Thursday, December 30

Wyclif: Yet To This Day

On this day in 1384, John Wyclif died of a stroke—but there would be no rest for his bones. Almost thirty years later, the Council of Constance condemned Wyclif's teachings and ordered his bones dug up and burned.

But of course, the burning of his bones would not end his influence.

Wyclif had been a leading scholar at Oxford, a chaplain to the King of England, and the benefactor of the powerful Prince John of Gaunt's patronage. He boldly spoke out against the pope, the organizational hierarchy of the Roman Church, and the corruption of the clergy. He criticized not only the organization of the medieval church but its theology as well. He believed the church should return to the Scriptures. Pastors should live lives of simplicity and holiness, shepherding the flock the Lord had given them.

In addition, under Wyclif's direction, the entire Bible was translated into English for the first time. The translation was completed by Wyclif's associates in 1395, eleven years after Wyclif's death. Though repeatedly condemned and burned by the authorities, copies of Wyclif's Bible continued to bring the truth of the Gospel to England for over a century. It greatly influenced William Tyndale and the translators of the King James Version.

John Foxe in his book of martyrs well described Wyclif's influence when he wrote, "though they digged up his body, burnt his bones, and drowned his ashes, yet the Word of God and the truth of his doctrine, with the fruit and success thereof, they could not burn; which yet to this day doth remain."

Monday, December 27

The Drawing of the Dark

John, the beloved Apostle, was one of the founders of the church in Ephesus. He carried out his pastoral charge with particular compassion to the hurting and forlorn. As a result, his testimony has long been commemorated during this season of practical charity: the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. And so according to long-held tradition, it is that on St. John's Day, December 27, the winter beers are uncasked, distributed to the poor, and the dark is drawn for the blessing and benefit of all the townspeople and those who live beyond in field and forest.

Sunday, December 26

Childermas: Sanctity of Life Sunday

Often called Childermas or the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the first Sunday after Christmas has traditionally remembered and solemnized the slaughter of the children of Judea by Herod the Great following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. It has long been the focus of the Christian Church’s commitment to protect and preserve the sanctity of human life--thus serving as a prophetic warning against the practicioners of abandonment and infanticide in the age of Antiquity, oblacy and pessiary in the Medieval epoch, and abortion and euthanasia in these Modern times. Generally set aside as a day of prayer, it culminates with a declaration of the covenant community’s unflinching commitment to the innocents who are unable to protect themselves.

Boxing Day

December 26 is commemorated as an official holiday in Britain and in several other English-speaking lands--known as Boxing Day. On this day boxes of food are to be delivered to the needy, and in days gone by were given to servants from their employers. The spirit of Wenceslaus is demonstrated so that the entire community may celebrate with joy the manifestation of the Good News. Often churches organize the day to particularly serve the physical and spiritual needs of their neighbors and thus demonstrate that the Scriptural injunctions to exercise Word and Deed compassion are still in full force.

St. Stephen’s Day

Like the Good King Wenceslaus, Stephen (c. 35) was killed because of his convictions about the revelation of Christ in the world. Indeed, according to the Book of Acts, he was the very first martyr of the Christian faith—bearing testimony to his accusers of the historicity and transforming power of the Gospel. For centuries, Christians have remembered his boldness, courage, and faithfulness on the day after Christmas, December 26. Because Stephen was a deacon in the early church—charged with caring for the orphans and widows in their distress—his day has generally been set aside as a day for selfless care for the poorest of the poor, the despised, the rejected, and the unloved.

Thursday, December 23

Christmas Bells

Bells have long been used to summon, to ring for joy, or to sound alarm. Apparently, some early bell-ringers even believed that the sound of bells might frighten away evil spirits.

The Church however has more commonly used bells throughout the centuries to spread news of victory, calamity, or celebration. Some bell ringing traditions, such as change-ringing, are quite intricate and involve complex patterns of sound based on mathematical formula as well as musical aesthetics.

Whatever the form, the pealing of bells have become distinctive heralds to the Good News of Christmas. On the island of Guernsey for instance, church bells toll all through the day of December 23--which is known there as La Longue Vielle. It is a beautiful pre-Christmas celebration affording the people with a relished opportunity to stay up late eating biscuits and cheese while drinking mulled wine and contemplating the blessings of the season.

All of these varied notions are beautifully portrayed in the Ukrainian "Carol of the Bells."

