January 2

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The Feast of St Gregory Nazianzus

Gregory (329-390) was archbishop of Constantinople and one of the great theologians of his age. Along with Saints Basil and Gregory of Nyssa who were also born in central Asia Minor, he is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory defended Christianity against the revived paganism of the emperor Julian the Apostate and argued against the Arian form of Christianity which denied the divinity of Christ and which was supported by powerful politicians and churchmen in Constantinople. His brilliant oratory and writings in favour of the Trinitarian position helped that view of Christ to become orthodoxy.

533

Mercurius is elected pope and instead of using his own name becomes the first pontiff to choose a regnal name, styling himself John II. He felt it inappropriate that the Bishop of Rome should be named after the pagan god Mercury.

1492

The Christian reconquest of Spain ends with the fall of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. In 711 an Arab and Berber army from North Africa had swept into Spain, conquering all but a corner of the northwest. From there Christian princes waged centuries of the Reconquista, gradually pushing the Muslim occupiers south until finally eradicating the Islamic presence in 1492.

January 1

The Circumcision of Jesus

This feast commemorates the traditional date for the ritual circumcision of Jesus on his eighth day. The festival was known by the 400s in the West; in the Eastern church it coincides with St Basil’s Day. Legends grew up around the child’s foreskin and its preservation as a sacred relic which could perform miracles. Charlemagne was said to have given it to Pope Leo III in 800 but as many as 18 different churches have claimed to possess it. Protestants abandoned interest in the feast and recent Roman Catholic decrees have renamed January 1 “The Octave of the Nativity”.

January 1 also saw a number of other remarkable moments in church history:

404 The monk Telemachus is torn apart by a Roman mob for trying to prevent a gladiator fight.

1431 The birth of one of the Bad Popes of the Renaissance, Rodrigo Borgia, who went on to become the notorious Pope Alexander VI.

1484 The birth of Huldreich Zwingli, a Catholic priest who led the Protestant Reformation in Zurich.

1773 The first performance of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, sung to accompany a sermon by its author John Newton.

1795 French churches, which had been closed during the worst moments of the French Revolution, are allowed to reopen.

1814 The birth of Hong Xiuchuan. Influenced by reading the tracts of some Christian missionaries to China, Hong is led to proclaim himself the Little Brother of Jesus Christ, establish the Heavenly Kingdom and provoke the worst civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion, which resulted in the death of 20,000,000 people.

1927 The official outbreak of the Cristero War, a rebellion of Mexican Christians against the anti-religious regime of President Calles.

December 25

An astonishing number of church-related actions took place on December 25. Here are a few of them:

  • 336 earliest recorded celebration of Christmas in Rome
  • 567 Beginning of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as decreed by Council of Tours
  • 597 Augustine baptizes thousands of Saxons in Kent
  • 634 Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, warns of Islamic menace
  • 1000 St. Stephen crowned first Christian king of Hungary
  • 1100 Baldwin of Edessa crowned King of Jerusalem in Bethlehem
  • 1131 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle uses “Cristemesse” for first time as one word
  • 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket preaches in Canterbury Cathedral and prophesies his own murder (he is killed 4 days later)
  • 1223 St Francis of Assisi assembles first live Nativity crèche at Greccio, Italy
  • 1430 Joan of Arc imprisoned in a tower at Rouen
  • 1521 Protestant Reformer Andreas von Carlstadt shocks Wittenberg by performing Mass in German
  • 1535 Jacques Cartier and crew celebrate first Christmas in Canada at Stadacona
  • 1648 Riots break out in Canterbury over attempts by the Puritan government to suppress Christmas; King Charles I spends his last Christmas under guard at Windsor Castle.
  • 1667 Kateri Tekakwitha, Iroquois mystic, has her first communion at the church in Kahnawake, Québec.
  • 1734 J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” first performed at Leipzig with Bach conducting.
  • 1760 Jupiter Hammon, New York slave and first black American poet, published “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries”.
  • 1781 First lighted Christmas tree in Canada erected by Baroness Riedsel
  • 1818 “Silent Night” sung for first time in Oberdorf, Austria
  • 1836 Alabama becomes first US state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday.
  • 1867 Christmas a holiday in Canada for federal workers
  • 1902 Pope Leo XIII endorses European Christian Democratic movement as alternative to socialism
  • 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador murdered
  • 2005 Benedict XVI issues his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est

 

December 22

 

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1216

The Dominican Order is officially confirmed.

In the early thirteenth century the power of the papacy was at its height but the reputation of the Church was not. New heresies were springing up among the people and the clergy had a reputation for being rich, unlearned and aloof. Two young men responded: in Italy, Francis of Assisi; in Spain, Dominic de Guzmán.

