Pope: Many are missing the Christmas’s simple message

Pope: Many are missing the Christmas's simple message

Pope Benedict XVI decried the increasing commercialization of Christmas as he celebrated Christmas Eve Mass on Saturday night, urging the faithful to look beyond the holiday’s “superficial glitter” to discover its true meaning.

Benedict presided over the service in a packed St. Peter’s Basilica, kicking off an intense two weeks of Christmas-related public appearances that will test the 84-year-old pontiff’s stamina amid signs that fatigue is starting to slow him down.

The Christmas Eve Mass was moved up to 10 p.m. from midnight several years ago to spare the pope a late night that is followed by an important Christmas Day speech. In a new concession this year, Benedict processed down the basilica’s central aisle on a moving platform to spare him the long walk.

Benedict appeared tired by the end of the Mass and a dry cough interrupted his homily. In his homily, Benedict lamented that Christmas has become an increasingly commercial celebration that obscures the simplicity of the message of Christ’s birth.

“Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light,” he said.

It was the second time in as many days that Benedict has pointed to the need to rediscover faith to confront the problems facing the world today. In his end-of-year meeting with Vatican officials on Thursday, Benedict said Europe’s financial crisis was largely “based on the ethical crisis looming over the Old Continent.”

Benedict officially kicked off Christmas a few hours before the evening Mass, lighting a candle in his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square in a sign of peace, as crowds gathered to witness the unveiling of the Vatican’s larger-than-life sized nativity scene.

Security was tight for the evening Mass, as it has been in recent years. There were no repeats of the 2008 and 2009 Christmas Eve security breaches, in which a woman with a history of psychiatric problems and wearing a telltale red sweat shirt jumped the wooden security barrier along the basilica’s central aisle and lunged for the pope.

In 2008, the pope’s security detail blocked her from getting to Benedict. But in 2009, she managed to grab Benedict’s vestments and pulled him to the ground. The pope was unhurt and continued along with the service, but a French cardinal who was nearby fell and broke his hip.

On Sunday, Benedict will deliver his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” speech, Latin for “to the city and the world,” from the central loggia of St. Peter’s overlooking the piazza. Usually, the speech is a survey of sorts of the hardships and wars confronting humanity. He’s also due to deliver Christmas greetings in dozens of languages.

Next weekend, he’ll preside over a New Year’s Eve vespers service, followed by a New Year’s Day Mass. A few days later he’ll celebrate Epiphany Mass followed by his traditional baptizing of babies in the Vatican’s frescoed Sistine Chapel.

Where did Christmas tree tradition begin?

Where did Christmas tree tradition begin?

Its roots can be traced back 1,300 years, but the custom didn’t take hold until much later.

The origin of the Christmas tree is obscured by the uncertainties of oral history from pre-literacy European cultures. For example, according to Christian tradition, the Christmas tree is associated with St. Boniface and the German town of Geismar. Sometimes in the life of St. Boniface (c. 672-754), he cut down the tree of Thor to refute the legitimacy of the Norse gods at the local German tribe. St. Boniface saw a tree growing in the roots of old oak. Taking this as a sign of Christian faith, he said: “…that Christ is the center of your family… “using the tree as a symbol of Christianity.

The tradition of the Christmas tree as it is known today is relatively young. It was created by Martin Luther Protestant counterpart of the scene of the Nativity Catholic. Luther made the Christmas tree as a symbol of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.

The custom of erecting a Christmas tree can be traced historically to the 15th century Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia) and the 16th century in northern Germany. According to the first documented use of a Christmas tree in Estonia, in 1441, 1442, and 1514 the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their fraternity house at Reval (now Tallinn). During the last night of celebrations leading up to holidays, the tree was taken at the Town Hall Square where members of the Brotherhood have danced around him.

In 1584, the pastor and columnist Balthasar Russow wrote a well-established tradition of creating a spruce tree decorated in the market place where young people “went with a flock of young girls and women, first sung and danced there and then set fire tree. ” In this period, the guilds started erecting Christmas trees in front of their guild houses: Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann (Marburg professor of European ethnology) found a Bremen guild chronicle of 1570, which tells how a small tree was decorated with apples, walnuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers “and erected in the guild-house, the Children Guild members, who collected the goodies on Christmas Day.

Yoga: What is it, exactly?

Yoga—what is it, exactly?

Should a Christian do the Downward Dog?

This is not a trick question, but rather an issue raised by Baptist leader Albert Mohler that, like an egg beater, has whipped up the yoga community’s usual calm into a peaked, frothy fluster. Then again, aren’t we all a bit confused about this body-bending, mind-enhancing practice from the East?

