Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Question: Can Catholics celebrate Halloween?

Kristy, who writes at Granola Vogue, asked a question (and to emphasize just how BEHIND I am, I had joked with her that I hopefully wouldn’t be writing about it around Halloween. . . ) about everybody’s favorite candy-giving, creepy movie watching, totally spiritual holiday: “I read your latest post on Christmas [sorry to interrupt again, but this kinda shows just how old this question was] so I was wondering where does the Catholic Church stand on celebrating Halloween? Where does it fit it, if at all into their beliefs?”

A fine question, Kristy.  Let’s look at the history of Halloween first, compare its historical celebrations to today’s, and see what Catholics say about it.

Halloween got its start as a religious feast.  It is the day before All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest feasts of the year, when the Catholic Church celebrates all of the saints in Heaven, especially those who have not been declared a saint by the Church (remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint; she declares that that person is a saint).  The word “Halloween” is adapted from its proper, liturgical title: “All Hallows’ Eve.”  “Hallows” is an older English word that we still use in some contexts (for example, in the “Our Father” we say in the first line “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”).  The word “hallow” means “holy,” and thus “All Hallows’ Eve” celebrates the eve (evening) before the feast of All Saints (the holy ones of God).  The words combine to make Halloween.

The feast of All Saints’ Day wasn’t established in the Church calenders until 615, when Pope Boniface IV established the Feast of All Martyrs to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon in Rome into the Church of “St. Mary of the Martyrs” (“Santa Maria dei Martiri”).  There had been earlier celebrations commemorating the Church’s martyrs, but this was the first time it was made official by the Pope (it was celebrated on May 13).  This feast was later turned into the Feast of All Saints by Pope Gregory IV in 840 and moved to November 1 in 844 by that same pontiff.  Several commentators note that the establishment of both the feast in honor of All Martyrs and the feast in honor of All Saints marked an attempt to turn a sometimes pagan Europe towards God, baptizing the day in honor of the saints, rather than towards pagan gods.  To highlight the importance of the feast, Pope Sixtus IV made the feast a holy day of obligation in 1484, meaning all Catholics were to attend Mass that day.  Pope Sixtus also established a vigil feast for this major feast day (what is now called Halloween) as well as an octave to extend the feast’s celebration.  However, the octave and the liturgies attached to the eve of All Saints were removed before the mid-1950s.

(Above: Raphael’s “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” aka, What they do in Heaven)

All Souls’ Day (November 2) has a much shorter history.  Since the beginning of the Church (and before, as noted in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), the faithful have offered prayers for the dead, so that they might be freed from the stain of sin and brought into paradise.  The feast of All Souls’ Day grew out of this practice, first in local monasteries as a way to pray for those monks and loved ones who had died (particularly from the 6th through 11th Centuries), then in the major cities (Liege by 1008, Milan by 1125), and eventually to the whole world.  Pope Sylvester II recommended the feast for the Universal Church (but did not require the feast be added to the universal Church calender) in the 11th century, and as is often the case in matters liturgical, once the feast gained the support of the Pope, it spread throughout Europe.  It wasn’t until very recently (1915, under Pope Benedict XV), however, that the feast became an official one on the universal Church calendar (and a special exemption from the two-Masses-per-day rule was given to priests).

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass freeing souls from purgatory

(Above: What happens during a Requiem Mass)

So that’s a quick summary of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and the creation of Halloween as a liturgical celebration.  Halloween is, as you can see, at its roots a Catholic celebration: remembering the saints who dwell with God in Heaven and the departed who left this world in need of our prayers.  In that way, it is very Catholic to celebrate Halloween.

But what about Halloween today?  Where did we get all the holiday stuff, the ghosts, the monsters, the jack-o-lanterns, etc.?  Is the Church ok with all of that?

First, the party stuff.

The connection with All Souls’ Day reveals right away the emphasis on ghosts and things that go bump in the night.  Ghosts are often connected with souls from Purgatory who cannot find rest.  A church in Rome contains relics of visitors from Purgatory (these and other ghost-like visitations were the subject of a recent book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory), emphasizing the need for prayers for the faithfully departed, especially those who have no one to pray for them.  The accounts attached to those relics are real ghost stories.  It is little wonder, then, that ghosts and other denizens of the night are associated with the two feast days of the Church which focus on the afterlife, not on the lives of heroic men and women but on what happens to us when we die.

Many of the familiar Halloween features stem from pagan European practices.  The most commonly noted is a festival in Celtic areas (Ireland, England, Scotland, etc.) prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries dedicated to Samhain, their god of death.  This feast marked the Celtic New Year.  Rituals included offering burnt sacrifices in huge bonfires and wearing animal skins as costumes.  The hope was that these would keep the god at bay, as well as protect the people of the villages from the evil spirits released into the world by Samhain.  From these Celtic areas, we also find familiar rituals which may be the ancestors of our Halloween celebrations.  In Ireland people joined a parade led by a druidic priest in an animal mask who went from house to house begging for food in the name of another god, Muck Olla (those who would give food were blessed, while those who didn’t were cursed).  The Irish also started carving turnips for the feast.  Scottish peasants wandered the fields at night with torches to keep evil spirits at bay.  When Roman legions conquered the Celtic regions, their Latin customs of autumnal harvest rituals mixed with the Celtic festival.  Christian missionaries attempted to baptize the festivities (as they did with festivals near Christmastime), resulting in a strong emphasis in Celtic Christianity on death and physical mortification.

Similar rituals arose in Frankish and Germanic Christian kingdoms.  French Catholics in particular had a festival known as “Dance Macabre” in honor of departed souls, often dressing in costumes to represent people throughout their life.  French monks in the monasteries in Cluny developed devotions in honor of the souls in Purgatory, offering special Masses for the dead (the Masses of the Clunaic monks inspired Pope Sylvester II, who himself was French, to spread the celebration of Mass for the Dead).  These rites and rituals became popular among the lay faithful, and soon became part of Christian culture.

Our modern understanding of Halloween came about when all of these features mixed together in America, the world’s cultural melting pot.  French, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants lived near each other, intermarried, and formed a new culture.  The Irish tradition of carving turnips and asking for food became our tradition of carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating.  The French devotion to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and their costume-filled “Dance Macabre” mixed with Celtic fears of ghosts and goblins.  Other cultures mixed and mingled, and eventually our modern holiday of Halloween formed.

This leaves the biggest question of them all: can a Catholic celebrate Halloween?  I would say yes, provided they avoid the more disturbing facets that have slithered into the holiday’s celebration in recent decades.  The focus of the holiday turned from remembering the dead, praying for them, and invoking the saints, to a disturbing obsession with evil.  This evil appears in various forms, and its not always as obvious as the evil in a horror movie.  Many children (and those who wish they were children) dress in costumes for trick-or-treating.  Those costumes speak volumes.  A cute costume might draws “awwws” and “how sweet.”  Gory costumes draw the opposite reaction.  Girls dressed in overtly sexual costumes draw a very disturbing reaction.  Costumes of children dressed as witches and zombies seem more appropriate.  Mix this with attempts by modern witches and druids to claim Halloween as their holy day and the water gets murky.  The Christian origins of the holiday fade into obscurity.

