It really is sad that Christmas comes only once a year. This holiday reminds us of many things we need to remember every day of the year. First and foremost, Christmas reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation, an event that theologians and poets have struggled to describe.
The Incarnation is God becoming man, the Son of God taking on flesh to dwell among us. It is the Eternal Word becoming a wordless infant; the Infinite, Limitless, Unbounded Creator became an baby in a feed trough. It is the All-Powerful Creator who set the stars spinning through space, became powerless to control the movement of his own arms.
Incarnation is a mystery in the ancient sense of the word: it is something we cannot fully understand, yet it shines bright light on the world. It teaches us how to look not just at Jesus, but also at each other and at all material things in this world. And this lesson is important because it can also keep us from making two grave mistakes–two Incarnational errors.
Loving the Spiritual Too Much
Because Christmas celebrates the Incarnation–a central event in God’s salvation of the world–it can be easy to overemphasize the theological and spiritual meaning of Christmas and ignore all the food, decorations, and gifts that are part of a traditional Christmas celebration. Though this seems very devout, it misses the meaning of the Incarnation.
When God became a man, he emphasized the goodness of the human body. When the Incarnated Second Person of the Trinity walked in the dust, washed with water, ate bread and meat, he underscored the goodness of material things, of the “stuff” that fills the world. So, to celebrate the Incarnation in any authentic sense requires the use of stuff to do so–otherwise we aren’t really honoring the Incarnation of Christ.
It is likely that few of my readers lean toward this mistake of overemphasizing the spiritual. But all of us commit a similar mistake when we ignore the goodness of the ordinary things that fill our lives. When we take common things for granted–things like bread and water, our families, our homes–we cannot be grateful for them. We only give thanks for that which we recognize as good.
Scott Cairns helps us understand this better in his poem “Imperative”:
The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you’re ugly.
Maybe she’ll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I’m saying
is that there are no sure things here.
I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,
and she’ll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she’ll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning might be
full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don’t go thinking
you deserve any of it.
This poem emphasizes a truth that has been voiced by many Christians of the past: everything we have is a gift; all that he have we have been given by another. The poem also draws our attention to blessings we easily take for granted: being alive and not dead, having people love us in spite of our looks (and bad hygiene), even dental floss.
What do we have that we have not received? Nothing. All is gift. Let us give thanks for everything, and especially for things that are ordinary–for they are just like us.
Loving the Material Too Much
At Christmas we give gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a gift from God the Father to all mankind. But it is so easy for us to lose sight of this and become crass materialists, reducing Christmas to a time when we get lots of stuff. We often evaluate the success of Christmas by how much new stuff we get, and what percentage of that stuff is what we actually want.
When we do this, we overemphasize the material and ignore the spiritual. As a result, we dishonor the Incarnation of Christ. In his poem “Journey of the Magi”, T.S. Eliot writes about what the experience of the wise men may have been years after they traveled to see the Christ child. At the end of the poem, the wise man wonders,
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Notice the effect Jesus’ birth had on this wiseman? He is no longer content merely with the things of the world, though he has wealth, power, wisdom, and fame. He longs for something more, something that cannot be found in this world. He longs for Jesus.
Being Incarnational All Year Long
To truly honor Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas–and the rest of the year–we must keep the spiritual and the material in harmonic union, emphasizing neither at the expense of the other. And we do so in this way: first, we give thanks to God for the most ordinary blessings we can find–for the dirt in our driveway, the snow on the sidewalk, the high-pitched whine that in our more charitable moments we recognize as our sister’s voice. We need to give thanks for all of this, confessing our blindness and our ingratitude.
Then we try everyday to pay close attention to the things around us. We take a moment to smell the yeast in our dinner rolls. We pause in our piranha-like frenzy of getting things done to notice the gift we have in our children’s faces. We take time to give our siblings our full attention, looking for a way to incarnate our love to them.
We need to see the goodness in everything around us, especially the ordinary things that are so abundant. This is the material aspect of the Incarnation. But we also give thanks for all these things around us because they are gifts that point us to the One who gave them to us. This is the spiritual aspect of the Incarnation. By giving thanks both for the goodness of the world and for the giftedness of the world, we truly honor Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas time.
