Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Any Rationalization in the Storm

Monday, December 28th, 2020

December 28 is traditionally observed as the commemoration of the “Massacre of the Innocents” under Herod the Great. The dark episode is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel, and its absence from any other primary historical source – despite Herod’s generally bad reputation among contemporary Jewish and pagan historians – leads many scholars to view the story as a narrative device.

Whether historical fact or instructive fable, it sheds much needed light on the human habit of justifying brute force and lethal violence in service of some abstract greater good. The myth of redemptive violence in the United States, for example, doesn’t mark a partisan or ideological divide. Wars, invasions, and massacres have been championed by left and right. American notions of progress have underwritten the Indian Removal Act, Prohibition, and eugenic sterilization. “The greater good” has been invoked to justify chattel slavery and the bombing of entire cities. Doing bad things with the best intentions is not a quirk of history but an all too human constant.

We often come to admit and regret the large-scale disasters, if only in retrospect. It’s far easier to rationalize away the smaller instances in our everyday lives. Among the challenges of the Christmas season is the temptation to put ourselves into the story as a shepherd, a wise man or woman – perhaps even an angel – and not to recognize Herod’s shadow in our hearts and minds.

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Christmas Regret

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Christmas, like life, rarely brings us what we once wanted or imagined we needed. No doubt that explains why so many products of consumer capitalism’s holiday season create and feed a relentless craving for “the best Christmas ever,” a sales campaign designed to insure that, in the words of a song by Over the Rhine, “all I get for Christmas is blue.” Recognizing the chasm between what I thought I wanted and what I truly need is an essential lesson on the regret-laden road to spiritual maturity. Here’s a poem for those on the way.

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“A sad tale’s best for winter.”

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

Shakespeare’s late romance, The Winter’s Tale, is full of contrivances and plot holes, including perhaps the most famous stage direction in history, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” yet it remains among my favorites. The title itself is a mystery. The only plausible reference in the text is young Mamillius’s offhand comment, “A sad tale’s best for winter,” even though the play ends in an unexpected reconciliation. So it is that I associate the play with Christmas, as so much of the Christmas story, as in the stories of our lives, finds joy in sad and difficult terrain: long, hard journeys; no room at the inn; Herod’s jealous rage; the flight to Egypt.

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Prince of Peace

Friday, December 25th, 2020

Octavian Augustus, first emperor of Rome, was known by many titles, including Divi Filius (Son of God), and Princeps Pacis (Prince of Peace). An inscription in Asia Minor states that Augustus’s birth “… has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (εύαγγέλιον) concerning him.” How strange, then, to use the same names for a contemporaneous but obscure Palestinian Jew, whose understanding of peace, politics, and power was so radically different. How strange to have so long diluted the scandal of the gospel (good news) with accommodations to an Augustan vision of a peace built on the use or threat of lethal violence. Here’s a Christmas poem calling attention to that contrast in a conscious act against forgetting.

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Caring for Words, I: Words Themselves

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Καὶ ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν
The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

Christmas, 2017, a celebration of “the Word made flesh,” arrives even as the degradation of our discourse – the way we talk to one another – accelerates. With the currency of “fake news,” “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and contemptuous labels like “snowflake,” and “conspiritard,” it’s been a bad year for American English.

Though the crisis is most apparent in what now passes for political discourse, it’s not the fault of one man, one party, or one ideology, but the logical consequence of choices and habits over many years, some of which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, that rapidly evacuated precious words of meaning, beat others to airy thinness, and discarded still others as obsolete. Sickened words form diseased sentences, and what thoughts they sustain become stunted, shallow, or helplessly sentimental. If an unchanging language is dead, a language that openly trades in lies, jargon, and euphemisms suffers from metastatic cancer.

Words have always mattered, have always been slippery, have always been potent, and so they have always been dangerous, particularly in the mouths and pens of those amassing power. This is not the first time words have been so abused, nor will it be the last. Perhaps they are always abused, sometimes more conspicuously than others. For these twelve days of Christmas (December 25, 2017- January 6, 2018), I plan to share the observations of better writers than I on the misuse of words and how we might better care for them.

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