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 18 Dec 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Look up the noun “advent” in the New Oxford American Dictionary and you will read: “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” The roots of the word in Latin mean “to come” or “coming.”
In short, “advent” looks forward, and so does the Christian season of the same name.
My family took the weeks of Advent seriously in my childhood. The season has long been a time to happily prepare for Christmas — not celebrate it beforehand.
No Christmas decorations, music, or television specials were allowed in my childhood home before Christmas Eve except for Advent carols, an Advent calendar, an Advent candle wreath, and a nativity (a tableau of events surrounding the birth of Jesus).
We set out wooden statues of shepherds and their sheep first, and a stable with only an ox. Later Joseph and Mary would arrive with their donkey. Across the room, figures of gift-bearing wise men would lead a camel.
Before our evening meal, we’d pray and then light the number of colored candles for the current week of the season. I hoped to be chosen for that task. I loved the liveliness of fire dancing upon the wick. More importantly, the candles counted down to Christmas.
Sometimes we’d go to a “posada,” which is a nine-day Spanish and Mexican custom reenacting efforts of Jesus and Mary to find lodging in the town of Bethlehem. Although Hispanic, I didn’t know Spanish. Yet I understood the simple theater, music, and tasty refreshments in those homes.
On Christmas Eve or so, my father would buy an evergreen tree for us to ornament. We could finally play my parents’ Firestone Tires collection of recordings with uncommon Christmas songs and singers such as Perry Como and Nat King Cole. The exoticness delighted me.
On Christmas Eve night, my family would worship God at Mass and marvel. Back home, a figurine of a baby Jesus would be passed around and rocked in our hands as we sang. After kissing it, we’d place it between the forms of his earthly parents in the stable and sing the “Happy Birthday” song.
Then we sang posada carols in Spanish, which signaled that a plate of treats would soon be in my greedy grasp.
Next the gifts, if any, would be distributed. Sometimes we followed an older tradition of both Mexico and Germany and receive presents not on Christmas Eve, but on the holy day of Epiphany (aka Little Christmas, the 12th day of Christmas, etc.), which traditionally falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany celebrates Jesus being revealed to non-Jews, such as the three magi whose figurines at last arrived at the nativity stable.
I initially believed Santa Claus visited our house to reward good children, but a friend destroyed that illusion early on. Since I was the youngest in my family, the charade didn’t continue, but my mom instead labelled my gifts “From: Baby Jesus.”
I’m not the easiest person to buy a gift for. One Christmas, my mother gave me “horrible” generic toy robots instead of the expensive brand name “Transformers” toys I asked for, and my eldest brother gave me an “Erector” construction set I loved.
To spare her feelings, I exclusively played with the robots I despised. My mother pulled me aside to urge me not to ignore my brother’s offering. With the cruel honesty of a child, I explained my deception and never played with the unloved robots again.
I have been unappreciative of so many gifts I’ve received in my life. Of them all, however, God is the best present I ever received from my parents, and I am thankful.
My mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, will probably be convalescing away from home this Christmas after an unplanned stay in Madera Community Hospital this week. She is not likely to join in singing any carols or even be aware of what day it may be.
Yet her gift of faith remains. She offered it to her children by the witness of her own life. By God’s grace, I hope and trust it will one day carry her on to a far truer life than this one, a life where the celebration will never end.
In the meanwhile, this life we believers lead is just another Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of our God. “Happy birthday” the angels may sing when our journey ends.
By John Rieping | Published 5 July 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“I would possess a host of lovely things, / But I am poor and such joys may not be. / So God who lifts the poor and humbles kings / Sent loveliness itself to dwell with me.”
— “Wealth,” by poet Joyce Kilmer, killed by a sniper while serving as a U.S. soldier in World War I
Whether boisterous or somber, patriotic holidays invite us to return for a time to the freshness of childhood and see anew the gifts of our communities and nation.
There may be homes beyond counting on this planet, but to toddlers theirs is the first to exist. Nearly seven billion humans live, but those in a babe’s family are to them the first. The morbid statistics of wars numb the mind and heart, but when someone you love as a child returns no more it is our first casualty.
Each child puts the world on trial.
First love, first kiss, etc. On and on a child explores the frontiers of existence until at last the world may seem tame or old, and the colors of our latest joy or grief sit upon or blend with layers of others on the painted canvas of our being, no longer innocent.
So holidays whisper to the aged soul, “Look here,” or, “Forget not.” Those who ignore the invitation fail to sip from an imperfect fountain of youth, for it is not the world that grows old as we live. We do.
In our daily lives, beauty smiles, truth speaks, and goodness gives. Let us not let darker encounters or the mere dullness of repetition blind us to such gifts. Be refreshed and thankful, at least on holidays.
