Sunday, December 25, 2005

Turning the world upside-down

If you've visited Howard-Empowered People maybe you've seen me use a portion of this picture as a Gravatar. Or maybe not, as I haven't used it in a while. The painting is entitled "Mary of the Magnificat". No, I realize that the first century peasant girl who was the mother of Jesus looked nothing like that. We've been watching these shows on the National Geographic channel which explain how much at odds the usual Christmas pageant imagery is at odds with what we know about life in first century Judea. Our 12-year-old is taking great pleasure in informing everyone that "The manger looked nothing like that--the animals were in a lower room, in the same building as where the people lived!"

I don't know if he's ready to understand that stories can be true--or reflect deeper Truths--without being factually, literally true. (I read somewhere that myths are stories that aren't true on the outside, but they are true on the inside.) I think I first discovered what is beautiful and inspiring to me about this story back when we were attending a local Unitarian Universalist church. The Christmas sermon was entitled Turning the World Upside-down, and it said, in part:

And in a world where the Roman intelligentsia believed that Augustus Caesar himself was born of a virgin mother, a virgin who had a vision in a temple from a messenger from the gods, what might the author be saying? Since he or she (and we really don't know whether the author we call "Luke" was a man or a woman by the way-cases have been made for both) deliberately brings up Augustus Caesar at the beginning of the story about another virgin birth, I grow suspicious. Isn't it more likely that here is another picture inviting us to look at the world in a totally upside-down manner? The story is asking us "Is Caesar the greatest power on earth, Caesar with his power and might, his obedience and his executions, his slavery and his caprice; or, is it this peasant baby from the outskirts of civilization whose head needs to be entirely supported in the crook of his tender mother's arm? Two virgin births. But which of them is the real center of the world? Choose.

Mari herself, upon being told that she will be a mother, sings a clear song about the world turning upside down, The Magnificat, part of which you heard being sung this evening, by Peg Meckling and Edgel Alley, set to Bach's beautiful music. The Magnificat insists that the world is about to go topsy turvy. Remember the poem?

Do you see? The lofty are now scattered
through the arrogance of their own heart,
and the all-powerful rulers of earth
are pulled down off their thrones,
and poor people like me are lifted up.
The hungry are fed now,
the sated go away with empty hands.
The way I see it is this: when you worship a poor third world baby in a cattle-feeder, instead of a muscular and violent head of state on his throne, you begin to turn philosophy on its head, and certainly all theology.

And, to say (as the Christians eventually did), that this weak child nursing at its mother's breast is a wonderful picture of G-d, you get another upside-down image…not the common image of G-d as Caesar in the sky, controlling the weather, the fates of individual human beings, and meting out punishments and rewards according to bribes, but G-d, or the Ultimate, if you will, as a helpless child in a dirty, splintery cattle feeder.

By the way, I know that someone is bound to ask about the spelling G-d. Others can probably express it better than I can, but it is typically a Jewish convention. I have heard at least two explanations that I can recall--one is that if we try to give a name to the Ultimate, we risk making an idol of that name. Another is that, in the Hebrew scriptures, to name someone or something was to control them--have dominion over them. For obvious reasons, we could not expect to do that with God. Again, I'm sure someone else could explain this better, but I wanted to try to anticipate the question in an attempt to keep any confusion or curiosity about that from eclipsing the powerful truth of this story that I wanted to convey tonight.

Turning the world upside-down...that's what resonates with me. Knocking the powerful off their thrones, while at the same time recognizing the power in the "lowly" who can be all too easily dismissed by those who are content with "politics and usual". I *love* this story, and I believe in it. Well, in my heart, deep down I do. Sometimes, after the people fighting the good fight get knocked down again and again, it's hard to keep believing. At Christmas time, one thing I try to do is to remind myself that this very old story still rings True in our hearts, because there are always Caesars who need to be knocked off their thrones. It seems impossible. But the impossible can be achieved by something greater than ourselves. Maybe we call that something "God", or another name that means something similar. Or maybe that "something greater" is our sense of being interconnected, part of a larger community rather than focussed on our own narrow interests. The sense that "we're all in this together". Now, where have I heard *that* before? ;-)

Friday, December 23, 2005

An Advent Meditation

We have been scrambling all day, trying to get ready for our holiday travels. It's one of my many least favorite parts of this season. It is now way later than we had hoped to be leaving, and we're pretty much guaranteed to hit rush hour traffic. Can't be helped, so I'm not going to stress about it. Rather, I thought it would be a good idea to take a few moments to center myself with a few moments of quiet while my husband finishes packing his clothes.