To conclude, I offer this incarnational toast from Robert Farrar Capon. May God be pleased to make it true of us this year:
May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys.
And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its own. May you relish them indeed.
May we all sit long enough for reserve to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.
Earlier this week, our secondary students gathered in a congregation of Christmas sweater ugliness, having a good laugh at their horrid vulgarity. The kind of ugliness displayed is what philosophers call “kitsch,” which the dictionary defines as “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.”
We found humor in our sweaters because we knew how hideous they were. Perhaps we even thought, how could anyone actually think that these were gift-worthy?
This is good, because at Petra, we are concerned about students’ tastes. We want them to know the difference between kitsch and truth, beauty, and goodness. But it is now, during this holiday time of the year – a time of strong emotion and feeling – that we need to be careful not to succumb to a kind of kitsch that blinds us from the incomprehensible truth, beauty, and goodness of Christmas. For there are versions of Christmas and of Jesus that are as dire in their kitsch as the sweaters we wore that Tuesday morning.
The British philosopher, Roger Scruton, in an essay on kitsch, defines it as “the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap.” In reading this, I thought of the Christmas carol “Away in the Manger,” a saccharine song of suffocating sentimentality if there ever was one. Yet it is one of the most popular Christmas carols that people sing each Christmas season with fervor and joy. Allow me to quote the lyrics:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is what I call docetic kitsch, as it wants to elicit our emotions on the cheap by giving us a sentimental, almost inhuman, baby Jesus (recall that Docetism denied the full humanity of Jesus).
How do we know that no crying he made? Maybe like many babies, Jesus was colicky and cried all the time! Maybe, despite the title, “Silent Night” – a significantly better Christmas carol that still flirts with the temptation of kitsch – it was not a silent night. Maybe Jesus was not tender and mild. Maybe, just as the shepherds arrived, Jesus pooped his diapers for the third time or puked up his dinner for the fourth time, to the frustration of an exhausted Mary and Joseph whose eyes were bloodshot from weariness.
The picture painted here is an almost angelic baby who would never fuss, puke or poop his pants, in other words, not very messy, not very gross, not very baby-like. It is as if “Away in Manger” wants to get us to say, “Ah, look at the baby Jesus, so precious, so cute,” but again, how do we know he was cute? The Bible seems to suggest that Jesus was nothing to look at as an adult, and perhaps as a baby, this was the case as well.
At another point in his essay on kitsch, Roger Scruton writes, “The world of kitsch is a world of make-believe, of permanent childhood, in which every day is Christmas. In such a world, death does not really happen.” Songs like “Away in a Manger” give us a kitsch version of Christmas because, more dangerously, they fail to mention why, and in what context, Jesus was born. There is no death in “Away in a Manger.” There is no sense in this carol that Jesus was an infant born to die a brutal death on a Cross. There is no indication that Jesus was born into a world permeated by death, unless you interpret the line about Jesus taking us to heaven to live with him there, but that, too, is just a sentimental Gnosticism passed off as accurate Christian theology.
Nor is there any indication of The Massacre of the Innocents as a result of Jesus being born, where, to quote “The Coventry Carol,” Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
Like it or not, the actual birth of Jesus is ensconced and wrapped up in death. This infant, no matter how tender or mild, how cute or plain, with or without poopy pants and puked stained clothes, is our Savior – a Savior born to be slaughtered so that we may be born again. He is a baby born to die, that death might be defeated. We cannot (accurately) talk of Jesus without death. We cannot celebrate Christmas without acknowledging the haunting reality that he was born to die.
Now do not get me wrong. I am not saying that Christmas is a time of doom and gloom. It is indeed a time of great celebration. But we live in between what theologians call the already and the not yet, which means we can sing “Joy to the World” with all the joy and gladness we can muster, because we know that this infant, through his death, brings new birth. But our songs will – yea, they must be – tinged with a portion of sadness, because of what the world is still like. The work of the infant is not fully accomplished; death still reigns in this world. Therefore, our songs must have a portion of longing, a longing because of the harsh reality of death.