Hark! how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say,
"Throw cares away."
Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold

Ding, dong, ding, dong
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling
One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
From ev'rywhere
Filling the air

The American Cincinnatus

According to the majority of eighteenth and nineteenth century historians, the most remarkable event during America's Founding Era did not take place on a battlefield. It did not occur during the course of the constitutional debates. It was not recorded during the great diplomatic negotiations with France, Spain, or Holland. It did not take place at sea, or in the assemblies of the states, or in the counsels of war. It was instead when the field commander of the continental armies surrendered his commission to the congressional authorities at Annapolis.

It was instead a humble demonstration of servanthood. It was when General George Washington resigned his officer's commission.

At the time, he was the idol of the country and his soldiers. The army was unpaid, and the veteran troops, well armed and fresh from their victory at Yorktown, were eager to have him take control of the disordered country. Some wanted to crown him king. Others thought to make him a dictator--rather like Cromwell had been a century earlier in England.

With the loyal support of the army and the enthusiasm of the populous, it would have been easy enough for Washington to make himself the ruler of the new nation. But instead, he resigned. He appeared before President Thomas Mifflin, his cabinet, and the assembled Congress of the United States and submitted himself to their governance on December 23, 1783.

Writing of the remarkable scene that then ensued, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, exclaimed, “Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed--the opening feast of Prince George in London, or the resignation of Washington? Which is the noble character for after-ages to admire--yon fribble dancing in lace and spangles, or yon hero who sheathes his sword after a life of spotless honor, a purity unreproached, a courage indomitable, and a consummate victory?”

The answer to most Americans was obvious: Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Though he had often wrangled in disagreement with his superiors over matters of military strategy, pay schedules, supply shipments, troop deployment, and the overlap of civil and martial responsibilities, there was never any question of his ultimate loyalty or allegiance. In the end, he always submitted himself to the authority God had placed over him. And that was no mean feat.

“His true greatness was evidenced,” said Henry Adams, “in the fact that he never sought greatness, but rather service.” The dean of American historians, Francis Parkman concurred that it was this “remarkable spirit of the servant” that ultimately “elevated him even higher in his countrymen's estimations than he already was.” And biographer Paul Butterfield, wrote, “He never countenanced the sin of omission when it came to duty to God or country. His was a life of constant service in the face of mankind's gravest need.” Thus, historian John Richard Green commented, “no nobler figure ever stood in the forefront of a country's life. Never did he shrink from meeting the need of the hour. He was our national guardian.”

Following the surrender of his commission Washington quietly retired to private life at his home on the Potomac River, Mount Vernon—becoming an American Cincinnatius.

Of course, it would only be a short retirement. The controversy over the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, the wrangling of rival states, and the need for a new form of republican federalism ultimately brought him back into public life and ultimately to the presidency itself.

John Greenleaf Whittier would later write a ballad to celebrate Washington's extraordinary commitment to liberty and his submission to authority. It is among the greatest of Washington's memorials:

The sword was sheathed: In April's sun
Lay green the fields by Freedom won;
And severed sections, weary of debates,
Joined hands at last and were United States.

O City sitting by the Sea!
How proud the day that dawned on thee,
When the new era, long desired, began,
And, in its need, the hour had found the man!

One thought the cannon salvos spoke,
The resonant bell-tower's vibrant stroke,
The voiceful streets, the plaudit-echoing halls,
And prayer and hymn borne from Saint Paul's!

How felt the land in every part
The strong throb of a nation's heart,
As its great leader gave, with reverent awe,
His pledge to Union, Liberty, and Law!

That pledge the heavens above him heard,
That vow the sleep of centuries stirred;
In world-wide wonder listening peoples bent
Their gaze on Freedom's great experiment.

Could it succeed? Of honor sold
And hopes deceived all history told.
Above the wrecks that strewed the mournful past,
Was the long dream true at last?

Thank God! The people's choice was just,
The one man equal to his trust,
Wise beyond lore, and without weakness good,
Calm in the strength of flawless rectitude!

His rule of justice, order, peace,
Made possible the world's release;
Taught prince and serf that power is but a trust,
And rule alone, which serves the ruled, is just.

That Freedom generous is, but strong
In hate of fraud and selfish wrong,
Pretence that turns her holy truth to lies,
And lawless license masking in her guise.

Land of his love! With one glad voice
Let thy great sisterhood rejoice;
A century's suns o'er thee have risen and set,
And, God be praised, we are one nation yet.

And still we trust the years to be
Shall prove his hope was destiny,
Leaving our flag, with all its added stars,
Unrent by faction and unstained by wars.

Lo! Where with patient toil he nursed
And trained the new-set plant at first,
The widening ranches of a stately tree
Stretch from the sunrise to the sunset sea.