But how much better if we fought to hold onto the best of a childhood spirit even as our energies unavoidably weaken.
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged,” writes British author and journalist G.K. Chesterton. “They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”
Jews and Christians believe in a Creator God who performed the work of creation and then rested — not out of necessity but out of love. This same God, we believe, repeatedly looked at what existed in this infant universe and declared it good and very good (Bereishit/Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
Unlike us, I think God doesn’t tire of saying it either.
“Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony,” Chesterton mused. “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Therein lies a source of Christian hope, for we believe in a God who “makes all things new” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 21:5) — including us if we allow it. Though popular culture prefers to speak of being “wicked,” “bad boys,” or “naughty” as desirable, Christians recognize that innocence renewed means eyes reopened — to the goodness of the world and ourselves.
Of the many joys of existence, one we may forget yet so deeply long for is the knowledge that someone loves us no matter how predictable we may be in hurting ourselves and others.
By John Rieping | Published in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
In ancient times, today was known as Lazarus Saturday. The name refers to the organizer of a supper that Yeshua (Jesus) ate in the community of Bethany “six days before the Passover” (cf. John 12:1).
That naturally wasn’t the first visit of Yeshua, but it would be his last.
The Greco-Syrian physician Loukas (Luke) describes the first meeting (Luke 10:38-42). Yeshua had arrived in the village of Bethany, which sat a few miles east of the metropolis of Jerusalem, and a woman named Marta (Martha) welcomed the traveling rabbi into her home. While Marta busied herself with serving her famous guest, her sister Mirriam (Mary) sat at his feet and listened.
This irked her sister, probably for multiple reasons. For one, Mirriam’s pose was customary of male students listening to a religious scholar.
Jewish boys began their formal education around the ages of 5-7, either in the synagogue or at home. They would first be taught the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph Bet, and then memorize and study verses from the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Note that I said “boys.” Jewish women received little formal instruction, did not read from the Bible in the synagogue, were not taught Jewish law, could only observe religious ceremonies, and weren’t expected to attend on festivals and feast days.
Mirriam’s adoption of this student role before a rabbi was scandalous.
Moreover, Marta didn’t think it was fair that her sister was just sitting around while she was busy with the work of being a good host. So she complained: Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!
Surely to Marta’s surprise, Yeshua not only didn’t scold Mirriam for her revolutionary behavior, he praised it: Marta, Marta, you are full of care and trouble about many things, but only one is necessary. Mirriam has chosen that good part, and it will not be taken from her.
This wasn’t the only time Yeshua defied expectations in a radical way. Those unwilling to accept this struggled with his hard teachings. From there, it was only a step onward to reject the teacher too.
The memoir of the “beloved disciple” says that when Eleazar (Lazarus) later died of illness, Yeshua wept, prayed, and called his friend forth from the cave in which his corpse had been entombed (John 11:1-44).
Talk of this alleged miracle frightened Jewish religious leaders.
It wasn’t the first time a self-proclaimed messiah had arisen. Decades before, a tall and handsome slave of King Herod gathered followers, declared himself king of the Jews, plundered and burned the royal palace at Jericho, and did the same elsewhere, according to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. The commander of Herod’s infantry led Roman soldiers against this “messiah,” Simon of Peraea, and beheaded him.
Likewise a shepherd named Athronges and his four brothers led a flock of rebels against Herod Archelaus. Less than a dozen years later, Judas of Galilee marshaled a violent fight against the Roman census. All of the lives of these so-called messiahs had ended amidst bloodshed, and Jewish leaders decided it would be better if only one died this time — Yeshua — instead of many.
In this context, Yeshua ate in Bethany with his friends Eleazar, Marta, and Mirriam in the house of Simon the leper on the sabbath (Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-11). Unexpectedly, Mirriam washed and anointed his feet with costly scented ointment and wiped them dry with her long hair.
This was another scandalous gesture by Mirriam, and yet once again her teacher praised it. Leave her be, he told his indignant apostle Yehuda of Keriot (Judas Iscariot), for it is for the day of my burial she kept this spikenard.
It was the custom of the day to perfume the newly dead to soften the eventual stench of decay.
The next day, which Christians call Palm Sunday, Yeshua rode a young donkey into nearby Jerusalem. There was symbolism in the choice of transportation, for a horse was the mount of war and the donkey a steed of peace.
He was met with cries greeting him as the king of Israel and you can easily imagine the alarm of those fearful of another disastrous false messiah.
So began the time that fourth-century Christians called the “Great Week” (now known as Holy Week).
Spy Wednesday was the day Judas joined those plotting against Yeshua; Holy Thursday, his last supper; Good Friday, his death; Holy Saturday; and Easter Sunday, new life.
By John Rieping | Published 3 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
I'm not one for New Year's Eve resolutions at the moment, but I recall being so in the past. They were always like Lenten goals or sacrifices except I usually remembered and kept those. Resolutions? Not so much.
