Friday, December 22, 2006

Tradition of Giving Gifts during Christmas

We all know Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ around 2,000 years ago. This is a very important celebration for Christians, because this is when Christ came into the world to save the human race. Therefore, we praise and worship during this time, and have festivals, and so on. But where does the tradition of giving gifts to one another come from? There are other very important Christian celebrations, such as Easter, Pentecost, Good Friday, etc. but during these people do not customarily give gifts. Easter is a possible exception, but until recently, people only gave chocolates during this time. This is a topic for another day (probably around Easter). Back to Christmas. You may notice that St. Nicholas is always intrisic to Christmas, and this is the main clue. St. Nicholas is famous for helping out 3 women in Turkey who could not get married because they didn't have enough money. So St. Nicholas, threw bags of gold into their houses so that they would have enough to be married. This helped them greatly. St. Nicholas was a very famous saint for many other reasons as well. He was instrumental during the ecumenical council of Nicea for proclaiming Christ's divinity. St. Nicholas was a very holy man from the moment of his birth. Legend has it that St. Nicholas would not nurse from his mother on Wednesdays and Fridays, traditional Christian fast days. It is also said that after his death, many people received miracles from his grave. A large following developed around St. Nicholas and devotions to him grew substantially. During the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas had one of the greatest number of devotees of any saint at the time. In order to celebrate their devotion, people gave gifts to each other on December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas. This became a tradition. Eventually, Christians felt there was too much emphasis on St. Nicholas day and not enough of Chritmas Day, so the date of giving gifts was changed to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Keep the X in Christmas

During Christmas there are many signs around saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas”. These have a good intention, and often times it is very justified and necessary for such a message, especially in this day and age. Christmas is the reason for the season, but the act of giving gifts during Christmas is not something which was always associated with it, nor is it necessary. Often, people’s reason for saying Keep Christ in Christmas is to remind people that Christmas is not there just as a material celebration and reason to give and receive gifts, but that it is meant to celebrate and worship the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is our Lord and Savior.

Where does the term X-mas originate? Some may say it’s a way of shortening the word Christmas because it can’t fit on a lot of signs. A sign might have 50 words on it, and be 10 meters across and 5 meters high, but someone might need to save 3 inches by putting X instead of Christ. This sounds a bit fishy. Well, many (including those putting X-Mas on their signs) will be surprised to know that X-Mas goes back a long way, hundreds of years ago. The first two letters of the name of Jesus in Greek is spelled XP, and the X came to represent Christ. XP is a famous Catholic symbol, and is often used on vestments of priests and places around Churches.

So now that I've established the original meaning of X-mas, in my next post, I will find out where the idea of giving gifts during Christmas comes from.

Amazing Facts about the Catholic Church

There are many interesting facts about the Catholic Church of which many are not aware. As this blog continues, I will continue to add more facts in future posts.

1. St. Peter's Basilica is the largest Church in the world. It was designed by many famous people including Michelangelo, Bernini and others. It was completed in the 1500s, but ever since Peter, there has been a church located there.

2. St. Peter is buried directly beneath the altar in St. Peter's Basilica.

3. St. Paul is also buried in the Vatican City.

4. The number of Christians was well into the many millions before Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In fact, Constantine's convertion was heavily influenced by the sheer number of Christians at the time. This huge number developed despite Christianity being illegal and punishable by death. One of the reasons for this, besides divine intervention, was that Christians cared for their sick and dying, which allowed many to get better during plagues and outbreaks. Most Romans at the time were too afraid to catch something so they avoided caring for the sick, but Christians, not afraid of death, helped millions live. New evidence shows a series of plagues at the time of the Roman Empire, after each of which the proportion of Christians in the population grew substantially.

5. Popes, for centuries, have customarily taken a new name once elected. It has been a Catholic tradition since 1009, and the first pope to take a new name was John II in 533. However, this is not a requirement.

There will be more amazing facts later. Stay tuned!

Reflections of Advent, 4 weeks before Christmas

Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. At Mass every week, we say that we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We are waiting for Christ to return. Remember, Christ was already here. He came to Earth about 2,000 years ago, born of the Virgin Mary. When the Angel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation, he told he she would bear the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Mary was completely faithful to God, no matter how hard his teachings were to accept. Mary was completely obedient to God, whereas Eve disobeyed God. Eve's no was Mary's yes. In fact, Mary is the reverse of Eve. Eve in Latin is Eva, Eva is reversed to form Ave, from which we say Ave Maria, or Hail Mary in English. Adam brought death into the world by disobeying God, but Jesus, the new Adam brought life into the world, and opened the gates of Heaven. We celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conception. Jesus, just a few cells minutes after his conception, was the Son of God Incarnate. Mary is the mother of God.

Now, during Advent, we also wait for the coming of Jesus Christ, but now we wait with a double meaning. We not only anticipate Christ's first coming, but also his second. We marvel at the past, and rejoice in the future. For the gift of God's son to Mankind is an eternal gift, shared by our generation as well as hundreds of generations before us. Jesus, though God, gave himself completely to mankind, so that they might see that the greatest of kings is the lowliest of servants.

