Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Truth About the Easter Bunny

Somewhere along the line (God only knows when), people decided that the Easter Bunny is evil. 
I've come to eat carrots and pillage
...and I'm all out of carrots.

History Channel and its ilk (i.e. Discovery Channel, the Internet) started preaching a while back that the Easter Bunny was some kind of pagan demon-rabbit left over from the pre-Christian days. 

Then, Evangelical Protestants pretty quickly jumped on the bandwagon, choosing to throw the Easter Bunny and his festive eggs on the (sometimes) proverbial evil-burnin’ fire along with Harry Potter books and joy.

But here’s the thing: whenever you see History Channel and Protestants uniting to say something’s pagan, it’s usually a pretty good tipoff that said-something actually has deeply Catholic roots. This rule holds true for Santa, Christmas trees, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and especially the Easter Bunny.

Before we get to the Easter Bunny’s origins story, however, let’s take a moment to debunk the popular argument for his paganism.

The trouble pretty much starts and ends with a 19th century piece on the origins of Easter customs written by Jakob Grimm (yeah, the fairytale guy). 
Ostara you... you have
a lil' something in your hair

In his writings, Grimm mentions an ancient Germanic fertility goddess known as Ostara who returned every Spring bringing rabbits and general sexiness. He cited this goddess as the origins of the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, and other fun stuff like that.

The problem with this theory is that Grimm was literally the only person to ever document any such custom. In fact, the mention of Ostara is almost a throw-away comment, making up no more than one sentence in his writings. This, coupled with the fact that Grimm was strongly anti-Catholic, means that using his writings as an argument for the Easter Bunny’s pagan origins is flimsy at best.

So what are the Catholic origins of the Easter Bunny?

Our story starts with crappy science. See, despite the fact that the Catholic Church pretty much invented science, the Middle Ages still put out some truly bizarre hypotheses regarding the natural world. Many of these animal “facts” were then picked up by clergy and religious artists to make theological points.
At first I thought this was
weird, but then...
No, it's weird.

For instance, the observation of the bizarre way a pelican feeds its young (vomit soup, anyone?) led medieval scientists to conclude that pelicans fed pieces of their own body to their babies. The Church then picked this up and rolled with it, using the pelican as a Eucharistic parallel in everything from paintings to stained-glass windows.

Now, as we all know, rabbits have a tendency to multiply like… well, rabbits. Today, we recognize that this is due to insane levels of copulation, but in the middle ages they blamed parthenogenesis. Unable to fathom any species that would mate that much, medieval scholars concluded that female rabbits could conceive without the necessity of males. Rabbits began to be associated with purity and perpetual virginity, white rabbits even more so.

It is widely believe that Jesus'
 favorite story was, "Pat the Bunny".
 Soon they were being used as symbols of the Virgin Mary, as seen in Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit. Like Mary, therefore, the rabbit was seen in art as a herald for Christ, preparing the way for the Savior and pointing back to Him. This is especially interesting when one considers the fact that the Easter Bunny is traditionally held to visit on the eve of Easter (not Easter Sunday), heralding the resurrection on the following day.

The rabbit’s popularity only grew over the years, due both to its Marian identity in art and at least one major Eucharistic miracle associated with the animal (you can read all about how rabbits protected consecrated hosts from the elements here).

Pretty soon, the animal’s tendency to be viewed as a herald of Christ got it included in Easter festivities around Europe. It also wasn’t long before rabbits got lumped in with the popular European emphasis on eggs which were used to represent the tomb (dying eggs originates from when Catholics were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent. Rather than throw them away, Christians would pickle their eggs, coloring them any number of shades depending on the pickling method utilized. Hence, colored eggs in particular became associated with Easter).

Whether or not he came willingly is another story...

Rabbits and, by extension, their association with Easter eggs became so popular that, in 1682 when Archbishop Georg Franck von Frankenau published his dissertation De ovis paschalibus (About Easter Eggs), he saw fit to include the French tradition of a hare bringing the colorful treats.

Eventually, as with most folksy holiday customs, Catholic immigrants brought the “Easter Hare” (or “Osterhase”) to America.

So there it is: The Easter Bunnies true (and distinctively Catholic) origins story. And if you’ve lived most of your life believing that Mr. Osterhase was pagan, it’s not too late! Go out, dye some eggs, buy yourself a candy bar, and make sure to pass along the truth behind this proud Catholic tradition.

Friday, March 29, 2013

3 Myths You Believe About Christ and His Passion

Nobody knows everything about Jesus and the Passion. I would venture to guess (humbly albeit confidently) that nobody living can or would say such a thing. That said, it doesn’t hurt to try to learn everything one can about Christ. With this in mind, here are a few of the commonly-believed myths about Christ and the events surrounding His death that deserved be debunked:

 1) “Jesus hated Pharisees.”