Without getting exceedinly maudlin, one of the roughest things about the whole Christmas season--especially coming as it does right before my birthday--is that it is a time when all of the little ways I occasionally feel inadequate all impinge on my consciousness at once. So I definitely need to take a few moments and remind myself of the miracle that this season represents. The following is from an Advent sermon at St. Clement's Church in Berkeley:

In the ordinariness of a peasant girl’s body, the word was made flesh. In the business-as-usual of a society focused on material things, a holy stillness descends. Into the repetitive cycle of violence, peace and justice break through. All incredible. All a myth, whose truth we see and cling to. Mary said to the angel, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Mary, young, pregnant, visited by angels, poor, expectant, and scared: in her body heaven and earth meet. What Mary offers us is the hope of light in our darkness, the breaking through of holy love into our sad, sorry world. She carries the sacred burden of our redemption even as she suffers the grief, love, fear, and joy of a human mother. Whatever else she is, Mary is a sign for us of God’s ridiculous love for us, the love that takes our very ordinariness, the good and the ill of the human condition, and turns it into blessing and grace.

Ready or not ready, here it comes. Bidden or not bidden, God is present – here, with us, now. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Celebrating Winter Solstice with the family

There is a page describing family-oriented Winter Solstice celebrations at Circle Sanctuary here. I will post the general overview, but if you visit the Circle Sanctuary web site you will find a lot more of the "nuts and bolts" details about creating your own Winter Solstice ritual:

- Focus of Celebration: consider first your purpose(s) for the celebration, such as: Strengthen family bonding with each other
- Expand upon existing patterns of family celebrations
- Attune family to Nature's cycles
- Attune family to its membership in the community of all life on planet Earth
- Connect with ancestors
- Celebrate ethnic/cultural heritage(s)
- Educate about ancient and contemporary folkways
- Extend the celebration of Christmas, be an alternative, or expand upon it
- Deepen understanding about spiritual renewal and love
- Have fun

Even though I am Episcopalian, I really like the idea of having a ritual to mark the Winter Solstice. Bummer that I have to spend the day running and don't have the time to do something "intentional" for the Solstice. But I remain aware of it, and I thank Diana and SallyCat for sharing their thoughts on the holiday.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Winter Solstice

A diary by SallyCat at Booman Tribune...

Merry Meet and Bright Blessings at Yule

Many have asked about the celebrations and traditions of Yule / Winter Solstice and I will try to answer as generically as possible. I follow a Celtic Path, with a focus on the Goddess, but not exclusively. There will be others that follow different paths - and their celebrations and histories will have variations.

Yule begins on the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This year Solstice begins at 1:35pm est on December 21, 2005. Celebrations in many homes will begin at sunset on Yule.

Yule - Winter Solstice

Typically beginning on December 20 or 21st, Yule spans twelve days ending Yule Night on December 31st. Using the Julian calendar it would occur on December 25th. Yule is the first of the solar festivals and the first Sabbat of the new year. This is also one, if not the holiest of the 8 Sabbats, depending on your Path.

The most accepted of the Celtic tales of Yule begins when the Holly King battles the Oak King in a fight to the death. The Holly King can be associated with many aspects of God. The year that has passed, or Father Time, death, or if you look at the king through nature, he can be associated with the old stallion who must fight for his position as the head of the heard. In the battle, the Holly King loses to the Oak King. Who represents the new year, the young stallion claiming his position over the heard. He is also called the Divine Child. The newborn aspect of God.

As a Pagan celebrant, it is a time for each of us to put to rest the old lessons, battles and issues that need to be released. It is a time to let go of those things that hold you back and move on into the new year with a fresh view and perspective.

