Two months until release . . .
Initially Published at Millennial Star on February 23, 2015
I enjoy biblical history and have recently been studying the transitional period between the Maccabean Revolt and its resulting Hasmonean Dynasty and the Roman takeover of Judea. Over the course of this study, I encountered a quizzical group known as The Seekers of Smooth Things. The story of this obscure sect of Judaism, and their relevance to us today, begs to be told. But first, some background 1 . . .
The Transition from Persian to Greek Rule
Following the death of Alexander the Great 2, his vast kingdom was divided up among his generals, with Ptolemy 3 taking Egypt and Seleucus 4 taking Syria. Judea found itself in the middle of territorial battles between these two quarreling Greek armies. Ultimately Judah was conquered by the Seleucids, but the Jews continued to be unapologetically Jewish in their customs and religion. This proved to be very problematic for their new Greek masters.
In an attempt to control and more completely pacify the Jews in the Seleucid Kingdom, king Antiochus IV 5 made the worship of the God of the Jews punishable by death. He flooded Judea and Palestine with Greek culture and Greek religious practices. He even went so far as to dedicate the temple in Jerusalem to Olympian Zeus in 167 BC. Many of the Jews were perfectly willing to adopt Greek customs and religion in exchange for the favors offered by Antiochus. It seems that Greek religious observance was a whole lot more convenient to them than Jewish religious observance.
But not all Jews were so willing to adopt new ways and walk away from the worship of Jehovah. Mattathias was a country priest and the patriarch of the Hasmonean family. In an act of defiance, he killed a Jew that was about to make a sacrifice to a Greek god (1 Maccabees 2:15-25). Mattathias and his five sons then fled into the wilderness and started a popular uprising against the Seleucids. This movement, known as the Maccabean 6 Revolt, eventually displaced the Seleucids and put the Hasmonean family on the throne and in the office of High Priest at the temple.
Once securely in power, the Hasmoneans rapidly degenerated into the same kind of wickedness that prompted the Maccabean uprising in the first place. Predictably, a pious sect of Jews rose up in rebellion against Alexander Jannaeus 7, a particularly evil Hasmonean king. These rebellious Jews, who later came to be know as Pharisees, were so desperate to overthrow the Hasmoneans that they sought the assistance of Demetrius III Eucaerus 8, the Seleucid king. Ultimately, Alexander Jannaeus prevailed. The details of his cruel vengeance on the Pharisees were described by Flavius Josephus:
he [Alexander Jannaeus] brought them [the Pharisees] to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13:380)
There is a corroborating account of this incident found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Pesher Nahum scroll (4Q169). 4Q169 was written by a rival sect of Jews known as Essenes. This scroll describes how the Jews sought the assistance of Demetrius of Greece but were defeated by Alexander and then crucified. However 4Q169 uses code names for many of the key characters. Alexander Jannaeus is called the furious young lion; the rebellious Jews are referred to pejoratively as the Seekers of Smooth Things.
I don’t think its possible to hear a descriptor like the Seekers of Smooth Things and not have your curiosity roused. As already implied, it is generally (though not universally) felt that this refers to the Pharisees. The modern perspective portrays Pharisees as ultra-conservative adherents to the Law of Moses. However, in the first and second century BC they were viewed by some as being far too liberal. This was certainly the view of the Qumran Community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Were we to speak Biblical Hebrew, we might recognize the nickname The Seekers of Smooth Things as a clever pun.
“Seekers of smooth things” is a pun in Hebrew: dorshei hachalakot instead of a title the Pharisees perhaps used for themselves: dorshei hahalachot, seekers of the way to keep Torah. (source)
The Essenes felt the Pharisees had perverted the true worship of Jehovah. Though they claimed to be in search for the right way to follow the Law, the Essenes felt The Seekers of Smooth Things had really taken the easy way. As a result, there were not many tears shed in Qumran when 800 Pharisees and their families were destroyed by Alexander. Rather, the atrocities of Alexander were viewed more as divine retribution for those that had corrupted the proper worship of Jehovah.
