Ontology and Ethics

1095“Salvation, offered by the Church, does not lie in the moral improvement of people, as it is often claimed. The Church has in her bosom so many people with moral shortcomings, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out not
to exterminate each other”.

In this context, the question of holiness is asked. It is thought that the sanctity is identified with moral perfection. Even the holiness of God is presented in textbooks of Dogmatics as a moral perfection (e.g. Andrucos, Trembelas etc.). However, it disagrees not only with what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letters, calling believers “saints”, despite what he says about them, as we can see in the example of the Galatians, but also with the entire history of our Church. Thus the Byzantine emperors, such as Constantine the Great, Saint Irena of Athens and so on, we recognize as saints, despite the fact that they did things incompatible with the principles of morality. St Irena blinded her son; the Holy Prophet Elijah slew five hundred priests of god Baal, etc. Based on today’s moral criteria, many of the saints of our Church would have been excluded. The Church consecrates us not on our moral improvement, but on the basis of repentance, i.e. confirmation that our sinfulness is an ontological reality. This explains the justification of publicans and condemnation of the morally perfect Pharisees.”

The above quote is taken from a paper written by Metropolitan John Ziziulas Ontology and Ethics which can be accessed here

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The Christmas Nativity Scene

H/T: About.com (here)

Question: How Did Francis of Assisi Begin the Christmas Nativity Scene Tradition?

Francis of Assisi, who founded the Catholic Church’s Franciscan Order and became a saint after his death, began the Christmas tradition of nativity scenes because he wanted to help people gain a fresh sense of wonder about the miracles that the Bible records from the first Christmas.

Up until Francis set up the first nativity scene in 1223, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass (a worship service) at church, where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they didn’t present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make the extraordinary experiences of the first Christmas more accessible to ordinary people.

Francis, who was living in the town of Greccio, Italy at the time, got the Pope’s permission to proceed with his plans. Then he asked his close friend John Velita to loan him some animals and straw to set up a scene there to represent Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. The nativity scene could help people in the area imagine what it may have been like to be present on the first Christmas long ago, when they came to worship at Christmas Eve Mass in December 1223, Francis said.

The scene, which was set up in a cave just outside Greccio, featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and the live donkey and ox that John had loaned to Francis. Local shepherds watched over their sheep in nearby fields, just as shepherds in Bethlehem had watched over sheep on the first Christmas, when the sky suddenly filled with angels who announced Christ’s birth to them.

During the Mass, Francis told the Christmas story from the Bible and then delivered a sermon. He spoke to the people gathered there about the first Christmas and the miraculous impact that placing their faith in Christ, the baby born in a simple manger in Bethlehem, could make in their lives. Francis urged people to reject hatred and embrace love, with God’s help.

In his biography of Francis (called the Life of St. Francis of Assisi), Saint Bonaventure described what happened that night: “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”

Saint Bonaventure also reported in his book that people saved the hay from the nativity presentation afterward, and when cattle later ate the hay, it: “miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.”

The first nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that people in other areas soon set up living nativities to celebrate Christmas. Eventually, Christians worldwide celebrated Christmas by visiting living nativity scenes and praying at nativity scenes made of statues in their town squares, churches and homes.

People also added more figures to their nativity scenes than Francis was able to feature in his original, live presentation. In addition to the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a donkey, and an ox, later nativity scenes featured angels, shepherds, sheep, camels, and the three kings who traveled to present gifts to the infant Jesus and his parents.

Twenty ninth Sunday after Pentecost

miracle-healing-of-the-10-lepers

It doesn’t matter how much money and wealth you have, the most important thing in this life is that we have our health. Almost everyone will agree with this statement. Those of us who know what it means to be sick – really sick – know especially the meaning of this statement.

And, at times, those who have their health can be like the wealthy described throughout Scriptures. Like the rich man who paid no heed to poor Lazarus, who didn’t think of helping or feeding anyone but himself. Like the rich man who had abundant crops so that his barns were too small that he couldn’t fit all of his good in them so he built larger barns. Or, even like the man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit everlasting life and when the Lord tells him to sell everything he had he sadly walks away.

And this morning’s reading from the gospel deals with a couple of very sick people. Ten of them to be exact. And it wasn’t just some passing illness they had. They had a death sentence: they had leprosy.  It’s an infectious skin disease and it’s mentioned 55 times in the Old Testament and 13 times in the New Testament. And so serious of a disease was it that those infected by it were commanded by the Law of Moses to be cast out from the community. We read in the Book of Numbers: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous…You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell” (Num. 5:1-3).

That’s just how the lepers are described in the gospel this morning. St. Luke writes that as Jesus was going to Jerusalem He passed through Samaria and Galilee and He was met by ten lepers “who stood afar off”. Meaning, because of their highly infectious disease they were not allow to come in contact with people or enter the villages. Yet, even though they stood ‘afar off’ they still tried their hardest to have their voices heard and so they yelled out, or as St. Luke says: “they lifted their voices and said, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He showed His mercy upon them and healed them. You know, at one place in the gospels we read how St. John the Baptist hears about this man named Jesus but he isn’t sure that this is the Coming One they’ve been waiting for. So he sends out two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Are you the Coming One or is there another one we are to wait for?” And Jesus answered them and said: “Go and tell John the things which you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised…” (Luke 7:22). All of these miracles, including the one described in the gospel this morning, they all attest to the fact that Jesus is Lord, the Son of God.