Click here for the rest.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Adorable puppy, multiethnic children wage war on Christmas

By now, just about everyone must know that there is apparently War on Christmas this year. I was  feeling fairly confident that I, myself, was not engaged in such a war. Because frankly, I'm just not that brave. I'm more the type to hold really still and avoid eye contact with Christmas, in the hopes of getting through the colorful, boisterous season of sensory overload in one piece. I'm certainly far too intimidated to actually "wage war" on it. Or so I thought. Imagine my shock when I discovered that just using the words "Happy Holidays" makes on part of the war on Christmas. As it turns out, Demetrius and I have been waging war on Christmas for a couple years now, and we've even enlisted the deviously cute assistance of a collection of multi-ethnic cartoon children, and an adorable, large-headed cartoon puppy. Oh, the humanity! Anyway, I suppose I should confess the extent of our guilt...

First of all, we've got this web site for kids called Letter Lane--we created it a few years ago when our oldest was deeply into the alphabet. On the front page of the site, you can see the first hint of the anti-Christmas assault in the words "H is for Holidays". But it gets worse. Go ahead, click on the word Holidays, and you are greeted with this bold, full color proclamation that Christmas is only one of the December holidays.

And if you do visit this page, you know, just to find out how bad it is so that you can report back to the jolly Fox News elf and help him save Christmas, you'll see that we don't just do the usual nod to Chanukah and Kwanzaa, but even Solstice for cryin' out loud. I know, you're getting "the vapors" about now, aren't you? But alas, I'm not through confessing, yet. Over at Puplinks: All About Dogs, if you click on Winter and Holiday Pet Safety, you are greeted with this abomination.

Happy Howlidays? That's not even a word! So I totally couldn't blame you all if you felt compelled to report the part we have played in the War on Christmas. You should especially report to people who have dogs (or are considering getting one) and to people who have young children. You know, all in the name of saving Christmas. ;-)

Activists protesting immoral '06 budget arrested

I just found out about this today, in a diary at Street Prophets which asked "Why doesn't anybody care about this?" Anybody, meaning the mainstream media--and people quickly came to the conclusion that "budgets aren't sexy". Still, if there is a "war on Christmas", I think the ongoing assault on the poor is it.

Singing "Caring for our neighbors, we shall not be moved," the peaceful demonstrators were frisked, photographed and booked on trespassing charges by Capitol Police officers. The misdemeanor carries a $250 fine or 90 days in jail.

The demonstration was the most direct action by churches who have made the budget their highest domestic priority, and it reflected the continuing tussle between liberals and conservatives over what constitutes "moral values."

Congress is rushing to finish a compromise budget that includes $50 billion in spending cuts approved by the House and $35 billion passed by the Senate. Protesters said that those cuts will primarily hurt the poor. The House has also approved a bill to cut taxes by $95 billion. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, said that it was immoral to cut taxes for the wealthy as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom the Bible says came to "bring good news to the poor."

"There is a Christmas scandal in this nation ... but it has nothing to do with shopping malls saying 'Happy holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas,'" Wallis said. "The Christmas scandal is the immoral budget coming out of this Congress.

Hoping to match conservatives' use of religious rhetoric, Wallis and others said that the budget would take the song of the Virgin Mary when she was told of Jesus' impending birth - "He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty" - and turn it on its head. "This is not just bad public policy," said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. "This is morally disgraceful."

Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Celebrating the Virgin's Birthday

I posted about the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Monday, focusing on how the Blessed Mother in general and Guadalupe in particular has become more significant and meaningful to me. But I have never attended a celebration of that feast day, so I was interested to read this diary at Booman Tribune by DucttapeFatwa...
Celebrating the Virgin's Birthday

For those who do not know the story, in 1532 a man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin of the Chimecheca tribe saw a vision of a lady on the spot where the Spanish invaders had destroyed the temple of Tonantzin the corn goddess. She gave him miraculous roses, imprinted her image on his cloak (the Tilma), and instructed him to tell the local Bishop that a cathedral should be built on this spot.

This particular December, I was privileged to attend such a celebration. Of course there was food, traditional Mexican platos like chile rellenos, cochinitas piviles, mole, and the Caribbean contingent made sure that no one lacked for black beans and rice, or those little knots of pork loin that only Cubans can make. But there were also wots from Ethiopia, huge dishes of rice with raisins, almonds and spices, lamb in cream, all from Kashmir, ground nut stew and corn cakes from Africa, chicken with pistaschios and saffron and cous cous from Yemen, pink potato salad and latkes from Russia, crunchy pakuras and spicy curries from India and Nepal, challah and tabouleh and falafel from Palestine and Israel, spaghetti and meatballs from Italy, little meat pies from Scotland and Jamaica (and lively discussion over which are best), dumplings and duckling from China, spring rolls and beef pho from Southeast Asia, and this year, crawfish etoufee, pralines and red beans and rice cooked with andouille, thanks to the Katrina survivors. Every item with a horizontal surface in the house and several surrounding it had to be brought in to accomodate the abundance of comestibles.