Perhaps that's the attraction of beginning a new year with dreams of a new self. The only person who might care you forgot would be the one who forgot. It's a lawyer's "corpus delicti" escape clause (Latin for "body of fault") -- if there's no proof, there's no crime.
This year of 2014, doubtlessly taking advantage of its short stature to ambush me, hit me with a spontaneous resolution on New Year's Day: to reduce time spent on Facebook. That website is, to some such as myself, an insidious nibbler of time.
Keep in mind that a piranha fish could similarly be described as a timid "nibbler" of meat -- at least when solo. However a school of piranhas has a notoriously voracious appetite, and so it can be with social media.
I'd like to claim this intention emerged from a noble desire for self-improvement, the alleged font of all resolutions. But that was more of a secondary perk.
No, honestly, recent stresses of life had shortened my temper like a U.S. military barber cutting hair during the first days of basic training. I didn't display this in person, I hope, but online I sometimes battled temptations to bite off more than a nibble of those who frustrated me.
Those who know me would testify that isn't normal for me. So, shortly before the year 2013 changed its name to 2014 in hopes of a fresh start and less junk mail, I impulsively deactivated my Facebook account.
That lasted until past noon on New Year's Day.
The problem is that social media has become, for some of us, like another telephone number, mail address, or email account. I even get paid a wee bit to regularly update the Facebook page of a local business. Cutting off access has consequences, social and otherwise.
Thus my unplanned resolution took shape: to greatly shrink the time I spent puffing my ego, feeding my curiosity, and being amused (better known as using Facebook). I'm hoping that briefly visiting the website no more than once or twice a day, with a few days away each week, will be practical and more than sufficient to do what should be done.
It is odd, though, what luxuries some of us in the U.S. may consider necessary. Meanwhile, others in the world would be thrilled to have indoor plumbing, lighting, refrigeration, and other "basics" I tend to take for granted.
While I may struggle with self-proclaimed stress, people in South Sudan mourn 1,000 killed last month amid a new civil war. Nearly eight times that number in non-combatants died last year in "liberated" Iraq, the toll in Syria's civil war has passed 130,000 (a third of that civilians), and so on. Compared to any of that, I don't know the meaning of the word stress.
A man wounded by personal tragedy wrote Pope Francis recently: "What has happened to the hearts of men?"
I can hear his question echo personally to myself: what has happened to my heart, so often unmoved by the difficulties of others or captivated by its own concerns? Though I "feel" for others, how hard it is to prod myself into action -- or worse yet sacrifice -- on their behalf. An occasional act of kindness is enough for me to crown myself a hero.
Interestingly, I asked a similar question in this very newspaper column on Jan. 11, 2013. "Every boy dreams himself a hero / and sees his face in every epic life. / Yet what changes within our hearts / that we rise less and less when called?"
Years gallop on while we limp forward and call it progress.
Even so, the answer then is the same now, and the season of Christmas recalls it annually because we need to hear it that often or more. What answer? Christians believe it is this: humanity has been offered the gift of a God who became man so that we, in exchange, may be able to share in the divine life, which above all else is supernatural love.
It is not a love that does what is expected, reasonable, or fair. It is a love, empowered by God, that reflects the very face of God to friend and foe alike.
Let us resolve anew to love like God loves us.
By John Rieping | Published 28 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
"I will kiss you!" / cried a little bird to the Sun up above / Her little heart light with love
"Come," laughed the Sun, / "and we shall be wed!"
But, though she flapped, / Sky would not bear her / Her wings grew so heavy! / Soon down to the mud sank she
"I am too weak to fly up so high," / the muddy bird cried, / and how deeply she did sigh
Sun beamed and laughed, / "Then I will come down!"
And He did.
And no, my greeting is not late -- at least for me. For centuries, many Christians have celebrated Christmas not as a single day nor as a season that ends Dec. 25. The traditional carol "The 12 Days of Christmas" and even the title of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" continue to remind us of this.
While the calendar of the Catholic Church will observe the Christmas season through Jan. 12 this year, the traditional "12 days" extends from the evening before Christmas to the holiday of Epiphany, which customarily falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany looks to the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus, described in Christian scripture and seen by believers as the first revelation of the Jewish messiah to non-Jews.
In many nations, such as Mexico, gifts used to be exchanged for centuries on Epiphany, not Christmas. But the U.S. tradition, which in the 20th century was exported globally together with the myth of Santa Claus, changed that for many.
Catholics extend the Christmas season until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which commemorates that ceremonial washing of Jesus in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this latter event is instead remembered on Epiphany, which is for them the primary holiday of this time of year -- not Christmas.
Regardless these times are not jolly for all, whether Christian or not.