In the name of clarity, here is an attempt to answer what yoga is—and what it isn’t.

The word yoga… Yoga traditions go back thousands of years, and today have spawned more than 100 schools, according to the American Yoga Association. This is partly why any discussion about the practice is so complicated. “In Sanskrit, ‘yoga’ can mean anything from an astronomical conjunction to yoking an animal to going to war; it’s what you put in front of the word—hatha, raja, tantric—that defines it,” explains David White, PhD, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and editor of the forthcoming book,Yoga in Practice.

“Not to say there is a pure hatha, raga, or tantric tradition—they were all mixed over the years in different ways by people in India, as well as the West, to attract followers.” In other words, what’s taught today in gyms, studios, and retreats around the country is inevitably a smoothie of traditions, usually featuring one ingredient—the physical poses—that was originally a very small part of the recipe.

Is yoga a religion? Categorically no, if you ask most teachers and devotees. “Simply put, yoga is not a religion,” says Aadil Palkhivala, who grew up in Bombay and studied with B.K.S. Iyengar before founding Purna Yoga. “It’s a process that helps you become physically stronger, more mentally alert, and more emotionally stable, so you can be a better Christian, Jew, Muslim, or whatever you care to be.”

Digging far back into the roots of yoga, however, scholars and historians hedge, noting that the ancient texts are quite difficult to understand. “My answer is that it can be” a religion, says Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The story of yoga in America, the new book that prompted Mohler’s call for Christians to abstain. “As a spiritual technology, yoga has been attached to Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, so it hasn’t been affiliated with a single religion—that’s true. But it developed to liberate the soul in this life, and how that was described and what theology was associated with it varies somewhat dramatically within the yoga traditions.”

White, who has read the original texts in Sanskrit, and is the author of Sinister Yogis, agrees with Syman. “Certain yoga schools do speak of ‘god,’ though not in the way that we do. The Sanskrit word used simply means master and not necessarily Master of the Universe; it could apply to a human. But there was never a church or gospel of yoga. It’s a very tricky question.”

So is it un-Christian to do yoga? There is no one answer, but some Christian yoga practitioners definitely make the opposite case. “Our practice combines Biblically-based meditation with yoga,” says Lisa Abbott, a spokesperson for Yawheh Yoga. “Each class opens with a prayer and introduces a selected portion of scripture that students focus on throughout.” Developed five years ago, Yawheh Yoga has certified nearly 100 teachers, including Abbott, who points out that the Bible (Joshua 1.8), instructs believers to meditate on His word. “We feel,” she says, “that we’re fulfilling a Biblical mandate to help Christians grow in their faith by meditating on His scripture.”

Yoga is about who can do the nuttiest pretzel pose. Not quite. “Traditionally the poses are actually a very small part of what you’re expected to do as a spiritual aspirant following the path of yoga,” says Syman. The breathing and meditative aspects are much more important.

Is the body a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine? Mohler objected to this aspect of yoga, but is it true? Possibly, if you go way back into the traditions. What’s more accurate, however, is yoga’s use of the physical poses to help prepare the mind for meditation, scholars say. As Palkhivala puts it, the physical practice, rather than trying to macrame your limbs, is intended to free the body of knots, “When you have aches and pains, it’s hard to focus the mind. And if you don’t take care of your body where are you going to live?”

Does yoga assume we can find divinity within ourselves? Many practitioners do believe in the idea that you can radically transform your consciousness and experience the divine, says Syman. It’s as if your own boundaries dissolve and you become connected with a larger spirituality. “That’s quite different from the Christian idea of a separate god or one you’re waiting to meet.”

What about chanting weird Sanskrit phrases you don’t understand? You could say the same for listening to Gregorian chants or repeating Hebrew prayers when you don’t speak the language. Mantra yoga, says Syman, is one of the techniques developed to aid in concentration. “We use the word ‘namaste’ which means ‘I bow to you,'” says Palkhivala, “which is an act of humility. We also use the Gayatri mantra, which simply invokes light, as in, illuminate my consciousness.”

Is the American version truly yoga? Face it, few of us have the time or savings to sit for hours and practice yoga as it was meant to be done. And if some purists compare the modern distillation as the Cheez Whiz of a glorious tradition, plenty of studies show that it improves health, from boosting mood to aiding weight loss to helping breast cancer patients recover.

“Much to the dismay of many,” says David Romanelli, “I started Yoga and Chocolate, Yoga and Wine, and Yoga for Foodies. But I always make the case that the world is a better place with more people doing any kind of yoga. And I’d actually like to invite Albert Mohler just to try a yoga class. I bet he’d love it.”