Click here for the rest.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Vengeance is Mine--you can't play with it any more!

I didn't have anything of my own to say about the impending execution of Tookie Williams, for pretty much the same reason Pastor Dan at Street Prophets says he refrained from comment, there were others who could say it better, and more succinctly. Well, that, and the fact that I didn't feel well enough versed in the particulars of the case to comment intelligently. Now that the execution has taken place, the discussion of the death penalty in general continues. Over at Blog for America, Demetrius commented:

Understand that at the time the typical response to someone putting out someone's eye would be to take *both* their eyes, the eyes of everyone in their family, and the eyes of anyone who looked at you funny on the way there. "An eye for an eye" means *just* *ONE* *eye*! This was a radical concept.

In my EFM classes, I have been learning about the book of Genesis, the different sources it is believed to have come from (at least four distinct sources), and what it tells us about how the Hebrew people understood their relationship with God. One thing I remember from my reading is that the concept of revenge really did get out of control exponentially so that, yes, saying ONLY one eye for an eye was clearly an effort to put the brakes on.

On the page about revenge at, I found this:
Revenge is a hotly contested ethical issue in philosophy. Some feel it is necessary to maintain a just society. In some societies, it is believed that the damage inflicted should be greater than the original one, as a punitive measure. The Old Testament philosophy of "an eye for an eye" (cf. Exodus 21:24) tried to limit the allowed damage to avoid a series of violent acts that spiral out of control. Detractors argue revenge is more like the logical fallacy "two wrongs make a right." Some Christians interpret Paul's "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19, King James Version) to mean that only God has the moral right to exact revenge.

Of the psychological, moral, and cultural foundation for revenge, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written: "The primitive sense of the just - remarkably constant from several ancient cultures to modern institutions ... - starts from the notion that a human life ... is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another's act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counterinvasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment. It differs from the original act only in the sequence of time and in the fact that it is response rather than original act - a fact frequently obscured if there is a long sequence of acts and counteracts" ("Equity and Mercy," in Sex and Social Justice [Oxford University Press, 1999], pp. 157-58).

The interpretation of Paul's words makes sense given what I read about the history of revenge. According to the story that has unfolded up to that point (and continues today) humans have proven incapable of handling revenge in a responsible manner, without misusing it. When our kids are having a loud, headache-inducing squabble, and it turns out that some *thing* is at the center of the problem, it is not uncommon for Demetrius to say, "Okay, bring it here. Put it on my desk. You can have it back when I think you can handle it responsibly."

It's not that big a stretch, for me, anyway, to see vengeance as something that humans have proven incapable of administering responsibly, justly, and without excess.

A Prayer for the New Year

A Prayer for the New Year (2006)
By Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos,
Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and

Our Father in heaven
Lord, sometimes we forget that you created us, and that you watch over us from above, and from within our hearts. Is there any doubt as to why we sometimes go astray?

Hallowed be your name.
Holiness is something foreign to our everyday reality, Lord. Perhaps this started when we began to abuse the earth you gave as a gift to sustain us, and in which we once readily beheld your wonder. How do we recover this sense of awe?

Your kingdom come,
Your presence, Lord, is the very meaning of peace: in our hearts, in our communities, in our world. Your scriptures continually remind us of this blessing. Now that you have engaged us through faith, do we have a responsibility to help establish peace?

Your will be done
Lord, your will is to see justice done among your people. Today, we hear that torture is committed against those we perceive as our enemies. How can we reconcile what you expect with what we do?

On earth as in heaven.
Iraq would be a good place to start, Lord. So many conflicts in the world are evidence of our denial of your will. At least we can stop the war in Iraq. Do we have the will to do so?

Give us today our daily bread.
You know, Lord, that the survivors of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf Coast, the mudslides in Central America, and the earthquake in Pakistan, could certainly use such basics as food, shelter, and medicine. How far must we go to help restore them to well being?