For me, history is fascinating, but even more so when I find some parallel that can be relevant to the world I live in today. Jehovah did not make it easy for the Jews anciently to worship him. Similarly, in the modern LDS church we find ourselves surrounded by a world that is increasingly Greek in its customs and beliefs. It’s not getting any easier to be faithful. The appeal of compromise and taking an easier way is ever-present for Church members. As was seen with the Hellenized Jews of the 2nd century BC, many progressive Mormons seem all too ready to compromise on tenets of the faith that have been historically non-negotiable. It is troubling and schismatic.
I’m certainly not advocating a Maccabean approach to progressives, where we rise up like Mattathias and destroy them in righteous indignation. The isolationist tendencies of the Essenes at Qumran is probably not that productive either. I would propose that Mormons be unapologetically Mormon in the way they live. The Church should not be shamed into compromising on fundamental doctrines that are increasingly unpopular, just because our world is desperately seeking after smooth things.
We assert to the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored in its fulness through the Prophet Joseph Smith; that Jesus Christ directs this church through living prophets. Furthermore, we individually experience the comfort, joy and peace that the gospel brings. Why then is it so tempting to apologize to the world when church leadership refuses to be Hellenized? Why are we so easily shamed by the scoffing of the world (1 Nephi 8:28), when we are not guilty–except of offending Satan and being unwilling to compromise when questions have been settled by living apostles and prophets?
Though Isaiah was prophesying about Israel’s impending destruction for rejecting God’s prophets, he might also have been warning the church today:
. . . this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord:
Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:
Isaiah foretold the destruction of Israel for rejecting the prophets and seers: they wanted to hear ‘smooth things’ more than they wanted to hear ‘right things’. As a result, Assyria was unleashed, and the Northern Kingdom was overthrown. I fear that many in the church today could meet a similar fate, figuratively speaking.
It is an article of our faith that:
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. (Articles of Faith 1:11)
We must not deprive others of their rights to worship as they see fit. Likewise we must not surrender our privileges to the voice of popular opinion. I am inspired by the defiant words of Mattathias when he was commanded by the king’s official to sacrifice to the gods of Greece:
Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments:
Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.
God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances (1 Maccabees 2:19-21).
Though the Apocryphal writings in the Books of the Maccabees are not canonized scripture, the words of Mattathias ring true, and are certainly words to live by. If only I could be so resolute as Mattathias!
It has never been easy to be faithful to God in any age of history, and we should not expect an easy time of it today. Those that are faithful are inevitably noticed and are made to suffer for it. Part of the process that qualifies us to inherit eternal life is to endure the shame of the world (2 Nephi 9:18;Jacob 1:8). We must seek God’s approval, not man’s approval (John 12;43; Galatians 1:10; D&C 3:7). It requires that we seek right things, not smooth things.
Originally Published as a guest post at The Millennial Star on January 28, 2015
Alypius1 was a life-long friend of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. Both were born in the 4th century in Numidia (current Algeria) which was part of Roman North Africa. They were converted to Christianity together while studying in Milan. Though revered as a Saint of the Catholic Church, there was a time in his life when Alypius seemed hopelessly enslaved to an addiction of the most unlikely sort. Augustine describes the plight of his friend better than I could ever hope to.
He had gone on to Rome before me to study law . . . and there he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows.
For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows.
He protested to them: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.”
When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness.
Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body.
Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust.
He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.
And yet from all this, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, thou didst pluck him and taught him not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee–but not till long after.”2
Addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming to such an extent that cessation causes severe trauma”. Though the allure of watching slaves and criminals battle to the death is hardly on our top ten list of addictions to watch out for, the story of Alypius illustrates how susceptible the human brain is to addiction. A review of the diagnostic criteria for addiction (here) makes it pretty clear that its not just nicotine, alcohol or drugs that have addictive potential. Most of us wouldn’t think of work, shopping, Facebook, texting, or video games as being much more of an addictive threat than gladiatorial games. But this lack of respect is disarming and very dangerous. In reality, addiction is so multifaceted that it holds the potential to threaten most of us. Addiction is a lot like eBay–there’s something for everyone.
