernatural have existed long before humans even had the ability to write of them. They continue today. According to the CIA World Factbook, only about 2.01 percent of the world's population was atheist as of 2010.
It seems safe to say that humanity tends to be religious, whether our spiritual beliefs are communal or independent. However you aren't asking about such beliefs in general. You're questioning whether they are true or just embraced for consolation.
The latter concern is easily refuted. There have been countless persons of faith who have held fast to spiritual beliefs despite persecution, sacrifices, and their own doubts -- even to the point of dying for them as martyrs.
Consider the missionary Catholic nun Mother Teresa (1910-1997), a 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner known for her religious congregation's "wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor." For nearly 50 years before her death, she reportedly felt no satisfaction in her beliefs. In 1959-60, she wrote to her spiritual director, "In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing." Yet, despite persistent feelings of "interior darkness," she continued to believe in God, and died peacefully.
Why? Because her convictions weren't based upon her feelings or any relief that came from them. She was convinced they were true despite how she sometimes felt.
How do people develop such confidence? Trust.
We often trust the testimony of the natural world, persons in it now and in the past, our own experience and more. Though sometimes unreliable, these can also help us glimpse beyond what is material to a deeper meaning and a spiritual dimension. We can realize there is a divine creator.
Can we grasp divinity fully? No. But we don't have to have complete understanding to recognize and pursue truth any more than I have to know nuclear physics to believe atomic bombs exist.
Rev. Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, once commented, "'A mystery of faith': in some this expression arouses love and gratitude, but it discourages others; and for still others it becomes a stumbling block. These last declare: 'I believe only what my reason is capable of grasping.' To begin with, we might call attention to the obvious absurdity involved in such an affirmation; for if we ourselves experience something, we no longer need to rely on others to believe it. Furthermore, do these gentlemen really hold as true only what they themselves have investigated?"
As the U.K. author and journalist G.K. Chesterton noted, "Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." ("Orthodoxy")
So fear not. Healthy religious faith is not a crutch. It is a ladder.
God, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” (Bishop Augustine of Hippo, Africa)
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 7/14/12 in The Madera Tribune
I’m usually not a frequent letter writer or recipient, even as a newspaper columnist. But below are excerpts of an online conversation I had in January about religion. It has been rewritten for brevity, clarity, and to protect brain cells.
LP: “There may be a god. There may not. No one can be 100 percent certain either way. Live and let live I say!”
There’s a difference between being 100 percent certain and being convinced. Hint: the requirements are lower for being convinced.
LP: “Brainwashed from birth.”
I prefer a brain that has been washed to a dirty mind.
LP: “Ha ha. Good comeback! … But how do you know a lot about God? Does he speak to you? Or are you going on the word of an old book?”
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam believe humanity can know God because God chose to self-disclose. This self-disclosure to humanity is referred to as “public revelation” and is expressed, in part, in the books of the Bible. Admittedly Judaism doesn’t accept all of what Christians term the Bible, and Islam distrusts its reliability — depending instead on the Quran.
LP: “But God never spoke to me! I have never read the Bible!”
President Obama has never spoken to me personally either, but if I wish I can find out what he has said.
LP: “What about people who… have never been discovered by civilization? Are they going to hell because they don’t have access to the Bible?”
Opinions differ on that. My church, Catholicism, believes those who truly had no opportunity to learn about public revelation would not necessarily be damned. Some of the other Christian religions would disagree.
LP: “What kind of god would send someone to suffer for eternity in hell just for not worshiping him?”
To answer the question of why God would allow someone to go to hell for eternity, one must first grasp the concept of hell itself.
Hell is more than a place. It is also a state, and that state of being can be experienced even in one’s lifetime… Hell is a place and state of rejecting God and all that directly reflects God.
This rejection has many consequences, because God is a being with the fullness of the qualities of existence: all-beautiful, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, etc. To reject God is to, ultimately, embrace ugliness, weakness, ignorance, hate, and more. That is worse than any fire or torture.
Moreover when one turns away from the gift-giver, one also spurns the gifts.
LP: “My parents gave me life, but they don’t demand worship! I will go through life being nice to people but others can rape and murder as long as they repent to God afterwards. So I’m going to hell and they’re going to heaven. Where’s the justice there?”
Each human has the choice to accept God into one’s life because God has offered that option to us. We don’t deserve it. The happiness from appreciating God’s presence transcends what any human could “earn” in any way. Even in life, it is a great gift. Everyone sees God’s reflected presence in every experience of true beauty, love, and goodness. We all usually take it for granted. Its loss is hellish.
We can lament we have a choice to embrace or refuse God, but that would be like grieving that a stunningly attractive, intelligent, and good-hearted woman asked you out for a date. If one turns down that offer, who is to blame for having to return to a cold, empty, and solitary apartment afterwards?
LP: “What do I have to do to accept God into my life then? It all feels so one-sided when I pray.”
It comes down to daily choices. Despite what some may believe, it isn’t just a one-time decision. Every day of our life, one has to welcome God into one’s life.
How? The most basic way is prayer, which is a misunderstood term for communication (the word originally meant “to ask earnestly”). As with any relationship, communication is key, and yes, it should be two-way. We can listen to God by hearing what God self-revealed, especially in the person and words of Jesus.
Like in any relationship, we should try not to offend. It also helps to have friends who want God in their lives too, because they won’t be annoyed when you bring God with you.
Ultimately you need more guidance than I can give from afar, so seek humble teachers.