God is a God of paradox, but the wisdom of man is the folly of God. God's ways are so much above our own. While some Jews and Gentiles waited for a King fit for human standards, a ruler who would cast off his enemies with great armies, others were ready to hear God's voice, however it were to appear. Mary accepted Jesus as he was. She followed God, no matter what her human mind may have told her. She opened herself to all possibility which God has revealed. Jesus, the Son of God, was born in the lowliest place, the feeding trough of animals. And Jesus suffered the most humiliating death, a crucifixion fit for criminals. As we wait for Christ to be born, we remember that true faith, hope, and love are not found in countless armies, but in the hearts of everyone, even the lowliest servant.

As we prepare for the coming of the Messiah, both his first and his next appearance, let us remember all those around us. Remember the lowly, for whatever you do to the least of your brethren, you do onto God.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Evolution and the Catholic Church

One of the main issues non-religious people have with religion has to do with their perceived conflict between religion and science. This may come from non-believers or people who hold non-Christian views. Of the topics related to science and religion, the top one would be the subject of evolution.

Evoluation is a concept which was most fully developed in the writings of Charles Darwin. It concerns species' adaptation to their environments in various ways. I will not go into the subject very deeply here, because I am not a scientist. One thing I think everyone should keep in mind is that this is the "theory" of evolution, not the law of evolution, therefore, assuming science itself knows what it is talking about, they do not consider this a law, they consider it a theory.

I find people put more trust in science than science puts in itself. Science is constantly changing and theories are constantly evolving (excuse the pun). Scientists of old were convinced the Earth was flat, and that some insects came from mud or from nothing. These theories were widely accepted. Most people nowadays who are adherents of the theory of evolution have not done any firsthand experiments to determine its validity, yet would not hestitate to accuse someone of just blindly following a belief, even though they are doing this very thing. Many scientists are questioning the theory of evolution in its present form. No one disagrees that animals evolve in order to adapt to their environment and people are not denying the existence of dinosaurs and animals that have gone extinct, etc. But scientists are re-evaluating long-held beliefs about evolution. One thing which comes to mind is the missing link. Some evolutionists hold that human beings evolved from apes. This is a theory. Yet there are significant problems with this theory, especially concerning the missing link. Scientists so far have been unable to find a link between humans and monkeys, the gap is simply too wide. These are evolutionary scientists who are experts in this area, and even they are questioning many of its tenets.

I would now like to explain the position of the Catholic Church with regards to evolution. The most important thing about anything related to the Christian faith is that the Catholic Church does not teach science. The job of the church is not to make pronouncements concerning science. For that matter, it does not make pronouncements on literature, arts, math, or sports for that matter either. The Church's function is to be a guide for faith and morals. Therefore, the Catholic Church does not accept any scientific theory, including that of evolution. Catholics are free to believe in any theory of evolution they feel is most plausible. If people want to believe that God directly created Adam and Eve and from there all humans came into existence, they are free to do so. People are also free to believe that human beings evolved from animals if they would like. Catholics can believe the Earth is 6,000 years old or so, or they can believe it is billions of years old. The Church simply does not make any specific pronouncements in these areas.

Having said this, the Catholic Church of course makes statements about morality and faith that Catholics in full communion with the Catholic Church are obliged to follow. The first is that there were two first human beings. This means that there were two first people, a man and a woman who were the first to have a human soul. Perhaps God created them on the spot, perhaps they came from an evolutionary chain, but they were the first with human rational souls. We are, as Catholics, obliged to believe that these two original human beings sinned against God in some way. The most accepted theory in theological circles is that the sin of Adam and Eve was pride. They were proud because they wanted to be equal with God, they did not wish to serve him. This is a problem which we continue to see in our world. Some people reject God, and by doing so, reject humanity. They become self-absorbed and proud, only concerned for themselves. It was the sin of Adam and Eve, our first parents, which sent them from a land of complete obedience to God, to one where they were infected by pride, pride in themselves.

Do not be stuck on the names Adam and Eve, either. The purpose of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, is not to be an historical record of what happened during the creation of the world. Again, this is an area the Church does not teach in. “Adam” and “Eve” simply mean first man and first woman. These are not necessarily the given names of Adam and Eve.

The Catholic Church is in no way in contention with the findings of science, and in fact welcomes them, knowing full well that “truth cannot contradict truth”. John Paul II speaks about evolution by saying: “Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [referring to an encyclical by Pope Pius XII on evolution], new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”

Pope Benedict XVI shows that evolution and God are two aspects of the same thing: “In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain in act all those secondary causes whose activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order which he intends to produce. Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation.”

In conclusion, I would like to say that those who accept evolution are not at odds with the Catholic Church, but they should not rely too heavily on this theory. Remember, the Church teaches faith and morals, not science.