Parallels between the story of Alypius and the modern plague of pornography should be obvious (GBH’s watershed talk here; Dallin H. Oaks here). One look was all it took for Alypius to be drawn in. Spurred on with curiosity “he opened his eyes and was struck with a [deep] wound in his soul” that took him years to recover from. The exact words could be used to describe those ensnared by pornography.
In his Conference talk on addiction a few years ago, M. Russell Ballard described addiction as surrender. He said “any kind of addiction is to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent”. Surrender to anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry. It is a moment Satan instantly recognizes; he will immediately move in to seize control. Elder Ballard went on to teach that the cause of the disease and its remedy are different faces of the same coin:
“Ask him for the strength to overcome the addiction you are experiencing. Set aside all pride and turn your life and heart to Him.”
As we surrender to our addiction we are enslaved by it. On the other hand, as we surrender to God, He liberates us.
A Modern Example of Addiction
The story of Alypius’ addiction to gladiatorial games in the waning years of the Roman Empire has me thinking about human susceptibility to addiction in general.
When I lived in Boston, I was the Home Teacher of a man that became addicted to crack cocaine. My friend was not the kind of guy you think of when you say ‘crackhead’. He was smart, sophisticated and wealthy. He lived in a luxury high-rise apartment downtown. He had worked for years as an auditor for multinational accounting firm. When he found the church he was all in; he was totally passionate about the gospel. On one visit I could tell there had been a significant change in my friend. Over the next few months he opened up to me about his problems with drugs. He told me that he tried crack cocaine once, and knew immediately that he was hopelessly addicted. His love for God and the gospel took a back seat. I watched on rather helplessly as he gradually withered. Though I tried to keep in touch after I moved to Nevada, he wasn’t interested. His addiction worsened and became more complex. Ultimately he died young, angry and bitter.
You cannot become addicted to cocaine without trying it first; you can’t become a slave of the Colosseum without going to watch the games. Alypius’ problems didn’t begin with a decision to go see Christians be covered in pitch, crucified and then set ablaze, or sewn into animal hides and left to be torn to pieces by starving lions. My friend’s fight to the death with drugs began when he threw caution to the wind and allowed another addict to talk him into buying the drugs they could then share. What my friend and Alypius had in common on day one of their individual battles with addiction was an arrogance that made them feel invulnerable to something they both knew was wrong.
Trusting in Our Own Strength
Augustine said that Alipius’ soul “was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee.” The line that separates being valiant from being audacious is sometimes pretty thin. To be valiant is to show courage, determination and excellence. Audaciousness is a willingness to take bold risks, usually while showing impudent lack of respect to custom or prevailing wisdom. Alypius confidently proclaimed: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.” But this valiant exterior was just the facade of an audacious young man that had too much confidence in himself, and too little respect for Satan.
If audaciousness and excessive self-confidence sets the stage for our addictions, then it is supplemented by forgetting the we aren’t supposed to face these challenges alone:
“[The Lord] knows the mistakes we can so easily make: to underestimate the forces working for us and to rely too much on our human powers. And so He offers us the covenant to “always remember Him” and the warning to “pray always” so that we will place our reliance on Him, our only safety.” 3
In Augstine’s account of the addiction of Alypius, he also highlighted the way of out the nightmare in which Alypius was trapped. It seems that Augustine scooped every 12-step program ever published by pointing out that the Lord rescued Alypius and taught him “not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee”. As he did so, Alypius walked away from one master into the arms of Another.
Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872 by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ)
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, MD)
Once in I while I find myself struck by a word that I encounter in the scriptures. Since I’m quite prone to perusing tangents, this usually prompts me to do a scriptural word search. That happened to me recently with the word dwindle. The English dictionary defines dwindle as to diminish gradually in size, amount or strength. Scriptural references to the word dwindle are almost exclusive to the Book of Mormon; virtually every usage of dwindle and its cognates refer to dwindling in unbelief.
