Merry Christmas?

We’re four days into Christmas and this year I have the sense that instead of insisting that we put the Christ back into Christmas, we maybe ought to insist we take the “merry” out of Christmas. Before you simply write me off as a curmudgeon, scrooge, or crank, let me explain.

There are a series of commemorations of high profile martyrs right after Christmas. It begins with the Feast of Stephen (on Dec. 26 in the West and Dec 27 in the East). Of course the “Stephen” of the feast is Protomartyr Stephen, one of the first appointed deacons and first Christian martyr (thus, the title protomartyr). Then the next day (in the east) you have the commemoration of to the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia. They were burned to death on Christmas Eve/Christmas morning when their church was torched during the midnight Nativity service. 20,000 at a single service? Yeah, I doubt it too. But the torching of the church was part of a much larger and vicious persecution under Emperor Maximium at the beginning of the fourth century. I have no doubt that 20,000 were killed in that region over the short but terrible period of persecution.

And then, of course, the following day is Holy Innocents, when the babies of Judea are commemorated … Rachel, inconsolable, weeping for her children, as Jesus is whisked away to Egypt by his parents, having been warned in a dream of the persecution to come.

The birth of Jesus, in the scheme of the flow of God’s mighty acts, is not so much a happy event, nor is it an act that ought to be celebrated by itself, as if the importance of the event is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Rather, the birth is the beginning of something new. It is the start of an upset to the world order that is described in various places in scripture as a terrible earthquake, as the stars falling from heaven, as dark and darkest thunder clouds gathering to hide the earth, as a tearing open of the fabric of heaven (that is the literal meaning of “apocalypse”).

In this context I love the word “portent.” Jesus’ birth was not an event to be understood within itself, but rather, as the three Magi might have described it, a portent of things to come. A new king was born. And he was neither of the line of Herod, nor a Roman, nor of the ilk of the Scribes, Pharisees, or Sadducees. The birth was a sign (ie, a portent) that soon things would change radically, and the world order was not going to like the change one bit.

And it is in this context that the word “merry” in connection with Christmas, seems terribly misplaced. While it’s a perfectly good word to bring to mind a mid-winter English scene, the hearth burning brightly, slightly tipsy neighbors walking down the street from pub to flat singing seasonal songs, and goose, kidney pudding, and wassail cooking in the kitchen, it’s a very bad word to describe this baby born in a barn, who will be fleeing to a foreign country within a year or two, and whose life will be full of sorrows and death, whose life and death will cause uncounted deaths and unmeasured suffering over the next centuries.

Certainly the birth was a happy occasion, no matter the circumstances. It was also joyful, even with the all the future circumstances in mind. As Mary said in her song, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Remember, she’s singing about the baby Jesus. As anyone can recognize from these momentous words, while this might be joyful for the “lowly” and “hungry,” this is not going to be an easy transition.

So, “Merry Christmas”? I don’t think so, unless you’re referring to a mere cultural celebration which falls very near the winter solstice. “Blessed feast!” is certainly more appropriate, or possibly the seasonal liturgical greeting, “Christ is born. Glorify him.” Or maybe, even better, would be to use Peter’s timeless words as a greeting: “Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13).

Okay, maybe that’s too long to be used as a greeting. But you get the idea.

An After Harvest “Hi Cow” Poem

After the corn was harvested across the road from our house, our neighbor put up an electric fence so he could run some cows in the corn field.

Cows in a Harvested Corn Field

The view from our house.

They’re a skittish heard, so every time I walk out to get the mail or say anything to them, like, “Hi cow,” they move farther south away from my threatening behavior. Instead of feeling bad about myself or signing up for therapy to overcome the rudeness of the cows, I decided to write poetry about the experience. For this particular work of art, I chose the “hiaku” form.

When I say “Hi cow”
they run away. I am bad
for their digestion.

Christmas Hike

A Christmas hike has become a bit of a tradition around our house. After turkey it’s either a nap or a walk, and in the last few years, we’ve opted for the exercise. Of course it helps that in the last few years (with a couple of notable exceptions) the snow cover has not been a significant factor.

Snow on hiking trail

We had to go to Ponca State Park to find any Christmas snow at all.