Forgive us our sins
Often we read, Lord, of your love for the poor and the oppressed. Just as often, thankfulness for our own comforts leads to our neglect of those in need. How can we help them most?

As we forgive those who sin against us.
This is a tough one, Lord. We all have shortcomings, we all have contradictions. We all need mercy, and yet we don’t always remember that it is up to us to also show mercy. What is it that we need to do to see that self-righteousness only breeds arrogance toward others?

Save us from the time of trial,
We are always afraid of how we might be judged by you, Lord, especially when we say one thing and do another. Genocide is taking place in Sudan; we know it, and we haven’t done much yet to stop it. Could this be the test of this generation?

And deliver us from evil.
Terrorism is a terrible thing, Lord, for the violent death it seeks to bring, often in your name. Certainly human dignity requires only respect, love and understanding for one another. How do we stop this insanity, and our inclination toward vengeance?

Lord, to say “Amen” means we agree with what has been prayed. Our eyes are now focused on you and your desires. They are a challenge, a mighty challenge. Can we, individually and in unity, begin to tackle them in the coming year?

On "turning the other cheek", etc.

For anyone who hasn't seen this explanation before. This version in particular is from a Unitarian Universalist minister's sermon, Jesus speaks to UUs:

He says, "to those who smite you on the one cheek offer also the other; And those that take away your cloak forbid not to take your coat also." But contained within these humble sentences is something far more radical than goodness or patience – a recognition that we love our enemies not only by making them our friends, but also by helping them understand when they do wrong.

Where do I see this in the sermon on the plain? When Jesus says that famous phrase, "turn the other cheek," he is not being humble, as is the usual interpretation. In fact, according to recent scholarship, he is being defiant. In the ancient world, those who smote others were usually superiors, who would give the inferior a right-handed slap across the left cheek. The left hand was considered dirty and profane, and not to be used for much beyond toileting. Therefore, to turn the other cheek meant to invite one's oppressor to profane himself by having to smite us with his left hand. It sounds small to us, but it was a radical, eye-opening act – an act of love for our enemy designed to wake him up to his own sin.

Similarly, in the ancient world, one's clothing was a basic unit of security. A cloak doubled as a blanket, as shelter from fierce cold and heat. To take a man's cloak was to rob him of his dignity, perhaps even his life. It was indecent. Thus, the act of inviting one's oppressor to take not only our cloak, but also the coat beneath it, invites him to see the profanity of his act, and therefore gives him the opportunity to change. (These insights are, to the best of my memory, from L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today and conversations with Darryl Schmidt, the Jesus Seminar scholar who was my “New Testament” professor in seminary.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I apologize that this is not one of my more "polished" entries, but I'm feeling under the weather at the moment. Yet I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of the story of the Our Lady's appearance to Juan Diego in 1531, and I could not let the day pass without comment.

I readily admit that one thing I miss about the Catholic church--having been received into the Episcopal church a year and a half ago--is Mary. The Blessed Mother has been an important figure to me ever since my youth, although I am not sure I can easily articulate why. As I grew to adulthood, I became more troubled at the notion that a "virgin mother" should a role model for me in any sense, but a couple years ago I discovered the book Meditations on Mary and read Kathleen Norris' thoughts on the matter...

I used to feel the dissonance whenever I heard Mary described as both Virgin and Mother; she seemed to set an impossible standard for any woman. But this was narrow-minded on my part. What Mary does is to show me how I indeed can be both virgin and mother. Virgin to the extent that I remain "one-in-myself," able to come to things with newness of heart; mother to the extent that I forget myself in the nurture and service of others, embracing the ripeness of maturity that this requires. This Mary is a gender-bender; she could do the same for any man.

I owe my reconciliation of the Virgin and the Mother to the Black Madonna. Late one night at the abbey I sat before her statue, not consciously praying, but simply tired. Suddenly words welled up from deep inside me, words I did not intend to say - I want to know motherhood. Stunned by my boldness and the impossibility of the request - I have known since adolescence that motherhood was beyond my capacities - I began to weep. This remains my only experience of prayer as defined by St. Anthony of the Desert; he called a true prayer one you don't understand. When, a few months later, through an improbable set of circumstances, I found myslef caring for a seventeen-month-old niece with a bad case of the chicken pox, I was amazed to realize that my prayer was being answered in a most concrete, exhausting and rewarding way. I also sensed that the prayer would continue to be answered in many other ways throughout my life.