Perhaps the reason dwindle resonated with me is that fact that I see a version of it all the time as a doctor. The dwindles is a moniker that is commonly used in medicine to describe a person that has a gradual decline in health over time, leaving them progressively weakened and ever closer to death. It’s hard to reduce it into a checklist of symptoms and signs. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t forget what it looks like. Although nothing in medicine (or life) is a certainty, it’s generally a bad sign when you see someone with the dwindles.
In the scriptures the dwindles describes a spiritual affliction rather than a physical one. Though my profession regularly gives me occasion to see a physical version of the dwindles, I can also recognize that the spiritual version of the dwindles is very common. The latter varies from periodic doubting to shaken faith to full-blown de-conversion. I thought it therefore worthwhile to see what the Book of Mormon had to say about dwindling.
Although Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life is generally viewed as a grand allegory about the struggles of mortality, it also indirectly describes spiritual dwindles. In his vision Lehi describes “numberless concourses of people” trying to reach the tree of life. But, as they were enveloped by the mists of darkness they “did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost”(1 Nephi 8:21-23). Once lost, they “felt their way” to the great and spacious building, and in a very public way, joined with the masses in pointing their fingers in mockery at the believers. I know the vision was just a metaphor, but it sounds pretty descriptive of the here and now.
As the story of the Book of Mormon unfolds, we are confronted with example on example of people that once believed who then “dwindled in unbelief”. And, though the other scriptures don’t specifically use dwindle to describe this ailment, we see the concept depicted through all scripture. Consider how many times the Children of Israel abandoned Jehovah for the gods of the Canaanites? How often did the chastening of the Lord come in the form of a raiding army from a nearby kingdom? Re-read the Acts of the Apostles (Ananias and Sapphira; Peter and Simon the Sorcerer) or the epistles of Paul (Demas, Diotrephes, Hymenaeus and Alexander) for New Testament examples. As you move forward to more modern scriptures like the Doctrine and Covenants you won’t find yourself lacking for more sad examples. I shudder to think of how many prominent members of the Church in this dispensation have called it quits and walked away from the Church and faith they once held dear.
One of the most important questions about spiritual dwindles is: what causes it? I will state from the outset that there are likely to be many causes. But the Book of Mormon speaks most directly about one preventable cause:
“your seed . . . shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity” (3 Nephi 21:5, emphasis mine)
“because of their iniquity the church did dwindle in unbelief” ( 4 Nephi 1:38, emphasis mine)
“And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation” (4 Nephi 1:38, emphasis mine)
“And the reason why he ceaseth to do miracles among the children of men is because that they dwindle in unbelief, and depart from the right way, and know not the God in whom they should trust.” (Mormon 9:20, emphasis mine)
I could easily go on with more examples, but it belabors the point. Suffice it to say that the Book of Mormon suggests that there is a very high correlation between iniquity and spiritual dwindles. This correlation seems to go beyond association, but rather implies causation. Iniquity is the root problem in almost all examples of dwindling in the Book of Mormon.
Now is is very important to note that iniquity is not the ONLY cause of dwindling in unbelief (so please put down your pitchforks and torches). To make such an assumption is to over-simply a very complex syndrome. Remember that, while smoking cigarettes is a major cause of lung cancer, there are people that have never smoked who still get lung cancer. So it is with spiritual dwindles and iniquity: some people are afflicted who have always remained worthy. And, while iniquity is not the only pathogen causing this syndrome, it has to be listed as a major risk factor.
A second important observation about spiritual dwindles is also worth making. Though there may be multiple causative pathogens, spiritual dwindles afflicts a very specific population. It primarily afflicts believers. You can’t dwindle in unbelief if you didn’t believe to some degree in the first place.
In medicine knowing what causes a syndrome and who is at risk for developing it goes a long way towards helping us diagnose and treat it. The plethora of scriptural examples of people dwindling in unbelief suggests that the Church has been trying to understand this problem from the beginning. Though the examples I cite above are usually cases which turn out badly, I could as easily list many examples where there is complete recovery. All these scriptural citations–both positive and negative–could be considered an accumulation of case reports with descriptions of signs, symptoms, remedies and outcomes. Unfortunately, they demonstrate that mortals seem to be inherently susceptible to spiritual dwindles. It therefore seems unlikely that we will ever be able to develop a foolproof vaccine that completely eradicates it.
