Time to put Christ back in Christmas

christmas-manger-scene

by Diane Rufino, December 24, 2016

In the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court was asked to consider if the First Amendment prohibited the municipality of Pawtucket, Rhode Island from including a Nativity scene, in its annual Christmas display. The display included a plastic reindeer, a Santa Clause, and a Christmas tree. The Court concluded that the Nativity scene could remain, explaining: “We are satisfied that the city has a secular purpose for including the creche, that the city has not impermissibly advanced religion.” According to the court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, erecting a nativity scene in the public square doesn’t encourage any religious belief and therefore doesn’t erode the Wall of Separation that the government must respect. Noting that the display was erected at a location and at a time corresponding to the start of the holiday “commercial” season, the Court reasoned that the two centuries of use has changed the meaning of the Nativity scene from a religious symbol to a commercial item. “The crèche (Nativity scene) has a legitimate secular purpose within a larger holiday display to celebrate the season and the origins of Christmas which has long been a part of Western culture.” And writing for the dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote: “The crèche has been relegated to the role of a neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes but devoid of any inherent meaning and incapable of enhancing the religious tenor of a display of which it is an integral part.”

The Nativity scene, the symbol of Christmas, has become more of a commercial symbol than a religious system. That was the conclusion of the highest court of the land – back in 1984. It got me thinking of the holiday in general and what it really means. Have we succeeded in divorcing its true meaning? Has the Christmas tree taken the place of the alter? Can it be said that what man has to sell has become more important than what God has given? When the holiday is over, do we act like the merchant who rids his store of Christmas in a day. Or do we keep Christmas in our hearts?

When I was young, my Mom and I spent a lot of time in church. We attended regular weekly and Sunday services at the Methodist Church across the street (Carlton Hill Methodist Church) and additional services at the Catholic Church (St. Joseph’s Church) at the other end of town. There was always a Christmas Eve mass at Carlton Hill and a midnight mass at St. Joe’s. We went to sleep on Christmas Eve reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas and awakening the next morning to celebrate the holiday with our families.

When I finished college and went out on my own, Christmas became the time of year when I could look forward to traveling back home and seeing my family. Christmas mass continued to be a treasured family tradition. Then I started a family of my own. For years, it was work, then law school, being pregnant, having four children and suffering a few miscarriages. Life couldn’t be anymore hectic. Christmas became less of a holiday for me and more of a holiday for my young children. I wanted the holiday to be magical for them, and looking back, unfortunately, that meant “commercial.” I decorated the house with colorful lights and shiny objects and piled presents under the tree to delight them on Christmas Day. I cared more that they got everything their hearts could desire than whether or not they understood the meaning of Christmas. Because of all the last-minute shopping to be done, I rarely made Christmas Eve mass, and because of all the cooking I had to do for Christmas Day dinner, there were no more of the midnight masses that I once loved so much.

I guess what I am saying is that over the years, the Christmas season has become less of a time of rejoicing and more of a test of endurance. And I’m quite sure the fault is mine.

For most people, especially the younger generation, Christmas is the time of year to get new toys, fancy gadgets, the latest in technology, jewelry and new clothes, and in some cases, extra cash. It’s not about a child born to a virgin, spending its first hours of life in a manger and in the humblest of settings… a child born to save us from our sinful nature so that we stand a chance at eternity with our Heavenly Father. It’s a week off from school, time off from work, a convenient time for a winter break, a chance to get away for a vacation, an opportunity to get things, a perfect time to get engaged to a sweetheart, a time to spend lots of money on gifts for family and friends, a time to visit family that you only see once a year. It can be fun. It can be stressful. But I’m sure most people would not describe the Christmas holiday as “religious” and “reflective.”

This year, as I ponder what it is I hope to enjoy during the Christmas holiday, I know I want to start believing in the true magic of Christmas again. As my parents and other family members wish to retreat from the hectic family gatherings and the lavish dinners and parties, I understand that the holiday has perhaps become too overwhelming in many ways. When I was a college student and when I was single, living on my own, I didn’t look forward to traveling back home to see my Mom and Dad because I was excited to see what Christmas gifts they got me. I could have cared less if there was a single gift for me under the tree. I just wanted to spend time with them and be together as a family at that special time of year. I just wanted to have dinner together, be reminded of what it was like to live in the same house again, and wake up, have breakfast together and start the days together. And yes, I looked forward to going to Christmas mass together. I loved to hear the Christmas story. And I couldn’t wait to sing Christmas carols.