Only in a world where there is no God are miracles impossible. Just as Jesus proves to John’s disciples that He is Lord because of the miracles He has done, so too does God reveal Himself in our lives through all the many miracles that happen to us everyday. Granted, they might be what we would refer to as little miracles but the point is God works in our lives whether we know it or not. Chances are we don’t.   Similarly, there were ten lepers healed in this morning’s gospel but only one found it necessary to go back and thank Jesus. The rest of them, even though only moments ago they had all found enough strength to yell out Lord have mercy on us, now like the wealthy of this world they forgot God and only thought of themselves.

They had the opportunity – through the healing of their bodily illness – to find healing in their souls. To heal that part of them that will never grow old and will never die.  Yet that which they could clearly see when they were sick now ingratitude blinded them in their health.

That’s one of main reasons we  go to church. We go to worship and praise God but ultimately, as the Psalm says, we go “to give thanks to the Lord for He is good and His love endures forever”.  To thank God for all the many blessings in our lives so that through our gratitude our souls might be healed as well. As we pray at the liturgy “for every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from Thee, and to The do we ascribe glory: to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. Amen.

Christmas and Pagan Influences

H/T: Touchstone Magazine (here) via Byzantine Texas

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Calculating Christmas

William J. Tighe on the Story Behind December 25

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

 A Mistake

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.

As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian Empire to the east.

In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for “rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.

A By-Product

It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries. The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection.

How did this happen? There is a seeming contradiction between the date of the Lord’s death as given in the synoptic Gospels and in John’s Gospel. The synoptics would appear to place it on Passover Day (after the Lord had celebrated the Passover Meal on the preceding evening), and John on the Eve of Passover, just when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple for the feast that was to ensue after sunset on that day.

Solving this problem involves answering the question of whether the Lord’s Last Supper was a Passover Meal, or a meal celebrated a day earlier, which we cannot enter into here. Suffice it to say that the early Church followed John rather than the synoptics, and thus believed that Christ’s death would have taken place on 14 Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. (Modern scholars agree, by the way, that the death of Christ could have taken place only in A.D. 30 or 33, as those two are the only years of that time when the eve of Passover could have fallen on a Friday, the possibilities being either 7 April 30 or 3 April 33.)

However, as the early Church was forcibly separated from Judaism, it entered into a world with different calendars, and had to devise its own time to celebrate the Lord’s Passion, not least so as to be independent of the rabbinic calculations of the date of Passover. Also, since the Jewish calendar was a lunar calendar consisting of twelve months of thirty days each, every few years a thirteenth month had to be added by a decree of the Sanhedrin to keep the calendar in synchronization with the equinoxes and solstices, as well as to prevent the seasons from “straying” into inappropriate months.

Apart from the difficulty Christians would have had in following—or perhaps even being accurately informed about—the dating of Passover in any given year, to follow a lunar calendar of their own devising would have set them at odds with both Jews and pagans, and very likely embroiled them in endless disputes among themselves. (The second century saw severe disputes about whether Pascha had always to fall on a Sunday or on whatever weekday followed two days after 14 Artemision/Nisan, but to have followed a lunar calendar would have made such problems much worse.)

These difficulties played out in different ways among the Greek Christians in the eastern part of the empire and the Latin Christians in the western part of it. Greek Christians seem to have wanted to find a date equivalent to 14 Nisan in their own solar calendar, and since Nisan was the month in which the spring equinox occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision, the month in which the spring equinox invariably fell in their own calendar. Around A.D. 300, the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman calendar, and since the dates of the beginnings and endings of the months in these two systems did not coincide, 14 Artemision became April 6th.

In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on March 25th, or in March at all.)

Integral Age

So in the East we have April 6th, in the West, March 25th. At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

Christmas (December 25th) is a feast of Western Christian origin. In Constantinople it appears to have been introduced in 379 or 380. From a sermon of St. John Chrysostom, at the time a renowned ascetic and preacher in his native Antioch, it appears that the feast was first celebrated there on 25 December 386. From these centers it spread throughout the Christian East, being adopted in Alexandria around 432 and in Jerusalem a century or more later. The Armenians, alone among ancient Christian churches, have never adopted it, and to this day celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the magi, and baptism on January 6th.

Western churches, in turn, gradually adopted the January 6th Epiphany feast from the East, Rome doing so sometime between 366 and 394. But in the West, the feast was generally presented as the commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, and as such, it was an important feast, but not one of the most important ones—a striking contrast to its position in the East, where it remains the second most important festival of the church year, second only to Pascha (Easter).

In the East, Epiphany far outstrips Christmas. The reason is that the feast celebrates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the occasion on which the Voice of the Father and the Descent of the Spirit both manifested for the first time to mortal men the divinity of the Incarnate Christ and the Trinity of the Persons in the One Godhead.

A Christian Feast

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

The author refers interested readers to Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins of the Liturgical Year (The Liturgical Press). A draft of this article appeared on the listserve Virtuosity.

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.