The Church’s longstanding battle with the scourge of spiritual dwindles continues today. We all should be aware of the vigorous attempts to retain and reclaim those that dwindle.* I believe we’re better at handling it today that we were even ten years ago. These persistent attempts reiterate that there is yet hope for us to reclaim those that dwindle. As long as there is still some degree of belief, there is something to work with. We must also remember that not every case of spiritual dwindles is spiritually fatal. In truth, we are probably all afflicted by this disease at some point in our life. Finally, rest assured that it is possible to build immunity. To do so requires that we regularly fan and fuel the fame of belief–even though it sometimes is nothing but a spark. As we do, I am confident that we can cause the fire of faith can burn brightly once more.
*Elder Uchtdorf’s October 2013 Conference talk (Come, Join With Us) addressed the complexities of this issue.
It was easy to recognize greatness in Francis of Assisi. Art historians estimate that he is the subject of more religious art and iconography than any other person in history, except for Jesus Christ. Franciscans have referred to Francis as ‘the last Christian’ or as ‘the only Christian’. There can be no doubt that we latter-day saints would be hard-pressed to find a better example of Christian devotion in any era than we see in Francis.
John the Simple was a disciple of Francis of Assisi. Like everyone around him, John the Simple recognized the greatness in Francis. He was told that if he wanted to do the right things, he should do what he saw Francis do. He took the advice to heart—almost to the point of absurdity. John the Simple literally copied everything he saw Francis do. If Francis raised his hands, then John the Simple would raise his hands. If Francis sighed, John the Simple would sigh. If Francis spat, you could expect that in no time, John the Simple would spit as well. It was almost as if John was Francis’ shadow. It’s reminiscent a younger brother parroting back everything you said until it came to blows. That childhood recollection speaks further to the sainthood of Francis. Somehow, he didn’t lose it completely and come unglued on John the Simple.
Thomas of Celano was also a disciple of Francis, and knew him personally. In his history of Francis,* he recounts Francis asking John the Simple why he was copying his every gesture and movement. John the Simple’s reply was “I have promised to do all that thou doest; it is dangerous for me to leave anything out.” I’m not certain, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this was part the reason John the Simple came to be known as John the Simple.
Francis cherished John’s pure devotion, but gently forbade him to continue mimicking his every gesture. Interestingly enough, John the Simple passed away soon after this encounter. Francis always adored John the Simple’s memory, and subsequently referred to him as “Saint John”. Ironically, Francis frequently put forward John the Simple’s life for imitation of his other followers.
The story of John and Francis makes me think of the nuanced differences between imitation and emulation. Technically, the two words are interchangeable. But whereas imitation implies simple mimicry, emulation is more. To imitate someone is to copy them. You can imitate a truly great person or alternatively imitate a fool, or a thug, or ten thousand other examples of the worst that humanity has to offer. However emulation implies a more elevated form of imitation in which we try to equal or surpass another’s positive attributes. In other words, a thirteen-year-old girl imitates Miley Cyrus; John the Simple emulates Francis of Assisi.
At the end of the day, discipleship has always been a lot about mimicry. Jesus asked the rhetorical question “. . . what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am (3 Nephi 27:27).” But this is not all, in his Sermon on the Mount he enjoined his disciples to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48; compare 3 Nephi 12:48).” He didn’t ask what manner of man ought ye to be like. He asked for full perfection—the complete package, not just clever mimicry. He wants us to emulate him, not just imitate him. As I understand it, it’s on being (or more correctly on becoming), not on being like.
It can be pretty disheartening to read the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon at the Temple and recognize the high standard we’ve been asked to emulate. Indeed, it is dangerous for us to leave anything out. Yet we are so predictably imperfect to not get that sinking feeling. But as important as it is for us to know the standard we must meet, it is equally important to recognize that the Lord didn’t expect perfect emulation of his life immediately. The Lord told the saints: “continue in patience until ye are perfected (D&C 67:13).” Thankfully he is perfectly patient. We must also work to emulate this as well.