“Come, Lord Jesus,” is the cry of Advent. This Advent season, we celebrate what happened 2,000 years ago. But we look toward for the full realization of that birth in a future we long to be in now.
In case you’ve been living under a rock of late, there’s a huge movie coming out this December for which you may have already purchased tickets. The story’s a familiar one, and almost all of us are at least familiar with the basic plot, but we’re also a bit nervous as to whether the new film will live up to the original.
Of course, I am speaking of In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s portrayal of the tale that supposedly inspired Herman Melville to write his masterpiece novel, Moby-Dick. (For those who assumed this post was about Star Wars, my apologies). Earlier this week, I watched a “featurette” on the film, and while the visuals are impressive (Howard, director of Apollo 13, looks to have made another finely-crafted movie), I was struck by a particular quote from the brief interview with In the Heart of the Sea author, Nathaniel Philbrick.
“Those whalemen,” said Philbrick, “were seeing a once-in-a-lifetime event no one would have dared to make up unless it had really happened. And that’s what gave Herman Melville the courage to ultimately write Moby-Dick.”
This observation – that eyewitness account and oral tradition can be trusted – flies in the face of today’s modernist emphasis that only that which is empirical (or able to be measured) is valid. In fact, the argument about the whalemen’s testimony fueling Melville’s courage, has historically been applied to that of the Apostles and is one of the classic apologetic supports for their writing of the Gospels; that is, the once-in-a-lifetime event of the Incarnation of the God-Man dared not be made up – particularly when one considers how people of all ages, ethnicities, geographic locations, vocations, and education and socioeconomic levels gave their lives to tell it – unless it had really happened.
Mircea Eliade, in her book, Myth and Reality, writes that, “In ancient Greece, muthos, from which the English word ‘myth’ derives, meant ‘story, narrative.’ However, by the time of Christianity, muthos had started to take on the connotations of “fable, fiction, lie.” This latter definition is unfortunately the one we still associate with the word “myth” today, but C.S. Lewis, in a letter to friend Arthur Greeves, wrote of a difference between the latter and the former, using the narrative of Christ as his illustration.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. And one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”
Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate, I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.
It’s humorous (and perhaps heartening) that historians and movie makers are co-opting a more ancient (read: “less modernist”) form of history and myth to support telling the story that inspired Melville’s book. It’s also funny (in a sad sort of way), that the Bible is not even remotely afforded comparable credibility, nevermind the fact that it is and has been the most objectively sourced and documented book in the history of the world.
In thinking about the Christian narrative – particularly during this time of Advent as we draw nearer to the celebration of Christ’s miraculous Christmas Incarnation – we can believe the “true myth” of Christianity. Like Lewis, we can approach the Christian story as we do other myths – the legend of Moby-Dick (which may have indeed happened), the Star Wars space saga (which we’re pretty sure did not) – but with the assurance that the greatest story ever told is indeed the most important of all and full of meaning, because we are “nearly certain” that it really happened.
Today is our last day of school this week, as we break for what Abraham Lincoln (and George Washington before him) proclaimed as a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. While we gladly join the rest of our country in observing the holiday on Thursday, our reasons for doing so are not particularly ones of patriotism or politeness (though they are not not those things, either); as Christians, we observe Thanksgiving for the purpose of worshiping God, for we cannot be thankful for something without offering thanks to Someone.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” This is wisdom we would do well to heed, for as the Internet meme goes, “Only in America do people trample others for Black Friday sales exactly one day after being thankful for everything we have.”
But I digress.
When I think of giving thanks, four varieties come to mind:
1) Token thankfulness, wherein we choose if we will be thankful (or not). The postmodern philosopher Bart Simpson once prayed, “Dear God we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Here, we feel no obligation to be thankful, so we only go through the motions for the purpose of making the point.
2) Courteous thankfulness, wherein we choose to be thankful (even when we’re not). I think of writing the obligatory thank you note for that fruitcake received at Christmas; no one’s ever glad to receive a fruitcake, but if we’ve been raised with manners, we’ll do our best to muster up gratitude because, well, that’s what courteous people do.