Christians are divided into four groups regarding Halloween.  One group just doesn’t celebrate it, not out of any dislike but simply because they don’t want to.  Another wants nothing to do with it, some because of its connection to pre-Christian Europe, some because of how disturbing some of the celebrations of Halloween have become.  A third group, on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the holiday like anyone else, without any concern over the controversies mentioned above.  The fourth group, which I lean towards, seeks to embrace what is properly Christian, reclaiming, so to speak, Halloween.  Rather than wandering the streets dressed as monsters, children trick-or-treat dressed as saints or religious figures.  Others dress in some heroic costume (knights, soldiers, policemen, etc).  Other costumes work too (I was a shark when I was very young!) and there is room for some monstrosities, gentle ghosts and lovable witches.  However, it is not my place to say in definite terms “this is wrong” or “the parent who allows this or that costume is a bad, sinful parent.”  These, of course, are mere suggestions.

There is a place for terror during Halloween, for it reminds us of the end of our lives.  Halloween brings to our attention a terrifying reality: we will all die.  Even those who emphasize the spiritual aspect of the holiday know that this reality is at the root of the celebration.  The saints, though heroic and in Heaven, had to die to reach their triumphant state.  The souls in Purgatory likewise had to die to reach their state of purification.  Those in Hell suffer the worst fate, for in their death they have separated themselves from God.  It is of this reality that Halloween seeks to remind us.  Horror has its place in reminding us.  Perhaps it is the easiest way to shock us into drawing back to God.

No matter the costume or the celebration, this main focus of Halloween should be maintained.  We should recall those who have gone before us, either celebrating in the triumph of the saints or pray for those who still journey through Purgatory.  Some suggested practices help refocus our attention during the holiday.  Reflections on the saints form a delightful part of the celebration. Readings from the lives of the saints or their writings might help to remind Christians young and old of the great patrimony of our spiritual siblings in Heaven.  In this way, a new generation of Christians can reorient themselves towards Christ through His saints.

For Further Reading (note: most of these websites are articles discussing the history of Halloween in more detail):

http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/hallween.htm

http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost12aa.html#1a

http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Oct2001/Family.asp

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/months/10_2.cfm

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6210

http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/October-2012/Culture–Time-for-Catholics-to-Embrace-Halloween.aspx

http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/784/Truth_about_Halloween.html

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/all-hallows-eve-or-halloween

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Saints’ Day

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315b.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Souls’ Day

Van Den Aardweg, Gerard J. M.  Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory.  Rockville, IL: TAN Books, 2009.

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Reflection: On Pope Benedict’s Resignation (part 2)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

 

After much reflection, and after much reading (and much putting off), I have compiled some thoughts on the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy.  The man has been a giant, in his own small way: quiet in demeanor, yet able to move a crowd of thousands to cheers (I’ve seen it happen myself).  He is the first pope of my adult life, having become Supreme Pontiff in 2005, my freshman year of college.  I remember when I heard of his election: I was working in the college’s kitchen, as students ran out of the building and through the trees to the large TV in the school’s gym.  I watched them run, and I couldn’t leave, but someone shouted to me as they left, “There’s white smoke.”  The cardinals had elected a new pope!

Thus was my first interaction with Benedict XVI.

During the ensuing years, I came to love this man.  I helped at a summer conference about him at Christendom College, shook his hand TWICE at two separate Wednesday audiences, and have looked forward eagerly for his encyclicals and books, especially his three volumes       about Jesus.

Then came the morning of February 11, 2013.  Pope Benedict, I heard, was soon stepping down as pope.

I must say, I did not belief the reports that the pope was resigning.  I had heard rumors for years, both with Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and had not put much credence in them.  Few popes in the Church’s history have resigned (as I’ll discuss below), the most recent one, as many news stations have reported, being Gregory XII in 1415 (his resignation helped end one of the greatest scandals in Western Christendom: The Great Western Schism).  Benedict’s resignation, though, struck me as odd and unbelievable at first.  As the day stretched on, and I took advantage of my breaks from teaching to read the news develop over internet, including the Holy Father’s words on resigning, I began to come to a startling conclusion.  Well, for me it was startling.

The Conclusion: I wasn’t surprised.

I wasn’t.  I read the pope’s words, and then read some comments, and I, like several other Catholic writers (several of which are linked to below in the For Further Reading), recalled the quiet teaching moment in 2009 when Pope Benedict put his pallium, the symbol of his authority as an archbishop, on the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V (Peter Celestine), another pope who resigned from the papal throne.  What was he saying?  One finds the answer in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (p. 29-30):

[Question, Seewald]: The great majority of these [sex abuse] cases took place decades ago.  Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular.  Have you thought of resigning?

[Response, Benedict]: When the danger is great one must not run away.  For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign.  Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation.  That is my view.  One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on.  But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.

[Note the circumstances Benedict rejects as times to resign: “When the danger is great,” that is, during a great crisis where fortitude is needed, when the Church needs a warrior pope, one to face the forces of Hell and shout, “I am Peter!  I am the Rock, and you shall not prevail against us!”]

[Question]: Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?

[Response]: Yes.  If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.

Benedict clearly supported papal resignation, under certain circumstances.  His requirements for resignation mentioned here are very similar to the resignation announcement he gave earlier this month.  In his announcement to the cardinals (and to the world), he said, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

In resigning, he is merely following his own teaching, his own philosophy, his own papalogy.

What of these earlier resigning popes?  News reports, secular and Catholic, noted the historical importance of this event because the last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII (mentioned above).  What is the history of papal resignations?  Is there a papal resignation similar to that of Benedict?

First let’s look at a list of papal resignations:

The earliest papal resignation was that of Pope St. Pontian, who resigned on September 28, 235.  He stepped down after being sentenced to the Roman mines on Sardinia, which was the not-so-fun Roman way of killing someone slowly, working them to death mining salt in the hot, Mediterranean sun.  Pontian did die in exile on the island (reconciling the Church’s first antipope, St. Hippolytus, while he was out there).  Those were dangerous times (Pontian’s successor, Pope St. Anterus, died a martyr a mere forty days after his election as pope), and Pontian’s decision to resign to ensure the presence of a visible head for the Church remains a highly prudent decision.

Following Pontian, several popes, according to various sources, resigned, including Pope Liberius (died 366, the first pope NOT declared a saint by the Church), Pope Benedict V (who, in 964, abdicated under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), and Pope John XVIII (died in 1009, though not before resigning in July of that year).

Perhaps the most confusing case of papal resignation, however, is that of Pope Benedict IX.  He’s the Grover Cleveland of popes; he reigned as pope THREE separate times.  Benedict was elected in October of 1032; he was twenty years old, one of, if not the, youngest popes.  Struggle ensued due to his hedonistic lifestyle.  The people of Rome kicked him out because of his debauchery, put their own antipope (who styled himself Sylvester III) on the papal throne, but were thwarted by Benedict when he returned to remove his rival.  He resigned in 1045, bribed to do so by another priest, who became Pope Gregory VI after Benedict resigned.  Soon after this, Benedict came to regret his resignation, so he attempted to put himself up as pope against Pope Gregory (making himself an antipope).  The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III got involved and had both Benedict IX and Sylvester III (who still claimed to be pope) deposed; he also convinced Pope Gregory to resign, leaving the papal throne open for Pope Clement II.  Benedict was determined to keep the papacy, and following Clement’s death in October 1047, he took back the papal throne.  He remained there for less than a year; troops sent by the Holy Roman Emperor drove him out of Rome for good, allowing for the election of Pope Damasus II.

Confused?  Depressed?  For the latter, don’t worry, because Benedict was supposed to have repented of his sins later, living out the rest of his life in a monastery.  As far as confusion is concerned, this is only slightly less confusing than the Great Western Schism, which we will discuss later.

The first official, canonical papal resignation was Pope St. Celestine V, mentioned earlier.  The Catholic cardinals (all ten of them) had elected Celestine (his baptismal name was Peter) as pope in March of 1294, a compromise move, as these same cardinals had dragged out the papal conclave for over two years.