* Thomas of Celano, The Lives of S. Francis of Assisi, p 319
I recently spent some time reviewing the life of Francis of Assisi and was incredibly inspired by his example and his devotion to Jesus Christ. He was born about 1200 years after the death of Christ in the town of Assisi in central Italy. His father was a successful merchant, and this gave Francis a life of privilege and prosperity. For a time he was a soldier and then a merchant himself. In his youth he had a reputation for being the life the party. But this all changed because of a vision Francis had while still a young man. He was praying in a run-down country chapel called San Damiano when the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said: “Francis, don’t you see my house is crumbling apart? Go then, and rebuild it.”
Initially Francis interpreted this as an instruction to do renovations on San Damiano chapel, which was in sore need of repair. When he tried to use his father’s money to pay for the renovations, they had a major falling out. Francis became homeless. Nevertheless, he still raised money to buy renovation supplies and then went to work. But having finished these repairs, he still felt God was telling him to ‘rebuild’. In time, Francis came to realize that he was being instructed to rebuild the church as a whole. While others worked to spread Christianity to non-believers, Francis reached out to those that already believed. It was not so much reconstruction, but instead was reconversion. His call was to help believers whose personal faith had fallen into disrepair.
Francis rejected the trappings of his family’s wealth and social stature and devoted himself to a life of simplicity, poverty and service. You would be hard pressed to find a better example of a true Christian than Francis in any era, especially considering that there was only limited light of the gospel on the earth at this time in history. By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with a Christmas message. Well, this Christmas I was reminded of the story of Francis’ commemoration of the Christmas of 1223, just three years before he died.
Francis was then staying the small mountainous village of Greccio. In the towns of the Umbrian countryside, people were simple and did not have access the scriptures. Their only religious instruction came from the Catholic mass, which was delivered exclusively in Latin. However, the people only spoke and understood an Umbrian dialect. Francis had long felt that he had been called to preach the gospel to the people outside of a church in the language they understood. He taught them that they could worship God and pray to Him in their own language. Accordingly, Francis’ teachings were transformative—even though they were given to people that already believed.
Though the Christmas feast was by then already steeped in tradition, Francis wanted to help the people of Greccio experience Christmas in a way that they had never experienced it before. He arranged for a friend to place a manger with hay in a cave about a mile from town. He had an ox and an ass placed by the manger. Then, depending on which version of the story you believe, he either had a couple with a small baby dressed like Joseph, Mary and the newborn baby Jesus placed by the manger, or he placed a carving of the Christ child in the manger. All the stories agree that on Christmas Eve, Francis led the town people through the woods to the cave. When they came upon the illuminated manger scene they were struck with awe. It was as if they were all there in Bethlehem 1223 years earlier. They sang hymns of praise and watched in wonder at the scene before them. Francis told the Christmas story to the people—not in Latin—but in their own language. He helped them to experience Christ that Christmas in personal way. Finally, as the people watched on, they saw Francis overcome with emotion as he knelt before the manger and embraced the child he called “the babe of Bethlehem”.
It is taken for granted today that we recreate these scenes every Christmas. We call it a crèche or a nativity. I would venture to guess that almost every LDS family has some sort of depiction of this in their home. Amazingly enough, 1223 is the first documented commemoration of Christmas with a nativity of this type. The insignificant town of Greccio, just like the insignificant town of Bethlehem, was now on the map.
I think it is important to note that townspeople of Greccio had long been god-fearing Christians that had probably celebrated Christmas on an annual basis as far back as anyone could remember. I have no doubt that Christmas was always special to them. But the Christmas of 1223 changed everything because on that Christmas, people experienced the miracle of the Savior’s birth a way they had never experienced it before.