Christmas should be about giving and not getting. When we ask our children and even our spouses ‘What do you want for Christmas?’, we are asking a question that breeds selfishness. What we should be asking (in order to breed selflessness) is this: “What are you going to give?” After all, isn’t Christmas the celebration of God’s great gift-giving? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” (John 3:16)

Christmas should be a simple holiday. It shouldn’t be the commercial nightmare it has become. How many times have we racked our brains trying to figure out what to get someone? How many times have we traveled from store to store simply because we want to find something the recipient doesn’t already have? How many times do we concede that the gift isn’t really all that good and they probably won’t care for it, but hey, at least we got them something? How many times have we just given up and put cash in a card? And how many times do we end up going over budget and then fight with our spouses or stress out because too much money was put on credit cards?

Christmas is not so much about enjoying time off from school and work as it is spending time with family. Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as it is opening our hearts. It’s not as much about giving gifts as it is giving of ourselves.

In 1949, President Harry Truman gave these remarks during the tree-lighting ceremony at the White House: “We miss the purport of Christ’s birth if we do not accept it as a living link which joins us together in spirit as children of the ever-living and true God. In love alone – the love of God and the love of man – will be found the solution of all the ills which afflict the world today. Slowly, sometimes painfully, but always with increasing purpose, emerges the great message of Christianity — love of our fellowmen. In such a dedication, we shall find the message of the Child of Bethlehem, the real meaning of Christmas.”

Just as when we partake of the Eucharist, we acknowledge the sacrifice and the promise of Jesus’ crucifixion, Christmas should be a time for us to rededicate ourselves to the principles he taught.

Because He came to earth, we have a perfect example to follow. As we strive to become more like Him, we will have joy and happiness in our lives and peace each day of the year. It is His example which, if followed, stirs within us more kindness and love, more respect and concern for others.

Because He came, there is meaning to our mortal existence.

Because He came, we know how to reach out to those in trouble or distress, wherever they may be.

Because He came, death has lost its sting, the grave its victory. We will live again because He came.

Because He came and paid for our sins, we have the opportunity to gain eternal life.

Because He came, we are gathered tonight to worship Him, in bonds of brotherhood and love.

We miss the spirit of Christmas if we consider the birth of baby Jesus as a age-old, far-off event unrelated to our spiritual health and also to the problems we suffer in our communities, in our country, and in the world in general. We miss the spirit of Christmas if we do not spend time loving our family and receiving their love so that we know how to love others.

Even if a person lacks faith, the Christmas birth can still hold a special message of love and goodness. While believers ultimately celebrate that Jesus came into the world, in fulfillment of scripture, to save us of our sin, the simple truth is that we honor the birth of Jesus because of what he would become and what he would sacrifice on our behalf. His lowly birth should remind us of the potential in each newborn baby. We can’t know of each child’s potential, but as the birth of Jesus reminds us, the potential is there. We also can’t know to what degree a child’s love will affect us, but again, we know that the love between parents and children is amongst the strongest and unconditioned. We need to love and nurture our children. All children are special; they are gifts from God. The love we give is returned to us many-fold. Nothing in life is more important than investing in our children, showing them love, and giving them a sense of worth.

I hope this Christmas that you have taken time to read the Christmas story and to appreciate it. “Christmas is a gift of love wrapped in human flesh and tied securely with the strong promises of God. It is more than words can tell, for it is a matter for the heart to receive, believe and understand.”

Here is the Christmas Story, as told by Matthew and Luke:

Matthew 1: 1-17: This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

Luke 1: 5-80: There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. They had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

It came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, his job was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord, according to the custom of the priest’s office. While the whole multitude of the people were praying while he burned the incense, there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar. When Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him: “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. Thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall turn to the Lord their God. He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zacharias said unto the angel: “Whereby shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years?”

And the angel answered unto him, saying: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. Behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.”

And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak unto them and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.

And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. Soon after, his wife Elizabeth conceived, and hid herself for five months, saying: “The Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came in unto her, and said: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” When she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

The angel said unto her: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Then said Mary unto the angel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? The angel answered and said unto her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. The holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age. This is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda. She entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary, the babe leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. She spoke, with a loud voice, saying: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as I heard your voice, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”

And Mary said: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. His mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.”

