News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  21 December 2016  •  No. 101

Processional.What a Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong.

Imagine the impending natural disaster in the above photo as a very unnatural social wreckage. Then transfer that image to first century Palestine. Now you have a picture of the context in which the nativity stories were written.

Invocation. “Wake up, sleepy-head! Rouse yourselves, all you who have been sedated by the mindless blather coming from statehouse and church house alike. Knock some sense into each other, all you who have come to believe that strength comes from your own hand, that security is held by your own harness. Let loose your timid tongue to declare Mercy’s approach in response to Mary’s supplication. Raise hearts of gladness for the annulment of enmity.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “I arise today,” a litany for worship

Right: Color version of Thomas Nast’s most famous drawing, “Merry Old Santa Claus”, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Call to worship.The Challenge of Christmas,” from Sarah & Dominic. (2:50 video)

¶ “In the United States, the first version of “The Night Before Christmas” was published in 1823. An 1881 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly by Thomas Nast established the look of Santa Claus that we know today.

        By 1870, Christmas had become a federal holiday. Across the ocean, in London, the de facto capital of the world in the 19th century, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. That same year, Sir Henry Cole commissioned John Calcott Horsley to make the first Christmas card. An 1848 drawing in The Illustrated London News showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert around a decorated Buckingham Palace Christmas tree further ensconced the holiday in the English consciousness.

        The trappings of Christmas we know today came from dozens of cultures, including England (mistletoe), Italy (gift-giving), Scandinavia (stockings), the Netherlands (Santa Claus, his reindeer and elves), and Greece (wreaths). Only the star and the nativity scene originated in Bethlehem.” Yet in “the words of the Egyptian writer André Aciman: ‘Bethlehem . . . [now] looks nothing like the town God’s son might want to be born in. But that’s the whole point. Everything here is meant to test one's faith.’”  —Richard Morgan, “The Secret History of Christmas in Bethlehem,” Travel & Leisure

Hymn of praise.O Holy Night” by Aaron Neville.

Left: Haddon Sundblom’s first Coca-Cola Santa ad, 1931. See more of his subsequent ads at “Coca-Cola Santa Claus 1931-1949,” Adbranch

For the most part, people use God as Santa Claus. —Rickie Lee Jones

¶ “The name Santa Claus has his roots in the informal Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas (an abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas). St. Nicholas was a historic 4th-century Greek saint (from an area now in modern day Turkey) who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes left out for him. He was also famous for presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.”
        For more images of Santa Claus, see “A Pictorial History of Santa Claus,” The Public Domain Review.

The Coca-Cola soft drink company did not invent Santa Claus, but they did have a significant influence in shaping Santa’s modern image. —For more background, see “The Claus That Refreshes: Was the modern image of Santa Clause created by the Coco-Cola Company?” Snopes

Velvet-voiced Christmas.The First Noel,” Nat King Cole.

¶ “When I was in Tyler, one of my friends owned the best sporting goods in East Texas. Christmas season was crazy as people crammed in the building, shopping for that perfect gift. I visited him a week or so before Christmas and asked him how business was going. He responded, ‘Great! I just wish Jesus had a brother born in July!’” —David Galloway, Facebook post

This year the Jewish festival of Hanukkah falls on the date of the Christian Christmas Eve. “In 2003, this overlap [of the two observances] got a new name: “Chrismukkah,” coined by the character Seth Cohen on the hit Fox television show “The OC.” The son of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, Cohen defined Chrismukkah as “eight days of presents and then one day of lots of presents.” It was a time to combine both holidays, at least commercially. They had a tree but ordered Chinese food. After the show aired, a Chrismukkah-themed website and cookbook popped up. TIME magazine made “Chrismukkah” a buzzword of the year.” Samira Mehta, Religion & Politics

For background on Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, see “My Jewish Learning.”

Hanukkah hymn.Light One Candle,” Peter, Paul & Mary.

Confession. “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your heart’s full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. Hope resists; hopelessness adapts.” —William Sloan Coffin

What are the origins of the alleged “war on Christmas”? “The most organized attack on Christmas came from the Puritans, who banned celebrations of the holiday in the 17th century because it did not accord with their interpretation of the Bible.” —Liam Stack, “How the ‘War on Christmas’ Controversy Was Created,” Washington Post

Hymn of lamentation.Celtic Christmas 3: Lament,” Windham Hill Sampler.

Left: A poster by the U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division, Advertising Section, ca. 1918.

Words of assurance. “Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast; / God’s mercy shall deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. / This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, / Till the spear and rod can be quelled by God who is turning the world around.” —Gary Daigle, Rory Cooney & Theresa Donohoo, “Canticle of the Turning

I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark. —Dick Gregory

In this season’s contentious debate over refugees and immigrants, it’s worth remembering that Anne Frank (Annelies Marie Frank, author of the famous Diary of a Young Girl written during her two-year hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands) and her family were denied visas to come to the US.