We decided to hike the “Discovery Corps Trail” at Ponca State Park, a trail that follows along the Missouri for a few hundred yards, and then turns up a “holler” (as my Arkansas relatives would say) to the top of the bluff.

On this trip we saw a hawk, juncos, and sparrows. We heard crows, blue jays, and chickadees. And of course, squirrels were dashing through the leaves chasing each other. The big find was three mergansers on the Missouri River. They’re a fairly rare visitor to the area, so it was fun to watch them through the binoculars.

As we walked through what used to be the riverside camp ground, the light was such that the height of this summer’s flood waters was very clear on the cottonwood trees. As you can see, based on the people in the picture, there was seven or more feet of water over the campground this summer.

Riverside campground at Ponca State Park

Click on the picture for a larger view, then hit the "back" button to return to the post.

The last time we walked through this “campground” it was still filled with flood debris. They have at least gotten rid of that along with a foot or so of silt. Now it’s a matter of restoring the electrical lines and boxes, the water, and bringing back the picnic tables and biffies. That’s a lot of work! I wonder if it will be ready for use by this summer. I doubt it. Of course the park has a lot of other camp sites, so they’re still doing a brisk business. In fact, it looked like all the winterized cabins were full for Christmas. It seems a little odd to spend Christmas at a state park where the sledding hill, cross country ski course, and snow mobile trails are slightly less than groomed (see first picture above). That doesn’t leave a lot to do. But on the other hand, we drove all the way out there just to take a hike.

Avg: 6.2 mph

Christ is born! Glorify him.

And now, on to something quite a bit more mundane. My normal exercise routine is to start with 15 to 20 minutes of wind sprints. (Well, this time of year at this latitude, doing as close an approximation to wind sprints as is possible on a treadmill.) But yesterday I decided to change things up a bit and run a 5k.

My goal was to do it in a half hour, so after a brief warm-up I set the treadmill at 6.5 mph and actually managed to finish it in 30 min. For those of you who are mathematically or metrically impaired, that’s 3 ten-minute miles back-to-back-to-back.

Woo-hoo!

Okay, I know a ten-minute mile is nothing to write home about, much less blog about to the whole disinterested world, but for a guy who, up until a month or so ago, was officially “obese,” and is now merely “overweight”  [although, I’ll probably be back to being obese after the holidays, the way things are going], I figure that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.

But for now, it’s time to get ready for a glass of wine along with turkey, cranberries, stuffing, green beans, sweet-potato pie, ice cream, and a “Dark and Stormy” (sans the Goslings Dark Rum — that stuff’s $30 a small bottle and the Goslings Stormy brand Ginger Beer isn’t available in Sioux City — so it’s technically not a “Dark and Stormy™”, merely a cheap knock-off — sort of like the Android operating system) or maybe a “Cuba Libré.” Monday, back to the wind sprints.

The Fulness of Time

The “stoicheion” (a Greek term) are the elements from which all things derive. That would include the Higgs Boson, the so-called God particle which the wise men are so close to discovering over at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). When finally discovered and more fully understood, that little boson will go a long way toward helping us understand where we all came from.

Unless, of course, Paul knew what he was talking about.

While we were children, we were enslaved to creation’s stoicheion. But when the fulness of time had come, God sent his Son … (Gal. 4:3f)

Let me humbly rephrase the wise men who are busy breaking things and blowing stuff up over at the LHC. When we finally discover and more fully understand this Son (in contrast to that little boson), it will go a long way toward helping us understand where we all came from.

Have a blessed Nativity.

Inventing Nations

The status of Palestinians was in the news again this month when Newt Gingrich said (and then reaffirmed) that Palestinians were, in his opinion, an invented people. In another interview (totally unrelated except for the fact that I belatedly heard the program, which was recorded weeks, if not months, ago, a few days after the Gingrich comment), I heard Jews from across the political spectrum come to the same conclusion, although they said it in a very different way, and with a great deal of context.

I bring it up now as a follow-up to my recent lengthy essay about the Orthodox Church, in which I argued that the current problems in Orthodoxy are very closely connected to the rise of nationalism in the 17th century. I had never realized that it was this same nationalist urge (which was first formulated formally and called “nationalism” by Georg H.W. Hegel) which brought about the state of Israel.