Imagine that, for a moment.  Two years without a pope.  Many Catholics worry how the Church will function during the few weeks in which we will struggle without a pope; imagine two years as a flock without a shepherd.  It is no wonder that Pope Celestine accepted the papal office, the last hope against schism.

Celestine was eighty years old when he became pope.  His pontiff was short, a mere ten months, as the political intrigues that corrupted the Church wore at him.  He asked his advisors if he could resign.  They were torn; the last pope to resign had been Benedict IX, and there was a mess following that abdication.  The majority of these canon lawyers said, yes, of course the pope can resign.  Celestine made his decision, and on December 13, 1294, he resigned.  His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him placed in prison, an assurance that Peter Celestine would not go back on his abdication; the last thing the Church needed was a former pope acting as an antipope again.

Much chaos came in the ensuing centuries following Pope St. Celestine’s short reign.  One sees several scandals erupt through the Church: The Avignon Papacy (started by Boniface’s successor Clement V) and the Great Western Schism (wherein THREE men claimed to be pope, though only one was the real pope).

The Great Western Schism provided the circumstances for the most recent papal resignation prior to that of Benedict XVI, namely that of Gregory XII.  Following the return of the papacy to Rome, the reigning pontiff (Urban VI) fell out of favor with the cardinals who elected him (that tends to happen when the pope publicly yells at cardinals; Urban VI was not known for his people skills).  Most of the cardinals regrouped and held another election in 1378, selecting a man they claimed to be the new pope.  Never before in Church history had the cardinals set up an antipope against the pope they had elected earlier.  This antipope set up his residence in Avignon, and soon Europe erupted into confused convulsions.  Europe’s princes sided with either the true pope or the Avignon antipope.  Matters worsened when a group of cardinals met in Pisa in 1409, hoping that, by meeting in council, they would elect someone to be pope.  They did elect someone.  Thus the three men claiming to be pope.  Matters worsened until finally the Hungarian King Sigismund (later Holy Roman Emperor) called the bishops of the Church to meet at a council in Constance (in modern-day Germany).  He invited all of the papal claimants to the council.  The true pope was Gregory XII.  He saw the disaster threatening the Church, and he acted: He offered to resign the papacy, leaving the See of Peter vacant, placing in the council’s hands the task of electing a pope to unite Christendom.  He requested that the other two papal claimants, the two antipopes, do the same, that is, resign and abdicate their positions.  After some intrigue, all three claimants relinquished their authority (or what authority they thought they had, in the case of the antipopes), and the Council of Constance elected Martin V as pope.  The Council was only able to do this, in this unique situation, because Pope Gregory had declared they could.  The Council did not have authority over the reigning pontiff.  Only after the pope resigned could the successor be elected.

Thus Pope Gregory XII resigned to preserve the unity of the Church in a time of crisis.

How does all of this compare to Pope Benedict’s resignation?  He resigned in a time of peace for the Church.  Oh sure, the Church faces dangers and enemies in every age, and this age is no exception.  But in the case of Pope Benedict, there was not a great crisis facing the Church.  There isn’t a violent persecution where pope after pope is led to their deaths, or a scandal where Christendom itself is rent asunder.  Nor did Benedict XVI resign for selfish reasons like Benedict IX.  He resigned because he could not continue.  He resigned because, as he said in the announcement that shocked the world this past February 11, he did not have the strength for the “adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”  In this regard, he most closely resembles Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned because he too did not have the strength to deal with the rigors of the papacy.

As I write this, the Church has entered a period of emptiness.  It is an emptiness mixed with excitement for me, as I tear up to say goodbye to a most worthy successor of St. Peter.  I will miss him.  I already miss him.  But at the same time I look forward to the conclave, the meeting of cardinals, and the puffs of white smoke, and the ringing of church bells, to signal the election of a new pope, a new captain in the barque of St. Peter.

Of course, the Pope Emeritus remains in my prayers, as do the cardinals who have already begun to descend on Rome to vote for the next pope.  Holy Spirit, guide them, keep them safe, and do not let the Evil One tempt them away from God’s Will.

 

For Further Reading:

Kirsch, Johann Peter.  “Pope St. Pontian.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 12.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12229b.htm. – There’s not a whole lot we know about this pope, but this article sums it up nicely. 

Mann, Horace.  “Pope Benedict IX.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 2.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02429a.htm. – Makes sense out of the confusion caused by Pope Benedict IX’s reign. 

Shahan, Thomas.  “Council of Constance.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04288a.htm. – Details what led up to the Council and what occurred during it. 

Mirus, Jeff.  “Benedict: Far from the First Pope to Resign.”  Catholic Culturehttp://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=1055. – Dr. Jeffery Mirus, a Church Historian (and co-founder of ChristendomCollege) takes a look at the historical record of popes who resigned. 

The Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club, http://www.popebenedictxvifanclub.com/index.html – Has pretty much EVERYTHING by or about Pope Benedict on the web.  Have at it!

Prudlo, Donald S. “Pope Benedict’s Resignation in Historical Context.”  Crisis Magazinehttp://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/pope-benedicts-resignation-in-historical-context – A reflection on Benedict’s resignation not only in light of his historical predecessors, but also in light of the saints-to-be discussed at the canonization consistory where he announced he would retire. 

Carroll, Warren H.  A History of Christendom.  Vol. 3.  The Glory of Christendom.  Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993. – Chapters 8-12 give, in great detail, the historical context of the papacies of Pope St. Celestine V, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Western Schism, and the Council of Constance. 

Moynihan, Robert.  “The Scandal of Secularism: Pope Benedict XVI & Pope Celestine V” Institute of Catholic Culture (August 29, 2010).  http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/the-scandal-of-secularism-pope-benedict-xvi-pope-celestine-v/ – It was in this lecture that I first heard of the connection between Pope Benedict and Pope Celestine V. 

 

Looking towards the future. . . . .

Smith, Bartholomew.  “From Sede Vacante to Habemus Papam: How the Empty Chair of Peter Gets Filled.”  Theology on Tap: Arlington Diocese (Januardy 16, 2012).  http://arlingtondiocese.org/podcasts/2012-01tot_podcast/tot_2012-01-16.mp3 – Fascinating talk about what happens in a papal conclave from the former secretary of the senior cardinal at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. 

 

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Question: The Dating of Christmas and Easter

The Date of Christmas

“Adoration of the Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst

This second part was, originally, to follow closely behind its predecessor, but circumstances beyond my control, and my tendency to over-research, delayed this post’s creation for far too long.  My original hope had been to have it online by the end of the Christmas season.  Lent is here, so I guess it will have to serve your Lenten meditations.

Oh well.

In the first of these two posts, we dealt with Marcy’s question: “Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”  I hoped to show that such pagan celebrations arise in Christian traditions because the Church, when preaching the Faith to these pagan peoples, incorporated what was useful into the life of the Church, creating an authentic culture.  In this second post, we will deal with her question involving the dating of Christmas: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that? Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?”

The question assumes one commonly held belief concerning Christmas: the birth of Christ actually occurred during the spring.  Several pieces of evidence are put forward to support this.  The key one is that Luke’s Gospel reports that shepherds who were “in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Luke 2: 8).  The obvious implication is that the area around Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth, would be too cold in late December for shepherds to be watching their sheep at night.  Christ must have been born during a warmer time (maybe Spring or Autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, the harvest feast for the Jews), and thus December 25 is wrong.  The date, the theory continues, was chosen, like the Christmas tree and Yule logs, to incorporate pagan celebrations into the newly formed Christian Faith, a way of making new converts feel more at home.  That is the reason why the Church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December, away from its real date.