As a priest Dominic encountered the Cathar heretics of France who were well supported by local nobles and popular with the poor. This led Dominic to realize that the Church required itinerant, well-educated preachers who could combat religious heterodoxy and that this new sort of clergy should embrace poverty. Living off charity and working among the common people was the ideal of this new order, called Dominicans after its founder, but chartered by the papacy in 1216 as the Order of Preachers. Clad in white robes with a black cloak they became highly effective exponents of Catholic doctrine in markets and churches. They also came to staff the great new universities of Europe, especially Paris where its members included Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, and to be among the directors of the Inquisition. In Italy they produced famous mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Henry Suso; in Italy they included fierce opponents of papal corruption such as Girolamo Savonarola.

A Latin pun on their name, Domini canes, has caused them to be known as the “Hounds of the Lord”.

 

December 18

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Tha Feast Day of St Gatian

Butler’s Lives of the Saints has this to say:

St Gatian (d. 337) came from Rome with St. Dionysius of Paris, about the middle of the third century, and preached the Faith principally at Tours in Gaul, where he fixed his episcopal see. The Gauls in that part were extremely addicted to the worship of their idols. But no contradictions or sufferings were able to discourage or daunt this true apostle, and by perseverance he gained several to Christ. He assembled his little flock in grots and caves, and there celebrated the divine mysteries. He was obliged often to lie hid in lurking holes a long time in order to escape a cruel death, with which the heathens frequently threatened him, and which he was always ready to receive with joy if he had fallen into their hands. Having continued his labors with unwearied zeal amidst frequent sufferings and dangers for near the space of fifty years, he died in peace, and was honored with miracles.

November 30

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The Feast of St Andrew

Andrew was a fisherman, the brother of Simon Peter and a follower of John the Baptist. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah and was called by the Lord to be an apostle. Andrew appears a number of times in Gospels, such as when Jesus discusses the end of the world in Mark 13 and at the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6.

Legend says that after the death of Jesus Andrew travelled widely spreading the faith to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, what is now Ukraine and Russia, Byzantium and the Balkans. The churches in Constantinople and Georgia thus claim an apostolic founder. In Greece he was martyred on an X-shaped cross which became his symbol. The saltire or St Andrew’s cross is on the flag of Scotland, which claims him as a patron saint, and on the naval flag of Russia, where he is also a patron. Because Andrew was the first disciple called by Jesus, his feast day heralds the start of the Christian calendar.

November 23

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1644

John Milton publishes Areopagitica.

The English Civil War had put the Puritan party into power, a movement which had long advocated the end of certain restrictions on freedom of expression, such as the Court of Star Chamber. Once in power, however, the godly were less than eager to resist the powers of censorship. John Milton, himself a Puritan writer, advocated broader free speech in his pamphlet Areopagitica. It remains one of the most powerful pieces of advocacy for freedom of the press.

For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

… as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

Lords and Commons of England, consider what Nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governours: a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, suttle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to.

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

November 8

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1342

Julian of Norwich, English mystic is born. The author of Revelations of Divine Love, the first published book in English written by a woman, was a religious recluse whose true name is still unknown. In the 1370s she began to experience visions whose meanings she explored in a series of books. Her view of God focused primarily on His loving nature: “God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.” Recent scholarship (Denys Turner’s Julian of Norwich, Theologian) takes her seriously as a thinker.

1674

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Sing Heav’nly Muse . . .

John Milton, English writer, dies. Though his reputation as a poet had been in the making before the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, his work during the Puritan Commonwealth was of a polemical nature. He argued for the legitimacy of Christian divorce, for free speech (Areopagitica) and for the right of a people to overthrow a tyrannical ruler (On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates). His blindness, which became total in 1654, did not prevent him from continuing his political writings or his poetry (see his sonnet “On My Blindness”). The restoration of the monarchy forced him into hiding for a time but he managed to live peacefully until his death. In 1667 he published Paradise Lost, the epic poem on the Fall of mankind. Milton’s standing as a literary figure has always been controversial. C.S. Lewis was a fan; T.S. Eliot was not. Curious readers unwilling to attempt an ascent on the summit of Paradise Lost might try his Christmas poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”: “See how from far upon the Eastern road/ The Star-led Wizards haste with odours sweet”.

November 3

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St. Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru on December 9, 1579, the illegitimate son of a Spanish gentlemen and a freed slave  of African (or possibly native American) descent. His early life was spent in poverty and he was eventually apprenticed to a barber-surgeon. Despite the laws that forbade non-whites from becoming full members of religious orders, Martin joined the Dominicans as a volunteer helper, eventually becoming a lay brother.

He was renowned for his charity and love of the sick and poor. He established an orphanage and children‘s hospital for the poor children of the slums; he also set up a shelter for the stray cats and dogs and nursed them back to health. Even during his lifetime miraculous cures and powers were ascribed to him. Martin died on November 3, 1639 and was canonized by Pope John XXIII on May 6, 1962. He has become the patron saint of Peru, people of mixed race, innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and more.