This is an easy myth to buy into because, at countless points throughout the gospels, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees. However:

It’s true. See, the Pharisees were actually a sect of Judaism that – in contrast with the highly traditional Sadducees – not only believed strongly in the Holy Spirit and Heaven but also acknowledged the teachings of other prophets besides Moses. Far from hating the Pharisees, Jesus was actually raised in the Pharisaical tradition, a fact which is obvious when one realizes that Jesus often preached on the Holy Spirit and Heaven and seemed to be constantly fulfilling the prophesies of prophets other than Moses.

Jesus was tough on the Pharisees for the same reason a skilled coach would be hard on a lazy player. In other words, Jesus was hard on the Pharisees because He knew what they could and should have been and yet He saw them failing miserably.

2) “There was a rooster at the passion.”

Any decent Christian knows the story of St. Peter denying Christ before the cock crowed. It’s a particularly tragic event in the story of Christ’s Passion, and yet it also lays the foundation for a beautiful lesson about Christ’s forgiveness.

But there’s a problem: there were no chickens in Jerusalem during the life of Christ.
 Because of chickens’ tendency to defecate where you don’t want them to, the Talmud strictly prohibited them entering the city lest they find their way into the temple.

Plus, chickens are really scary.

So why does the Bible say that “the cock crowed”?

Well, according to Because They Never Asked author and Messianic Jew Lonnie Lane, the original Greek text used the word “alektor” to describe this “rooster”. However, what the original English translators of the Bible failed to realize is that “alektor” can describe not only a rooster, but also a specially designated priest in the Jewish temple. In the days of Jesus, it was this priest’s job to arise at dawn, open up the temple, and call the people to prayer. Because he cried out at dawn, he was commonly referred to as “alektor”, or rooster, but this turn-of-phrase was lost on the English speakers who first translated the holy text.

What’s even more fascinating about this fact is that it adds another layer of meaning to the story of Peter’s denial. When the priest would wake and call the people to prayer, he would shout three things:

"All the cohanim (priests) prepare to sacrifice! All the Leviim (Levites) to their stations! All the Israelites come to worship!”

Now imagine you’re Peter for a moment. You’ve just denied Christ when you hear the temple crier call out his message to sacrifice, serve, and worship God, the exact three things you’ve just failed in doing by denying the Lord. How much more chilling is this story – and how much more beautiful is Christ’s eventual forgiveness of Peter – when we know this historical detail?

3) "Jesus was a white guy.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Of course Jesus wasn’t white! Jesus was Jewish, everyone knows that!” However, this has some connotations that you may not be aware of.

Firstly, Jesus was definitely much tanner than most depictions would have us believe.
Professor Vincent Wimbush, of California's Claremont Graduate University, who is an expert on ethnic interpretations of the Bible, says the matter of the historical color of Jesus seems to him a "flat, dead-end issue".

"He's of Mediterranean stock, and it's quite clear what that means. We see people like that in the world today, and that should end the matter."

Another interesting factoid is Jesus’ facial hair. Despite the fact that Jesus is often depicted as having a neat, trimmed beard, we have to remember that Jesus was devoutly Jewish. This means that, in addition to having a long shaggy beard, Jesus also would’ve had payis. 

Payis, or “peya” as they’re also called, are the sidelocks (long sideburns) worn by conservative Jewish men. They’re mentioned in Leviticus 19:27 where it is decreed, “You shall not round off the peya of your head”.  Therefore, many modern Jewish men (and all Jewish men during the time of Christ) would have sported the long curly sideburns as a symbol of their devotion to God.

Because of this, Jesus would've looked less like this...

"I am Thor,  god of... wait"
...and a lot more like this:
"The Kingdom of God is like...
a fiddler on the roof!"

In closing, I have to reaffirm that it’s impossible to know everything about our Savior. Far better men than I have written far more on some of the lesser-known details surrounding His time with us on earth. However, it’s always nice to get some new insights into old assumptions, particularly when those insights allow us to see new detail in the story of our salvation.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Modesty, Once and for All

It seems like we hear a lot about modesty nowadays. And yet, as much as everyone’s talking about it, nobody really seems to know what it is. In the absence of a clear definition, many well-intentioned Catholics turn to non-Catholic definitions of modesty, largely protestant definitions that I’ll refer to here as “false-modesty”. Somewhat oppressive, the definition of false-modesty varies pretty widely in severity among individuals, but always focuses almost entirely on women and takes a stark, black-and-white approach to what one should and should not wear.

The fundamental problem with false-modesty, however, is that it too closely resembles the world’s view of sexuality. Let me put it this way: as a good friend of mine once put it, “Our culture says, ‘look at that woman because she’s a sex object’ but the culture of false-modesty says, ‘DON’T look at that woman because she’s a sex object.”

Put a different way, false-modesty twists true modesty so that its focus is on the negative. It commands a person, especially a woman, to cover up because either her body is evil and lust-provoking, or at the very least, the people who are looking at her body are evil and lustful.