Often repeated, such evidence is, and with each repetition it sounds that much more convincing.  However, we should not be so quick to throw out the traditional date of Christmas.  There is evidence in favor of it, as well as against it.

First, let’s address the whole shepherd issue.  Does the presence of shepherds and sheep remove the possibility of a December Christmas?  Taylor Marshall, a professor and chancellor at FisherMoreCollege [http://www.fishermore.edu/] in Texas, notes that “Bethlehem is situated at the latitude of 31.7,” a latitude with “rather comfortable” outside temperature in December (Marshall, 52).  A quick glance at the weather nowadays in Bethlehem (January 2013) has a nighttime temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, not balmy, but bearable.  At the same time, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “Authorities moreover differ as to whether shepherds could or would keep flocks exposed during the nights of the rainy season” (Martindale, “Christmas”).  The issue of shepherding in the winter thus remains open.  We cannot reject the December dating of Christmas because of a shepherd-based argument.

The second argument against the dating of Christmas in December is the claim that Christians simply put Christmas in December to coincide with one of several pagan festivals: the festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice (the festival ran through middle/late December), or the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti, a celebration of the Unconquered Sun’s Birth (held on December 25).  The Christian Church, in an attempt to bring in more pagan converts, acquired these older pagan feasts, and thus made Christ’s birthday coincide with these festivals.

Is there evidence for such an acquisition?

Again, Dr. Taylor Marshall goes through a truly scholastic (in the original sense of the term) discussion of these points.  Regarding the winter solstice, he notes that the dates recorded for the celebrations (sometime between December 17 and December 22) do not coincide with the date for Christmas.  Now, this counterargument seems dismissive, but, then again, the connection between the winter solstice and Christmas is one of temporal approximation; there doesn’t seem to be any theological or spiritual connection between the coming of winter and the arrival of Christ.  If anything, springtime would be a better symbol, rather than the winter solstice, for the arrival of Christ, the life for the world.

The connection between Christmas and the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti is likewise tenuous.  Though there was a pre-Christian tradition of sun worship in Ancient Rome, the festival in honor of the Natalis Solis Invicti do not predate the celebration of Christmas in December.  The earliest references to the Natalis Solis Invicti occur during the reign of Emperor Aurelian.  Aurelian established the celebration in AD 274 with the intention of unifying various pagan rituals, possibly in reaction to increased Christian activity in the mid-3rd century.  Contemporary Christians did not seek to connect the date of Christmas to the festival.  Only in the 12th century does one find scholars connecting pagan festivals and Christmas, often with the explicit purpose of dissuading people from celebrating Christ’s birth.  On the contrary, many Church Fathers refer to the celebration of Christmas on December 25, whereas March 25 was given the date not only of the Annunciation, and therefore Christ’s Incarnation, but also the date of His crucifixion.

The argument over whether Christ was born in the spring versus the winter does not seem a part of the early Christian Church.  A more pressing debate in the early Church, it seems, was not if Christmas belonged in the spring, but rather if Christmas was on December 25 or January 6 (the Western half of the Church solved this problem in typical joyous fashion: 12 days of Christmas, from December 25 through January 6).

As far as Easter is concerned, much debate raged over when it should be celebrated.  What time of year was never an issue; all four Gospels are very clear in putting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in the context of the Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  This answers the first part of Marcy’s question: Easter is so intrinsically linked with the feast of Passover (which, in turn, is based on the vernal equinox and the cycle of full moons) that to deviate from that context might diminish the importance of the feast.  All Christians, since the beginning, saw in the feast of Passover a precursor of Christ’s Passover from death into life through His resurrection.  On all of that, Christians agree.

The controversy, rather, was over what day of the week to celebrate this greatest of feasts.

Two camps emerged in the first centuries following the end of Roman persecution (because, of course, when one is worried for his or her life, one doesn’t quibble over when to celebrate Church feasts).  One camp said that Christians should celebrate Easter three days after the Jewish celebration of Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which this celebration fell.  The other major camp held that the Church should celebrate Easter near the time of Passover, but on a Sunday, in commemoration of how Christ rose on the “first day of the week.”  This controversy went through several phases during the first millennium of Christendom.  Popes and Church councils would decree, eventually, that Easter was to be always celebrated on Sunday, though not without some heavy debates (the last big debate over this issue arose at the Synod of Whitby, England, in 663; Wilfrid, a British cleric who sided with the Sunday date for Easter, by that time the official decision from Rome, persuaded the contingent of Irish monks to celebrate Easter on Sunday by invoking the Irish fidelity to the Holy See).

So there you go.  I hope that cleared up everything, or if it didn’t, just let me know.

Happy Lent!

For Further Reading:

Marshall, Taylor.  The Eternal City: Rome & and Origins of Catholic Christianity.  Dallas, TX: St. John Press, 2012. – Defends outright the traditional dating of Christmas.

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 3.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013. Available at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm.

McGowan, Andrew.  “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Biblical Archaeology Review, n. d.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/Christmas.asp.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – See especially Part II, Chapter 5 (“Sacred Time”) which has a fascinating look at the history of setting the dates for Easter and Christmas.

Thurston, Herbert.  “Easter Controversy.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 5.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm.

Tighe, William J.  “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v.

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Question: Christmas trees and Yule Logs

Yes, yes, Christmas Day has passed us, but we are still in the Christmas Season.  Christmas, like Easter, is SO important a feast that it stretches over weeks, giving its name to an entire liturgical season.  With Christmas we celebrate the manifestation of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, to the world.  For nine months, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity dwelt in the womb of Mary, His mother; on Christmas Day, He was born.  With Easter we celebrate the redemption wrought by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; He died so that our sins might be forgiven.  These are important feasts, so it makes sense that we focus our attention on these mysteries of our salvation.

In light of all of this, Marcy asks: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that?  Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?  Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”

Thanks to Marcy’s excellent questions, we will divide this discussion into two major topics: The dating of Christmas (compared to the dating of Easter) and pagan influences on Christmas celebrations.  We will look at the latter topic in this first post, and will take up the question of dating Easter and Christmas in the next post.

Many Christian religious traditions (not just those involving Christmas) developed from ancient pagan rituals.  It is part of being Catholic.  The word “catholic” means universal, and from the beginning of the Church, from its earliest days of evangelization, Christian missionaries have sought to incorporate the rituals of those converted into the rituals of the liturgy and Christian living.  In a sense, the Church “baptized” these pagan rites to aid the spiritual life of the former pagans, who would more likely than not reject the alien practices of the larger Christian cities (Rome, Constantinople, etc).  Such an embracing of pagan practices made it easier for recent converts to adapt to their new Faith.  It always helps to show catechumens not only the truths of the Faith, but also how their previous beliefs had already prepared them to accept Truth.

One sees this incorporation of pagan practices throughout the missionary activity of the Church, especially following the conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Pope Gregory the Great encouraged St. Augustine of Canterbury, when evangelizing the British, to convert pagan temples into churches and pagan rituals into Christian festivals to which they might be connected.  Similar stories abound involving the Christianization of Ireland, Germany, and France, the preaching of the Faith in Asia and Africa, and the conversion of the Native Americans in both North and South America.  In all of these cases, the earlier pagan rituals were adapted to the Christian beliefs so that the culture of the people might remain intact.  The Church, as guardian of culture, always seeks to find the best in true culture, rejecting what is evil and elevating what is good.

