Monthly Archives: December 2009


The Reformation was, of course, the source of the dichotomy between the elaborate Catholic aesthetic and the simple, even harsh, Protestant one.  It’s remarkable how persistent this difference has been: the divide between the adornment still seen in contemporary Catholic churches and the bare walls and black curtains of the contemporary Reformed church (many traditional Protestant churches have quite sensibly defected to the Catholic side on this issue) is at least as marked as the difference between Catholic Flemish art and Reformed Dutch art in the seventeenth century.

As with all things associated with Catholicism, Reformed people look warily upon adornment in the church.  Catholics, I suppose, might think of Protestant churches as being dull and joyless in appearance (I know I do), but the Reformed view of fancy Catholic buildings and, in particular, vestments is more condemning.  Many of them believe that ornate vestments show that the Catholic church is full of opulent excess centered around glorifying themselves.  (To see this view in action, watch the Luther movie.)

This is clearly a violation of AGI, attributing a bad intent to a tradition that has countless other possible meanings.  It’s also provably false: the traditional clothing for priests not celebrating the Mass is the black cassock and white clerical collar, as simple and humble as can be.  The vestments are only worn while the priest is performing the liturgy.

The vestments, then, serve the opposite purpose of glorifying man: being worn only when the priest is acting as a representative of God, they actually represent the glory of God.  This makes sense.  If you were meeting with an emissary from the king of a grand kingdom, you would be surprised if he were dressed as a peasant.  His clothing should befit the king that he represents.  The emissary himself isn’t a great or rich man, but he is the closest you are going to get to seeing the king.  Thus also with vestments.

Within the Mass, vestments add to the beauty of the service, a glimpse of the beauty, joy, and richness of worship in heaven.  Last but not least, vestments are pretty and help make Mass something you might actually want to go to, as opposed to something staunch and dull, preached in a dress shirt, tie, and brown slacks.

Naturally, I am in favor of vestments.  Why wouldn’t you be?

If you’re curious, the paintings are “The Lion Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens and “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer, both from the mid-1600s.


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Side Effects of a Costume Party

Somewhere, a door-to-door salesman is dazed, in shock, because my brother-in-law answered the door in a red zoot suit, red and black fedora, and a cane.

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Assuming Good Intentions

Assuming good intentions is the sort of principle that is generally appreciated but rarely applied.  I would like to establish it here, because I plan to reference it in future posts.  The general idea is that, unless there is no other possible explanation, you shouldn’t attribute malicious motives to someone.

Moving away from any subject that could offend anyone, I’ll give you an example from the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century.  By this point, liturgical music used in the Catholic mass had become almost unworkably complex.  Polyphony and complex orchestration made it difficult to understand the words.  Part of a canon recommended, but not officially adopted, at the Council of Trent reads:

But the entire manner of singing in musical modes should be calculated, not to afford vain delight to the ear, but so that the words may be comprehensible to all; and thus may the hearts of the listeners be caught up into the desire for celestial harmonies and contemplation of the joys of the blessed.

There were presumably two distinct camps on this issue: those who were in favor of complex polyphonic music, and those who were in favor of simple, straightforward music.  This quote illustrates the view the latter had of the former: that they were attempting to turn the Mass into an entertainment event, perhaps even intentionally trying to obscure the words to avoid the conviction that hearing them would bring.  It’s easy to guess the other side’s position about them: that they were stodgy, joyless old people, possibly using the traditional Mass as a way of keeping themselves in power.

Assuming good intentions would reveal different motivations.  The most reasonable assumption is to believe that both parties are trying to use the Mass to glorify God, but they are simply emphasizing different parts of His character.  The first emphasizes His complexity and glory, the second His sanctity and superhuman nature.

By assuming good intentions, you can easily pick out most straw men.  Straw man arguments, especially when allied with ad hominem, often rely on assuming that the opponent has bad motives: being completely self-serving, for example (as philosophical egoists decry acts of charity as being motivated by the happiness one gets from committing a charitable act).

One of the few exceptions, where I don’t recommend the assumption of good intentions, is when someone else has refused to do so for his or her opponents.  If you don’t give it, you don’t get it, and besides, if you aren’t willing to believe someone else has good motives, what does that say about your own?


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Lesser Known Christmas Carols

As a sequel to the Advent hymns, here are some Christmas carols that one rarely hears anymore.  You sometimes hear instrumental versions of them, but you certainly never sing them.  It’s a pity, because they’re beautiful songs that cover aspects of the Nativity that we often don’t think about otherwise.

Our first song has a special place in my heart because my parents had a picture book of it (and still do).  One of the countless Medieval French carols, it’s great with children and anyone who likes animals.  Such as, you know, me.

The Friendly Beasts

Jesus, our Brother, strong and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus, our Brother, strong and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother uphill and down,
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town;
I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow, all white and red,
“I gave Him my manger for His bed,
I gave Him hay to pillow His head;
I,” said the cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn;
I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

“I,” said the dove, from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry,
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I;
I,” said the dove, from the rafters high.

Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.

Never having listened to this song closely, I’d always assumed that the “little tiny child” was Baby Jesus, but no, Christ is not even mentioned in this song.  It’s a lament in the form of a lullaby for the children slain by Herod.  Bet you’ve never sung this one in church.

Coventry Carol

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor Youngling for Whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever morn and day
For Thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Another French carol, I love this next song for its upbeat tune and its utter lack of pretension.  Not many other songs (“Go Tell It on the Mountain” being a notable exception) capture the joy that inspires you to not only celebrate Christ’s birth, but to tell everyone else about it, too.

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella
Bring a torch, come swiftly and run.
Christ is born, tell the folk of the village,
Jesus is sleeping in His cradle,
Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother,
Ah, ah, beautiful is her Son.

Hasten now, good folk of the village,
Hasten now, the Christ Child to see.
You will find Him asleep in a manger,
Quietly come and whisper softly,
Hush, hush, peacefully now He slumbers,
Hush, hush, peacefully now He sleeps.

The last song is technically not a song, but a poem.  I think of it as a song because I first heard it through a choral arrangement by my high school choir.  I like its simplicity and catechism-like structure, as well as its “cradle to the cross” theme.

The First Tree in the Greenwood

Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus, all wrapped up in silk,
And Mary bore Jesus Christ,
Our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died on the cross,
And Mary bore Jesus Christ,
Our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus who died for us all,
And Mary bore Jesus Christ,
Our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red,
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead,
And Mary bore Jesus Christ,
Our Saviour for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

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Christmas Traditions: Oranges

Oranges and their association with Christmas are a vanishing, or rather vanished, tradition.  Google it and you won’t get much but a cloying story about an orphan.  Still, the image of stockings bursting with nuts and oranges hasn’t quite disappeared from our collective memory, so I thought I’d explain its curious origins.

On one level, it’s obvious enough.  Until modern transportation, oranges were an exotic treat in temperate areas.  They were also in season in the winter.  Therefore, they made the perfect stocking-stuffing food.

However, there’s another side to the story, particularly why oranges were stuffed in stockings.  You remember the story of Saint Nicholas, the thief who threw three bags of gold through the window of the three girls who were too poor to get a dowry.  In some variants of the story, it’s three balls of gold.  Metaphorically, the balls of gold were sometimes reinterpreted as oranges, no doubt in part because a ball of gold, colored with gold leaf, would look identical to an orange in Medieval iconography.  Voila, Christmas oranges!

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The War on Christmas

The War on Christmas alarmists seem a little more subdued than usual this year, or maybe I’m just getting my news from the wrong right sources.  Still, the issue baffles me.  I’m currently listening to a piece on “Go Tell It on the Mountain” on the evilly secular NPR, so things can’t be that bad, can they?

Actually, I want to address the alleged War on Christmas on a much more fundamental level than whether too many stores are saying “Happy Holidays.”  As I see it, there are two problems: One, why is this entirely a war of words and not of actions?  And two, when did every disagreement become a war?

In the first place, whether someone is an ally or an enemy in the War on Christmas is defined entirely based on whether they use the word Christmas, and perhaps on whether they have Christmas decorations and what sort they are.  This is a downright non-Christian attitude to be espoused by organizations like Focus on the Family (the link above).

Why are we judging businesses entirely based on what they say and not what they do?  After all, stores don’t use “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” for idealistic reasons: they adopt whatever term boosts sales the most.  A better metric would be to judge businesses based on their practices: whether they make charitable donations, whether they treat their employees fairly, and whether they have branches or suppliers in other countries that exploit looser regulations there.*

In fact, the boycotts and “buycotts” that conservatives use to punish and reward companies openly encourage the materialism of a holiday that has been reduced to a shopping spree.  Nothing could be less Christian and less related to the simplicity and humility of Christ’s birth than a holiday devoted to greed.

Second, the very name “the War on Christmas” indicates a disturbing attitude towards differing opinions.  Everyone who uses the term “Happy Holidays” (let alone mention a non-Christian holiday) is automatically considered a foot soldier in the secular Left’s campaign to stamp out Christianity.  There is no acknowledgment that someone might be unsure what term to use or not particularly care.  For that matter, why can’t someone just disagree without being an enemy?

The War on Christmas smacks of pride and privilege.  People who talk about it not only think that they are right, but think that their view is the only one that anyone should be allowed to hold, and people and businesses should be punished for believing anything else.  This is an outright anti-Christian attitude.  Moreover, since it makes everyone who doesn’t already agree with you think that you are both entitled and out of touch with reality, it’s unlikely to change even a single mind or heart.


*I’m not under any illusions.  If Focus on the Family started evaluating all businesses based on their practices, it would be based on whether they give benefits to gay couples and how many degrees of separation connect them to something abortion-related.

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The Minimum Moral Requirement

Rick Warren is against killing homosexuals, which puts him ahead of the pastors in Uganda, apparently.  Yay, I guess?

His video response is here; the transcript is here.

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