And Mary abode with her about three months, and then returned to her own house. Elizabeth then went into labor and she brought forth a son. Her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her and they rejoiced with her.

It came to pass, that on the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. But his mother answered and said: “No; he shall be called John.” They said unto her: “There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.”

Then fear came on all that dwelt round about them, for all throughout all the hill country of Judaea, there were rumors. They asked: “What manner of child shall this be?” For they heard the hand of the Lord was with him.

His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. He has spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us. He will remember his holy covenant, that oath which he swore to our father Abraham, and perform the mercy promised to our fathers. He will grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, and in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our life. The child shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for he shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God.’

Matthew 1: 18-24: Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth.

Luke 2: 1-22: It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (This taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.). And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. So it was, that while they were there, she went into labor. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds in the field kept watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. The angel said unto them: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”

They came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known everything that was told to them by the shepherds concerning the child. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord….

Matthew 2: 1-21: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

MERRY CHRISTMAS !! And HAPPY NEW YEAR !

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Without Easter

EASTER - tomb

by  Diane Rufino

Have you ever thought of what it would be like if Jesus hadn’t been born, hadn’t assembled a group of loyal disciples and followers, hadn’t taught his lessons of love and forgiveness and charity, hadn’t been executed on the cross, and hadn’t risen? When he traveled and taught, he was the Son of Man. He belonged to the People, as their teacher. But when he rose from the dead, he was the Son of God. He was the new and everlasting covenant with the Father, forever and ever.

Without Easter, we would have no hope of heaven. We would have no hope of sharing in God’s kingdom. We could only hope for a righteous and blessed life here on Earth, for whatever that life and fate happens to deal us.

Without the hope of heaven, there would be no repentance, no personal transformation, no inherent obligation to love and help one another, and no attempt to follow biblical principles. We would miss out on the true meaning of life which is the love and fullness that other human beings bring to our existence.

Without Easter, we would lose our way in this world of sin, temptation, chaos, and darkness. Jesus’ death and resurrection. One mistake, one moment of weakness, would condemn us to eternal damnation and a permanent separation from God our Father. Feeling that permanent separation would send us on a downward spiral, for we would believe our Father had already condemned and turned His back on us. Believing that he have lost His love would strip away our moral compass.

But because of Easter, we can be reborn. We have a reason to live better, to do better, to love stronger, and to reflect His shining light into the shadows and minimize the darkness. We can live the life that God intended — as humble witnesses to his love. We can do all these things because even though we are sinners by nature, immersed in an increasingly sinful and tempting world, we are forgiven of our misdeeds because God wants the relationship to continue and to flourish. A person can’t help but be humbled by a love that is so great and unconditional.

Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice not only that we who believe will have an eternal relationship with God but also that we may be encouraged to live our lives to the fullest – to be better, to do better, and to love stronger. Remember, in Jesus’ eyes, ALL LIVES MATTER !

HAPPY EASTER, Everyone. May you feel the love today and every day.

EASTER - Jesus (from THE BIBLE movie

An Easter Reflection

Jesus - bloody

by Diane Rufino

I wanted to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very blessed Good Friday – Easter week-end.

Beginning yesterday, Holy Thursday, an innocent man was taken into custody to answer to trumped up charges and to be eventually be executed in order to spare the temple High Priests from being challenged in their power.  Yet in these sad, unfortunate chain of events, prophecy was fulfilled and we have the opportunity to establish a kingdom on Earth but even more, we can have eternal life with our Father in heaven.

We remind ourselves of the last moments of Jesus’ life and ministry:

Holy Thursday  —

Mid-day: Jesus’ disciples prepare the upper room for the Passover meal.

About 6 pm: Our Savior begins the Passover meal with his disciples.  After the institution of the Eucharist and the reception of communion by all twelve of the Apostles (and our Lord himself), Judas receives the dipped morsel (which was not the Eucharist, but simple bread) and departs.

About 8 pm: Jesus goes forth to the Garden of Gethsemane.

About 9 pm: Judas leads the soldiers to Jesus and the other apostles. Our Lord is arrested.  (the priests were afraid to arrest him during the Passover — because a public arrest could have triggered a riot from the crowds.