And in its broad and sheltering shade,
Sitting with none to make afraid,
Were we now silent, through mighty limb,
The winds of heaven would sing the praise of him.

Tuesday, December 21

Dickens and Christmas

Charles Dickens burst onto the literary scene in England with a series of prose sketches published in a monthly magazine and later in a daily newspaper. The young journalist—who had endured dire poverty and deep shame as a child—was suddenly thrust to the forefront of celebrity and fame. The stunning success of those first sketches—later published in book form as Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers—was followed in quick succession by Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.

There was little doubt that Dickens had become the most influential novelist in the English language. His plots, his characters, and his images defined for many the Victorian dystopic standard. But more than that, his prolificacy, his versatility, and his creativity defined the modern literary standard. As G.K. Chesterton later said, “The boors in his books are brighter that the wits in other books.”

He became the Victorian equivalent of a pop-star—rich, famous, pampered, and lionized. His was a rags-to-riches dream come true. Never entirely comfortable with his exalted role though, Dickens began a deep and impassioned search. He tried his hand at lecturing. He dabbled in acting and theater production. He launched innumerable journals, tabloids, magazines, and newspapers. Finding little satisfaction even in these professional successes, he turned to arcane philosophies and sundry esoterica. He explored the occult. And he sated himself in the pleasures of the flesh.

But the great fascination of his life was the Christian faith. At the heart of most of his novels is evidence of an impassioned quest for significance--in and through the spiritual system that ultimately gave flower to the wonder of Western civilization. He wrote innumerable essays on the disparity between Christian teaching and Christian practice. He lectured widely on the nature of Christian ethics and society. And he penned a groping, probing, yearning sketch of the life of Christ.

But the forum for his most sophisticated musings on the faith came in his annual Christmas stories. There, he not only rehearsed his own tragedies and commemorated his own injuries, but he cast about for some metaphysical meaning or comfort for them.

The stories were written beginning in 1843, when Dickens was at the pinnacle of his writing prowess. The first--and probably the best—was A Christmas Carol. It is the familiar story of Scrooge, Marley, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and ghosts from the past, present, and future. It is also the recollection of that strange mixture of joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, sanctities and perversities, approbations and imprecatations inherent in this poor fallen world.

With unsurpassed artistry Dickens painted a picture of depravity, dispossession, and depression with an impressionistic palate—while vividly portraying the power of repentance, redemption, and resurrection with the clarity of a photo. This was undoubtedly the master at his best. Not only did Dickens do something special for Christmas, but Christmas did something special for Dickens.

St. Thomas’ Day

Though he was doubter at first, the Apostle Thomas (c. 10-60) came to believe that Christ was not only risen from the dead, but proclaimed him “My Lord and my God.” His anticipation of the full revelation of the Kingdom is celebrated on December 21. Traditionally this has been a day for well-wishing--friends, neighbors, and loved ones going out of their way to remember other and to bless one another. Though Christmas cards are a Victorian innovation, they were conceived as a kind of St. Thomas’ Day gesture of kindness, encouragement, and graciousness.

Sunday, December 19

It's a Wonderful Life

On this day in 1946, It's a Wonderful Life was shown in a charity preview at New York's Globe Theatre, the night before its official premier. The film was directed by Frank Capra and starred James Stewart--and it became an instant holiday classic.

Based on the story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, it focused on a man who believed he was a failure because he never left the small town where he grew up. George Bailey, ran the town savings and loan after his father died, something he swore as a child he’d never do. Bailey, a decent and good man who served his town well, struggled to make ends meet at the job he never really loved. When disaster strikes and the savings and loan funds are lost, Bailey decides to commit suicide. But then, in a Christmas Carol-like twist of fate, an angel named Clarence helps George see what life would have been like in the town if he had never been born.

It’s a Wonderful Life was reportedly the favorite work of both actor Stewart and director Capra’s from their long and illustrious careers. It's certainly one of my favorites.

Friday, December 17

Sleigh Rides

Mimicking the supposed pattern of pastoral care practiced by Nicholas of Myra, the sleigh ride—particularly on Christmas Eve—gradually was woven into the joyous celebration of Christmas. Beginning in Scandanavia, spreading to Germany, England, Scotland, and finally New England, the sounds of the jingling bells, the tramping of horses through the snow, and the brisk wind through the trees became essential elements in provoking the Yuletide Spirit.

