The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
December 2012 – Vol. 15 Issue 10
The birth of Jesus does not feature prominently in the New Testament. Paul, the earliest writer, doesn’t mention it, nor do any of the other letter writers. The two Gospels accounts overlap little, are sometimes contradictory, and give no indication of the time of year in which the nativity took place. Early Christians considered celebrating birthdays a pagan custom. Rather, they focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus, remembrance of death days of saints and martyrs, and the death of believers as a transition to immortality. They valued baptism as a second birth, and celebration of the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany arose in the 2nd century, though why on January 6 remains a mystery.
Once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Emperor, however, it had to compete with beloved pagan festivals. Three of these clustered at the turn of the year. The most popular Roman holiday was Saturnalia (December 17th to 24th), where vacation from work combined with feasting, drinking, gambling, social equality, the exchange of small gifts, and decoration with greenery, candles and lamps. December 25 was the birth of Mithras, the Unconquered Sun, a Persian god whose worship was very popular with Roman elites and the military. Mithraic ritual and nativity mythology had several elements similar to those found in Christianity. Finally came the January Kalends or New Years from January 1st to 5th, when people feasted and gave generously to others
By the mid-300s Jesus’ birth began to be celebrated on December 25, in a bid to co-opt these pagan celebrations which were too powerful to be stamped out. Church leaders at this time were also deciding the contentious issue of whether Jesus had been divine, human, or both. Once he had been deemed both, his birthday was declared a celebration of divinity entering humanity. In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that this celebration would last over the entire period between December 25 and Epiphany, creating the Twelve Days of Christmas. As Christianity spread into northern Europe, elements of these mid-winter festivals were deliberately absorbed into the Church, including decorating with holly, mistletoe, and evergreen trees and boughs, the Yule log, bonfires, banquets, and drinking.
Up through the Renaissance, Christmas celebrations kept largely to their early roots, being more in tune with what we might associate with Mardi Gras. During the Reformation some Protestant leaders such as Luther embraced the holiday with reforms, while others such as Calvin sought to suppress it entirely as pagan. Puritans in England and Massachusetts outlawed any observance of Christmas for decades in the mid-1600s, supported in America by sects like the Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians. Controversy surrounding the holiday led to less observance by all people; for example, until the Civil War, Congress met on Christmas Day, schools were in session, and few businesses closed.
Innovations in the early 19th century revived and transformed Christmas into the holiday we celebrate today. In the early 1800s a group of prominent New Yorkers, including Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore, reinvented and popularized St. Nicholas as Santa Claus and moved the gift giving associated with the saint from December 6 to Christmas. The German custom of the Christmas tree became generally popular after a picture of Victoria, Albert and their children around their tree was published in the early 1840s. And Charles Dickens’ 1848 Christmas Carol took the popular imagination by storm, with its emphasis on selflessness and good will to all. Instead of a rowdy public holiday aimed at adults, where the rich gave to the poor, Christmas became a family holiday centering on children and a time to put good-will into action. The later rise of industrialism and consumerism increasingly dominated Christmas in the 20th century. All these renovating forces were secular, not religious.
When people talk about the need to “put Christ back into Christmas,” let’s remember that Christmas is the modern face of ancient celebrations rooted in pagan winter and new years traditions embellished with 19th-century secular innovations. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum assesses the results of placing Jesus’ birth at the traditional mid-winter festivals: “From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”
On November 20th Cross of Christ Lutheran Church, Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles, Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, St. Louise Roman Catholic Church, and Temple B’nai Torah held their annual community interfaith thanksgiving worship service at St. Louise Catholic Church in Bellevue. After a joyous and welcoming service filled with music, these congregations renewed their covenant to work together for interfaith learning and understanding and for the promotion of social justice and outreach to the oppressed. They highlighted one of their programs, the spring Hearts & Hammers event, where the congregations come together to repair the homes of needy neighborhood seniors.
Scientific research continues to demonstrate the intimate physical interconnections of life on earth. Over the last three decades evolutionary developmental biology or Evo Devo, a new field at the junction of molecular biology, embryology, and evolutionary biology, has been exploring animal life at the genetic level. It has found that the animal kingdom is more closely linked than previously thought, being genetically a very close family. In Endless Forms Most Beautiful, scientist Sean B. Carroll, who has contributed to some of this basic research, describes some of these findings for the interested public.
Three basic questions in this field are: How does one cell become a body made of many different types of cells and tissues when all cells in the body have identical DNA? How does evolution take place? and How are the different species related to each other? In the first half of the book Carroll lays the groundwork by explaining four basic ideas: the modularity of animal architecture, the genetic tool kit for building animals, the geography of the embryo, and the genetic switches that determine the activities of tool kit genes in different parts of the embryo. Genetic switches are part of the so-called junk DNA, that vast portion of genetic material that is not the genes themselves. They are genetic programs near each gene which control how it is expressed. There may be ten or more switches associated with a master gene that determine when, where, and how much of its protein is produced, and thus what type of cell results. “It is the switches that encode instructions unique to individual species and that enable different animals to be made using essentially the same tool kit.” (p. 111) Mutations to a gene’s switches is where most evolutionary change occurs.
Much has been deduced about the evolution of animals from the findings of Evo Devo. Biologists, for example, had thought that genetic profiles of animals would differ significantly because the various orders and genera were believed to have evolved specializations independently: that is, the compound insect eye and the mammal camera eye, or the very different legs of insects and mammals (as well as fins, wings and other appendages) were unrelated evolutionary events. To their surprise the similarity of genetic material in the animal kingdom is astounding, with the same master genes present in animals as primitive as the sea slug and starfish, up through worms, mollusks, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans – all animals except the sponges, sea anemones and corals. Because these tool kit genes appear in all animals with bilateral symmetry in any life-stage, all these animals trace back to a common ancestor which lived before the Cambrian explosion of animal life some 550 million years ago.
The master genes controlling such functions as embryonic organization, eye formation, appendage formation, heart formation and so on are virtually identical in all these animals. For instance, one mutation in the gene responsible for building eyes causes eye tissue to appear in places such as the back or leg. When scientists replace the fly eye-producing gene in a fly embryo cell with a mutant mouse eye-producing gene, eye tissue develops incongruously on the adult fly – but it is fly, not mouse, eye tissue! How can a rodent gene produce insect cells? It is because the master genes responsible for embryonic development are virtually identical across the animal kingdom; it is the surrounding switches that differ. In the fly embryo, the mouse gene is controlled by the fly switches, and so fly cells result. This close correspondence of master genes is also a boon for human genetic and medical research, because research findings from flies, mice and other animals often applies very directly to humans, where embryonic research is very limited due to ethical considerations.
The findings of Evo Devo also address hot-button issues such as irreducible complexity and intelligent design. Scientists are successfully explaining increasingly complex biological structures and processes in evolutionarily terms, including those cited by proponents of intelligent design as test cases. Many structures have been revealed to be modifications of basic modules common to almost all animals. For instance, wings, fins, legs, arms, leg gills, antennae, and other appendages are all specialized products of the same master gene. Nature appears to be the result of tinkering with pre-existing parts, rather than each structure and animal being designed from scratch the way an engineer (or creator) would.
Clearly, the oneness of life has moved from a moral or sentimental assertion to established scientific fact, though its implications for human origins and status are not always welcomed by traditional ways of thought which set humankind apart from, and often above, the rest of terrestrial life.