All flee, excepting Sts. Peter and John.

From 9 pm till midnight: Jesus is brought first to Annas and then to Caiaphas. These are the first two trials which our Lord undergoes. The trial before Caiaphas is often called the “Night Trial before the Sanhedrin”.

During the trial at the house of Annas, St. Peter denies Jesus the first time.

During the trial before Caiaphas, St. Peter denies the Lord twice more. The cock crows, and Peter flees weeping.

It is here that the Temple guards blindfold our Lord and strike him, asking him to prophecy for them.

Our Lord spends the evening in the dungeon of Caiaphas’ house.

Good Friday —

6 am: The Lord is brought to a brief trial before the Sanhedrin. They send him directly to Pilate.

Immediately after Jesus is sent forth from the Sanhedrin to Pilate, Judas returns to the chief priests, regretting his betrayal. Returning the money, Judas departs and hangs himself (probably before noon).

From 6 am to 9 am: The fourth trial now, which is before Pilate, is very brief. The Lord is sent to Herod (the fifth trial) and then back to Pilate. The second time before Pilate is the occasion of the more extensive questioning of Jesus by Pilate, including the infamous question: What is truth? (John 18:38)

The fifth trial (which is before Pilate) is when the Jews choose Barabbas over Jesus.

About 10 am: The crowds ask for Jesus to be crucified.  Jesus is scourged, crowned with thorns, cloaked in purple, and mocked.

Then, taking up the Cross, our Savior begins the journey to Golgotha.

A little before noon: Jesus reaches Golgotha, the “place of the skull.”

Then, he is stripped and nailed to the Cross.

From noon until 3 pm: Our Lord hangs, crucified upon the blessed Cross. Darkness covers the land.

3 pm: Jesus dies. The veil of the Temple is split in two. The earth shakes.

A little before 5 pm: St. Joseph of Arimathea courageously goes to Pilate and requests the body of Jesus. To prove that our Lord has expired, the centurian thrusts a lance through Christ’s side – blood and water pour forth.

Jesus’ body is prepared for burial by Nicodemus, the women, and his Mother.

Before 6 pm: Our Savior is laid in the tomb. A stone is sealed across the entrance.

Easter Sunday —

Just before 6 am: Without any seeing or knowing, our Lord rises from the dead.

6 am: The women come to the tomb and, seeing an angel roll back the stone, realize that our Lord had risen and come forth from the sealed tomb during that most blessed night.

Jesus - carrying cross

We recount the brutality and horror and indifference that surround Jesus’ passion and crucifixion and wonder why it had to happen.

Crucifixion was a widespread and exceedingly common form of execution that was used in ancient history by the Persians, Indians, Assyrians, Scythians, Greeks, and most famously by the Romans. Since Jerusalem was under Roman control at the time, crucifixion was the punishment of choice for capital crimes and for extreme political crimes such as treason, rebellion, and sedition.  [In 63 BC, Pompey Magnus, one-time friend and co-ruler with Julius Caesar, conquered Jerusalem, the seat of the Jewish faith, and incorporated Judea into the Roman Empire. The High Priest was allowed to remain in power and the temple to continue its function… as long as it played its role in paying tribute – and high taxes – to Rome].

A movement would then begin to encourage Jews to evict Rome from the Holy Land and restore independence to their land. This movement would cause Roman prefects to rule with a hard hand and to use fear and violence to deal with the Jews who incited rebellion against Roman rule. That’s why precepts such as Pontius Pilate presided as judges at trials for those who were accused as rebels, or charged with sedition (including blasphemy that led or would potentially lead to sedition – as in Jesus’ case).  And crucifixion would be the punishment.

