Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lessons from Newtown: Where Do We Go From Here?

Christmas in Connecticut
Dear God, not again. Not little kids. Not eleven days before Christmas.
Mere moments had passed after I heard the terrible news of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut before the words of the Evangelist in Matthew 2:18 came to mind:
            “A voice was heard in Ramah,
                        weeping and loud lamentation,
            Rachel weeping for her children;
                        she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
“…they… are… no… more…” Like millions of other Americans images flashed through my mind of young innocents near and dear to me. In my case, it was the faces of my grandsons that I saw. “This could have been Mitchell… it could have been Benjamin.” I felt a cold lump in my stomach. Tears, unbidden, welled up in my eyes. God help us.
Now the entire nation joins the heartbroken people of Newtown in trying to make sense of an inherently senseless act. It is a futile exercise. How can you find reason in madness? For madness, regardless of any legal definition, is the only word that adequately describes the actions of Adam Lanza on Friday, December 14, 2012. In the space of a few minutes Adam Lanza went from obscurity to infamy by violating four fundamental taboos of the human race: he murdered his own mother, he murdered half a dozen other women who were all strangers to him, he murdered scores of very young and innocent children, and then he murdered himself. If you are a healthy, well-adjusted, normal human being—regardless of your race, ethnicity, nationality, educational level or any other classification you care to choose—you will find it impossible to truly understand, much less empathize with whatever could lead a person to commit such vile acts. We can try. You might be able to concoct some theoretical circumstances that might lead you, in an act of final desperation to take your life. You might conceive of some horrific state of affairs—perhaps a lifetime of particularly cruel abuse—that would lead a young man to kill his own mother. But the indiscriminate killing of strangers is much harder to rationalize. How do you ever justify spraying gunfire into the bodies of young women who had never done you any harm, who were in fact strangers to you, and who in several instances died sacrificing themselves while trying to protect the children in their care?
Yet as incomprehensible as that action is, the greatest evil committed by Adam Lanza—the act that will forever sear his name into our corporate memory as one of the great monsters of American history—was his slaughter of very young and innocent children. Six and seven year old boys and girls. Children so young that they still wrote letters to Santa Claus. Children whose faces still bore that clear-eyed look of innocence that is forever lost by the time we turn ten—a look that no adult face has borne since the sin of the first Adam. Children whose greatest “sins” to date consisted of failing to clean their plates or leaving their toys on the stairs. Children so little and young and innocent that they had not yet reached the age of accountability that theologians speak of, that age when God begins to hold us morally accountable for our actions. They were defenseless and dependent and trusting. And somehow as a society we let them down.
So we now rightly engaged in asking ourselves how we can keep the next Adam Lanza from unleashing hell on the innocent among us. For if the history of the last twenty or thirty years has taught us nothing else, surely it has taught us that another killer waits in the wings. What, if anything, can we do to prevent another senseless slaughter?
To find answers we must first accurately define the problem. Facts, as I am fond of saying, are our friends. Perceptions are not always accurate. What does the hard data tell us? So the first question we need to ask and honestly answer is whether or not the widespread perception that violence in our society in general and in our schools in particular is growing is, indeed, accurate. And the surprising answer over the course of the last twenty years is “No”.
Declining Violent Crime
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, violent crime rates in the U.S. since the early ‘90s are down across the board in every major category. In the 50 year period from 1960 through 2010 violent crime in America rose from a low in 1961 until it peaked in 1991 and 1992. Since then it has been dropping consistently. In the early ‘60s the murder rate was 4.6 per 100,000. It peaked at 10.2 in 1980 and then peaked again at 9.8 in 1991. But by 2010 it had dropped to 4.8, down 51% in 19 years and the lowest level since 1963. This was not a fluke. The drop has been steady and has been matched or exceeded by similar drops in other violent crime categories such as forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. With the exception of the murder rate, none of the other categories have approached the low levels of the early ‘60s but the drops have been significant and show no sign of slowing.
What about school violence?
Again, we find a 20 year decline. Violent crime in schools has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. Dr. Dewey Cornell is a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia. He has been studying school violence for decades. Mass shootings such as what happened at Newtown inevitably reinforce a perception that schools are dangerous places. “But that’s just not true,” says Cornell. Cornell’s research shows that not only have schools become safer, but kids are far more secure on school campuses than anywhere else they normally go. This year there are almost 55 million children (K-12) in public and privates schools. 23 have been killed by guns in school. That’s 1 in 2.4 million—about the same odds that your child will be struck and killed by lightening.
Violence has always existed in schools in America. But for most of American history gun violence in schools was rare and has tended to involve situations where a student, teacher, or parent was seeking to settle a score with one or two other people. Additional injuries or deaths were usually inadvertent. Indiscriminate mass murder in a school was almost unheard of prior to the infamous Clock Tower shootings at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. One notable exception was on May 18, 1927 in Bath, Michigan, just north of Lansing. School treasurer Andrew Kehoe, after killing his wife and destroying his house and farm, blew up the Bath Consolidated School by detonating dynamite in the basement of the school, killing 38 people, mostly children. He then pulled up to the school in his Ford car and set off a bomb, killing himself and four others. The final death toll was 45. This remains the deadliest act of mass murder at a school in United States history. Yet only one gunshot was fired, the one used to detonate the dynamite in the car.
