The Gift of—and to—the Magi

      Christmas stimulates our senses like no other holiday. The dazzling holiday lights and decorations, the scent of pine from the tree and the aroma of roasted chestnuts emanating from the street vendor’s cart in the big city, that first sip of cinnamon-laced eggnog (we’ll pass on the fruitcake, thank you very much), the heft and feel of an unwrapped present, and the warm embrace of friends and family with whom we reunite. And my favorite of all: the laughter of children and the music of the season. Especially the music. 

      The sensory appeal of the holiday is not surprising since Christianity is very much a materialist religion, emphasizing the physical world and the human body as vehicles of the divine. In Medieval Europe this belief often found expression in an intense desire to be near the relics of the saints and martyrs, sacred objects that were frequently venerated in magnificent religious structures. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, for example, was built in the 1240s by Saint Louis to house the Crown of Thorns, believed to have been on Christ’s head during the crucifixion.[1]

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A Christmas Story

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV)

      Gene Weingarten, an award-winning author and writer for The Washington Post, was trying to come up with a topic for his next book. While bouncing ideas off his editor, he said: “What if we randomly pick a day from the recent past—last 50 years or so—and write about what happened in the United States during those 24 hours?” 

      His editor liked it, and so the two of them, on New Year’s Day, 2013, headed to Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington where they imposed on some fellow oyster lovers to help them select a date between 1969 and 1989. Through the drawing of three numbers—a day, a month and a year—from an old green fedora, a day was chosen: December 28, 1986. 

      The two of them were crestfallen.

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The Origins of Christ Jesus

      Since Advent begins today, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the infancy narratives found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. 

      When we study these scriptures, we typically skip over the verses at the beginning, which deal with the Savior’s ancestry. I imagine we do this because we assume they do nothing more than recite Christ’s lineage, just like the family trees we create on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. We also may be a bit perplexed by the numerous differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies. 

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Grace and Gratitude

      ’Tis the season of giving thanks for the gifts we have received.

      While most of us appreciate the importance of gratitude, we typically give little thought as to how we express it. We don’t stop to ask: “How should I give thanks? What is the best way to show my appreciation?”

      The importance of the manner in which we express our gratitude is embodied in the very word “thanks.” As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, the word “thank” is etymologically similar to the word “think.” “To think” in German is denken while “thanks” is danken.[1]

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Resistance is Necessary, not Futile

    “What’s in a name?” Juliet rhetorically asks in reference to Romeo’s clan: the Montagues. The answer, as she would soon learn, is: “quite a lot.” And in the world of the Old Testament, names were hugely important.

      The creation story underscores its significance when God gives a name to our world and to each of its features and inhabitants. For the Israelites, your name was an essential part of your individuality and created a link between you, your ancestors and descendants, preserving your connection with the living even after you have departed.

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Incest

      Well, I’ll bet the title of this essay got your attention! I mean, when was the last time you read a post about incest on a website devoted to religious, scriptural and historical subjects? But what better place to find it than in the Book of Genesis where Lot is warned by some angels to take his family and get out of Sodom—a place known for its deviancy—before all hell breaks loose. Literally! His wife doesn’t make it—too much sodium in her diet, apparently—but his daughters do, though the first thing on their minds, once they have fled to the hills, is seducing their father. And you thought the Kardashians were strange!

“Sodom and Gomorrah afire, by Jacob Jacobsz. de Wet d. J., c. 1680
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The Fifth Commandment

      When my parents married, my mother was not a member of the church and my father, who hailed from a long line of Latter-day Saints, had been inactive for some time. But they each retained a strong belief in God and desired to find a place to worship where they both would feel comfortable. 

      When I, their firstborn, arrived, they were attending the Presbyterian Church in my hometown, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. So I was baptized and added to the church register shortly after my birth. 

Cutest Baby Ever
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The Color of God

      One of our favorite family traditions when I was young boy—one we shared with millions of other Americans—was gathering around the television every Sunday evening to watch Bonanza, an American Western set in Nevada near Carson City. The show chronicles the adventures of the Cartwright family, owners of one of the largest ranches in the state: the Ponderosa.

      The family patriarch was the thrice-widowed Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), who had three sons of varying temperaments. The show, which ran a record 14 seasons on NBC, was popular because it offered both comedy and drama, and told compelling stories about the challenges the family, and those in its orbit, confronted.

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Forgiveness

      On the evening of March 4, 1865, a black man, dressed in his Sunday best, approached the entrance to the White House. He was there to see the President of the United States who, earlier that day, had delivered his second inaugural address to the nation. Having heard that Lincoln would be hosting a reception open to the public, Frederick Douglass decided to attend.

      Douglass, until recently, had not been a big fan of Mr. Lincoln who, early in his presidency, seemed ambivalent on the question of abolishing slavery. But recent events—the single-mindedness with which Lincoln had prosecuted the war and his dogged efforts to win passage of a constitutional amendment banning involuntary servitude—had caused him to rethink his views. 

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Dancing Bears

      January 1, 2007, was a dark day for many Gypsy families living in Bulgaria, for that was when their country joined the European Union. The livelihood of these individuals was suddenly threatened because, as a condition of membership, Bulgaria was required to outlaw the keeping of bears in captivity.

     For centuries, young bears were captured by circuses and entrepreneurs from the Roma community, domesticated, and then taught to dance, perform tricks, and even imitate celebrities. While to the uninitiated observer this might seem little different than teaching an elephant to stand on its hind legs, it was undeniably cruel.

The Dancing Bear, by William Frederick Witherington, England, 1822
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