It was Rome that conventionalized crucifixion as a form of state punishment, creating uniformity in the process.  So commonplace was crucifixion in the Roman Empire that Cicero (Roman senator) referred to it as “that plague.”  It would probably be incorrect to refer to crucifixion to be referred to as a “death penalty: because in most cases, the victim was first executed and then nailed to the cross.  The purpose of crucifixion was not so much to kill the criminal as it was to serve as a deterrent to others who might defy the state. For that reason, crucifixions were always carried out in public – at crossroads, in arenas, on hills, or on high ground (like Golgotha)….  anywhere where the population had no choice but to bear witness to the gruesome scene. The criminal was always left hanging long after he died; the crucified were almost never buried. Because the entire point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten (and warn) the witness, the corpse would be left where it hung to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by various birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a heap of trash, which is actually how Golgotha (the site of Jesus’ crucifixion) earned its name: “the place of skulls.”  Simply put, crucifixion was more than a capital punishment for Rome; it was a public reminder of what happens when one challenges the empire. That is why it was reserved for the most extreme of political crimes (treason, rebellion, sedition, etc).  Scourging, a practice by the Romans, was a brutal form of torture that served not only to inflict intense pain but also to further humiliate the victim. Also, it will help attract the wild animals to the corpse.

Jesus - scourged

If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth, the fact that he was crucified by Rome would tell you why he was killed. His offense to the empire as evident by the plaque that was placed above his head for all to see: “King of the Jews.”  Jesus crime was daring to assume kingly ambitions and challenge Roman rule.

When we confess, as Paul taught us, that “Christ died for our sins,” what do we mean?  Do we mean that God required the vicious murder of his Son in order to forgive us?  Did God have some scale of torture that once met would “satisfy his wrath?”  When we ask if his death had to be by crucifixion and if torture had to be part of the equation, we can understand the answers by the customs of the time.

The crucifixion was a catastrophe. It was the unjust lynching of an innocent man. The Apostles said as much in Acts:  “This Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” –Acts 2:23

“The Bible is clear, God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was offered as a sacrifice in that the Father was willing to send his Son into our sinful system in order to expose it as utterly sinful and provide us with another way. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in that sense. But it was not a sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to Justice.”

“We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving us. When Jesus prayed, ‘Father, forgive them,’ he was not asking God to act contrary to his nature. When Jesus prayed, ‘Father, forgive them,’ he was, as always, revealing the very heart of God!”

Jesus - on cross

Jesus’ agony and death on the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god but of a generous offer to have an eternal relationship with a loving God.  At the cross we see where Adam and Eve’s original decision to turn from God, Cain’s capacity for killing his own brother, and the sin that has since plagued man has led us…   to the murder of Jesus.  But in that death is a covenant.

“The cross is about the revelation of a merciful God. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. Once we understand this, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: We are seeing the lengths to which a God of love will go in forgiving sin.”

As we celebrate the passion and crucifixion, and then the resurrection of Jesus, let us understand that we can now live in Peace.

 Jesus - resurrection

References:
Brian Zahnd, “How Does ‘Dying for Our Sins’ Work?”, April 16, 2014.  Referenced at:  http://brianzahnd.com/2014/04/dying-sins-work/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+brianzahnd+%28BrianZahnd.com%29

Reza Aslan, ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus.  Random House (2013).

Two Ways of Educating

Education - Indoctrination Center        by  Diane Rufino, December 24, 2013

At some schools, usually independent (not accepting federal dollars) and religious, students read old books, including Plato’s Republic.  In the Republic, they read the story of Gyges’ ring that makes the wearer of it invisible.  One of Socrates’ conversants in the Republic, a young man named Glaucon (who happened to be Plato’s older brother; both were students of Socrates), raises the question: ‘Why would a man in possession of such a ring not use it to do and obtain whatever he wishes?  Why would he not use the ring’s powers, for instance, to become a tyrant?’  In response, Socrates turns the discussion to another question: ‘What is the right way for a man to live?  What is just by nature and what is unjust?’

In parochial schools, such as John Paul II Catholic High School (where I teach), students are also regularly guided by the teachings of the Bible. With respect to the teachings of Jesus, it was Jesus himself who boiled the lessons down to two commandments. When asked by a teacher of law which of God’s laws are most important (Mark 12:28-31), Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  As with books like the Republic, the teachings of the Bible emphasize the proper way for a man to live.  They establish a value system of love, compassion, and charity.  They teach that individuals should use their talents, their abilities, their powers to do good, and not just for themselves but for others as well.

These Socratic questions were once at the center or core of education. But in American education as a whole, and thanks in great part to policies directed by the federal government, these questions have been abandoned. Teaching ‘morality,’ as it turns out, is too offensive.  Even sadder is the tacit denial that such a focus in education serves no sound social purpose.  Thankfully, these Socratic and Socratic-type questions remain at the center or core of education at many institutions that believe that a proper education includes an emphasis on morality and ethics.