This is simply wrong, however. The Church has always regarded the human body as a beautiful thing to be expressed, glorified, and yes, even shown off (with grace and humility and in the right context), as exhibited in St. Peter’s Basilica. A huge percentage of Pope John Paul II’s writings speak of the beauty of the body and human sexuality. Even the Bible attests to the beauty and glory of the woman’s form, saying in the Song of Songs, “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”

Not exactly what Solomon meant...
If this is all true, however, then where does modesty fit in? How do we live out modesty while still glorifying our bodies and ourselves in a deeply Catholic way?

Before we can answer the question of modesty, however, we must first look at why we must not be immodest. The fundamental problem with immodesty is not what it shows, but what it doesn’t show. Put differently, immodesty is sinful because it distracts from the dignity of the person inside, not because it shows too much skin.  For instance, many saints have stood naked in public and yet have managed to maintain a holy modesty. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, could wear a nun’s habit and still be totally immodest.

So what does it mean to be immodest? How can a person know whether they are being modest or not?

Pope John Paul II writes in ‘Love & Responsibility’ that:

“Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

So, according to JPII’s teaching, modesty can never be determined by the question “what are you wearing?” Instead, modesty can be figured out by asking the questions, “Why are you wearing it and where are you wearing it?” 

Didn't know that, did you?

Let’s break that down slightly:

Firstly, the modesty of anyone is directly determined by the motives of the person. If a person is wearing something because it makes him or her feel beautiful and self confident, and if that person is carrying themselves with humility and dignity, they are probably justified in wearing whatever it is they’re wearing. 

Secondly, modesty is determined by the particular situation. For instance, a tasteful, modest ball gown can be totally immodest if worn in the middle of a county fair.

Now I recognize that this is a lot to take in. Catholicism’s definition of modesty is a very cerebral and, dare I say, liberating outlook. Still, it’s important for Catholics to do their best to grasp the Church’s teaching and apply it to their own lives. Hopefully this post will have begun you on the journey to a healthier and more Catholic approach to modesty.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I Love You Just the Way You Aren't

An oft-repeated phrase lately is “Always be yourself”. From Lady Gaga to Willow Smith, the entire culture seems to be channeling the sage wisdom of Pinkie Pie.

Pinkie pie be yourself haters gonna hate

This message is especially emphasized in romance. To paraphrase Princess Diaries, our culture now thinks of love as “being yourself, only with someone else”.
However, despite the importance of staying true to our fundamentals (and I don’t deny that this is important), have we perhaps put too much stock in “being ourselves”?
Let me explain: The current concept of what comprises “you” and “me” is a very wide definition. When I say that I want to “be myself”, what I’m usually saying is that I want to remain just as I am. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I accept every possible aspect of myself, and woe betide you if you don’t accept it too. If I plan to accept myself for “who I am”, then what you see is what you get.
Here’s the problem: If you’re reading this, chances are you’re human. (If you’re a hyper-intelligent monkey who’s learned to read, congratulations. The rest of this article doesn’t apply to you). As humans, we’re chock-full of some pretty nasty thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Maybe I’m too angry, or perhaps I’m too friendly (we all know that sometimes, that can be worse). Maybe you’re not a very clean person, or maybe you’re too clean and you make your friends uncomfortable. And no matter who you are (hyper-intelligent monkeys excluded), you know that you have a heap-ton of deep-seated emotional issues, probably all rooted in your childhood.
Sigmund Freud - How does that make you feel?
And that’s the fundamental problem with “being yourself”. Our culture has put such an emphasis on self-acceptance that any potential for growth or self-improvement has been all but thrown out the window.
This is especially true in romance and relationships. Gone are the days when hopeless romantics searched for partners who would mold and form them into better people and vice versa. Now we look for lovers who can “love me for me” or “take me for what I am”.
The problem is, “who you are” sucks. And as I’ve already said, you’re not alone in this. But that’s the whole point of being in a romantic relationship with someone! Relationships aren’t about finding someone you’re moderately attracted to who tells you every one of your behaviors and desires are just dandy. The point of a relationship is to have what’s best about you emphasized by somebody who cares enough to do so, all while what’s worst about you is slowly carved away.
Sure, weeding out your issues and self-destructive behaviors can be painful sometimes, and we’ve all been there. But the point of love is that it carries lovers through those difficult periods and brings them out on the other side as substantially better people.
Instead of accepting who you are for what you are, try working to become a “first rate version of yourself” (thanks for that, Judy Garland). Instead of looking for someone who accepts you for you, try looking for a person who brings out your best qualities and pushes you to be a better person (Of course, they need to be ok with you pushing them to be better too).
And yes, pushing yourself to be first rate is a lot harder than accepting yourself at face value. It’s even harder to be pushed to be better by somebody you really care about. I promise, however, that you and your relationship will be stronger for it.