So it was with Christmas.  Many of the traditions associated with Christmas stem from earlier, pre-Christian practices which the Church saw as beneficial for the faithful.  The Christmas tree is perhaps the clearest example of this.  Stories connect the Christmas tree with the story of St. Boniface, the 8th century missionary to Germany, who chopped down an oak tree worshipped in a pagan village (well, he started to chop it down, but a powerful wind finishes the job for him).  When Boniface didn’t die (the pagan priests said the gods would strike him dead if he chopped down the tree) the people converted.  The story concludes with Boniface pointing to an evergreen fir sprout growing near the felled tree.  No more human sacrifices, Boniface said (human sacrifices were prevalent in pre-Christian Germany), and pointed to the evergreen as a counter to the fallen tree.  The evergreen thus became a symbol for Christ, for just as the evergreen remained green through the dead of winter, so also Christ conquered death and sin.  Now, whether Boniface actually taught this or not does not matter; what does matter is that subsequent Christian generations have adopted the evergreen as a symbol of eternal life in Christ.  The actual practice of decorating the tree didn’t come about until the 15th and 16th centuries in Germany; the History Channel’s website names Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, as the one who first put lights on the trees.  Until the late 19th century, Christmas trees were seen as a specifically German particularism.  Thanks to the mixing of immigrants in America, the popularity of the Christmas tree has spread.

The Yule log, on the other hand, does not have a missionary saint as its legendary origin; it seems that St. Boniface even banned the early ancestors of Yule logs.  It seems that the ceremony stemmed from people lighting their fireplaces during the winter; it was only in the 16th century that Englishmen started holding elaborate ceremonies where a log was burned publicly.  Even then, the Yule remained, for the most part, a household tradition, less connected with religion and more connected with winter.

So why the pagan traditions in Christmas?  Because there was nothing overtly anti-Christian about them.  Having a tree to symbolize eternal life in your house far outshined the ritualistic human sacrifices of the Germanic pagans.  If it didn’t hurt the Faith of the former pagans, then the Church saw such traditions as helpful, and either allowed them to exist or utilized them, leading to cultural flourishing.

For Further Reading:

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia. – Provides some information concerning the background of some Christmas traditions.

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Question: How was Joseph and Mary’s Marriage valid?

Just in time for Advent, here’s a post about the Holy Family.

Nicole asks: “How was Joseph and Mary’s marriage valid since it was virginal?”

A lot of people have dealt with this exact question.  In fact, it may be the most dealt with question I’ve answered on this blog so far.  I could fill up the rest of this post with links to other Catholic blogs and websites, video and audio sites, all answering the question, all saying the same thing.

Simple answer: yes.  Of course.  Validity in sacraments deals with whether or not the sacrament really happened.  A valid marriage basically means that, yes, the couple is really married.  Such was the case with Mary and Joseph.

The more elaborate answer (because, let’s face it, who really wants a simple answer) is one which can be found in the writings of that giant of the faith, St. Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas deals with this question directly (Part III, Question 29, article 2, or III, Q. 29, art. 2) in a relatively short discussion.  His “I answer that,” wherein he normally gives the full answer to the question posed, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection.  Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God. For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Mat. 1:20): “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”: on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.”

But as to the second perfection which is attained by the marriage act, if this be referred to carnal intercourse, by which children are begotten; thus this marriage was not consummated. Wherefore Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: “Be not surprised that Scripture calls Mary a wife. The fact of her marriage is declared, not to insinuate the loss of virginity, but to witness to the reality of the union.”  Nevertheless, this marriage had the second perfection, as to upbringing of the child. Thus Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “All the nuptial blessings are fulfilled in the marriage of Christ’s parents, offspring, faith and sacrament. The offspring we know to have been the Lord Jesus; faith, for there was no adultery: sacrament, since there was no divorce. Carnal intercourse alone there was none.”

Make sense?  There are two parts to marriage: the giving of oneself to the other by way of the marital vows and the raising of children.  The exchange of vows makes the marriage valid, not the sexual union of the spouses.  In that sense, Aquinas says, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was valid.  But even though there was no sexual union between them (in the immediately prior question, Aquinas presents a defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary), the Holy Couple still performed the second part of marriage.  They raised Jesus, albeit not Joseph’s biological son, but still his legal son, as Jesus was born to Joseph’s legal wife (this last part is important, for it made Jesus a legal “Son of David” and therefore heir to the Davidic throne).  Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a real marriage.  In fact, their marriage was better than many marriages not only during our own time, but even at the time of Jesus.  As St. Augustine notes (Aquinas quotes him at the end), the only thing missing from their marriage was sexual intercourse, and since intercourse is not necessary for a real marriage, one can comfortably say that Joseph and Mary had a valid marriage.

Besides, we should remember that God is not bound by the rules concerning the sacraments.  He can work outside them, if He so chooses.  He can bring souls to Heaven outside of Baptism, for example.  Likewise, we can be sure that the marriage into which God was born was a true, valid one, and example to all who seek a pure, holy union.

Reflecting on the marriage of Joseph and Mary leads to much fruit.  I recommend it.  How Joseph must have felt, married to sinless Mary and foster father to the Son of God!  What father could brag of such a burden?  Likewise, when Christ speaks of true marriage, in His mind He must have turned to the holy example of Mary and Joseph.

We too should turn to their example.

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Question: Who were the Gnostics

Marcy asks a pretty simple question: “Who were the Gnostics”?

 

The answer is another question: “When”?  At what point in the history of Gnosticism should we focus?  It is a cult that has morphed throughout the centuries, predating Christianity, then sliding into the Church via distortions of the Church’s teaching, dying down only to reappear in various forms throughout the Christian era.

 

Gnosticism falls into that disturbing category of religious movements that one can safely call diabolical.  Like the pagan worship of Moloch and Ba’al, or the widespread slaughters done by the Aztecs in Mexico, there is an essential anti-life aspect to Gnosticism.  This follows naturally from the Gnostic understanding of the material world.  The main trait of Gnosticism is a degrading, if not abhorrent, view of the material world.  Matter is evil, according to a Gnostic.  In its earliest forms, the material world was a mistake created by a Supreme Being (alternately called Sophia [Wisdom] or Logos [Word]).  Sophia/Logos, however, is not THE ultimate Supreme Being.  That is “God,” for lack of a better word, though one should understand that the Gnostic understanding of “God” is not the same as the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim understanding of God.  Sophia/Logos is a lesser, non-God, divine spiritual being.

 

And, according to the Gnostic myth of creation, at some point before all material creation, Sophia/Logos made an error.

 

Usually this error is described as some estranged attempt to understand the Gnostic “God,” who does not seem to like sharing his inner divine life with other divinities.  This prideful error led to “the hypostatization of her (Sophia/Logos) desire in the form of a semi-divine and essentially ignorant creature known as the Demiurge” (Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [July 2005], available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic).  This “begotten” Demiurge then decided, out of some strange ignorance (strange because the Demiurge is sort of divine, like its source) to claim he is a god (in fact, he claims he is the one true God) and create the material world.  He creates the universe in direct violation of the Supreme Being and Sophia/Logos.  Thus the material world is evil.

 

As mentioned above, Gnosticism predates Christianity, though one can see how it easily slipped into the Faith and corrupted it from within.  Gnostics grabbed onto the earliest Christian beliefs, most essentially that the Divine Son became incarnate as a man.  The Gnostics twisted this belief, stretching it to fit into their understanding that the material world is evil, created by an evil god, so to speak.  The “God” in the Hebrew’s Scriptures, the Gnostic taught, was the Demiurge, and thus the craziness of the Old Testament.  This figure Jesus, though, was Logos, who didn’t actually become incarnate (to do so would be to defile himself, since the material world is evil) but rather seemed to have become incarnate (this belief later evolved into the heresy of Docetism, which held that Christ’s human nature was a mirage; this was vehemently condemned at the First Council of Nicea in 325).  The Gnostics skirted around the issue that Logos wasn’t God, but was rather a creature below God.  Instead, they focused on the belief that Jesus came to save our spiritual souls from the evil creator “god,” who wished to imprison us in evil physical bodies.  The death of Jesus, then, was a show, a sort of divine play, more an example of how we should devote ourselves to escaping the prisons of our bodies.  Jesus, the Gnostics taught, was our example of how to be saved from our flesh.

