Monday, November 30


The holiday season--what we generically just call Christmastime--is actually a long sequence of holy days, festal revelries, and liturgical rites stretching from the end of November through the beginning of January that are collectively known as Yuletide.

Beginning with Advent, a time of preparation and repentance, proceeding to Christmas, a time of celebration and generosity, and concluding with Epiphany, a time of remembrance and thanksgiving, Yuletide traditions enable us to see out the old year with faith and love while ushering in the new year with hope and joy. It is a season fraught with meaning and significance.

Unfortunately, it is also such a busy season that its meaning and significance can all too easily be obscured either by well-intended materialistic pursuits--frenzied shopping trips to the mall to find just the right Christmas gift--or by the less benign demands, desires, wants, and needs which are little more than grist for human greed. The traditions of Yuletide were intended to guard us against such things--and thus, are actually more relevant today than ever before.

Sunday, November 29

The First Sunday of Advent

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. It the beginning of a rich season of anticipation and preparation.

For centuries Christians have used the month prior to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation to ready their hearts and their homes for the great festival. While we moderns tend to do a good bit of bustling about in the crowded hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas--shopping for presents, compiling guest lists, mailing holiday greeting cards, perusing catalogs, decorating hearth and home, baking favorite confections, and getting ready for one party after another--this hardly constitutes the kind of preparation Advent calls for.

Indeed, traditionally Advent has been a time of quiet introspection, personal examination, and repentance. It is a time to slow down, to take stock of the things that matter the most, and to do a thorough inner housecleaning. Advent is, as the earliest Christians asserted, a Little Pascha--a time of fasting, prayer, confession, and reconciliation.

All the great Advent stories, hymns, customs, and rituals--from the medieval liturgical antiphons and Scrooge’s Christmas Carol to the lighting of Advent candles and the eating of Martinmas beef are attuned to this notion: that the best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to make straight His pathway in our hearts.

Saturday, November 28

Dating Christmas

When was Jesus born in Bethlehem? The Bible describes with great certainty the fact of Christ’s birth as well as the place. But not the exact date.

One of the greatest of the Patristic writers, Basil of Caesarea believed Christ was born on November 20th in the year 4 BC. Another, Clement of Alexandria, speculated that Christ was born on November 17 in the year 3 BC. Still others, such as John Chrysostom, speculated that since shepherds were in the field the night Christ was born, it must have been in spring or summer. Similarly, Athanasius argued for a date of May 20. Cyril of Jerusalem reasoned for the date to be on either April l9th or 20th. And Ambrose of Milan made a strong traditional case for March 25th. Quite obviously though, no one really knew with any degree of certainty.

In 354, the Bishop of Rome started to observe December 25th as the date of Christ's birth. Four major Roman festivals had long been held in December, including Saturnalia which celebrated the returning sun god. As men converted from Paganism to Christianity, their culture was likewise gradually converted. Thus, it was natural for them to want to replace their old Pagan festivities with a celebration of the advent of their Savior.

In fact, Christians had already begun celebrating the incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus on that day since at least the early part of the third century--just a few generations removed the days of the Apostles. Thus, by 336, when the Philocalian Calendar--one of the earliest documents of the Patriarchal church--was first utilized, Christmas Day was already a venerable and tenured tradition. Though there is no historical evidence that Christ was actually born on that day--indeed, whatever evidence there is points to altogether different occasions--the conversion of the old Pagan tribes of Europe left a gaping void where the ancient winter cult festivals were once held. It was both culturally convenient and evangelically expedient to exchange the one for the other. And so joy replaced desperation. Celebration replaced propitiation. Christmas Feasts replaced new Moon sacrifices. Christ replace Baal, Molech, Apollo, and Thor.

Like so many calendar dates, the many different customs of Christmas ultimately melded together. And thus emerged the traditional Advent season--a four week long anticipation of Christmas beginning in late November and marked by a series of important feasts, fasts, rituals, and rites all the way through the designated day for the incarnation itself.

Monday, November 23

St. Clement’s Day

Serving as the pastor of the church in Rome just after Peter, Linus, and Cletus at the end of the first century, Clement (c. 100) was one of the greatest stalwarts of the early church. His letters, sermons, and commentaries remain among the best testimonies of the dynamism of the fledgling Christian witness. A constant encouragement to others, he was responsible for the establishment of at least seventy-five churches. His martyrdom apparently occurred on November 23 and as a result, believers have long remembered him on this day. Traditionally celebrated as the first day of winter throughout much of Christendom, this day is generally marked by community or guild suppers where co-workers gather to sing, to roast apples, and to offer mutual encouragement in the faith.

Pascal's Achievement

Blaise Pascal was a genuine a Renaissance man. He was a prominent mathematician, physicist, inventor, and philosopher. He made important contributions to geometry, calculus, and developed the theory of probability. In physics, Pascal's Law is the basis for all modern hydraulic operations. When he was still a teenager he invented the first mechanical calculator. He even created the theoretical basis for a computer language--known as Pascal—long before the technology was available to use it.

Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1623, and his family settled in Paris in 1629. Under the tutelage of his father, Pascal soon proved himself a mathematical prodigy, and at the age of 16 he formulated one of the basic theorems of projective geometry, known as Pascal's theorem and described in his Essay on Conics. He proved by experimentation in 1648 that the level of the mercury column in a barometer is determined by an increase or decrease in the surrounding atmospheric pressure rather than by a vacuum, as previously believed. This discovery verified the hypothesis of the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli concerning the effect of atmospheric pressure on the equilibrium of liquids.

Six years later, in conjunction with the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, Pascal formulated the mathematical theory of probability, which has become important in such fields as actuarial, mathematical, and social statistics and as a fundamental element in the calculations of modern theoretical physics. Pascal's other important scientific contributions include the derivation of Pascal's law or principle, which states that fluids transmit pressures equally in all directions, and his investigations in the geometry of infinitesimals. His methodology reflected his emphasis on empirical experimentation as opposed to analytical, a priori methods, and he believed that human progress is perpetuated by the accumulation of scientific discoveries resulting from such experimentation.

On this day in 1654 Pascal underwent a dramatic conversion experience. Afterward, he became a part of the Jansenist community at Port Royal, where he led a rigorously ascetic life until his death eight years later. The Jansenists were reformers within the Catholic Church who sought to bring a kind of Protestant theological emphasis to the church without disrupting its liturgy or hierarchy. The movement was founded by the Flemish theologian and bishop, Cornelis Jansen, whose ideas were summarized in the treatise Augustinus--a profoundly orthodox interpretation of Augustine's Biblical worldview.

Under the sway of this teaching, Pascal wrote his famous Lettres Provinciales, in which he attacked the anti-reform Catholics--and especially the Jesuits--for their attempts to reconcile humanistic naturalism with Christianity. He also wrote a defense of the faith, Apologie de la Religion Chrétienne in preparation for his magnum opus, Pensées sur la Religion. In the Pensées, Pascal attempted to explain and justify the difficulties of human life by the doctrine of original sin, and he contended that revelation can be comprehended only by faith, which in turn is justified by revelation.

A genius, yielded to the purposes of Christ, Pascal was one of the most remarkable men ever to grace the church.

Friday, November 20

A True Truism

"Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far. It sounds rather as if that were but a homely old adage, yet as is often the case with matters of tradition, this truism is actually true." --Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, November 11

Epistemological Unconsciousness

"All the evils in our now extensive catalogue flow from a falsified picture of the world which, for our immediate concern, results in an inability to interpret current happenings." --Richard Weaver

Tuesday, November 10

How to Give a Speech

One of my students asked what steps I go though when I am preparing a lecture or a talk or a sermon or a speech. Obviously, the first thing I have to do is make certain I have something to talk about--I need to master the material, do the reading, wrestle through the ideas, allow the concepts to enlarge in my thinking, consider the various opposing views, and arrive at some Biblical worldview conclusions regarding the subject. Then and only then am I ready to start thinking about constructing a presentation.

But, once that is done, what guidelines do I try to keep in view as I start pulling my thoughts together?

Here is what I told him:

1. Have just one point.

2. Frame that one point with a strong introduction and a well-crafted conclusion.

3. Have a strong outline for everything in-between.

4. Use pithy or funny or poignant quotes—or perhaps peculiar facts that you can then hang each of your points upon.

5. Just be yourself--don't try to inject or project some other persona.

6. Don't read the talk--but don't memorize it either.

7. Have fun.

"A lecture should proceed apace from knowledge to understanding to wisdom--offering insights, delights, and always some element of surprise. Oh yes, and its passion should be outdone only by its brevity." Arthur Quiller-Couch

Saturday, November 7

Friday, November 6

Almost Texas

The Words that Toppled the Wall

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued a now famous challenge to Soviet totalitarianism at the Brandenburg Gate in the divided city of Berlin. Standing with two panes of bulletproof glass behind him--to protect him from East German snipers--and in front of a crowd of 45,000 West Berliners. Glancing across the wall that had been a symbol of Communist oppression, he said:

"Like many Presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin--I still have a suitcase in Berlin."

Then, interrupted by the cheers of the crowd some 28 times, his trademark folksy oratory quickly rose to a great rhetorical crescendo:

“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Mr. Gorbachev never did. But, with history rapidly passing him by, he stood helplessly just over two years later as the captive people of East Berlin did--twenty years ago this week.

Wednesday, November 4

Books Galore

Don't you just love a good book sale? Well, here's a great one--with lots of amazing deals: head on over to the Canon Press site to clean up on a bevy of some 35 titles priced anywhere from $1 to $5 each. The deals are good for four days only--Thursday-Sunday this week. So, don't procrastinate. This comes just in time for those cozy nights curled up in front of a fire with a really good book, or maybe even better, just in time for knocking off a few difficult-to-buy-for readers on your Christmas list.