Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thursday's Dr. Thursday

Three Thursdays of Advent - a Trinity of Christmas Truths:
2. The Other King Who Warred Upon the Children

Today's posting requires a subtitle:

Its Own Enemies Have Made It More Illustrious

This is, perhaps, not the kind of essay you would naturally read to children. Nor does it make good bedtime reading for Advent. It is quite a bit more horrifying than Marley's Ghost - or than pre-haunted Scrooge. Far worse than the Abominable Snow Monster of the North, more insidious than the pre-dawn Grinch.

But it is part of Christmas, and we avoid it to our dismay.

In order for me to talk about it, then, you will have to bear with a somewhat long-winded (who me?) and allusive manner of discourse. I have a lot to say about this topic, and it comes at an auspicious moment. But I do warn you - though I will NOT be explicit about all the details it will not be pleasant. But it is important.

In order to get to the matter at hand, let us begin with something exciting and happy - Advent's great Countdown to Christmas. There are two remarkable facts to note here.

The word "countdown" became popular with Man's venture into space, as the rocket-people measured the time until launch. But the very first countdown was actually a count-UP. It occurs in the exceedingly famous and prescient From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, and measured the seconds until 22:46:40 - that is, 13 minutes and 20 seconds before 11PM on December 1 - the moment when the great cannon in Florida was fired, sending its capsule-shaped projectile towards the Moon!!!

Yes, the first count-UP ended not at zero, but at forty - a famous Biblical number. (Hmm.) However, long before Barbicane and J. T. Maston's computations. there was another form of countdown in use. In fact, the whole calendar of a whole great people was founded on a continual looking forward to... something. Strange to say, the moon played a role in it.

No it was NOT the Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews.
Read more.

Every so often in a village by a river in Italy, the king woke up in the morning and performed some unknown calculation, establishing how many days remained until the next full moon. He then called out the result of the computation, which probably had the effect of "Hey everybody! Our next big bash will come in 13 days!" (or whatever his calculations indicated). They liked parties, you see, and a full moon was as good a reason as any to have one.

As the little village became a great city, and the kingship gave way to a republic and other variations of governance, this "calling" of dates continued. The kingly chore of feast-announcing was maintained by a "priest", who announced the "Kalends" - the schedule of feasts which gives us our word "calendar". And though the Romans had months we can recognize, their days were numbered downwards: like children before Christmas, they were always looking forward to a future feast.

Alas. Now we have all the components - Rome, children, and Christmas - and we must attend, as GKC did for most of two chapters, to a dark and sad aspect of history, which has its continuance even today. I mean Carthage, child sacrifice, and Herod. I shall not summarize this here. You know quite well (or can read elsewhere) what happened in Carthage, and how Rome fought a losing battle to finally win - and the debate of WHY the Punic Wars happened (like why the American Civil War Between the States happened) will go on as long as Man has a history. GKC has been called wrong on this, as on other matters, and I shall not delve into that now. But he is right on its relation to the bigger picture - especially as it touches on the Christmas Story.

Last week we talked about the Magi, and the translation of that word. This week, we shall examine a far more mystical word. It is a word first heard from angels: "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Sabaoth." [Isaias 6:3] This Hebrew word Sabaoth is translated in one edition of the Vulgate as "exercituum" - which gives us "Holy holy, holy, Lord of the armies".

At first this may seem irrelevant, but we must understand what is going on here, and run our mental focussing lenses all the way out, to give us the wide-screen view. Perhaps Chesterton can assist:
It is often said with a sneer that the God of Israel was only a God of Battles, “a mere barbaric Lord of Hosts” pitted in rivalry against other gods only as their envious foe. Well it is for the world that he was a God of Battles. Well it is for us that he was to all the rest only a rival and a foe. [Cf. Lk 2:34 and and Mt 10:34] In the ordinary way, it would have been only too easy for them to have achieved the desolate disaster of conceiving him as a friend.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:228]
You see, there was a war going on, and God had already decided to fight on the losing side. (If you think I've missed something here, you'll have to read GKC's The Ball and the Cross: "The Cross cannot be defeated, for it is Defeat.")

Indeed! At Christmas God Himself took on aspects of the warrior. First, He took on our human form (as St. Paul sings so gloriously in Gal 4:4) - that is, a form capable of suffering and dying. (See more on this in Hebrews 10.) Life, as GKC might have said, is worth dying for.