A few years ago our family had a Christmas that was a bit of a game changer. During the Christmas of 2012, we were in Morocco, a country that is 99% Muslim. Over a period of two weeks, I saw exactly two Christmas trees. There was no Christmas music or decorations. There were no daily reminders of the number of shopping days left until Christmas. We were not inundated with commercial images of Christmas everywhere we looked. It was as if we were in a place where they had never even heard of Christmas.
At every corner we saw humble people that lived much like people did in the time and place where Jesus was born. It seemed like there were shepherds on every rocky mountainside. People dressed like they just came off the set of a Bible movie. They loaded their wares on donkeys or balanced them on their heads; they rushed through crowded markets filled with unusual products and strange smells. But outwardly Christmas was nowhere to be seen.
Fortunately our family managed to find Christmas in Morocco that year. Not because it was thrust upon us, but because we were looking for it. That Christmas, though different from any other Christmas I’d celebrated before or since, was beautiful. It will always be a Christmas that I will cherish.
Now I have absolutely no doubt that for most of us Christmas as we usually celebrate it, is wonderful. For most of us it’s our favorite time of the year. For most of us, we don’t feel like we need to fix something that’s not broken. I’m certainly not here to say that you’re doing it all wrong. But there is a chance that—in a season that is so steeped in tradition and so packed with time demands, pressures and distractions—that we fail to fully remember what we are celebrating in the first place.
If we were to spend time with Francis this Christmas, I suspect he’d tell us to keep doing all the things we normally do that make Christmas so awesome. After all, he didn’t cancel any of the festivities that were already planned for Christmas in 1223. Things like Santa and presents, and decorations and family traditions will always be a part of what makes Christmas so beautiful for us. Francis would encourage us to keep and cherish all of these.
I am equally confident Francis would not have us pack our bags and head off to Greccio or to Marrakech either. But I do think he would encourage us to do whatever it takes to individually experience Christ this Christmas. Francis would tell us to carry on if this is something you already do. If not—or if not yet—he would tell us to not put it off any longer.
How then do we experience Christ more completely this Christmas? The formula will likely be different for each of us. It might involve setting up your own crèche, or reading the scriptures, or listening to music, or private prayer, or personal meditation. It might even include studying the example of a Catholic saint. I feel that any mechanism that helps us personally experience Christ this Christmas is fine. It matters less how we do it, only that we do it. I am confident that as we do, a season we’ve looked forward to with hope and anticipation for months can be a true game changer for us individually.
Ours is the challenge to rediscover Christ this Christmas and every Christmas. As we do, we will find ourselves reconverted to the faith. We will also be renewed by the joy that comes from recognizing “the babe of Bethlehem” as the Gift that will save the world.
I just bought the Star Wars Complete Saga for Blue Ray. We are watching the series in order and finished The Phantom Menace. I was astounded (again) at the degree to which gospel themes are woven into the story line. I’ve posted on Star Wars before (Jedi mind tricks and the power of the dark side) and somehow think the next 5 movies will be insightful.
Part of what makes this story so compelling to me is the great battle between good and evil that is at it’s heart. The Force is portrayed as an all-powerful influence that exists independent of any one individual. Members of the Jedi Order use the Force to bring about peace and justice in the universe, whereas the Sith Order use the Force to gain personal power. It is apparent pretty early in the saga that there will be a cataclysmic conflict between these opposing philosophies.
The respective codes of the Jedi and the Sith are outlined below:
|The Jedi Code||The Sith Code|
|There is no emotion, there is peace
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge
There is no passion, there is serenity
There is no chaos, there is harmony
There is no death, there is the Force
|Peace is a lie, there is only passion
Through passion, I gain strength
Through strength, I gain power
Through power, I gain victory
Through victory, my chains are broken
The Force shall free me
The opposition between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force is the glue that binds this story together. It seems like the opposition leitmotif in the Star Wars saga might be the same critical ingredient that is needed in the saga of our own eternal journey.
In his final words of counsel to his son Jacob, Lehi said “there must needs be opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) in order for God to bring about his eternal purposes (2 Nephi 2:15). The 29th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants speaks further to God’s great purpose. Without opposition, men could never be agents unto themselves. We would never recognize sweet without first tasting something bitter (D&C 29:39). This agency was an essential part of the test of mortality, and a critical mechanism whereby God could exalt His children (Abraham 3:25-26).