The worst school shooting incident in world history was not in the U.S. but in Beslan, Russia on August 1, 2004 when 386 people were killed in a politically motivated attack. School attacks in Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada resulting in large death tolls were also, in most cases, politically motivated.
It was 33 years after the Clock Tower shootings before the U.S. saw another school shooting that resulted in a double-digit death toll. On April 20, 1999 the nation was horrified by the Columbine massacre which left 15 people dead, all but one high school students, in Littleton, Colorado.
On March 21, 2005 in Red Lake, Minnesota 16-year-old Jeff Weise went on a shooting spree that left 10 dead.
Two years later on April 16, 2007 we saw the horror of the Virginia Tech massacre with 32 dead—the worst shooting-related death toll on a school campus in American history.
And then there was Newtown.
Increasing Rampage Violence
These incidents and similar ones away from school campuses such as the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political event in Tucson, represent a type of mass murder that some have termed “rampage violence”. These high-profile events capture the national consciousness and cause some to doubt the crime statistics cited above. How can violent crime be declining, they ask, when such shooting sprees are becoming more common? These events almost always trigger heated debates over gun control laws, shifts in the culture, and the role of violent media, particularly video games. The shootings in Newtown are a case in point.
As one researcher put it, “Incidents of mass murder have gained considerable media attention, but are not well understood in behavioral sciences. Current definitions are weak, and may include politically or ideologically motivated phenomenon. Our current understanding of the phenomenon indicates these incidents are not peculiar to only western cultures, and appear to be increasing.”
As another writer put it, “These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability. To understand and prevent rampage violence, we need to acknowledge that current discipline-based violence research is not well suited to this specific challenge.”
One psychiatrist writing on the subject calls these mass killers pseudocommandos. “The pseudocommando is a type of mass murderer who kills in public during the daytime, plans his offense well in advance, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons. He has no escape planned and expects to be killed during the incident. Research suggests that the pseudocommando is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback.”
One of the challenges of doing meaningful study of these rampage shootings is actually their rarity. The sample is so small that any generalized conclusions are of doubtful value. For instance, the fact that some of these killers wore black and identified in some way with the Goth subculture may give us clues about their motivations but nothing that can lead us to confident conclusions, any more than if they all turned out to be left-handed or all had red hair. Statistical analysis is meaningful only if the sample is large enough to eliminate chance and coincidence. If there had been 200 such mass killings and we found that 85% of the killers were Goths, or the products of broken homes, or were clinically depressed, or were addicted to violent video games, then that would be meaningful.
So while a meaningful profile of rampage killers may elude us at present, what we can say based on the very definition of rampage killing is that their goal is to kill—to kill lots of people and to kill them quickly. Their weapon of choice is a gun, a gun the fires lots of bullets fast.
While violent crime in the United States is down, homicides still claim about 15,000 lives a year. More than half of all murders in a given year are committed with guns. As a 2011 United Nations report notes, America has a “relatively high homicide rate compared to other countries with a similar socio-economic level,” but per-capita homicide rates in the Caribbean, Central America and Africa are often much higher.
And so the debate about gun control resurfaces every time a rampage shooting takes place. Is there anything that we can do as a society to keep guns out of the hands of school children and to minimize the probability of incidents such as the nightmare of Newtown?
The quick answer, unfortunately, is probably not much.
Gun Control
Connecticut has some of the toughest gun regulations in the U.S. It is ranked fifth among the states by one pro gun control organization. Three days before the Newtown slaughter Adam Lanza was refused purchase of a gun at a local Gander Mountain store because he refused to submit to a background check. So he stole his mother’s guns and proceeded with his plans.
It is estimated that there are 310 million non-military guns are in circulation in the United States. Any attempt to take even a single category of firearms out of circulation presents almost insurmountable obstacles.
First, there is the constitutional barrier. Recent court rulings have strengthened the arguments of gun enthusiasts for a broad definition of the right to bear arms. So gun control with real teeth such as can be found in the UK or in many European countries would require a constitutional amendment. Given the deeply divisive politics around this issue and the incredible political clout of lobbyist groups such as the National Rifle Association, an attempt to pass a constitutional amendment is almost predestined to failure. In the extremely unlikely event that an amendment passed congress it would arrive D.O.A. in most statehouses.
Were an amendment actually passed, it would then face the challenge of implementation. Most of the guns in circulation are unregistered and there is no practical way of knowing who owns what. Guns are sold from person to person on a cash basis every day with no records whatsoever. Any ban would cause the black market in gun sales to boom. Angry gun owners suspicious of government motives—citizens who are now law-abiding individuals—would engage in criminal activity to circumvent the new gun laws. A buy-back of privately owned guns such as took place in Australia some years ago in the wake of a mass killing would be prohibitively expensive given the size of the task in the U.S. and would be resisted by many. And any effort to seize guns from individuals by force would be guaranteed to lead to bloody standoffs between law enforcement officers and hard-core gun owners. Membership in right-wing militia groups would skyrocket. It would be Prohibition all over again—only a lot bloodier.