Secondly, and far more relevant, He came as a scout, or an advance-guard, coming in secretly and subtly, to keep the Enemy from knowing what was going on:
By the very nature of the [Christmas] story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw's den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:313]
Doesn't this ring a bell? Perhaps you might recall a scene in Rivendell and Gandalf addressing the Hobbits: “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.” [JRRT The Lord of the Rings II:2, 288]

And indeed that is exactly what happened. But at the same time, the Enemy was still hard at work - in a word, it was witchcraft, not that of Oz, Merlin, or Hogwarts, not of the Istari or of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, but real witchcraft, which is about attaining a godlike power over life: "People would understand better the popular fury against the witches, if they remembered that the malice most commonly attributed to them was preventing the birth of children." [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:254]

That is what happened in Carthage, the "New Town" of the Phoenicians. That is what, somehow, was stuck in the mind of the Idumean king Herod the Great - who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Magi came asking that puzzling riddle about the newborn King, Herod saw, in truth, how a baby could be a threat. And so he took action.

You can read about the next scene in St. Matthew, 2:16-18. It cannot be sanitized for the young. It ought not be sanitized for the young. There ARE enemies out there. They are deadly foes. They hate life, they hate light, and they especially hate children, and those who engender them, teach them, guard them and defend them. Let no one misunderstand that we are talking about a fairy tale here, even while I quote GKC about them: "The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." [GKC, "The Red Angel" in Tremendous Trifles]

You see, every attempt by our enemies, full of hate, bitter, and dark as they are, only goes to demonstrate the truth of the power of God better and better. At this very moment, there is a great whine going around the E-cosmos about somebody's dark compasses. But even a broken compass points north twice a day! (hee hee) Aristotle wrote a lot of nonsense (I will not explore it here) but in the hand of Aquinas the reasoning power of ancient Greece "bowed low in adoration" and in essence witnessed the truth of the Sacraments. Today's broken compass, spinning its never-ending orbit, stops and points to the True Pole: it exalts the Chair of Peter, advancing John Paul II's request in Ut Unum Sint better than a whole college of theologians.

Why bring that up here? Well - why is Herod a part of Christmas?

Herod recognised the danger of a child, and sent soldiers against the dangerous infant - he killed a lot of babies, but failed to achieve his intentions. The same has happened to tyrants and such throughout the centuries. Long ago Tertullian wrote: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." Yes. That is the point. The Holy Innocents, whose feast comes on December 28, were martyrs - witnesses to Truth. And truth has an Enemy, the "ancient dragon" or serpent [Rv 12:9] who has been a liar, and a hater, from the beginning. Those of us who choose the light thereby oppose the dark, the lie, the hate - and so put ourselves at risk, along with the Baby of Bethlehem. And how can it be otherwise, as long as we continue to call upon the Thrice-Holy, the God of Battles?

With a strange rapidity, like the changes of a dream, the proportions of things seemed to change in their presence. Before most men knew what had happened, these few men were palpably present. They were important enough to be ignored. People became suddenly silent about them and walked stiffly past them. We see a new scene, in which the world has drawn its skirts away from these men and women and they stand in the centre of a great space like lepers. The scene changes again and the great space where they stand is overhung on every side with a cloud of witnesses [cf. Heb 12:1], interminable terraces full of faces looking down towards them intently; for strange things are happening to them. New tortures have been invented for the madmen who have brought good news. [cf. Is 52:7] That sad and weary society seems almost to find a new energy in establishing its first religious persecution. Nobody yet knows very clearly why that level world has thus lost its balance about the people in its midst; but they stand unnaturally still while the arena and the world seem to revolve round them. And there shone on them in that dark hour a light that has never been darkened; a white fire clinging to that group like an unearthly phosphorescence, blazing its track through the twilights of history and confounding every effort to confound it with the mists of mythology and theory; that shaft of light or lightning by which the world itself has struck and isolated and crowned it; by which its own enemies have made it more illustrious and its own critics have made it more inexplicable; the halo of hatred around the Church of God.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:296-7]
Remember! "The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side." [GKC, on his deathbed. in Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 650]

Next week, we shall see another aspect of Rome - and of Israel - as we count down to the Great Feast of Christmas.

--Dr. Thursday

1 comment:

  1. My dear Anonymous,
    Might I suggest that a response of that length be relegated to a blog of one's own? Please tell us the address of such blog, so that our readers can refer to it from time to time.

    Meanwhile, it is difficult for me to leave a post up that rather than engages Dr. Thursday in a pleasant battle of wits or points out items for clarification, seems to mean to refute in a harmful way.

    You may be right, but be wrong in the way you are going about it. Or you may be wrong. But to me that is not as important as the manner in which the conversation happens.


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