And it was this same chapter by Kathleen Norris that first introduced me to the Virgin of Guadalupe in a way I found compelling, meaningful, even powerful...
Mary's love and pity for her children seems to be what people treasure most about her, and what helps her to serve as a bridge between cultures. One great example of this took place in 1531, when the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian peasant named Juan Diego on the mountain of Tepayac, in Mexico, leaving behind a cloak, a tilma, imprinted with her image. The image has been immortalized as Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Mexican-American theologian Virgilio Elizondo argues, in The Future is Mestizo, that the significance of this image today is that Mary appeared as a "mestiza," or person of mixed race, a symbol of the union of the indigenous Aztec and Spanish invader. What was, and still is, the scandal of miscegenation was given a holy face and name.

To be honest, Our Lady of Guadalupe was never one of my favorite images of Mary. There are probably a couple of reasons for this--we are most comfortable with the images we were exposed to in childhood, and we are drawn to images of the divine that look like us or people we know. I'm sure there's something Jungian about that. But I like Guadalupe a lot more now that I think of her with new layers of meaning.
Richard Rodriguez concludes his essay in the anthology by describing his attempts to convey the prophetic power of Guadalupe to a skeptical feminist who can see in this image of a barefoot and pregnant Mary nothing but imperialist oppression and the subjugation of women. You don't understand, Rodriguez says, that the joke is on the living. What joke? the woman responds, and Rodriguez explains:

"The joke is that Spain arrived with missionary zeal at the shores of contemplation. But Spain had no idea of the absorbent strength of Indian spirituality. By the waters of baptism, the active European was entirely absorbed within the contemplation of the Indian. The faith that Europe imposed in the sixteenth century was, by virtue of the Guadalupe, embraced by the Indian. Catholicism has become an Indian religion. By the twenty-first century, the locus of the Catholic church, by virtue of numbers, will be Latin America, by which time Catholicism itself will have assumed the aspect of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Brown skin."

Last year when I was reading about the Virgin of Guadalupe I started collecting the some of the different artists' renditions that have been done, from the traditional to the scandalous. You can see them here. And there are more details about the story of Juan Diego and its meaning here.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The trouble with Christmas kitsch

I had the page The 12 days of Kitschmas on the Ship of Fools web site bookmarked as a fun link to share. I mean just look at this stuff. But today for the first time, I clicked on the Christ vs. Kitsch link on that page, and discovered it's a pretty powerful read. For anyone who is offended by "strong language", I should forewarn you that it has some of that...

THE PROBLEM WITH KITSCH is not readily apparent because (by definition) the treatment of what is considered unwholesome takes place off stage. Think of those Nazi propaganda films of beautiful, healthy children skiing down the Bavarian Alps. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Of course there is. For this is a world that has been purified, where everything nasty or troubling has been eliminated. The logical conclusion of kitsch, argues Kundera, is the ghetto and the concentration camp – the means by which totalitarian regimes dispose of their shit, variously construed.

This is tied in with Christmas later in the article by describing how shocking and unsettling--how "profane" the story of the incarnation really is...
Even many who felt the attraction of the Christian story believed this was going too far. Convoluted ways were sought to mitigate the offence. Christ was not really human or Christ was not really divine. Others created a firewall between the sacred and the profane within the person of Jesus himself. For the second century Gnostic, Valentinius, Jesus "ate and drank but did not defecate".

I haven't read church history for some time, but I am aware that the debates about whether Jesus was fully human and/or fully divine went on for centuries, but it never occurred to me that people speculated about whether or not Jesus went to the bathroom. (Although I have mused to myself from time to time, wondering how easy or difficult the Christ child was to potty train.)In any event, I recommend the whole article, but will include the concluding paragraphs here as food for thought.
The problem isn't that Christmas has become too materialistic – but rather that it isn't materialistic enough. Kitsch Christmas is another way of uncoupling the divine from the material, thus spiritualizing God into incapacity. I am not being a killjoy attacking the kitsch version of Christmas. Three years ago, my wife gave birth to a baby boy. The labour ward was no place to be coy about the human body and all its functions. The talcum-powdered unreality of kitsch childbirth cannot compare with the exhaustion, pain and joy of the real thing.