At John Paul II Catholic High School, St. Peter’s, and other parochial schools, and perhaps some charter schools as well, there is often a core group of course that all students, regardless of their path, are required to take. This core has a unifying principle, as explained above, such as the idea that there is a right way to live.

Compare this to the “core” that defines the latest bright idea of the education establishment – Common Core.  At its core is the imposition of national one-size-fits-all, copyrighted and licensed educational standards on American public schools all across the country for top-down universal control over the teaching of our children. When one looks into Common Core, it becomes clear that it has no unifying principle, such as I have described above.

Absent the kind of questions posed by Socrates in the Republic or the lessons of community found in the Bible, or in the plays of Shakespeare that pit good versus evil/right versus wrong, modern educators treat students chiefly as factors of production, as moldable young adults to be trained for productive jobs, as dictated by the economy at the time.  And although we all wish productive jobs for our children, as parents we know that they are not chiefly job-seekers or factors of production. “After all, how many of us, if we were given the choice between having our children earn a lot of money and being bad, or struggling economically and being good, would choose the former?”

Another example of the turn taken by modern education is exemplified by a passage from the Teacher’s Guide for Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, published in 1991 by the College Board – the influential organization that, among other things, administers the SAT exam. It was written by an English professor from Agnes Scott College in Georgia:

“AP teachers are implementing the best of the new pedagogies that have influenced leading institutions of higher learning. Perhaps most importantly, as Arthur Applebee explains, ‘objectivity’ and ‘factuality’ have lost preeminence.  Instruction has become ‘less a matter of transmittal of an objective and culturally sanctioned body of knowledge,’ and more a matter of helping individuals learn to construct their own realities.  This moves English courses away from the concept of subject matter to be memorized and toward ‘a body of knowledge, skills, and strategies that must be constructed by the learner out of experiences and interactions within the social context of the classroom.’  Emphasis is on the processes of language and thought, ‘processes that are shaped by a given cultural community and which also help students become part of the cultural community.’  Contemporary educators no doubt hope students will shape values and ethical systems as they engage in these interactions, acquiring principles that will help them live in a mad, mad world.”

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps one of our more prolific Founding Fathers, wrote or had his hand directly in at least four of the five organic laws that provide the ideological and legal foundation of our country. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, gave direction to James Madison in his drafting of the US Constitution, and provided the voice of reason and conscience to Madison again when it came time to add a Bill of Rights.  The Northwest Ordinance, adopted in 1787, and passed again in 1789, contains the following beautiful sentence: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”  Accordingly, Congress proceeded to give 1/36th of the land in the vast Northwest Territory – including Michigan and four other states – as an endowment, controlled by the states, to support education in each township.

Consider the current text of the North Carolina state constitution (the constitution of 1971; see below), which sets forth government’s obligations in the state. Article I, Sec. 15 (Education”) provides:  “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.”  Article IX, Sec. 1 deals specifically with Education in the state.  That section (“Education encouraged”) reads: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Could the difference be more stark between the older and newer goals of education?  Between leading students toward an understanding of the right way to live in a comprehensible world, and telling them they must shape their own values and make their own reality in a world gone mad?  And why aren’t more states, like my state of North Carolina which has vowed to guard and maintain its right to provide education to its citizens (and to promote morality), rejecting Common Core?

So, what is the right way for a man and a woman to live?

Do we trust that question to a government that has vowed to remain neutral on religion and on morality (tipping clearly towards immorality) and conducts itself in every instance without ethics?  Or do we reflect on that question in our own states and ask ourselves what we would like to expect from our own citizens?  Ultimately, parents want to be proud of their children.

 

[Note: The NC state constitution has been amended several times. The original constitution, adopted in 1776 by the general assembly (no input from the people) created the government for the new state; the constitution of 1868 was adopted and submitted to the US Congress for approval as required for re-admission to the Union after the Civil War (later amended to end discrimination against African Americans); and the constitution of 1971, which reorganized the entire state government in light of the requirements of the modern economy and society (more of a reorganization rather than adding anything new)].

 

**  [This short article is based on an article by Larry P. Arnn, Hillsdale College, Dec. 2013, Vol. 42, No. 12.]