 

The Gnostics also held that their leaders received special, private revelations that supplanted the teaching of the Apostles.  This hidden knowledge gave the movement its name; Gnosticism comes from gnosis, which means “knowledge.”  The existing Gnostic writings often emphasize secret knowledge, often telling stories about Christ teaching secretly to specific disciples.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Gospel of Judas, wherein Jesus informs Judas that it is part of the secret revelation that Judas would betray Jesus (who appears and disappears from among the disciples like a ghost, without any sort of physical body; this is different than Christ after the Resurrection for even Jesus’ glorified body wasn’t like a ghost’s, as Luke and John emphasize [Luke 24; John 20 – 21]).  Judas, in turn, would become great when Christ returns at the end of time, judging the other disciples.  It is a classic Gnostic story: the elect receive the secret gnosis, and as a result are blessed.  Mix in the idea that Jesus wasn’t material (hence his ability to vanish) and you have a perfectly Gnostic text.

 

The Gnostics seemed pious, and many followed their beliefs, especially as the first Christian century drew to its close.  The horrors of the persecution against Christians, first in Jerusalem under the Jewish leaders there and then in Rome under Emperor Nero, played into this belief, and many Christians were confused.  Worse still, Gnostics began twisting the teachings of Christ as taught by the disciples for their own purposes, claiming to have received secret revelations from God or from the Logos, explaining how one should live and shed his or her body.  All this, and they seemed so holy, praying for others, avoiding sins, especially sins of the flesh, and urging everyone to embrace eternal life.  Then as now, holiness (be it genuine or fictitious) attracts; a disaster brewed in the Early Church.

 

Enter St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, who had walked with Jesus, spoke with Him, and even laid his head upon the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (John 13:23).  Writing in the twilight of the first century A.D., John knew well the attempts to demonize the Creator of the universe while denying the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God.  Nowhere is this clearer than the Gospel attributed to this apostle.  The Prologue to the Gospel rings of anti-Gnosticism:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.  The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1: 1-14, RSV translation)

 

The whole passage roars against the Gnostics; its wording awkward sounding in English because it stands as testimony against specific Gnostic teachings.  The Word (Logos) is God, and He became “flesh,” meaning He became incarnated, became material.  This was directly against the Gnostic/Docetist belief that Jesus’ body wasn’t material.  Not only that, it affirms the controversial teaching repeated by Christ throughout John’s account: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30; 17: 11, 22).  Likewise, the incident at the crucifixion where the Roman soldier pierces Christ’s side with a lance disproves Gnostic beliefs concerning Jesus’ body.  John is the witness (“He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe” [John 19:35]) and he includes the event as if to say “See, he was real.”

 

John repeats this teaching in two of his three letters included in the New Testament.  In his first letter, John warns his spiritual children of the dangers of Gnosticism:

Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.  But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.  I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.  Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.  Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.  And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.  I write this to you about those who would deceive you (1 John 2: 18–26).

 

In his second letter, John warns against not only listening to heretics, but even associating with them:

 

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.  Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.  Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son.  If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work (2 John 7–11).

 

Doctrine is serious stuff, both for John and for the Church, even through today.  St. Irenaeus (one of the EarlyChurch’s foremost anti-Gnostics) tells how John encountered a notorious Gnostic in a public bathhouse in Ephesus, and “rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus [the heretic], the enemy of the truth, is within.’”  St. John’s disciple St. Polycarp had a similar encounter with the Gnostic Marcion, who saw the saint on the street.  One can imagine Polycarp giving Marcion the cold shoulder, perhaps rushing past him.  “Do you know me?” Marcion asked Polycarp.  Polycarp turned to the heretic, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I do know you; you are the first born of Satan.”

 

That’s what you call a Patristic BURN!

 

The Gnostics survived the Apostolic Age (which ended with the death of St. John around AD 100) by going underground.  They reappear throughout Church History.  Montanists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries followed Montanus, who claimed to receive direct guidance from the Holy Spirit, contradicting the Church’s official teaching.  Herein is the descendent of Gnosticism’s special secret knowledge.  St. Augustine (died 430) was a member of, and then later wrote against, the Manicheans, which were next generation Gnostics.  The Manicheans emphasized a dualism (two gods, one good and one evil) to explain morality: sins were when the bad god controlled you.  St. Dominic (d. 1221) dealt with the Cathars (also called the Albigensians), again, another incarnation of the Gnostic beliefs.  In these later incarnations of the heresy, especially the Albigensians, sexual immoralities were encouraged and ritualistic suicide became their greatest form of worship.  The body became either a dreaded evil, something that must be abandoned at all cost, or nothing of consequence, meaning one could do whatever he or she wanted with it.

 

Of course, the worst thing one could do was trap another soul in a body.  Hence the Albigensian sexual immoralities: anything was permissible, so long as it did not result in babies.

 

Sound familiar?

 

Strains of Gnosticism appear today.  Besides the Free Love anti-culture (which endorses neither true love nor true freedom) that dominates society, one sees a rash of suicides as people young and old seek to escape this life.  An anti-life mentality plagues society, and people at both ends of their lifespan face death at the hands of others who see their life as worthless; having babies is seen by some as foolish and irresponsible.  Several Protestant groups throughout the last 500 years (such as the Quakers and Pentecostals) claim continual revelation from God, a secret gnosis like that of the early Gnostics.  Joseph Smith, in 1820s, claimed a secret revelation from God, which would later form the Book of Mormon, and would lead to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  In Catholic circles, one sees this same influence today in some branches of the charismatic movement (we’ll deal with the charismatic movement in a later blog post).

 

What then are we to make of the Gnostics?  They are an ancient enemy of the Faith, one of the oldest, and Gnosticism still remains alive today.  Few would find the original Gnostic beliefs appealing today, yet this heresy’s lasting impact on the Church shows that its legacy is far from over, and that the believing Christian should expect to face shades of Gnosticism in his or her life.  One must be prepared.

 

For further reading:

 

Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (July 2005), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic – Provides a very thorough summary of the basic beliefs of the pre-Christian Gnostics, as well as the incorporation of the Gnostic beliefs into the Christian Gnostic heresy.

 

John Arendzen, “Gnosticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm. – Though written in the first decade of the 20th century, this article provides a full account of Christian Gnosticism in the EarlyChurch, including a discussion of anti-Gnostic writers, such as St. Irenaeus.

 

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm – One of the most complete attacks against Gnosticism in the Early Church.  Includes much of what we know about the thought of the Gnostics.

 

 

 

 

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Question: Are similar sacred symbolic signs coincidence or not?

Marcy asks: “What do you make of the similarity of various elements of ritual and their roles in religion?  For instance, many disparate and far-ranging belief systems share the use of fire and/or smoke to purify a space or item.  Similarly, water is often used.  And candles. And music/drumming.  Do you think this is coincidental, invented, or is there some inherent property of these items that compels people to incorporate them into rituals?”