        Fear of terrorism is not new in our political life. On May 1940 one US diplomat, George S. Messersmith wrote “Among the so-called refugees in our country is a fair number who can be depended upon to act as agents of their government and who will violate in any way the hospitality which they are enjoying among us.” Elahe Izadi, Washington Post

¶ “In modern warfare, seven children die for every soldier.” —Knud Wümpelmann, then president of the Baptist World Alliance, in a report to the BWA Human Rights Commission on a "United Nations' World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, Austria, June 14-25, 1993

The Greeks had a huntress goddess, and gods of agriculture and war and love. What else would we have but a god of merchandising and of consumption? —Donald Westlake

¶ It’s a shame that few Protestants observe the “Feast of the Holy Innocents”— observed by Roman Catholics and some Orthodox communions —commemorating the slaughter of infants around Bethlehem (cf. Matthew 2:16-18), around the time of Jesus’ birth, prompted by King Herod’s fear of a political rival.

        These murdered infants were considered by the early church to be the first Christian martyrs. The Roman Station (venue of special masses) for 28 December is at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome, where bones of some of the “innocents” are said to be interred.

Professing our faith. “Gather up / in the arms of your love / Those who expect / No love from above.” —Langston Hughes

Short story: Remembering military heroes of a different sort. “Larry Colburn, who became an 18-year-old American hero when he intervened with two comrades to halt the massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by United States soldiers in 1968, elevating an innocuous hamlet named My Lai into a watchword for the horrors of war, died on Tuesday at his home in Canton, Ga., from cancer. He was 67.”

Left: Mr. Colburn in 2008 with Do Ba, whom Mr. Colburn had rescued at My Lai. Credit Chitose Suzuki/Associated Press.

            Colburn was the last surviving member of a three-man helicopter crew, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., that witnessed in 1968 the US slaughter of as many as 500 Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai village, and positioned his helicopter between marauding US soldiers and surviving villagers. All three, including Glenn Andreotta, were later awarded The Bronze Star, a medal given to members of the US Armed Forces for exceptional valor in the face of enemy fire—only this time the enemy was their own fellow soldiers.

            Charges were brought against more than a dozen US officers, but only one, Lt. William L. Calley, was convinced and sentenced to life in prison. He served only three and a half years, under house arrest. —read more of this remarkable story by Sam Roberts, New York Times

Hymn of intercession. “Come now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body, come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.” —Jeremy Bankson, “Come Now O Prince of Peace,” performed by First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska

Right: poster-Office for Emergency Management, War Production Board, circa. 1942

Preach it. “If everyone were holy and handsome, with alter Christus shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head, and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth. —Dorothy Day

When only the blues will do.What Do the Lonely Do At Christmas,” The Emotions.

Can’t makes this sh*t up. Over the last decade, 10 people have died, and 105 injured, during “Black Friday” Christmas shopping excursions. —“Black Friday Death Count

Call to the table. “In an age ruled by terror—both by state and by sect—place on our lips the subversive claim of the Resurrection. As the vanguard of your coming Commonwealth, give us the courage to live at odds with the rage of this age.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “New year resolutions,” a litany for worship

For the beauty of the earth. Sea lily dance.

Altar call. “The temptation is strong to abandon earth’s rancor / in favor of Heaven’s rapture. Yet from Joy’s / horizon storms the quelling word: Heaven’s / abode is anchored in earth’s tribulation. / The proclamation has been rendered; / incarnation, tendered; emancipation, / though delayed, will not finally be hindered. . . . / Behold! All things—from earth’s bounded / borders to Heaven’s blissful shore—stand / destined under Glory to be made new.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s poem, “The quelling word,” a poem inspired by Revelation 21:1-6a

Uh-Oh—slushy takeoff for St. Nick. On Christmas Eve, temperature at the North Pole is predicted to be 50°F higher than normal, near the 32° melting point.

Benediction. “May your home always be too small to hold all your friends. May your heart remain ever supple, fearless in the face of threat, jubilant in the grip of grace.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Benedicere: A New Year’s Day Blessing

Recessional.Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” by John Lennon, performed by Peter Frampton, Aloe Blacc & Cheryl Crow.

Lectionary for Sunday next. Then, from highest reach and farthest horizon, came the Herald of resolve. See, the dwelling place of God is among mortals. The Blessed One will nest in creaturely habitation, bestowing kinship with the Most High. Heaven’s Promise is to wipe away every tear. Death? Come undone. Mourning? No more. Crying? Turned to joy. Pain? Transposed into awe and wonder. History’s agony, consummated in the Beloved’s embrace. Persevere, wearied one, in this assurance. —Revelation 21:3-4, adapted by Ken Sehested

Right: Norman Rockwell’s cover of Boys’ Life published December 1913

Planning a “Watch Night” service on New Year’s Eve? See Ken Sehested’s “Watch night history: Awaiting the quelling word,” written against the backdrop of New Year's Eve services, 1862, when African Americans gathered to await news of US President Abraham Lincoln's promised "Emancipation Proclamation."

Just for fun.Liam Neeson Auditions for Mall Santa.”

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “I arise today,” a litany for worship

• “Watch night history: Awaiting the quelling word

• “The quelling word,” a poem inspired by Revelation 21:1-6a

• “New year resolutions,” a litany for worship

Other features

• “Made flesh among us,” a sermon based on John 1:1-14

• “Testimony in a time of terror: Standing with the Word of God, for the earth, and against the world,” a litany for worship

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