Signs of the Times: Annotated news, views, notes and quotes

17th century colonial Christmas culture war. “The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.” —John Fea, “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America,” Pacific Standard, December 2013

Christological kleptomaniacs. Turns out, America is experiencing a rash of burglaries from nativity scenes, according to Religion Dispatches. “Thieves steel their nerves on the periphery of parks, churchyards, manicured lawns and other public places where the Holy Family resides. And then, sometime between dark and dawn, they rush in and steal the Baby Jesus. But that’s not all. Some Christological kleptomaniacs even burgle the Babe from store shelves. For example, shoppers who want to buy a manger at Scheels Home & Hardware in Fargo, N.D., will discover a sign that tells them: ‘Please ask for Baby Jesus.’ Redeemer robbers didn’t start heisting the Holy One this Christmas season. Awhile back, I reported on the BrickHouse security firm, which created the ‘Saving Jesus’ program. BrickHouse will provide crèche owners a free GPS device they can hide on or imbed in the Jesus figure. An owner of a stolen Savior receives a text or an email, reporting the nativity nabbing. Then the system enables the owner or police to track the robbers and retrieve the Christ Child.” —Marv Knox, “Will the Christ be stolen from you this Christmas?” The Baptist Standard, December 19, 2014

Francis’ Christmas takedown. Instead of cozy sentiments amid bubbly cheer, Pope Francis “turned the heartwarming exchange of Christmas greetings into a public dressing down of the Curia, the central administration of the Holy See which governs the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.” One by one he enumerated 15 “ailments of the Curia,” saying too many cardinals, bishops and priests are living “hypocritical” lives devoted to advancing their own careers over service to God. And he called on the more ancient Advent tradition of calling to repentance. “This speech is without historic precedent,” judged church historian Alberto Melloni. Of course, Francis has a history of broaching the bounds of papal etiquette. No prelate before has performed the annual Holy Thursday ritual of washing feet other than those of priests—Vatican ecclesial rules stipulate that only “adult males” are to have their feet washed at the Mass of the Last Supper. Last year he washed the feet of two women and two Muslims at a juvenile detention center. This year it was the feet of frail and disabled persons of various religious professions. —Associated Press

 ¶ “Cuba seems to have the same effect on U.S. administrations as the full moon once had on werewolves,” said Dr. Wayne Smith, former director of the US Interest Section in Havana, Cuba, currently senior fellow at the Center for International Policy’s Cuba program.

¶ Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations. To commemorate US President Barack Obama’s stunning announcement on 17 December 2014 of executive action reestablishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, here are a few facts that might surprise. See Ken Sehested’s “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations” in the “articles and sermons” section of this site. Also see guest commentator Stan Hastey’s “Reflections on Changes in U.S.-Cuba Relations (Part 1)” in the “blog” section.

“Public” gains ground. “Despite plummeting gas prices, public transportation ridership in the U.S. hit a record high. According to a new report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 2.7 billion trips were taken on public transit systems in the third quarter of 2014. That marks a 1.8 percent increase from the same period last year, and makes it the third quarter with the highest ridership since 1974. It continues a trend, as 12 of the last 15 quarters have shown increased public transportation use.  The industry group also reported earlier this year that transit ridership in 2013 was the highest it had been in 57 years.”  —Andrea Germanos, “Take That, Car Culture: Public Transportation Ridership Up,” CommonDreams

Language abuse. “Fewer ‘nasty’ cases fuel Kumbaya spirit” was the subtitle of an article noting that a record number of Supreme Court cases have been decided unanimously in the 2013-2014 terms. Since when did the cry of the anguished—Come by here, my Lord—become a synonym for passive behavior?

Best news you didn’t hear about. For years a small, dedicated group of advocates for low-income housing have been trying to pressure the Federal Housing Finance Agency to end its embargo of contributions to the Housing Trust Fund (HTF) begun in November 2008. The HTF is a federal fund designed to support states in building and preserving affordable housing for very low-income families. US Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), coauthor of the bill that created the trust fund, said, “In the richest country in the world, it is unconscionable that there are 7.1 million households for whom safe and decent housing is neither affordable nor available.” Perseverance matters: Getting the HTF established took eight years, then another six to get it funded. (Thanks, Marty.)

Less good news. “The world is not any safer now. Job security looks good.” —Marine officer interviewed on NPR the day (27 October 2014) remaining US and British troops left the Helmand province, the largest theatre of operation in the 13 year occupation of Afghanistan

More like a fantasy. A recent USAToday analysis of income in the country shows that a family of four needs an annual income of $130,357 to enjoy “the American Dream.” Meanwhile, the median family income is about $51,000. Only one in eight households are currently living the Dream.

Hard pill to swallow. US Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) are considered among the weightiest of critics of the Obama Administration. But both jumped the Republican script and concurred with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of a searing report condemning the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture against suspected terrorists. “Our enemies act without conscience,” McCain said in a Senate floor speech. “We must not. The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow.” McCain himself was tortured by his Vietnamese captors during the War in Vietnam. “I believe we can and must fight this war within our values,” said Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I supported the investigation of the CIA as the problems of interrogation policies were obvious to me.”

More language abuse. When the Central Intelligence Agency’s original building was erected in 1959, a verse from John’s Gospel (8:32) was inscribed on a wall in its lobby: And ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.

Missing from our caroling. The original third stanza of Edmund H. Sears’ popular Christmas song (written in the years leading up to the US Civil War) is missing from most of our hymnals. It reads: “But with the woes of sin and strife / The world has suffered long; / Beneath the angel-strain have rolled / Two thousand years of wrong; / And man, at war with man, hears not / The love-song, which they bring: / O hush the noise, ye men of strife, / And hear the angels sing!”

Opening monologue, in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” by a Marine commander to a group of non-commissioned officers shortly before Christmas 1941: “Those of you who are lucky enough to get home for Christmas, hold your loved ones dearly. Join them in prayers for peace on earth and good will toward all men. And then report back here ready to sail across God’s vast ocean, where we will meet our enemy and kill them all. Merry Christmas.”

Be not afraid. To counter the grisly news from the year’s headlines, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “Christmas Truce of 1914” during World War I, watch the seventeen and a half minute speech by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations: Then, at one of your holiday feasts, read aloud as a table blessing the “Work of Christmas” mandate from Howard Thurman (left).

¶ A “New Year Resolution Litany” is in the “litanies and prayers” section of this site.

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©Ken Sehested, Language not otherwise identified above is that of the author.


Featured elsewhere in prayer&politiks:
•"Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations," by Ken Sehested, in the "articles and sermons" section
•"Reflections on Changes in US-Cuba Relations," by guest columnist and veteran Cuba traveler Stan Hastey, in the "blog" section