Holly and Ivy

Throughout the Celtic lands of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, holly and ivy were symbols of victory won. Holly, representing masculine triumph, and ivy, representing feminine triumph, were often woven together as a sign that men and women need one another. Homes were decorated during Advent with both—often woven together—as a picture of the healthy family under God’s gracious providential hand.

Saturday, December 11


Carols are songs which are usually narrative and celebratory in nature with a simple spirit and often in verse form. The ancient term carol has a varied and interesting past and is derived from several root words that include the idea of dancing as well as singing. It has been often mentioned that the first carol was sung by the Angels to the shepherds on the night of Christ's birth. Mary's song, the Magnificat, could also fit in the category of early Christmas music. The idea of caroling from one home to another seems to have started sometime during the 18th century or earlier. Carolers would visit each house of a parish on Christmas Night to sing songs of the Nativity and to call forth blessings on every home. The term wassail means "Good health!" Carolers would often receive food, money, and drink for the spreading of good cheer.

Tuesday, December 7

The Hanging of the Mistletoe

The little berries of the Mistletoe plant, renowned for their healing powers (used in salves and ointments), became a medieval symbol of God’s provision and grace. Even when the vast northern forests were buried in deep snows and the hardwood trees had lost all their foliage, the Mistletoe continued to bloom—to offer its medicine of hope to the afflicted and the needy. Often, families would decorate their doorways with little sprigs of the plant as reminders of providential love. It became a happy ritual for lovers to kiss beneath the sprigs as a kind of covenantal affirmation of their fealty in the sight of God. A single berry was to be plucked from the sprig for each kiss. Often the bare sprigs were kept as testimony to the couples’ vows. Sometime in about the tenth century or so, the hanging of the Mistletoe became an Advent and Christmas tradition.

Sunday, December 5

Football and Life

On this day in 1815, the Earl of Home led the men of Ettrick against Sir Walter Scott and his team from Yarrow in a game of "football." In honor of the match which took place at Carterhaugh in Ettrick Forest, Scotland, the always-prolific poet penned two songs to inspire his team, including the words:

Then strip lads, and to it, though sharp be the weather,
And if by mischance, you should happen to fall,
There are worse things in life than a tumble in the heather,
And life is itself but a game of football!

I suppose the moral of this story is simply that the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Wednesday, December 1

After More than a Half Century

Fifty-five years ago today, the Civil Rights movement was suddenly launched when Rosa Parks, exhausted after a hard day’s work, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger. She was ultimately arrested and the humiliating incident galvanized a growing movement to desegregate public transportation, and marked a historic turning point in the African American struggle for freedom and equality.

Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama where she grew up under the shadow of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. The granddaughter of former slaves the future civil rights leader attended the all-black Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1932 she married Raymond Parks, a barber, with whom she became active in Montgomery's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1943, when Rosa Parks joined the NAACP herself, she helped to mobilize a voter registration drive in Montgomery. That same year Parks also was elected secretary of the Montgomery branch. Six months before her famous protest, Rosa Parks received a scholarship to attend a workshop on school integration for community leaders.

The segregated seating policies on public buses had long been a source of resentment within the black community in Montgomery and in other cities throughout the Deep South. African Americans were required to pay their fares at the front of the bus, and then reboard through the back door. The white bus drivers, who were invested with police powers, frequently harassed blacks, sometimes driving away before African American passengers were able to get back on the bus. At peak hours, the drivers pushed back boundary markers segregating the bus, crowding those in the "colored section" so that whites could be provided with seats. On the day of her protest, Parks took her seat in the front of the "colored section" of a Montgomery bus. When the driver asked Parks and three other black riders to relinquish their seats to whites, Parks simply refused. The driver called the police, and Parks was arrested.

The Montgomery chapter of the NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge the legality of segregated bus seating, and to woo public opinion with a series of protests. Within 24 hours of her arrest, the community had mobilized a massive boycott of the bus system. By December 5, the city buses went through their routes virtually empty. Martin Luther King Jr., who had just moved to Montgomery as the new pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church helped to mobilize and inspire the entire African American community to stand by their principles. The boycott lasted 381 days, during which time 42,000 protesters walked, carpooled, or took taxis, rather than ride the segregated city buses of Montgomery. It was the beginning of what would become the Civil Rights Movement--and it was the beginning of the end of segregation.

Of course, the protest proved to be costly for Parks. She lost her job and was unable to find other work in Montgomery. Parks and her husband finally were forced to relocate to Detroit, Michigan in 1957, where they continued to struggle financially for years. Even so, she remained unwavering in her conviction that she had done what was right. And so was the freedom of millions of Americans secured by her solitary courage.


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.