It would be very interesting to sit down with George Lucas and discuss how nicely his story line coincides with LDS understanding of how the forces of good an evil interact in man’s eternal destiny. There are certainly days in our individual lives when we are left to wonder which side will triumph. Fortunately for those with faith in God, both stories conclude with a happy ever after ending.
I just got the art work for the book cover from Cedar Fort along with an anticipated publication date of May 12, 2015.
Here’s a quick overview:
LDS people generally identify strongly with the idea of being servants of the Lord. Yet, where the KJV of the Bible reads ‘servant of Jesus Christ’ the original Greek in which the New Testament was written invariably reads ‘slave of Jesus Christ’. Although latter-day saints believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly, most fail to understand the servant/slave translational nuance. This significantly limits the understanding of the original message of these important passages. Since the early saints truly considered themselves slaves of Christ, we as latter-day saints have much to learn from this perspective.
This book teaches the New Testament message that men are transformed from being slaves of sin, to slaves of Christ as they are redeemed by His atonement. It illustrates how frequently the New Testament equates conversion to the gospel to becoming a slave of Christ. It chronicles the many instances in which the early apostles and gospel narrators referred to themselves in this way. It also reviews the extensive Hebraic tradition, which held that man was the slave of God, and numerous instances where theme of slavery is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Anciently slavery was a condition that was worse than death, and associated with utter hopelessness and loss of control. Yet enslavement to Christ was paradoxically esteemed to be an essential element of conversion that brought joy, freedom and eternal life. By illustrating this metaphor from the context in which the New Testament was originally written, my book helps the reader gain new perspective into their relationship with their Redeemer, and more completely surrender their will to His.
Today I read an editorial in which owners of a wedding chapel in Idaho face fines and possible jail time for refusing to perform same-sex marriage. The husband and wife owners are both ordained ministers and believe same-sex marriage to be contrary to their religious beliefs. But the recent court rulings on same-sex marriage now make it legal in Idaho. As a result, they are in potential violation of local non-discrimination ordinances because their wedding chapel is registered as a business, not a church.
So it begins.
In reality the battle lines have been forming for quite some time now and the Church has anticipated this fight. To those that are in favor of same-sex marriage–and even those that are completely indifferent about it–the Church’s position is difficult to understand. “Why not concede on this one issue and then everyone can get along with no further quarrel?”
148 years ago, critics were asking the same question of the Church regarding it’s position on marriage. Brigham Young’s response then is something that would work pretty well today–if we simply substitute ‘polygamy’ for ‘same-sex marriage’:
[If] we would give up polygamy . . . would they be satisfied with this? No; but they would next want us to renounce Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God, then the Book of Mormon, then baptism for the remission of sins and the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost. Then they would wish us to disclaim the gift of prophecy, and the other gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, on the ground that they are done away and no longer needed in our day, also prophets and apostles, etc.
They want us to yield all these points, transgress the laws God has revealed for the salvation of the world, and change all the ordinances of God’s house, and conform to the dogmas of modern Christianity and to the corruptions of the age. Will the Latter-day Saints do this? No; they will not to please anybody. Shall we have a warfare? We shall; we will war and contend for the right, and trust in our God until righteousness is established upon the earth, until peace shall reign everywhere, until the children of men shall lay down the weapons of their warfare and cease to exhaust their ability and ingenuity in forming weapons of destruction to slay their fellow men, until the minds and affections of mankind shall be turned unto the Lord their God, and their energies be directed to beautifying the earth and making it like the garden of Eden. We calculate to struggle on, and continue to exercise faith and enjoy our religion, keeping all the commandments of God, observing the ordinances of his house, trying to fulfill all his words, trusting in him, and we shall see what this course will come to. (Brigham Young – Journal of Discourses 11:239)
His words are eerily prophetic. Were the Church to concede on the issue of same-sex marriage, it wouldn’t end there. There would be “just one more thing”. I think we are in for a fight no matter what.