The hard truth is that banning guns will do little to stop gun violence. Just look at Chicago.
As Esther Cepeda pointed out in a column yesterday, “Illinois is the only state in the nation that doesn't have some form of concealed carry law, and Chicago itself effectively outlaws any kind of gun possession. Yet at midyear, gun violence was mostly to blame for this startling statistic: More Chicago residents had been killed in the city than the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan - 144 soldiers compared to 228 victims in the Windy City.”
A Few Small Steps
I’m not a psychiatrist, a politician, or an authority on constitutional law. I own a couple old guns: a 12 gauge shotgun and a .22 caliber rifle; both pump actions and neither of which has even been loaded, much less fired, in decades. They probably have cobwebs in their barrels. I have a personal bias towards individual liberty and against intrusive governmental regulations. But I will venture here to say that some small steps must be taken to try to prevent future Newtown massacres and to reduce overall gun violence of the more pedestrian varieties. My suggested steps may be more symbolic than substantive, but perhaps they would help to begin to shift the nature and tone of the debate toward a more helpful direction. Surely there are a few things that people of good will on all sides of the debate can agree on.
1.      We must do a better job of securing firearms to keep them out of the hands of children. Every so often we hear of yet another case of an elementary-age child bringing a parent’s loaded weapon to school, sometimes with tragic consequences. There is simply no excuse for such criminal negligence. And it ought to be just that—CRIMINAL. While not every gun owner can afford to buy an expensive gun safe, anyone who can afford a gun can afford some chain and a padlock to prevent their easy removal from the premises. A cheap lock box for storing ammunition can prevent a child from loading that gun. Some trigger locks are available for under $10.  Such simple steps will all but eliminate the problem of young children getting their hands on deadly weapons that they are not ready to handle safely. Failure to secure a firearm ought to be a first class misdemeanor. In a home with minor children it ought to be a felony.
2.      Many of the most favored weapons of mass killers are useless to sportsmen. You couldn’t legally use them against game. High capacity, short barreled, rapid fire rifles were designed for only one purpose: to kill multiple human beings at close range with great speed. They may be wonderful weapons for use by soldiers in close urban combat situations. Unfortunately they are equally well designed for use by homicidal maniacs in a school, an office, or a shopping mall. If you need a weapon for home defense, few things can beat a good old fashioned 12-gauge shotgun. The so-called assault rifle is overkill for such home use. So unless you are a member of the armed forces, serve on a police SWAT team, or are a mass murderer, a drug dealer, or militia member planning armed insurrection against the United States, you have no need to own one. And I believe that assault rifles should be classified along with other weapons of war, like grenade launchers, mortars, and tanks. The average citizen has no more business owning an AK-47 than they have mounting a 50-caliber Browning machine gun in the back of their Ford F-150 pickup for use in opening up congested traffic lanes on their drive to work.
3.      Any cop can tell you that most gun violence is directly tied to the illegal drug trade. Monday, December 17 marked the 98th anniversary of the 1914 signing of the Harrison Narcotics Act which imposed the first legal controls on the sale of opiates and cocaine. This was government’s opening salvo—the fed’s declaration of war on drugs—a war that we have consistently been losing ever since. If we are really serious about limiting gun and gang violence it is time that we fundamentally reconsider our approach to the drug problem.
4.      What is the root cause of the kind of unfocused hatred that leads to these mass killings? While no one today can give a definitive answer to that question, it needs to be answered if possible. There is no shortage of opinions being offered but few are supported by more than a personal hunch or worse, a political agenda that is in search of headlines to further it. To me a good starting point might be to ask why rampage violence seems to be increasing when all other violence is waning. It seems to me if the root problem was, for instance, the prevalence of violence in movies and games, then it ought to be reflected by an across-the-board increase in violence, at least among teens and young adults. Yet that is not the case. As a pastor it would be easy for me to point the finger of blame on unregenerate human hearts. And of course, that is the fundamental cause of all the ills that plague us. But such an answer is too all-encompassing to be of much practical value. It’s about like saying that coastal flooding is caused by too much water without considering the consequences of building homes in an area subject to periodic flooding. I think the time is now for a serious, multi-disciplined, intense study of the problem; a study that cuts across party lines and looks at the problem holistically; a study with a reasonable deadline and with an expectation for action items to follow.
5.      I don’t pretend to have thought through all aspects of the problem confronting us. One obvious omission is the whole challenge of dealing with emotionally and/or mentally unbalanced individuals, a problem I don’t feel competent to even comment on. What I am not prepared to support is turning our schools into armed camps. I don’t want my grandchildren to be forced to attend schools designed like super-max prisons—windowless dungeons where they must breathe filtered air, secured behind metal detectors and razor wire with teachers roaming the hallways with Uzis clipped to their bullet-proof vests. If that is the future of education I will lobby for illiteracy.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hugo Spencer: A Life Well Lived

