Vol. 1, Issue 7
December 20, 2006
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The message of grace and peace that is part of this season is a message that presupposes the presence of genuine sin and evil - otherwise there would have been no need for the message. The weeping of Rachel for her children who were no more is also part of the story of Christ's Incarnation. But the grace and peace are infinitely greater, and Christ was born to be - and is now - KING. "Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ." Because of what we celebrate at this season, eventually "all will be well, and ALL will be well, and all manner of things will be well."
If you've been enjoying this newsletter, please forward it on to anyone you know who might also enjoy it. Note the links to the SCHOLEGIUM archives at the end as well as subscription and unsubscription information. I hope you find something of benefit in today's bouquet of musings.
IN THIS ISSUE:
1) COGITEMUS: Looking back from the end of history
2) DE ASTRIS: The Winter Solstice
3) ANNO DOMINI: The fourth Sunday in Advent
4) SIC LOCUTUS: Livy
LOOKING BACK FROM THE END OF HISTORY
The last issue of Scholegium argued that we do not leave history behind but rather we add layers to it, just as a growing tree does not leave behind it's earlier growth but adds new outer layers, accumulating a greater bulk and solidity. The past, all of it, is our life; it's our foundation and what gives meaning and solidity to the present. To dismiss the past as irrelevant is like wanting to keep the branches of a tree hanging in mid-air and growing while chopping away the trunk. It's absurd.
But let's think a little further about this. We moderns tend to think that the present alone is important and the past irrelevant; and it's not surprising that we think that way because we are exceedingly arrogant creatures who believe that if we live in this age it must therefore be important. But in fact it is the other way around. History -- the STORY -- is all there is and all that is important, and the present is just the very tiny, relatively insignificant outer edge, one more onion-thin layer increasing the massive edifice that we call history. Our time is one more chapter added to the growing book. Our own present significance we will never know; only those who come after us will be able to judge about us. It's only when you turn the last page of a book that you can assess it; it's only when the credits roll and the music swells importantly and the people get up and stumble up the aisles over the popcorn buckets at the end of the movie that you can evaluate the movie fairly; it's only when Croesus dies that Solon can say anything about the happiness of his life as a whole. Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last, says the Chorus at the end of Oedipus the King. Likewise, we in the present are utterly unqualified to judge of the importance of our own age and all its works. The age is not over yet, not enough time has passed; we're too close to the detail and far too emotionally involved.
But we can study the past far more dispassionately and with far more help. Unlike the present, the past is fixed and stable. Whether our view of it is equally stable is another question, but the past is done changing. And the past has context -- not only did the fourteenth century happen, but so did the fifteenth, and so the fourteenth century has context because it has a before (the thirteenth) and an after (the fifteenth). It's the middle of something to which there is also a beginning and an end. We, on the other hand, have a before but we have no after... yet. We're the middle of something to which there is beginning but no end that we'll ever see. So we don't have enough context to study ourselves well -- but the past does.
Of course this way of viewing history and the present is flawed, because all ways of seeing things with our finite biased perspective are flawed. Our knowledge of anything in the past is continually changing as new information comes to light and new theories better account for the epicycles and we become more aware of our own ignorance. But to say that this view is flawed is not to say that it's wrong. To begin with, God Himself expects us to study and learn from and remember the past. It's precisely the failure to do this that God warned His people against in the Old Testament, and that brought them so much misery when they didn't listen, and that the Church is warned against all over again in the New Testament. "These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come."
And to see history this way -- to see it as more knowable, and therefore more usefully studied for wisdom than the present in the thick of which we are so deeply mired -- is to begin to have just exactly that wisdom that we need in order to get through the mire of the present. We don't ignore the present -- but we can't do anything about it till we've learned to live in the past.
THE WINTER SOLSTICE
At 7:22 PM Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, December 21, the sun will be at the Winter Solstice and winter will officially begin in the northern hemisphere, summer in the southern. For us in the northern half of the globe, Thursday night will be the longest night of the year, and Thursday and Friday will be the shortest days (technically it can vary due to other celestial oddities, but not by much). At this moment in the year the Romans began some of their famous winter festivals such as Saturnalia.
At the winter solstice the sun is at its farthest south point in its apparent annual motion against the backdrop of the heavens. That is, if you had been watching the sun every day at noon recently, you would have seen it move farther and farther south on the noon line; but on the solstice it would appear to stand still; and then in the next few days begin to move north again, till on March 21 it would be on the celestial equator (that imaginary line in the sky directly over the earth's equator) and then spring begins. The word "solstice" comes from Latin and literally means "sun-stoppage", and there are two sun-stoppages: the other one is in the summer, on June 21, which is the summer solstice when the sun is at its farthest north point, and we are exactly six months away from that.
At the winter solstice the sun is moving into the constellation Sagittarius and is exactly six constellations of the zodiac away from Orion (the left side of Orion to be even more exact). In other words, if you go out at night and find Betelgeuse, the left shoulder star of Orion, then look about a handspan further north, that's the exact opposite spot in the sky from where the sun is right now. Another implication of this is that on the summer solstice you'll be seeing Sagittarius at night where Orion and Gemini are now, because the sun will be between Orion and Gemini then. Also Sirius, the brightest and perhaps most beautiful star in the sky, is almost exactly opposite the sun at the winter solstice and is high in the south at midnight all through the Christmas season, dominating the whole night.
At the winter solstice the sun is almost exactly in a line, from our perspective, with the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way is a disk, like a frisbee, and our solar system is about two thirds of the way out from the center. If you look in the direction of the sun on the winter solstice, you are also looking in the direction of our galactic center. If you look at Orion, you're looking out toward the edge of the galactic disk.
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT
The collect in the Book of Common Prayer for the fourth Sunday in Advent brings together the two themes that dominant the Advent season: Christ's first coming in humility and his second in power; his first advent to deliver, and his second to judge. But his judgment at his second coming, while a sobering thought (think of the Dies Irae), needn't terrify one of His own. David calls on God over and over in the Psalms to come and judge him, and he seems to have thought that to be a good thing, not a terrifying one. God's judgment on behalf of His people is our deliverance; it's a comfort and part of our deliverance.
The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.
--Livy, History of Rome