Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

Nativity group by Michel Anguier, St. Roch, Paris

This was my homily for Christmas Day:

Flags at half staff.

Moments of silence.

Tolling church bells.

Internet blackouts.

These are things that have contributed to the atmosphere of the past 12 days.

And there was another: Christmas lights gone dark for a night.

Maybe many of us feel a little awkward, a little guilty even, about celebrating the holiday at all

And yet, in a way, nothing could be more appropriate.

Nothing could be more fitting at this moment in our lives together in America than to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and to remember what that birth means.

Some events — and surely an event that took place this month — may contribute to a certain pessimism about our human condition.

It’s the 21st century, we might say to ourselves in one way or another.

It’s the 21st century, and how far have we come if this is the best we can do?

What’s wrong with all of us, if some of us are capable of this, if none of us can prevent such things?

There are some philosophies — both religious and secular — that would answer those questions by saying, “What do you expect?”

“Human beings are fundamentally flawed creatures, and sooner or later they’re going to act on their worst instincts.”

But Christmas says otherwise.

What we celebrate today is that the child born in the manger was, in one person, both a human being and God himself.

We sometimes hear this expressed in negative terms.

We sometimes hear that God lowered himself, to take on the nature of miserable humankind.

But while we recognize that God is greater than any one of us, greater than all of us put together, we don’t have to look on the birth of Jesus — in fact, I suggest that we should not look on the birth of Jesus — as an act of condescension.

On the contrary, the birth of Jesus is an act of love.

 In the birth of Jesus, God shows his love for us — not only because he was willing to obscure his divine nature with the physical appearance of humanity, but because he placed such a value on human nature that he wanted to show that the men and women and children he created were fit to live in his company, fit to coexist in the same person — in the child born in Bethlehem.

God is anything but pessimistic about human beings.

Jesus demonstrated that over and over again — with Matthew, with Zaccheus, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with the woman accused of adultery, with Peter, with the thief dying alongside him on a cross, and with Paul.

He told us about it in those parables that resound through the ages: the father and his two sons, the Good Samaritan, the one lost sheep from the ninety-nine.

Jesus, who looked on human beings with such optimism, encountered in his lifetime Herod and his sons, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and people whose jealousy or paranoia inspired them to criticize him, attack him, ostracize him, eventually kill him.

But even at that extremity, the last thing he said about such people was, “Father, forgive them.”

And while we may not be able to look as deeply into those souls as Jesus did, we take him at his word.

Every now and then, someone — for reasons that we really do not understand — commits an act that might make us ask us just how low human nature can descend.

But we don’t have to look far — and we didn’t have to look far this month — to find far more people, including people sitting in this church, whose heroism and generosity help us to see just how high human nature can soar.

The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are essentially good.

 Christmas — and perhaps this Christmas especially — is a good time to recall that and to celebrate it in the words of the hymn.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”

        

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CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

In a post last December, I mentioned in passing the widely held fiction that when Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage, many if not most Europeans thought he would sail his ship off the edge of a flat earth and into oblivion. I was taught this in elementary school, and I have spoken to many people my age who remember being taught the same thing. More recently, I questioned my college students about this, and many of them said they had the same impression about Columbus.

The fact is that it was common knowledge among Columbus’ contemporaries in Europe that the world was round — a point that Nancy Marie Brown makes in her book, The Abacus and the Cross.

This book is not about Columbus; it’s about Gerbert of Aurillac, a French monk who lived in the 10th century. Gerbert had a thirst for knowledge and he became thoroughly schooled in the humanities and in the sciences.

GERBERT of AURILLAC

His scholarship carried him to Spain, where he came in contact with a thriving Arab Muslim culture which had preserved enormous amounts of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been lost to Europe. Gerbert seems to have had both the curiosity and the capacity of a Leonardo or Michelangelo, and he devoured as much learning as he could. He was engrossed in both mathematics and in music, for example, and in the relationship between the two disciplines. He scrutinized the properties of organ pipes, and he eventually designed a built a prototypical organ that was not driven by water — the common technique of his time — but by forced air.

He didn’t only strive to satisfy his own curiosity. He was an influential teacher whose students included royalty. In the process of carrying out this vocation he introduced Europe to the place system of arithmetic — vertical rows for the ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth — which was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman system and which the western world has been using ever since. In this connection, he also carried back from Spain numerals that had originated in India and that had been adapted by the Muslims — the forerunners of the so-called Arabic numbers we use today. As the title of the book suggests, he learned in Spain to use an abacus board to calculate, and he later designed his own versions and taught others how to use them.

AN ASTROLABE

Also among Gerbert’s interests was astronomy. He learned all about astrolabes, overlaid disks that were used to trace the positions of the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets — and tell time — and about celestial globes, which were three dimensional representations of the apparent paths of the heavenly bodies. He made his own models of these instruments, too, sometimes taking as much as a year to finish one.

As Brown points out, it is clear not only that Gerber, in the 10th century, knew that the world was round, but that Pythagoras determined that around 530 BC, and Erastosthenes figured out how to calculate the circumference of the globe by 240 BC. Some flat-earthers persisted, but by the time of Columbus the point was moot in western Europe. Columbus knew the world was round; his mistake was in underestimating the circumference.

Being a churchman in that era, and one who enjoyed consorting with powerful people, Gerbert inevitably got drawn into the constant political turmoil in Europe, and his fortunes rose and fell along with those of his patrons.

He almost ended on a high note when he was elected Pope Sylvester II in 999 AD.

SYLVESTER on FRENCH STAMP

Even that didn’t turn out so well, because he had to flee Rome for a while along with his patron of the moment, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Sylvester died in 1003.

During his lifetime and for a long time after his death he was the subject of rumors that he consorted with the devil or engaged in sorcery. Ironically, this was because of his pursuit of knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, which in some ignorant minds were associated with the occult.