It should not surprise us that similar rituals and symbols span across man’s worship of the divine.  Both monotheistic and polytheistic religions share similar rituals.  From whence do these rituals stem (and, by the way, when was the last time you saw “whence” in a blog post?!)?  Does this in some way cheapen or degrade highly ritualistic religions, such as Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, Hasidic Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, since they all seem, at one glance, the same, with just some variety in their particulars (for some people, not me of course, important points like the number of deities and whether the soul is immortal count more as particulars to a religion rather than fundamental tenets of the faith)?  Or does it point to something higher, something that transcends our rituals?

First, let’s look at worship.

Worship is one of those acts of man that is defined by the Natural Law.  Natural Law is basically the basic, ethical beliefs man can know through reason alone, without the aid of divine Revelation.  Natural Law is not dependent on one set historical time or one physical location.  Most of Natural Law deals with our interaction with other people.  Respecting life falls under the Natural Law.  Monogamy falls under it as well, as does respecting the property of others.  In an intriguing twist of focus, the worship of God likewise falls under the auspices of Natural Law.  Now this worship of God has, of course, manifested itself in different aspects in different places and times.  It is natural for man to worship God, and thus we do it.  We must thank the Creator, and in doing so worship Him.  “It is right and just,” to quote the Roman Missal.  It is fitting to worship God, as He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, all we can sense and all that is beyond our senses.  Is it any wonder that the ultimate form of Christian worship, the ritual instituted by Christ before His death on the Cross, is the Eucharist?  The very word Eucharist, after all, means “thanksgiving.”  Here is worship with thanksgiving as its very heart.

So we all should worship God.  Man has done just that for his entire existence.

Now, let us look at some rituals we mere mortals have used throughout the centuries to address God, to try to thank Him for His greatness.  Marcy notes several universally used items: fire and smoke, water, candles, and music.  I will reflect on these in turn, offering some historical examination, but also dive into some personal thoughts as to why these items are used.

1) Fire and Smoke:

How can one reach Heaven?  If in the sky the gods do dwell, and we mere morals must lie here below, then some other means must be chosen to bear up our burdens to the divine throne.

And so began the wide-spread ritual of burning offerings to the gods, or God, if you are a pious monotheist.

Fire held a strange power for early man.  Here was something which was pleasant and warm when you felt cold, but if you touched it the fire burned, and thus you were hurt.  Man had to control fire, but even when he thought he was in control, fire could still rage beyond stopping.  Fire destroys what it touches, burning and curling its victims until what was once one thing can no longer be recognized as what it once was.  Fire has strength, a wild and uncontrollable aspect to it, which man early on faced with great care.  Surely this fire must have come from God, for only the divine could make something so seemingly invincible.

We don’t know exactly when man first began to use fire, rather than fear it, but we do know it happened in the Old Stone Age, thousands of years before the earliest farming.  It may have been the second great invention of mankind, second only to the making of tools.  Once man controlled fire, he could move out of warmer climates close to the equator and head north; he could cook food, realizing that sweet smells emanated from cooking meat and vegetables.

Then man realized that fire, the sure sign of God’s power, could be a way to give back to God.  Here was the earliest sign of sacrifice.  Sacrifice requires the destruction of a victim, a victim which can replace the one offering the sacrifice.  Fire does the job nicely, destroying the victim beyond recognition.  It also purges away impurities, and can thus symbolize a purifying of our hearts (it is worth noting here that Catholic tradition uses the symbol of purging fire to represent the purgation process of Purgatory).  At the same time, smoke emanates from the fire, rising towards Heaven.  Here all cultures and religions agree: the smoke represents the prayers/sacrifices rising to the divine being, who then delights in the pleasing smell.  Fire thus has a practical purpose (destroying the sacrificial victim) and a symbolic one (raising the prayers to Heaven).

2) Water:

Water is life.  Is it any wonder why Thales, that notorious pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that all matter was, in some way, made up of water?  Early man did not know that life began in the oceans; he did know, however, that if he did not find water, he and his family would die.  Water vivifies, purifies, and beautifies everything.  Dead lands erupt with green after the spring rains.  What was once a desert sprouts into a lush field.  Water brings new life; water brings resurrection.

It should not surprise us, then, that man incorporated water into religious rituals.  If one is to worship God, one must be (at least symbolically) purified.  Thus came washing rituals.  The priests in many religions underwent some sort of washing ritual to symbolize their cleansing themselves of their imperfections and sins, to better prepare themselves to worship God.  This is clearly illustrated in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.  These two books lay out in details the ritual life for the Jewish people, including rituals for washing and purifying garments, items, and people after some sort of defilement.  One sees references to this throughout the New Testament as well (look at the scene during the Last Supper in John 13:1–20, wherein Jesus cleans the Apostles’ feet).  In Christian liturgy, water plays an essential role in the sacrament of Baptism (it is the matter, or physical reality, needed for the sacrament to be valid) but also in the Eucharist, where the priest washes his fingers during the preparation of the altar and also after the distribution of the Eucharist.  As always, water cleans and purifies, but in Baptism in particular, water is not merely a symbol; as in all sacraments, it does what it symbolizes.  With the waters of Baptism, Original Sin is washed away, leaving a soul perfect, purified and ready for God’s grace.

3) Candles:

Candles serve a practical purpose in religious ceremonies: they provide light.  Candles harness the darkness-shattering aspect of fire, but limit it to one small spot, specifically a darkened room in some sacred temple.  Again, usefulness led to symbolism, and the candles originally used for light came to represent some higher reality.  For example, lamps and candles hung in the temple in Jerusalem, illuminating and representing God’s light in darkness.

I don’t normally do this, but I’ll risk my credibility: The Wikipedia article “Ceremonial Use of Lights” does a better job discussing the various traditions and rituals associated with candles in various world religions than I could ever do.

4) Music: 

All religions, as far as I know, incorporate some sort of music into their rituals.  Music moves the heart and mind to focus on higher things, to draw into the divine life with God.  Music proper to worship turns the listener’s attention to God, rather than to the performer.  This is why applause is so out of place during a religious ceremony.  Literally, in such circumstances, the focus turns from divine matters to human achievements.  Worship should unite us with each other through the common worship of God; when we focus on the achievements of others rather than on God, we ignore the entire purpose of worship.  That is also why some music is inappropriate for worship.

Across the various world religions, polytheistic or monotheistic, ancient or recent, one style of liturgical music reappears throughout the centuries: chant.  Buddhists chant, as do Jews and Christians (at least Catholics and Orthodox Christians do; there is very little chant in Protestant Christian communities).  There is something about the melody of chant that speaks to the basic life in man.  It is as if the whole person bursts out in vocalizations to God.  Chanters worship God with their voices in a way that other liturgical music, even choral pieces (and even polyphonic pieces, no matter their breath-taking beauty), cannot match.  Chant is simple and expressive, and in it one feels the whole of human existence, its pains, hopes, and triumphs.

To conclude this post, let us return to our main focus.  Though all religions might share similar symbols, these do not point to some irreligious theory, that all religions are the same.  Even universal religious symbols, such as fire, can take on drastically different roles depending on the religion.  Fire meant something very different to the worshipers of Ba’al, in the days of Elijah the prophet and in the ancient city-state of Carthage, than it does to us Christians (read up on the worship of Ba’al, if you want to see the footprints of Satan in history).  Such differences point to the fundamental truths, the essential realities, which underline all systems of belief.  If only a couple, related systems of belief used these symbols, one could easily dismiss the similarities as sociological coincidences.  The universality of symbols such as water, fire, and music transcend time, and thus the quest to worship and honor the divine, a drive so essential to our human existence, manifests itself in striking similar ways.  Over the centuries, man has tried to worship God.  Some rituals work, and so rituals echo each other throughout time.  In reflecting on this, one should not think that religion is false.  On the contrary, one must confess, with almost the entire population of the planet, that there is a God who is deserving of our honor and worship.