3) Relative thankfulness, wherein we choose why we will be thankful (but always on our terms). This is where we rank what qualifies in our minds as being thank-worthy (usually the good stuff) and jettison anything not matching our particular desire for it (usually the tough stuff). God is good, but only when he’s good to us.
4) Desperate thankfulness, wherein we cannot choose to be anything but thankful (always). The response of the grateful leper in Luke 17:11-19 is an example of such desperation. Luke records that, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” Jesus had not only restored his body; he had also restored his life, as the man was now able to return to his family and re-enter society. He had nothing to offer Jesus except his thanks, he was so desperate.
As we think about our students, our classical Christian teaching calls us and them to cultivate the gift of gratitude in all we do. St. Ambrose said that, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” St. Augustine wrote that the Christian life was to be “a hallelujah from head to toe, the praise of God saturating our lives.”
Finally, King David filled the Psalms – the Church’s ancient hymnbook – with calls for desperate thankfulness instead of any other token, courteous, or relative versions. His simple and direct admonition: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1).
Thus and so may we give thanks – maybe even desperately – on Thursday, but also by God’s grace, always.
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28
(Pictures are from yesterday’s K4,Kindergarten, and 1st grade annual Thanksgiving Feast.)
It could be argued that music is the greatest of God’s languages – as simple or as complex as needed to convey meaning and emotion. Whether the lone voice of a mother singing comfort over her newborn baby or the Monteverdi Choir thundering praise in the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah, music – particularly vocal music – is a most intimate, most powerful expression of our humanity.
But just as our humanity does not develop overnight, neither does its musicality. As an athlete should begin when young, so, too, should a chorister. Children are naturally musical, but sadly, we too often neglect their development in becoming more so, or are too impatient with their progress as they go.
Which brings us to last night. If you were with us for our first-ever concert at Petra, you probably did not experience the absolute tenderness of a mother singing to her child, nor did you likely feel the overwhelming passion of the Monteverdi Choir interpreting Handel. But you did hear sounds of daughters whose voices may one day serenade their own children. And you did hear sons whose voices may one day soar in singing praise to God.
Under the very capable direction of Mrs. Heidi Hornung (with apt accompaniment by so many talented faculty, students, and friends), our choristers earned our appreciation for their efforts, and they deserve our hope and help to continue growing into the musical men and women God would have them become.
I was proud of our Schola Cantorum – our “school of singers” – and thank you for your support of Petra’s fine arts. More to come, to be sure.
Ordinary things sing God’s praise constantly—we just lack the ears to hear what they say. And the only way we can hear them is if we first start trying to see the beauty of ordinary things.
When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, three significant things happen to our souls.
The Effects of Ordinary Beauty
First, we become increasingly more aware of the things around us. When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, we focus on things outside ourselves. We begin to notice things we usually take for granted. This develops in us a habit of being aware of and caring for things that others usually overlook—whether inanimate objects or unnoticed people.
Secondly, the pursuit of ordinary beauty increases our gratitude toward God. The more we see the rich grace of scrambled eggs, softs sheets, and clean floors, the more we see the lovingkindness of the God who gave us these things. Ordinary things sing praise to God—and if we are willing to listen, they teach us how to sing in gratitude as well.
In a poem about ordinary beauty, Anne Sexton writes how she so often overlooks the abundance of good things that fill her life each morning. She concludes with conviction,
All this is God,
Right here in my pea-green house
And I mean,
Though often forget,
To give thanks,
To faint down by the kitchen table
In a prayer of rejoicing
As the holy birds at the kitchen window
Peck into their marriage of seeds” (“Welcome Morning”, ll. 17-26)
Sexton’s sudden awareness of the ordinary beauty around her gives her the desire to praise God, to join the “holy birds” in thanksgiving.