Just how long is 98 years?
Francis Hugo Spencer was born on July 20, 1914. This was 22 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, an act which left the nations of Europe teetering on the brink of war. Just 8 days after Hugo’s birth the declarations of war began and Europe quickly became drenched in blood. The imperial aspirations that helped feed the fighting are reflected in the fact that in 1914, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, ALL of Africa was a colony of some European power.
But the problems of Europe would have seemed far removed to the Spencer family on the piedmont of central Virginia. The Old Dominion was a very different state a century ago. It only had a little over 2 million residents in those days—about a fourth of today’s population. The biggest city in the state at the time of the 1910 census was Richmond with less than 128,000 residents. Lynchburg had 29,494. Roanoke just under 35,000. Charlottesville a paltry 6,765.
The population patterns in America were very different when Hugo was born. There were fewer than 100 million residents in all of the 48 states (just two years earlier New Mexico and Arizona had achieved statehood). Charlotte, Orlando, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Jose combined had fewer than 300,000 residents. Las Vegas didn’t even exist. With fewer than 30,000 residents the Lynchburg that Hugo first knew was bigger than Orlando, Miami, and Phoenix—combined.
At the time of Hugo’s birth fellow Virginian Woodrow Wilson was in the second year of his first term as President. (Hugo was to see 17 presidents over the course of his life and was qualified to vote in 20 presidential elections.) In that second year of his administration Wilson oversaw the opening of the Panama Canal; the opening of the first Federal Reserve Bank; the completion of the first trans-continental telephone line; and the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act which was the first federal law to regulate opiates and cocaine—the government’s opening salvo in the still ongoing war on drugs. And with a presidential proclamation in May, the first Mother’s Day was invented. The federal government was a LOT smaller then. The 1914 budget was only $730 million. Even when you figure that to be $16.4 billion in today’s dollars, it still comes to far less than 1% of the current federal budget of $2.469 trillion and .4% of this year’s federal spending. In fact, $16.4 billion is less than what the feds now borrow in 3 ½ days.
In 1914 a first-class stamp was 2 cents.
That year Nevada and Montana became the 9th and 10th states to grant women the right to vote.
1914 was the year that Charlie Chaplin started making movies—and he made 35 that year.
It was the year that Henry Ford introduced the 8 hour work day while more than doubling the wages of his employees to a minimum of $5 a day. It was also the year he developed the assembly line for car production. Ford made 248,000 Model Ts that year—more than all other automobile makers combined. Coincidentally, on August 5th Cleveland, Ohio installed the first electric traffic light in the country.
The month before Hugo was born Honus Wagner became baseball’s first player to achieve 3,000 hits. Just 11 days before Hugo’s birth Babe Ruth was sold by a minor league team to the Boston Red Sox, part of a three player deal that cost the club about $10,000—roughly $200,000 in today’s dollars. Wrigley Field opened that year—and has yet to see a hometown World Series champion. Joe DiMaggio was born in November.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1914.
And on September 26, 1914 fitness guru Jack LaLanne was born. But all those pushups, sit ups, and jumping jacks notwithstanding, Jack died on January 23, 2011. Hugo was 2 months and 6 days his senior and still outlived him by almost two years.
But a long life in and of itself only speaks of good genes, good habits, and good luck. Hugo didn’t just live long. He lived well. And a relationship with Jesus Christ was foundational to that life well lived.
Hugo’s relationship with Jesus was shaped by a relationship with Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church. He began attending here as an infant less than 20 years after the founding of the congregation when this sanctuary was only 3 years old. At the age of 11 he asked Jesus to be his Lord and was baptized. He was a member here for almost 87 years. His wife, Francis, who preceded him in death in 2003, also grew up in this church. She was baptized here in 1930 at the age of 10. Intertwined for Hugo was his relationship with Jesus, his relationship with Francis, and his relationship with Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church.
The list of ministries here that Hugo participated in is truly remarkable. He taught Sunday school, he served as a deacon. The committees and ministry teams on which he served include: ELC, Finance and Stewardship, Lay Ministries, Personnel, Properties, Drama, Family Night Supper, Greeters, Lord’s Supper, Music, Relief, Tellers, and Ushers. And his skill as a storyteller made him a favorite with the kids in many a Vacation Bible School.
Hugo was almost 40 when I was born. (He joined this church almost 5 years before my father was born!) By the time I first met him he was homebound and unable to get about without a walker. But his mind was still keen and his sense of humor positively wicked. His mockingly amused account of the prudish reaction of a former female church staff member to his very life-like wood carving of a boar hog left me laughing to the point of tears. From almost my first week as pastor I began hearing Hugo stories. And when I met him I understood why. With his passing Hugo Spencer moves from a man to a legend. We’re gonna miss you, Hugo. Yours was a life well lived.
Matthew 25:34 – “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thin Places