It was Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) who popularized the idea of an independent Jewish state. The nationalist sensibilities which were growing in Europe during the 1800s, were feeding anti-Semitic sentiments, and Herzl, drawing on those same nationalist sensibilities, proposed a Jewish state as a solution. Interestingly he assumed that this new state would be of European culture and the people would most likely speak German. He proposed that it be located in Argentina. Certain places in Africa were also proposed.

A Jewish state in Palestine was actually very low on his list of priorities, although he had considered it. The reason it was so low on his list is that he believed that any Jewish state would necessarily be bi-cultural, and a bi-cultural Jewish/Arab state would prove more problematic than a bi-cultural South American or African state.

Based on proposals by the British to partition the British protectorate in Palestine, the World Jewish Congress proposed, in the 1930s, that a bi-cultural, Jewish/Arab state be formed in Palestine. Of course, history worked out a bit differently. Rather than a bi-cultural country, Israel became overwhelmingly Jewish, displacing the Arab people living there. And just as the philosophical idea of nationalism which predominated 19th  century affairs led to the formation of the modern nation of Israel, so that idea of nationalism resulted in the creation of a now stateless nation of Palestine.

CBC commentator Frank Faulk, uncovers the uncomfortable reality, in his recent Ideas presentation, that the Jewish Zionists he interviewed (that hardly agree on anything, in spite of all claiming to be Zionists of one or another stripe) all pretty much agree that the very idea of the Palestinians being a people in need of a nation is only possible because the nation of Israel was formed as a uni-cultural Jewish nation rather than a bi-cultural nation. (There was precedence for this idea. Middle Eastern countries, until the rise of radical Islam just a few years ago, were all bi-cultural; Muslims and Christians living side by side in relative peace for the most part. The assumption was that since it worked so well for Muslims and Christians, it could work equally well for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, in a new state of Israel.)

If you will allow me to reiterate themes from my previous essay, nationalism as we think of it today, is a relatively recent phenomenon, coming into existence just a few hundred years ago. And it is not a natural phenomenon. People are not naturally drawn together by something as vague and often arbitrary as nationalism; rather, they are drawn together by their relationships to each other as part of a tribe, city, or locality. To put that understanding into a Middle East context, the countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are fairly porous political entities; technically they are nations, but that political form only exists to keep things somewhat organized in relation to the rest of the world. From what I understand of the region, the local population doesn’t self-identify first as Syrian, Lebanese or Jordanian, but rather as Arab, or as part of their tribe, or as Shia, or Sunni, or Christian. It is only Palestinians, who had that moniker foisted on them through an accident of history, who identify first and primarily as Palestinians precisely because they were displaced from Palestine by the “invented” nation of Israel (to apply Newt’s term). It is in this narrow sense that Newt Gingrich is correct that the Palestinians are an invented people.

To reiterate, the Palestinians are no more invented than the modern nation of Israel, or the modern nation of Italy, or the modern nation of Canada (a country that famously self identifies as a nation which cannot work in theory by works in practice), or the modern nation of Yugoslavia – oh yeah, that little experiment in nation-building didn’t work so well, did it?

Nationalism is a deeply flawed idea. From a theological perspective one can say (and, as I argued in the previous essay, ought to say) that nationalism of any stripe is fundamentally non-Christian because it is fundamentally non-incarnational. And here’s where Gingrich holds fundamentally contradictory policy positions. His very strong emphasis on American national security through the sort of military involvement the United States has had around the world in the last fifty years is a convenient “invention” which masks the empire building that grew out of Jacksonian America during the heyday of worldwide nationalist tendencies. American foreign policy is an “invention” (insofar as the invention is a mask for something which is fundamentally unreal) in much the same way that the Palestinians are an “invention.” It is a result of very bad philosophy being applied to the discontent of the 16th and 17th century masses, which grew out of the corrupt political systems of the middle ages.

In short, if you are going to support Israel as a unicultural nationalist state, philosophical consistency demands that you also support the Palestinian state. Of course, those two probably cannot co-exist for reasons that decades of scud missiles, blockades, suicide bombings, the razing of whole neighborhoods, and the wholesale killing of Arab people (both guilty and innocent) in the name of national security amply demonstrate. “Nationalism” as a philosophical goal almost always leads to dangerous ideological thinking.

