A Christmastide message from 1885

Christmastide is an old liturgical word for the season that runs from Dec. 24 to Jan. 5, with specific times during those days varying within different types of churches.

Sometimes I’m curious to see how people in the United States have used less-familiar words like Christmastide because their origins tend to come from liturgical traditions more common on the other side of the Atlantic.

So I searched “Christmastide” in the Library of Congress’s database of old U.S. newspapers. That kind of search can provide a clue as to how words were used at certain times in U.S. history — or to what extent they were used.

For example, searching the database for “Christmastide” between 1789 and 1963, I found 6,385 returns.

Searching for “Christmas” during the same period, I found 1,382,961 returns.

That’s a big difference. “Christmastide” just wasn’t as popularly used during most of U.S. history, and maybe that gives some evidence toward the idea that American Christianity has tended to be less liturgical and less calendar-oriented. More “low church” and less “high church.” Possibly.

Beyond that, I can’t say the search for “Christmastide” revealed any special insights about religion in American — and I can’t say I read 6,385 returns — but I did find a seasonal message of reconciliation within a short, unsigned editorial in The Bossier Banner, Bellevue, Bossier Parish, La., Dec. 24, 1885:

And since love grows cold, sometimes with unwise estrangements, this Christmastide ought to send many out to regather and grasp the clues of ancient friendship. To those who clasp hands again after the long chill, and forgive, it should indeed be a merry Christmas.

Unexpected comfort and joy within the Anglican divide in Myrtle Beach

Tidings of comfort and joy? The holidays seem like weeks of frantic rushing for minutes of comfort and joy.

But this Advent season, if anything does give me comfort and joy, it’s the way local ACNA church members and Episcopal Church members are still meeting with one another — different sets of people, different venues, different occasions, but all warm and friendly.

This would seem highly unlikely, given the split of the Diocese of South Carolina into a diocese affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America and a diocese affiliated with The Episcopal Church.

But as I have experienced first-hand here in Myrtle Beach, local ACNA members and Episcopalians are still finding the time and the love to go out for meals together, to study together, to have drinks together, to share enthusiasms on social media together.

And it’s always good to see each other.

Leaders stake territory; friends stay together.

Gregory of Nyssa: your spirit is a copy of God

“Since one of the signs of the Divine Nature is its essential incomprehensibility, in this also must the copy be like the original. For were the nature of the copy comprehended, when the original was above comprehension, the copy would be a mistaken one. But, inasmuch as the nature of our spirit is above our understanding, it has here an exact resemblance of the all-sublime, representing by its own unfathomableness the incomprehensible Being of God.” — Gregory of Nyssa, quoted in The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

According to the Orthodox Church in America, Gregory of Nyssa was “[e]ndowed with philosophical talent” and “saw philosophy as a means for a deeper penetration into the authentic meaning of divine revelation.”

Christianity superseded the ancient Mithra mystery cult through violence and rationalism

My intended audience consists of the U.S. evangelicals and fundamentalists I’ve known my entire life in various church, school, home-school, and para-ministry circles. 

I’ve previously quoted scholars on the numerous similarities between Christianity and the Mithra mystery cult—similarities uncanny and striking for people who with a conservative, evangelical/fundamentalist perspective.

I’ve also noted, in recent scholarship, the critical consensus seems to be that “Christianity was influenced by the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world,” according to Paul Hedges.

I hadn’t been looking, but I recently found another presentation of the similarities between the Mithra mystery cult and Christianity—along with a startling analysis of why Christianity carried on while its competitor, so similar, died out.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Religious Platonism by James K. Feibleman, who at the time of publication taught at Tulane University.

(The time of the book’s publication is its own quick story. I had been talking to my students about the currency of sources. Feibleman’s book first was published in 1959, and the copy I found was published in 1971. Is the scholarship still current? Probably: A quick search showed a respected academic publisher had reissued Religious Platonism in 2013.)

The subtitle of the 1971 edition is The Influence of Religion on Plato and the Influence of Plato on Religion, so it includes a short section on Mithraism to which I was drawn because of my previous reading. It includes both a list of similarities and a brief history of their relationship.

“There are many features of the Mithraic mysteries which are reminiscent of the Orphic and Dionysiac cults. But the later religion of Christianity shared even more striking parallels with it. The use of the idea of brotherhood, purification by baptism, communion, a Lord’s Supper, a birth of the saviour on December 25th, a sabbath on Sunday, an asceticism of abstinence and continence, a heaven and a hell, a flood early in history, immortality of the soul, a last judgment, a resurrection of the dead, a mediating Logos which was one of a trinity, and many other resemblances which have often been noted. [This last sentence is footnoted to The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont.]

“After Constantine had proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism suffered persecution but returned again under Julian the Apostate (A.D. 331-353). This was its last victory. As soon as the Christians were securely in power, they invoked the same kind of violence against their enemies, chiefly in other religions, especially Mithraism, that those enemies had invoked against them. Mithraism never again achieved the position of power it held in the third century. By the fourth century Christianity was sufficiently entrenched to enable it to do unto others what had been done unto it, and ‘the Christians, in order to render places contaminated by the presence of a dead body ever afterwards unfit for worship, sometimes slew the refractory priests of Mithras and buried them in the ruins of their sanctuaries, now forever profaned’ [Cumont]. The victory of Christianity was arranged through violence and fixed by establishment, won by the sword and made permanent by philosophy. For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.

“The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism. Mithraism had no relations with Greek culture and so was never able to avail itself of the support of rationalism in general and of Platonism in particular. It could not meet the challenge of a rival—and strikingly similar—religion which availed itself of these supports.”

This is all fascinating and frightening. Again, “For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.”

And, “The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism.” Wow.

Halloween is also Reformation Day, on which we note that Wittenberg is not so Protestant

From ten years ago — Happy Halloween, and Happy Reformation Day.

liturgical

I am not among the anti-Halloween scaremongers and killjoys, yet I wish more people also knew the last day of October as Reformation Day.

This is a bit obligatory: On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his not-so-anti-papal Ninety-Five Theses on an important door in Wittenberg, Germany, and that act more or less marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

These days, however, Wittenberg is only 10 percent Protestant.

The German news outlet Spiegel Online reports:

Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in the German city of Wittenberg 500 years ago. But, today, only 10 percent of its population is Protestant. Church leaders have launched a major drive to change that — but have come up against the city’s communist past.

It’s impossible to walk through Wittenberg, also known as “Luther City,” without stumbling across reminders of Martin Luther. There’s the “Luther oak,” then Luther Street, which leads to…

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Goethe and Coleridge on Imagination

“What Goethe meant by this ‘inner necessity and truth’ is what his younger contemporary, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke of as ‘facts of mind.’ For both Goethe and Coleridge, the imagination was not merely a loosening of reason and a setting free of uncontrolled fantasy—as the Enlightenment regarded it—but a cognitive power that obeyed its own rules and disciplines.” — Gary Lachman, in Lost Knowledge of the Imagination

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”