Alice stumbled upon an exceptionally deep rabbit hole. Lucy Pevensie got a surprise when she hid in Professor Kirk’s magic wardrobe. Dorothy clicked the heels of those dazzling ruby slippers as she chanted, “There’s no place like home.” Marty McFly revved up Professor Brown’s souped-up DeLorean time machine with its “flux capacitor”. Today astrophysicists dream of moving quickly to distant corners of the universe through some theoretical wormhole in the fabric of space-time. The idea of discovering a secret portal to another world is an idea that has long fascinated people. Back in the 40s Lerner and Loewe even created a musical along those lines: Brigadoon.

That mythical Scottish village makes for a great segue to an idea that we encounter in Celtic Christianity: the notion that on the earth there are “thin places”—spots where heaven and earth are unusually close, suggesting the possibility of free movement from one to the other or at least the idea that in such sacred places one might get closer to the divine.

First, a disclaimer. There is no direct and only disputable indirect biblical support for such a notion. The metaphor of thin place does not appear in Scripture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the concept is unhelpful or theologically suspect, but as a people who base their understanding of God on biblical revelation, it should give us pause to carefully consider the implications of such a belief.

Experience teaches us the emotional power of place. In 1954 Perry Como first recorded There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, a sentimental reflection on how memory and emotions are tied to the place we grew up—especially at Christmas. Likewise, some places have historical connections that stir the emotions. The Gettysburg and Custer Battlefields were such places for me. So was the Vietnam Wall. Sometimes the emotions stirred by place are negative. I once stood outside a Macumba temple deep in the Amazon. Macumba is a religion that mixes African and South American spiritism and includes practices associated with black magic. I felt like the very building exuded evil. Those who have visited the remains of Nazi concentration camps report similar feelings.

And I think we have all visited spots where the sense God’s presence was unusually strong. Naturally enough a church building can have that effect. So can a Christian camp or retreat center, particularly if it is a place that you have visited repeatedly over the years and have come to associate with powerful teaching, and spiritual refreshment and renewal.

Wild places of spectacular natural beauty can also have that effect. Such places are usually what the Celtic Christians had in mind when they spoke of thin places. Mountains have always tended to affect me in this way, a response common to many.

And if we can find support for thin places anywhere in the Bible, a couple mountains immediately come to mind. The first is Mt. Sinai. If there is a biblical thin place surely this is it. It was a place where Moses went to meet God not once but repeatedly. Mt Zion—the site of the temple—was another. Clearly these mountains had special significance as places where Israel encountered God.

But in other important respects they differ significantly from the typical Celtic thin place. For one thing these mountains were not, at least in biblical times, places of pilgrimage. After the exodus there is only one account of an Israelite journeying back to Sinai; that of Elijah’s trip to “Horeb, the mount of God” in 1 Kings 19:8. And the most sacred quarter of the temple mount was forbidden to all but the high priest and he was able to enter it only one day in the year—the Day of Atonement.

Nor is there evidence that the earliest Christians showed any special deference to those physical spaces closely associated with the life and ministry of Christ. The stable in Bethlehem, his boyhood home in Nazareth, the Upper Room in Jerusalem—none of these spots were made into shrines or their locations even noted. Only centuries later did later Christians attempt to find these sites and make them places of pilgrimage. There exists no equivalent to Mt. Vernon or Monticello in Nazareth.