But perhaps the most important corruption of Christmas kitsch is how it shapes our understanding of peace. This is the season where the word "peace" is ubiquitous. Written out in fancy calligraphy everywhere, "peace and good will to all" is the subscript of the season. It's the peace of the sleeping child, peace as in "peace and quiet", peace as a certain sort of mood. But this is not what they need in Bethlehem today. They need peace as in people not killing each other.

This sort of peace requires a stubborn engagement with the brute facts of oppression and violence – which is the very reality that the kitsch peace of Christmas wants to take us on holiday away from. How ironic: we don't want the shittiness of the world pushed at us during this season of peace. This, then, is the debilitating consequence of kitsch. Kitsch peace is the unspoken desire that war takes place out of sight and mind – it's the absolute denial of shit. Political leaders who are preparing for yet more fighting will be happy to oblige. Christmas has become a cultural danger to us all, not just a danger to orthodox Christianity.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Just-Us Sunday III

We really do need a good sequel name for this one. How about Justice Sunday Reloaded? Or, since it's the third one, we can work with the "3D" theme--suggest that it will burst from the screen into your living room, grab you, lift you up, and fill you with the spirit. Alleluia! Not as catchy as any of those, but dead-on accurate, is what jc calls it in her recent post, Just-Us Sunday III

Liberty for everyone, as long as you are white (or on a select list of token brown guys) and male (but not one of them homo-sex-yoo-als), LIBERTY CAN BE YOURS! The bible says so. Right there in the Old Testament.

Quoting the Old Testament, and especially Leviticus, is quite the favorite of the Theocracy crowd, probably because Jesus inconveniently "forgot" to tell people to hate homosexuals, and all that love and tolerance that shows up in the New Testament just isn't much help when you're trying to control a country.

In her post, jc also points out that if you are going to go with Leviticus as your source for laws, some of our more popular Americana ends up being forbidden.

By the way, you know who else I heard speaking (approvingly) of the wall of separation between church and state? Former President Jimmy Carter, on last night's Daily Show . Hmm--does that mean the evangelical, Nobel Prize winning Sunday school teacher hates religion? I doubt it, but I also know we are dealing with people who will demonize anyone to get what they want. It's not hard to imagine the religious right accepting Jesus if he walked among them, that ACLU-loving, sandal-wearing hippie who said things like :

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

jc ends her post with this musing...

P.S. Doing graphics, I work with fonts and can usually identify a lot of them. I've noticed in their logos that politicians often use fonts with names that "sound" patriotic, and I guess, in some cases, they must pick a font because of its name, rather than what it looks like. In that context, I wonder if we should be worried that the Theocracy crowd chose a font that bears a striking resemblance to "Futura Extra Black?"

Funny, and also true. And it reminds me of how important it will be for religious progressives to shine our light where there is darkness.

Happy St. Nicholas Day

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. We knew a family that celebrated this day rather than Christmas. As I mentioned in a recent post at Street Prophets, there is a part of me that really likes that idea, as Christmas gets a little overwhelming sometimes.

Read Aunt Arctic's diary about St. Nicholas day here.

I've taken this information from The Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler who is an historian who has had a life long interest in the history of the festival. (He has just published Santa Claus: A Biography.)

St Nicholas was a popular saint in medieval times. He was purported to have been born in 4th century Patara (now Turkey) and was active in the early church, and it is told that he attended the Council of Nicea in 325. Legends about the saint centre on his generosity as a gift giver and because he performed miracles.

Like many legends, these vary with the teller and the time. One that Bowler offers is about the three daughters of a poor man who were destined to be prostitutes, so SN gave them each a bag of gold to be used as dowries. (These have often been referred to as three balls of gold and as SN was the patron saint of money-lenders and bankers this became the symbol of pawn brokers.)

After his death he became patron saint of Greece and Russia, choirboys, Vikings, perfumers, barrel-makers, thieves, unmarried women, students, children and sailors, which covers a lot of ground. His tomb is in Bari, Italy.

By 1100, St Nicolas had become associated with the Christmas season: his feast day (6 December) marked the beginning of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which in some churches lasts until December 28th. By the 16th century, children in Germany were hanging stockings for him to leave gifts, although he didn't start bringing gifts to English children until the 19th century.