Finally, the more we pursue ordinary beauty, the more our love for others grows. As our gratitude toward God increases and our vision of ordinary beauty expands, so grows our desire to share the beauty we see with others. We replicate the beauty we are grateful for by finding ways to give it to other people. We set the table with care and precision. We share the toothsome crumb of homemade bread by taking a loaf to our neighbors. We take half a minute to pray with and comfort someone in pain.
We strive to pass on the sacramental goodness of the ordinary to others because we love them. We love them because we have come to love the ordinary. And we love the ordinary because it has taught us so much about God’s love for us.
But the blessings of ordinary beauty don’t stop here. The disciplined habit of looking for ordinary beauty not only teaches us how to love God better, but also how to love our neighbor and our world better. Giving more time and attention to the things around us forces our ego to move from the center of our world to the periphery.
True to the central irony of the gospel, by learning to see the beauty in other things, we ourselves grow more beautiful. Perhaps it is only by abandoning our quest for personal beauty that we can one day realize that we have indeed grown truly beautiful.
Our culture is obsessed with beauty, yet knows very little about it. We spend countless hours and dollars to acquire and maintain physical beauty. And while beauty of face and body is a true form of beauty, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate and certainly the least fulfilling.
There are far more beneficial forms of beauty worth pursuing: one of the most rewarding is the beauty of the ordinary.
The Extraordinary Glory of Ordinary Beauty
Ordinary beauty refers to the glory to be found in everyday things. We can see this glory in three particular aspects of ordinary things.
First, they are glorious simply because they exist. Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor of aesthetics, argues that “Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down” (On Beauty and Being Just, 18). Ordinary things are beautiful, first of all, because they are particular things. They simply are. And furthermore, they have been given to you.
The Apostle Paul once wrote, “What do you have that you did not receive?” And the answer is: Nothing. Everything has been given. All is gift, but this is especially true of ordinary things.
Think about all the ordinary things in your life: buttered toast, lilac bushes, goldfinches, warm showers, hot coffee, notes from friends. Where do these things come from? Ultimately, from God. Why do these things come to you? Because God is your Father, and He loves you. Marvel in that reality.
Ordinary things are glorious also because they are so abundant. This is the marvelous grace of the ordinary: that God gives us so much of it. Every day begins with a sunrise and ends with sunset, and in between is filled with hundreds of ordinary things—God’s good gifts of love to us. The problem is that we don’t see them very well.
Writing about our all-too-common blindness to the glory of the ordinary, G.K. Chesterton argues that God can delight in repetition and monotony because He has the eternal ability to see the beauty of the ordinary. He writes,
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we.” (Orthodoxy, 66).
We often ignore the ordinary precisely because it is so commonplace. But Chesterton argues that the very abundance of ordinary things makes them quite extraordinary. The grace and glory of the ordinary is the fact that God gives us so much goodness in each ordinary thing—and then gives us so many ordinary things so often. We grow tired of the ordinary not because it is not beautiful, but because we are sinners and our delight and gratitude grow weak so quickly.
The third way that ordinary things are glorious—and therefore beautiful—is by their testimony to God’s constant (and therefore ordinary) faithfulness. Ordinary things are sacramental proof of God’s constant fatherly favor. The cracked crust and soft crumb of a warm slice of bread is proof of the loaf’s goodness. But when we have cultivated the ability to see the loaf as a gift, the loaf becomes more than a simple loaf. It becomes sacramental: it is itself and it points us to see the goodness of God Himself.
Just as the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are simply bread and wine (and beautiful in their simplicity), they are also the body and blood of Christ (whether by symbol or by substance). They are themselves, but they are also more than themselves. The eyes of faith can look at ordinary bread and wine and see Christ. The same eyes can look at buttered toast and see a loving Father.
This vision of Christ in ordinary things is waiting for us in hundreds of things throughout each day, each morning. We can see God in our scrambled eggs and smoked bacon, in the juice and squeeze of fresh fruit, in the rumble and toss of a spring storm.
Ordinary things sing God’s praise constantly—we just lack the ears to hear what they say. And the only way we can hear them is if we first start trying to see the beauty of ordinary things.
(The following is Mr. Dunham’s address from our first Reformation/All Saints’ Day Feast.)