So what are we to do with the metaphor of thin place?

First, there is no question in my mind that places of natural beauty, particular places that are physically removed from the rush of modern life, can often help us to spiritually reconnect. They help us pause and quiet are hearts and minds. I believe that this was even true for Jesus when he would draw aside either with his closest followers or by himself from times of prayer. These are not places with special spiritual properties. We are not talking magic here. Whatever power they have is power we give them.

Second, we must remember that God desires constant intimacy with his people. We ought not to need physical retreat to connect with the Divine. Rather we ought to work to make all of life on earth a thin place—a place where mortal flesh can reach out and touch God. If we draw near to God He draws near to us.

Monday, December 03, 2012

A Mythbuster Look at the Christmas Carols

Why Did They Burn That Poor Mule?
I remember as a little boy hearing people sing the third stanza of Deck the Halls: “See the blazing Yule before us.” Afterwards I wondered to myself, why did they burn that poor mule?

You may have heard the one about the kid who made a drawing of the Nativity scene for Sunday school. Everyone looked familiar except for a fat guy standing alone in the corner. “Who’s that?” asked his teacher. “That’s Round John Virgin,” said the kid. “You know, Round John Virgin, mother, and child.” And before you classify that story as myth, remember: I really did think they were roasting a mule…

I’m betting that much of what you think you know about the first Christmas is based on those carols you learned as a child. It may come as a shock that these are not an entirely reliable source of information. And I’m not even talking about some of the more absurd notions like, those presented in The Little Drummer Boy: 

Shall I play for you, on my drum?
Mary nodded, the ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him,
I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me,
Me and my drum.

Oh course we all know that pounding on a drum has long been a favorite method of shepherds and cowboys to calm restless flocks and herds, so we’d naturally expect one of the shepherd boys to be packing his trusty bongo. And no first-time mother would ever object to some strange kid banging away on a drum a just few hours after she endured a difficult birth in a barn. And don’t even get me started about the ox and lamb rhythm section…

Actually myths about miraculous animal activity associated with the birth of Christ regularly appear in medieval times. So it should not be surprising to see the line in the first stanza of Good Christian Men, Rejoice, “Man and beast before Him bow…” since this ancient carol dates back to the 14th Century in its original Latin version. Luke 2 makes no mention of any animals at all except for the flocks of sheep out in the fields. While it is reasonable to assume that there would have been animals in that stable, there is no reason to believe that they acted in any way out of the ordinary—unless they may have been a bit uneasy at having unexpected human company sharing their humble accommodations. You can bet they weren’t talking, bowing down, or beating time to music.

Away in a Manger
Away in a Manger was probably the very first Christmas carol that I learned to sing. Remember those words in the second stanza, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…”? The writer is anonymous but I have to believe he was a father who’d lost sleep due to a crying baby. I’m reminded of the words of my Old Testament professor, a man who was a practicing pediatrician when God called him into the ministry. Having already earned one doctorate, he headed off to seminary and earned first a Master of Divinity and then a Ph.D. His comment? “A baby that doesn’t cry is sick.”

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (or did they?)
Perhaps the most prevalent theme in our Christmas music is the image of heavenly choirs of angels singing to celebrate the birth of our Lord:

Ø  Hark! the herald angels sing...
Ø  Angels we have heard on high, Sweetly singing o’re the plains…
Ø  With the angels let us sing…
Ø  Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation…
Ø  Whom angels greet with anthems sweet…
I could go on.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear adds the idea of angels playing harps:
Ø  From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold…

Angels We Have Heard on High has the shepherds joining the chorus.

The only problem with all this is nowhere in scripture does it once mention angels singing.

What does Luke’s gospel actually say?
     13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
     14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”           

In the New Testament singing is always mentioned in the context of praise to God. There are several different Greek words that are used to convey the idea. But the word translated praising in Luke 2:13 is not the word usually used for singing. 

But let’s face it. We are talking about angelic voices here. And somehow I suspect that prose from the lips of an angel would sound like music to a human ear. So I’m willing to give Charles Wesley and Joseph Mohr and all those other great hymn writers a pass on this one. 

But lose the golden harps. 

Perhaps the biggest misinformation about that first Christmas that song writers have contributed to has to do with the star and the wise men. 

We Three Kings of Orient
They adorn countless Christmas cards.  They’re the most exotic figurines in a traditional nativity crèche.  They’re the little boys wearing the paper crowns in the Christmas play.  They are the subject of song, and myth and legend.  They are the wise men—those mysterious figures from the East who came to worship and honor the infant Jesus. 