Saint Nicholas was eventually replaced by the Christ Child as symbol of the giving season, as well as more secular givers, and the gift giving day was moved to December 25th or in some cases New Year's Day. He is considered to be the inspiration for the American Santa Claus.

In 1969, St Nicholas was one of those Roman Catholic saints who was demoted from "universal" to "optional" and apparently some of his relics were moved to New York in 1972.

This is just a short introduction, of course. Does anyone else have St Nicolas stories to share?.

Howard Dean on the Stephanie Miller show

A full transcript can be found here. The following is an excerpt:

Howard: Yeah, we need to balance budgets. We need to have health insurance for all our people. Thirty-six countries have it and balance their budgets. We're losing jobs in America because businesses can't pay their health care bill. And we're going to have honesty in government. People always giggle when you say that because they believe that politicians are corrupt. The truth is, most of them aren't. Unfortunately the Republicans have brought a culture of corruption to a lot of the state governments and the federal government. I want ethics legislation, and I want Democrats to have to live under that too, and if they cross the line then they ought to be out of office too.

Stephanie: Well, you know, Governor, that is absolutely true. I mean if ever there was an operative phrase for 2006 it has to be "Throw the bums out." Because at this point you can't say it's just one guy. When you say "culture of corruption" people go "Oh, talking point!" but it's not. When in your memory was there--you've got Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, you've had the White House procurement officer arrested. You've had the Vice President's Chief of Staff indicted--it's just unparalleled in my opinion.

Howard: All that is bad--very, very bad--the worst thing is that Karl Rove is still in the White House with security clearance, having given away the name of a CIA agent. Now that's not a reflection on Karl Rove, that's a reflection on George Bush. George Bush thinks it's okay to have a security clearance for somebody who leaks CIA agents' names in a time of war? This is a thoroughly corrupt, incompetent administration. And I'll tell you the last time we had one, but it wasn't quite as corrupt, and that's Watergate, and Nixon had to resign. They didn't have the House and the Senate mired in corruption at that time. Now you've got the Republican leader of the Senate under investigation for insider stock trading, the Republican leader of the House is already indicted, you've got congressmen now resigning for having taken bribes--you've got more to come, too. This is not the last one--you're going to see more Republican congressmen go down under this one. This is awful, it's awful for the country, and we *will* do better.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A call to prayer for captured peacemakers

I just received the following news from our local interfaith peace group.

A Call to Prayer for Peacemakers

Four members of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Baghdad were kidnapped recently and are held hostage in Iraq. CPT is an ecumenical peacemaking agency associated with the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers. Its members are deeply committed to non-violent peacemaking and are willing to put their lives on the line to make it happen.

The four hostages are: Tom Fox, 54, Clearbrook, Virginia, Norman Kember, 74, London, James Loney, 41, Toronto, Canada, Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a Canadian. More information on them are found at the Christian Peacemaker Teams website:

Tom, Norman, James and Harmeet are in Iraq for the sole purpose of bearing witness to the love of God as it is expressed through the sacrificial presence of the Prince of Peace. Because of their lifelong commitment to Jesus and the holy calling of peacemaking, these our brothers live to bear witness to the fact that violence is a sin against God. Indeed, they have consistently carried that message to the Coalition forces, first by condemning the political decisions to make war and later by expressing horror at the degrading violence the war begets. Long before the media reports, they were the first to protest the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib Prison. Their message of peace was also expressed to those whose attacks on Coalition forces escalated the violence and whose suicide bombs took the lives of thousands of innocent human beings.

In consultation with CPT, and in view of the delicate nature of the situation, we have refrained from making a statement about this situation and discouraged other American religious and peace groups from doing the same. Alternatively, we have leaned on international groups, particularly >Arab Muslim leaders to express their support for CPT.

On Wednesday, Jerusalem Post reported that leaders of Palestinian political factions gathered in Hebron to issue a statement in Arabic about their experiences of seeing the CPT working in Palestine, and their personal knowledge of the three kidnapped members and their important work on behalf of the Palestinian people. Read their statement is here:

he World Council of Churches also made the following statement:

Today we call on our churches to take time in their Sunday worship services to offer special prayers for the peacemakers. We invite other religious communities meeting for worship this weekend to similarly offer prayers, and encourage friends wherever possible to remember our brothers in interfaith vigils.

Contact NCC News: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2252,; or
Leslie Tune, 202-544-2350,