I’d like to tell you a Little Mr. Dunham story. Imagine when Mr. Dunham was a boy of about 5 – quite a bit shorter, quite a bit skinnier, probably still wearing a suit and tie. He grew up in the middle of the United States on a farm in rural Illinois. And he loved Thanksgiving. He loved Thanksgiving because of the food – turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, just like we’re having today; but he also loved Thanksgiving because he got to see family, sometimes family he didn’t even know he had! Yes, late on Thanksgiving morning, Little Mr. Dunham would stand at the door and excitedly wait for car after car to pull in the driveway and park, each one letting out dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents who came for the feast at Little Mr. Dunham’s family’s farm.
Now, as many of you know, this is the first Feast of its kind at Petra. Not only is feasting referenced throughout the Scriptures, but Christian history places feasting as the central demonstration and expression of gratitude toward God and the joy that comes from celebrating his Providence – that is, his provision – in our lives. This is what Thanksgiving is all about! Today at our feast, however, we want to observe two significant days in the history of the Church – Reformation Day and All Saints’ Day – and I’d like to tell you a little about each of them.
Almost 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, a troubled Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (or statements) critiquing certain church practices to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. The door of the Castle Church served as the official university bulletin board and was regularly used for this kind of announcement – in this case, a public discussion on the practice of indulgences, or paying money to purchase a “free pass” for one’s sins instead of repenting of them. However, as there had been growing unrest among many church people over these and other church matters, when Luther’s criticisms were published by way of the newly invented printing press, the spark ignited a raging fire of debate about what the Bible says about salvation and quickly spread through many countries of Europe. This was the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation.
All Saints’ Day is a holy day that the Orthodox church traces back to church father John Chrysostom in the 4th century as a recognition of saints – many of whom were martyrs – celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Parthenon at Rome to Mary and the martyrs, initiated the practice in the Catholic church in 609 A.D. before Pope Gregory III officially established the holy day on November 1 in the mid-eighth century. Historically, Catholic churches have thought of “saints” as those officially canonized or “made” saints by the church, but in the Orthodox church, as well as in many Protestant denominations today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated as a remembrance of departed Christians from any time and place – those whom Hebrews 12:1 calls a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding the Church universal. Thus, All Saints’ Day is a day in which we honor faithful believers who have died, but also those by whom we are sitting even now! For as in one of the verses of the hymn that our choir will soon sing:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
The supremacy of the Scriptures and the fellowship of the saints – this living truth and this “one in thee, for all are thine” reality – is what we celebrate today at our Reformation and All Saints Feast. Whether we are Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant, we can and choose to gather in unity at Petra to share this meal together. Why? Because we are together! We are part of God’s family because…
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made;
who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
and He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified;
Who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
These truths (and our unity as saints surrounding them) are what we celebrate today. Thanks be to God!
One of the books I’ve been reading of late is journalist Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). In it, Ripley chronicles the lives of three different American students – one from Oklahoma, one from Minnesota, and one from Pennsylvania – who spend a year of high school overseas in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, respectively. Ripley uses these students’ stories to put flesh on her facts from international research that suggests the right kind of rigor, parents who focus on the right things, and students who have bought into the promise of learning all matter a great deal in educating for a civilized society.
While I commend the book and its observations on rigor and results, I found the content on pages 107-109 most interesting. In this section (subtitled “The Geography of Parenting”), Ripley discusses research concerning the role and importance of family in a student’s academic success. She writes:
(Scientist) Andreas Schleicher noticed after the first PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test in 2000 that a student’s home environment dramatically affected scores. He wanted to know more about how families shaped education, so he tried to get all the participating countries to agree to survey parents…By 2009, Schleicher and his colleagues had managed to convince thirteen countries and regions to include parents in the PISA. Five thousand of the students who took the PISA test brought home a special survey for their parents. The survey asked how they had raised their children and participated in their education, starting from when they were very young.
That parents affected their children’s learning was not in doubt; the question was, how?
Strange patterns emerged. For example, parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background. Out of thirteen very different places, there were only two (Denmark and New Zealand) in which parental volunteering had any positive impact on scores at all, and it was small.