Just who were the wise men?  Were they, as the song says, three kings of the orient? 

The wise men are more accurately called the magi from the Greek word mágoi.  From that same Greek root we get the words magic and magician.  The term first referred to members of the shaman chaste of the ancient Medes, a tribe in what is now western Iran.  To the magi was ascribed the power to interpret dreams.  The Greek philosophers regarded the magi not only as priests, but as teachers and philosophers as well. 

Long before the 1st Century magi had assumed a much broader meaning.  The magi were thought to possess supernatural knowledge and ability.  They were interpreters of dreams, soothsayers, astrologers, scientists, magicians, and counselors to those in power.   By Jesus day the magi were no longer exclusively Persians.  There were Babylonian magi, Arabian magi and even Jewish magi such as the sorcerer Bar-Jesus in Acts 13.  They ranged from charlatans like Bar-Jesus to some of the most learned men in the ancient world.  The magi in Matthew 2 are pictured has wholly admirable characters, magi at their best. 

Where were the magi from? The Gospel simply says that they were “from the East”. Beyond that, there are three locations that are usually suggested: Parthia, Babylon, and the deserts of Arabia or Syria. Strong arguments can be made for each. Parthia is the location most favored by the history of the term mágoi. The Babylonians had a long and highly developed interest in astronomy and astrology. And camel caravans had long been bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh north from the southern end of the Arabian Desert—the region of modern day Yemen. 

If the magi were from Parthia, then their dress—belted tunics with full sleeves, flowing trousers, and conical-shaped caps—would have looked very much like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp! 

Then there’s the theory that the magi came from multiple locations, an idea closely associated with several other legends, none of which have any basis in history. Like the belief that there were three magi. The Bible doesn’t say how many there were. Three are assumed because three kinds of gifts are listed. Or the notion that the magi were kings. (Again, the Bible is silent on this point.) Various names have been given them. Best known are: Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar which first show up in the 3rd Century. By the 9th Century the tradition was established that they represent three races. Balthasar was Asian; Gaspar a white European; and Melchior was a black African. 

We don’t know precisely where the magi were from, only that they were “from the East.”  So what do we know?

·         We know there were at least two, since mágoi is a plural.
·         We know they were men, since these words have masculine endings.
·         We can assume that they were men of some financial means.  Their gifts were valuable.  In the First Century frankincense and myrrh were worth more than their weight in gold.  They had the leisure and financial means to make a long journey.  Given the dangers of travel in the border regions on the eastern end of the Roman Empire and the value of their goods, they were probably accompanied by a large contingent of armed guards.
·         We can assume they were men of some stature and influence, since they were quickly granted a private audience with King Herod.
·         We can assume that they traveled some distance to get to Jerusalem.  If they came from the closest possible location, the western edge of the Syrian Desert, then they traveled at least a couple hundred miles—a good ten-day trip.  However, if they journeyed from southern Arabia or from Parthia, which is located well to the northeast of Babylon, then conceivably they traveled as far as 2,000 miles, most of it through empty desert, and most likely on camels.  Such a trip would have taken at least four to six months and possibly much longer.
·         We know that they were regarded as wise and learned men in their day and that a part of their learning included a study of the stars.  Their statements to Herod’s court were regarded as quite credible and were taken with utter seriousness. 

Were the Magi present on Christmas night? – The third stanza of The First Noel suggests as much. 

We get a clue to the truth from Matthew 2:7 which reads, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.” Herod did some quick math. He assumed that the star appeared at the moment the Messiah was born. We have no way of knowing that assumption is correct. Did the star appear when Christ was born, or did it appear to the Magi in advance, so as to put their arrival on the scene near the time of the birth? There is simply no way for us to know. Luke’s account of the birth makes no mention of the star at all. The shepherds saw a host of angels, but they said nothing about a star. And being familiar with the night sky, we have to believe that they would have noticed. 

In Matthew 2:16 Herod ordered his swordsmen to kill all male children in Bethlehem two years old and under. Many argue from this that Jesus was two when the magi arrived. If so, why kill the newborns? The obvious answer is that Herod wasn’t being all that discriminating—he just wanted to make sure he got the right baby. But that makes as much or more sense if when Herod issued his execution order he included children older than the age ascertained from the Magi just to make certain that he found his target. If we know anything at all about Herod the Great, we know that he never shied from shedding innocent blood. 