But we can’t undo what was invented in 1948. Nor can we undo the bad philosophy of the 17th century that led to this mess. So rather than go around accusing the indigenous population of being invented, it’s probably far better to figure out how to move forward from here and create yet another new nation or two. Will it solve anything?  Maybe when the eternal and glorious Kingdom is finally established we will discover a solution. But I suspect that will be radically different solution than we might expect here and now.

Mob Violence: Good for the Economy?

The following is from an article found here by David W. Cooney. He has just recited some of the egregious violence that occurred during this year’s Black Friday, and has reminded us that businesses and economists encourage (even expect, if not require) us to take part in this mob, which increasingly ends in violence.

“What can we say about our society and its economy when average citizens will so easily become part of such a mob, and when their failure to do so is reported to be a bad sign? …

The missing element is the philosophical and moral foundation that society needs overall, including in its economy. A foundation that reminds us that neither making the greatest profit, nor getting the best deal, is the most important thing. Until we realize and accept that all actions tend toward an end, and until we put our ultimate end as the primary factor in all of our actions our society will continue to decline no matter how prosperous it may become. Unfortunately, the prevailing economic model separates morality from economics, and the most well known alternative seeks to correct the injustices and problems inherent in the former with even greater injustices.”

Munk Debates 2: Hitch on Religion

As a follow-up to the previous post, a year or so ago Chris Hitchens debated Tony Blair in a one-on-one Munk Debate. The resolution was, “Be it resolved: Religion is a force for good in the world.” For the next several hours, in memory of Chris Hitchens’ life, and in honor of his recent death, the Munk Debates are offering the audio of that debate for free.

It’s worth a listen, if for no other reason, to realize that Hitchens wasn’t particularly brilliant nor eloquent in his continuous screed against religion; he was just opinionated.

I’m sorry for his passing. He was an entertaining bloke, what with all his closed-mindedness and adolescent anger. I’m also sorry that he evidently didn’t understand that he was tilting at windmills. I too find offensive the things that Hitchens found offensive about religion. The difference is that I recognize that what he found offensive were not rooted in religion per se, but rather in the wickedness of the human heart.

And that is my final hope for Hitch. It is just possible that what he fought against so vehemently his whole life wasn’t God, but a horrible caricature of the gods that evil humans have created. It leaves the door open that he may have been a believer in the Truth, but couldn’t find it in the church for all our sins.

Eat, Eat, Eat!

I listened to the most recent Munk Debate today. The Munk Debates are formal debates featuring high-profile experts in their fields which are funded by Peter and Melanie Munk. They take place in Toronto. The resolution of the most recent debate was as follows:

Be it resolved: North America faces a Japan-style era of high unemployment and slow growth.

Arguing for the affirmative were Paul Krugman and David Rosenberg. Arguing for the negative were Lawrence Summers and Ian Bremmer. It was not a particularly inspiring debate.

But what struck me was that all four debaters assumed the solution to the economic woes of the modern world lay in increased consumption. In fact at one point the very idea of a fundamental change in consumption patterns was mocked. I was reminded of Jon Arbuckle’s mother (of the Garfield comic strip). When Jon and Garfield went to visit all his mother said was, “Eat, eat, eat.”

It’s amusing when a comic strip character says it. It’s alarming when someone with the credentials (both in industry and government) of Larry Summers says it. Granted, he served under Clinton, and Clinton, by all accounts, was an “Eat, eat, eat!” sort of guy, but I don’t think that’s a good excuse.

It makes me pessimistic that we will find our way out of this mess when everyone involved in the debate won’t even consider the possibility that excess consumption might be a major (and possibly the major) contributor to the mess we’re in.

I suppose that’s a grinchy sort of thing to say one week before Christmas. But on the other hand, as an Orthodox person I can appeal to the Christmas fast and say that historically this is one of the four seasons of abstinence rather than consumption. …

Oh my, what came over me? Don’t buy stuff???? Quit reading this heretical blog and go to the mall! After all, according to Larry, et. al., this mess we’re in is all your fault.

At the very least, eat, eat, eat!