One Madera (California) couple I know inwardly grieves the absence of their babe, who died months ago -- far too soon for Christmas. Another couple elsewhere in the U.S., cousins of a friend, has a two-month old boy, Atticus, in intensive care (to help with the medical costs, see http://goo.gl/MmogHC). Due to his precarious health, he received his baptism and confirmation Friday.
A third couple has been bereft of two grandsons, one to a drug overdose and the other to jail. Grief colors their holiday. Meanwhile a fellow columnist at this newspaper had a serious and unexpected brush with death.
Then there is the local family planning the funeral of a 15-year-old boy who died shielding his 13-year-old brother from bullets in a purposeless shooting (how that noble act calls to mind John 15:3).
Isn't the birth of Jesus supposed to bring peace and good will to humanity? That oft-repeated phrase is a variation of the words sung by many angels to shepherds outside of Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:14)
Yet, despite Christmas, pain of all kinds remains and there are no easy answers. This mystery of suffering can only make sense at the foot of the cross, upon which the grown babe Jesus died -- the self-sacrifice for which Christians believe he came. If we Christians believe even our God was not spared a terrible cross, how can we think we will? Yet that is not cause for despair or stoicism.
Jesus himself would tell his closest followers, the apostles, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you -- not as the world gives, I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid... These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have affliction, but take courage. I have conquered the world." (John 14:27, 33)
Peace and courage can be found in God, even amidst hurt.
May the love of God be born anew in our own hearts that we may bring what consolation we can offer, by prayer and deed, to those in need. Let us be men and women of good will to those around us and to our own selves.
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
By John Rieping | Published 21 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
The elderly widow of the tribe of Asher took each step carefully as she climbed the stairs up mount Moriah, upon which stood Solomon's Temple and the highest point within the metropolis of Jerusalem.
The stone would not be forgiving if she fell.
Though not a festival or holy day, Hannah would have company enough. Services took place daily. Each week a new shift of priests, chosen from all parts of the land, would perform all the functions of the temple, with a different priestly family responsible for each day and all working together on the Sabbath. Few faces were familiar to her.
But she did not come for them. No, the daughter of Phanuel lived up to her sire's name, for she longed for the "face of God" ("penuel" in Hebrew).
At the top of the stairs she rested, her vigor slowed by age and fasting. But she had learned patience. Behind her the city sprawled, each quarter set apart by sandy, gray and white walls. The roads flowed with people, though not equally or always well. The cool of morning was preferable to the heat of the afternoon.
The interior courtyards of rich homes lay exposed from above, encircled by narrow buildings that looked like absurdly thick walls, some with red sloping roofs and others topped flat -- private paths upon which to look down or out on the city. The homes of the poor were not so impressive, but no less lively.
In either case, all manner of washing, play and work could be seen -- and all seemed equally small now. They did not captivate her attention as in younger years.
Her eyes may have lingered, out of reverence, upon a square building rising above the others with a pyramid-like top pointing to the heavens. Within it the bones of King David rested. How long until one of his kin would sit again upon the throne instead of a puppet of Rome? When would come the mashiah? (Hebrew for "anointed one," in Greek "christos")
Hannah continued onward toward her daily appointment with the love of her life. The view of Jerusalem could be contemplated no more as she walked upon the wide open space of the temple mount, lined with great roof-topped pillars on all sides. Here was enough room for several temples (or 24 football fields), but such multiplicity was unthinkable. On great festival days, massive crowds could be seen here, human overflow from the one temple of the one god.
Smoke rose from the altar of sacrifice, hidden in the heart of the temple, which sat tall at the center of the level top of mount Moriah. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?" sang the psalmist in her memory.
"He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully... Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob." (Tehilim/Psalm 24:3-4, 6)
Beyond an ornamented railing that non-Jews could not pass, another tier of steps ascended, but a kindly stranger assisted her with them. Soon she entered the walled-in court of the women, the treasury. Beyond it, she too would be allowed no further.
Coins clattered in the 13 wooden boxes that could be found between columns that supported a covered passageway surrounding the court. The offerings were dropped into each box via trumpet-shaped openings of bronze, and some liked to guess and judge the generosity of others by listening for the distinctive sound different-sized coins would make. But she had no interest in that.
As she walked forward, her eyes spotted a particular crack in a stone and a memory awoke of a woman charged with adultery. The penalty for her fault was death, as dictated by the law (Debarim/Deuteronomy 22:24). Hannah's eyes grew wet, and she directed her heart to God and began her prayers.
She remembered the woman, her late husband, her own children and grandchildren, and more. Each loved one led her thoughts to another as she emptied her heart before her God. She lifted each of them up with a trust born of long experience that God listens and cares. "For I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth." (Job 19:25)
Thus she prayed upon the stones, and she was heard.