What we can conclude from the text is that the Magi did not arrive the actual night that Jesus was born, for it says in verse 11 that they found the family in a house not a stable. But that’s not much help. I think it safe to assume that the morning after the birth Joseph’s #1 priority was to get his young family out that stable and into a house. Given the realities of Middle Eastern hospitality, it is unthinkable that some family in Bethlehem would not have opened their home to a young mother with a newborn baby. For all we know the magi may have arrived the next night. 

Why did the magi come? Why would important and wealthy men journey great distances at considerable cost and risk with no apparent prospect for personal gain? What drew the magi to Bethlehem? Well, the Star drew them. It’s hard for a modern Western mind to understand the way the ancients looked at reality. Let me illustrate with a couple events from the night of November 5, 2001. I was in suburban Milwaukee when I learned that a longtime friend and co-worker had just died.  Moments later I noticed something odd about the sky. It was a display of the northern lights and with a degree of clarity and brilliance unusual for those latitudes. Bright reds and greens danced across the autumn sky. It was the most dazzling aurora borealis that I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was clearly seen in the Deep South. 

Now all that this meant to me was that an unusually large solar flare a few days earlier had sent a mass of energized particles hurtling through space and those particles were now colliding with earth’s ionosphere, resulting in an aurora. But had I been a magus in the ancient Near East, I’d have interpreted those events very differently. I’d have seen an important connection between my co-worker’s death and that atmospheric disturbance. The aurora would have been interpreted as a sign with symbolic meaning. 

Perhaps this helps us understand how seeing an unusual star in the night sky would take on special meaning to those sages of old. It was a sign, a portent of some important event that was happening or was about to happen. It had meaning to the world at large and to them personally. They would have gleaned clues to what nation was involved from the specific area of the sky where the star appeared. Perhaps the star was in the constellation Leo. They may have associated Leo with the Lion of Judah, the symbol of the royal house of David. Some such reasoning process led them to conclude that the event involved Israel. We do know that they were not led to Jerusalem by literally following the star. That is common misconception. In verse two the magi told Herod that they saw the star in the east. Later in verse nine we are told that the star reappeared to them as they were leaving Jerusalem and led them to Bethlehem—directly to the place where the child was located. 

So what was this star? Was it some natural phenomenon that was interpreted symbolically? Many theories over the years have been offered with just such an explanation in mind. A supernova, a comet, or an unusual planetary conjunction are among the better-known ideas. In 1975 Arthur C. Clarke actually wrote a sci-fi short story, The Star, based on the supernova theory. All of these suggestions raise interesting points and all have both strengths and weaknesses. 

I’m not convinced that any of these hypotheses explain the events recorded in Matthew. The first appearance of the star might be explained as a primitive culture’s interpretation of an unusual natural event. But the actions of the star in Matthew 2:9 defy any such naturalistic explanation. Bethlehem was a scant five miles SE of Jerusalem. For a light in the heavens to guide travelers from Herod’s palace to a specific location in Bethlehem means that this light must have been very low in the sky and had to have been moving very slowly. 

Imagine the difficulty of following a hot air balloon from the ground. If that balloon were at 30,000 feet and being pushed by the jet stream it would be impossible to keep up with and impossible to estimate when you were directly under it. On the other hand, if that balloon were only a hundred feet off the ground and drifting very slowly, you could easily keep up with it in open country and would know with confidence when it was directly overhead. Movement of this nature could not be attributed to a comet or a supernova or a planetary conjunction or any known atmospheric disturbance, nor could such phenomena begin to provide the kind of precise direction needed to locate one specific person on the ground. And specific direction, after all, was the whole point of the exercise! Whatever that star was it was no thing of nature. 

What we think of as an event limited to one night was actually a series of events spread out over weeks or months. 

First, the command of Caesar Augustus compelled Mary and Joseph to make the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Whether they arrived on the night of Jesus’ birth or a day or two earlier we don’t know, but given their living arrangements they couldn’t have been there long. 

The nighttime announcement of the angelic messenger inspired the shepherds to leave their flocks and investigate. 

Finally, one night a group of pagan scholars studying the stars saw something totally unexpected. They concluded for reasons lost in time that this signified the birth of a new King of the Jews. So they headed for the logical place to look for a new Jewish king, the palace of the current Jewish king, Herod the Great in Jerusalem. As they left Herod’s court on their way to Bethlehem, that mysterious star reappeared and led them with precision to the house where Jesus lay. 

All of these diverse moving parts were under the direct control of God: Roman imperial tax policies, the superstitious beliefs of pagan astrologers, the natural curiosity of lowly shepherds, the fear and hostility of a cruel despot, the seemly inconsequential travels of a poor peasant couple, and the announcements of angelic messengers… all were skillfully combined, like threads in a heavenly tapestry, to set the stage for the birth of the Son of God.