Ripley was incredulous:
How could this be? Weren’t the parents who volunteered in the school community showing their children how much they valued education? Weren’t the mothers who chaperoned field trips and fathers who brought orange slices to soccer games the ones with the most time and energy to devote to their children? The data was baffling. Yet other research within the United States revealed the same mysterious dynamic: volunteering in children’s schools and attending school events seemed to have little effect on how much kids learned.
So what parental action actually had effect? Ripley continues with her findings, which again should come as no surprise:
By contrast, other parental efforts yielded big returns, the survey suggested. When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen. It sounded like a public-service cliche: Read to your kids. Could it be that simple?
But what about after fifteen? Again, there should be no shock:
As kids got older, the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels. Research from within the United States echoed these findings. What parents did with children at home seemed to matter more than what parents did to help out at school.
Uh-oh. There go all our parent volunteers! Perhaps, but honestly, if it’s a choice between volunteering at school or reading books and discussing ideas with your student(s) at home, then so be it. The point is this: educating our kids has more to do with how we as parents interact with them, and less to do with signing up to be seen doing so.
Sure, Petra needs plenty of parental volunteer help (particularly when we’re a week out from our first feast next Friday, October 30, with food prep and service opportunities still to fill), but we’ll get it. When you sign up to help (and thank you in advance for doing so), give some thought to what you signed up for when you brought child(ren) into the world. As parents, we are called to read with them, to discuss with them, and to give them the gift of time spent together. Indeed, rigor and results are important, but neither more so than their relationship – now and always – with us.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16
We sing a lot at Petra, and not just in choir or only at the elementary level. While there is plenty of music going on in our K4-6th grade classrooms each day (not to mention in our 1st-3rd grade violin program, or on Friday mornings as part of our elementary Great Assembly), our 7th-12th grade students gather for ten minutes of daily morning prayer and song, so named “matins” for the medieval tradition of corporate prayer and singing, scripture reading and response, and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and various ancient creeds.
In addition to the morning music, we usually also offer a musical blessing together before lunch in the form of the “Doxology” or “Gloria Patri.” And, since music is one of the “four ways” of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) of classical Christian education, at some point in the months or years to come, I hope we can work in some “evensong” to end each day as well. (We also have plans for more formally-developed choirs and orchestras, but that’s another post.)
As a classical Christian school, we want our students singing ancient songs and participating in traditional liturgies that have been important to Christians for millennia. Sadly, few churches even reference many of these anymore (let alone use them), so ours is not only an attempt at morning prayer but musical preservation. In addition to several traditional hymns to date, we’ve included service music like “Venite,” which is a musical chant of Psalm 95; “Kyrie Eleison,” which the students have learned to sing in a beautiful three-part round; and (currently) “Dona Nobis Pacem,” with three different parts sung in harmony. There is no accompaniment and no sheet music; students learn by ear and attempt to blend their voices with those of others as we focus together at the start of our day.
Earlier this week, we gathered all of our Petra students into the gymnasium to take an all-school picture. Everyone did a nice job assembling themselves (which is no small task for 198 K4-12th grade students), but after the picture was taken, it seemed a great opportunity since we were all together to have everyone sing “Kyrie.” Perhaps the best way to explain the result is to quote one of Mrs. Snyder’s first graders, who excitedly told her on the way back to class that “everybody’s singing sounded like beautiful opera!”
While I’m unaware of this first grade student’s actual experience with opera, indeed (and with a little help from the live acoustics of our gymnasium), the students’ singing was beautiful. But even better than that one moment has been that all this week I’ve heard first graders, fifth graders, and freshmen (among others), whistling while they work and humming in the hallways these ancient songs of the faith.
What started out as joyful noise is metamorphosing into joyful music. As students learn these and other songs, we trust this venerable music will stay with and sustain them in good times and bad, just as it has done for so many saints before.
“Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Ps. 95:1
Translations: “Venite” (“Come.”); “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy.”); “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant us peace.”)
Photos courtesy of Ashley Dawn Photography