So Marcy, no, it is not coincidence that most religions use the same liturgical symbols.  Mankind turns to reoccurring themes in worship, and so uses the same tools.  We spiritually cleanse ourselves with water; we send our offerings to Heaven with the smoke of incense; we draw our hearts to God through authentic liturgical music.  We are material creatures, and thus we must use the material world to try and reach God in worship and in our daily lives.  Most importantly, of course, is if we approach our daily lives correctly, we can worship unceasingly, for our daily life becomes a prayer, a sort of sacrament through which God works wonders.  We are meant to worship God, and for generations to come, people will use similar symbols not because of some human construction, but because the items themselves are the symbols.  In symbols, therefore, we see the unseen hand of God working and drawing us to Him, where we might worship and sing his praises forever.

For further reading:

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – Though dealing mainly with Catholic liturgical practices, then-Cardinal Ratzinger does address in broad strokes some aspects of man’s universal desire to worship God (there is a whole chapter devoted to Music and Liturgy which ties in with the points made above concerning proper liturgical music).

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Question: Were there women popes?

Marcy asks, “Were there women popes?”  

There is a dark legend in Church history, stemming from the 13th century, of a great scandal that occurred in Rome between the pontificates of Pope Leo IV (847-55) and Benedict III (855-58) (or in the first decade of the 1100s): A woman was somehow elected pope.  The story usually goes thus: A young woman entered a monastery disguised as a monk in order to study.  She took a lover, who moved her up through the rankings of the Church, so that she might be close to him.  Her reputation as a brilliant mind grew, and she was elected pope.  However, she kept her lover (or found another) because the legend continues with her becoming pregnant, hiding the signs of her pregnancy under her papal robes.  She managed to hide this minor detail for the entire length of her pregnancy until one day, during a procession from St. Peter’s on the Vatican to St. John Lateran, she gave birth, much to the shock and horror of the crowd.  She died in one way or another (some say she died in childbirth, others say the crowd killed her, others say she and the baby were burned alive, and one record even states that she was dragged around by a horse and stoned to death), and thus ends the sordid tale of Pope Joan (as post-Reformation Church critics would call her, though the earlier medieval manuscripts all refer to her by the name of “John”).  Her legacy remains, according to those who argue for her existence, in a statue on the Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the road that leads to St. John Lateran (late medieval guides for pilgrims mentioned the statue), in a bust in the cathedral in Siena, and in over 500 medieval manuscripts which mention the story, or at least reference a pope named Joan. 

Pretty convincing, huh?  Lots of historical documents, exact dates, and artistic representations seem to provide ample evidence that there was a woman who reigned as pope and lost the papal throne due to childbirth.  The integrity of the papacy is ruined!  The Catholic Church has lost its claim to authority! 

A closer look, however, proves the claims false.  There was no Pope Joan. 

Our examination of the claims concerning Pope Joan turns to two well-researched sources.  The first is very sympathetic to the Church, an article written by Dennis Barton over at Churchinhistory.org; the other comes from John Julius Norwich’s recent book Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), which is less sympathetic to Catholic history.  Both men come to the same conclusion: Pope Joan never existed. 

The earliest references to a female pope come from Jean de Mailly, a French Dominican who wrote the Chronica Universalis Metensis around the year 1250, who mentioned a female pope “who is not set down in the lists of popes or bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man” (quoted in Norwich, 64).  Mailly claims the whole female pope scandal occurred in 1099, historically when Pope Paschal II began his reign (Mailly postponed Paschal’s reign until 1106, cutting Paschal’s nineteen-year reign by seven years).  The other major source of the legend is another Dominican, Martin Polonus, who in his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum wrote the most famous record of the female pope (he places her story between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III).  The earliest edition of Martin Polonus’ work does not include the story, however, and it seems that it was added after the monk’s death.  The story appears throughout the Middle Ages, repeated with little variation from Polonus’ work (Polonus had been a chaplain for Pope Clement IV, and had thus earned an air of authority in all things papal).  It is this story that inspired later interpretations of the legend. 

But the Polonus legend falls apart under any serious examination.  The time he gives for Joan’s reign, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III, leaves Joan only two months to reign, from July 17 – September 29, 855 (this assumes, of course, the impossible: an instantaneous papal election).  This is clearly not enough time to do any/all of the activities attributed to Joan.  The historical circumstances surrounding the election of Pope Benedict (worthy in itself of a short blog post. . . ) were crazy enough without throwing a woman papal claimant into the mix. 

No contemporary historian or writer at that time mentions a woman pope; antipope Anastasius (who also tried to be pope in the confusion) makes no mention of her in the memoirs of his antipope reign.  Likewise, Benedict III’s successor, Pope St. Nicholas the Great, makes no mention of a woman papal claimant, even as antipope, and says he immediately succeeded Benedict, who immediately succeeded Leo.  Likewise, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, no friend of the papacy and papal authority, refers to Pope Nicholas (with whom he was embroiled in a controversy known as the Photian Schism) as following Leo and Benedict in progression of the papal throne.  If he wanted to attack Nicholas’ authority, what better weapon could there be than a scandalous female pope.  No such mention exists in any of Photius’ writings.  In a similar story, Pope St. Leo IX, in the 1050s, wrote to and criticized Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople for allowing eunuchs to be patriarchs in the eastern half of Christendom.  This too easily allowed for women to sneak into the role of bishop, the pope argued; no counter-reply from Constantinople cited the shocking story of a woman pope.  There is simply not enough historical evidence that Pope Joan lived when she was supposed to have lived. 

But what of the multiple documents that refer to her existence?  Dennis Barton notes that all of these major works, from the 9th century through the early decades of the 13th century, do not mention the story of the female pope in their earliest manuscripts; mention of a female pope does not appear in copies of the documents before 1275.  It was after the publication of Martin Polonus’ story that these earlier documents included their own copy of Polonus’ account. 

Also, upon examining the medieval guides for pilgrims in Rome, one does not see any reference to the story of a woman pope nor the statue that marked where she supposedly gave birth until after 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome from France (definitely the topic of another post).  Perhaps the return of the popes sparked an interest in sensational stories, and a woman pope would fit perfectly into the pilgrims’ curious mindset.  As for the notorious sedes stercoraria, large porphyry thrones with a large hole in the seat supposedly designed to check if a pope was a man, there is no mention of their use in any of the papal ceremony texts of the Church. 

So there we have it.  The story of Pope Joan doesn’t add up.  She does not fit into the history of the papacy.  Her shocking story only appears in chronicles written 400 years after her supposed reign.  “Not one contemporary chronicler nor one letter written anywhere in Rome or Europe mentioned a pope who had given birth in public. Yet this would have been the news story of the age” (Barton, 3).   And, as John Norwich notes, “the best argument of all is the sheer improbability of a female pope, a long deception, a hidden pregnancy, a sudden birth in public” (Norwich, 70).  Thus settles the story of Pope Joan. 

So no, there has not been a female pope in Church history, nor can there ever be one, as the pope is a bishop, and therefore a priest, and since only men can be priests in the Catholic Church, there cannot be a female pope in the future. 

For further reading

Dennis Barton, “Pope Joan,” Church in History, (May 29, 2006), available at http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/popejoan.pdf, accessed July 30, 2012. 

John Julius Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (New York: Random House, 2011), 63–70. 

Johann Peter Kirsch, “Popess Joan” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm, accessed July 30, 2012. 

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