Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Why I am a Christian

I would love to say that the heavens tore open and the angels came down and I saw God, but that is not how it went. I would love to be able to say it is because Christians are such nice people who are leading the revolution to make the world a  better place, but it is not like that either.  I love books so instead  it came through a book: the Bible.

I used to be a Marxist – I rarely called myself that back then, partly because Marxism just seemed like common sense to me. I was a materialist: everything is just matter in motion, no gods need apply. Religion was for old women, like my very Catholic grandmother.  No one with any brains would go for that stuff.

I promised my wife that I would read the whole Bible. So I did, from end to end. I was shocked: God told the Jews to wipe out people, to play dirty tricks on them. It was full of all these rules about animal sacrifice and these overly long visions of prophets that made them seem more mad than wise. Then there was Jesus performing miracles – and everyone knows that miracles go against science. Etc.

So at first reading it did more harm than good. My mother-in-law, another very religious old woman in my life, said it was because I had read it like a paperback novel. I forgot to pray! Right: pray to a god who is not there. And besides, I am not that simple-minded when it comes to books. But it was that – knowing about books – that was my undoing.

I had read communist histories of China so I knew what a history book is like when it is blinded by its own ideas. To my surprise the Bible was not like that. And the miracles were rare and surprisingly matter-of-fact.

Then there was the Resurrection when Jesus rose from the dead. The truth of Christianity rises or falls on that one piece of history. I thought it would take me 30 seconds to show how it could not be true. But 30 seconds turned into 30 minutes then 30 hours then 30 days then 30 months – it became all I could think about – and yet still I failed. I thought of everything, like maybe he played dead or his followers went mad. Surprisingly none of it held up.

I did not want to be a Christian. First, it is what my wife and mother-in-law wanted and I did not want to give in to them (and in the end I did not: I became something that in their eyes was even worse than a Marxist: a Catholic. It nearly tore my marriage apart). Second, it went against my intellectual pride. I did not want to be told the answers – I wanted to find them out for myself!  But then I remembered something a favourite schoolteacher once told me: the truth is more important than your pride.

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Does the Bible say that slavery is wrong? Yes, but not straight out.

The Bible has been used to argue both for and against slavery. A clear case of that was in America in the early 1800s. Just as with prohibition and abortion later on, many who opposed slavery did so for religious reasons.

Yet slave owners had their own choice Bible verses by which to defend their actions. But it was, in effect, a derailing tactic:

  1. Anyone who seriously reads the Bible knows it is not just a trick bag of verses. A battle of the verses is completely the wrong level at which to settle the issue.
  2. Despite their carefully chosen Bible verses, slave owners knew deep down that what they were doing was wrong from a Christian point of view. Why else their need to look down on black people?

Reading and understanding the Bible is something that takes a lifetime. I used to think the Bible was just a pack of lies, but that was before I read the whole thing for myself from end to end. It is too easy to take it the wrong way if you just read bits of it. The Bible has to be read in full. Not all of it is meant to be taken literally and there is often more then one layer of meaning.

Further, as a Catholic I do not believe in private interpretation. It is way too easy for people to read the Bible in a way that excuses their sins. I have seen that with my own eyes. In America you saw that in the 1800s with slave owners and you see it now with some homosexuals.

That does not mean I read the Bible with my brain turned off. Hardly. But what it does mean is that if I disagree with the Church over some point of doctrine because of my reading and understanding of the Bible, I assume the Church is way more likely to be right – it has been doing the Bible thing way longer than I have.  It is like when you are 14 and you think you know more than your parents – well, the truth is, you do not. Your parents have lived much longer and so, in most cases, they are that much more likely to be right.

Many Catholic societies have practised owning slaves, owning people as property: Roman, Brazilian, Haitian, etc. But most have not. And, so far as I know, popes have never defended the practice and have often condemned it. But as with adultery and bad government, they are not out to save society but to save souls.

The Bible nowhere clearly condemns slavery, polygamy or infanticide and yet most Christians through most of history believed those things were wrong. Why? Because they go against the moral understanding of the world that the Christian Bible gives you. The best way to express it in a few words: We are all sinners yet we are all God’s children.

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The following is based on part six of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about astronomy up to the time of Galileo (pictured):

Cultures all over the world have some knowledge of astronomy – if only to know when to plant. But often it never goes beyond that.

The Mayans, for example, had the number zero before Europe did and a much better calendar too, yet they did not study the motions of the stars.

Easter Island was the same: people came there by accident but had no way of leaving because they had no model of the heavens. They were stuck there as the stars passed overhead, their secrets unread.

It seems the New World lacked a model of the heavens because they lacked the wheel. The Greeks built their model on the wheel: wheels within wheels, forever turning. It was Ptolemy who wrote down that  model in all its glory in about the year 150. It stood for over a thousand years.

In 1543 Copernicus put the sun, not the earth, at the centre – for sound Renaissance reasons. To the man in the street it seemed unnatural.

Then in 1609, a lifetime later, all that changed when Galileo in Venice, Italy pointed a telescope at the stars. What he saw proved Copernicus right.

The Catholic Church at the time was battling against the Protestant heresy. Taking a hard line, it believed that faith should rule. Galileo believed that truth should persuade.

In 1611 the Vatican starts to keep a file on him. In 1616 they tell him he can no longer hold or defend the Copernican system as proven fact.

Galileo waits till a more intellectual pope came to power, Pope Urban VIII in 1623. He is the one who hired Bernini to work on St Peter’s. But he is also the one who had the birds in the Vatican gardens killed because he did not like the noise.

In 1624 Galileo came to those gardens and had six long talks with the pope. He asked the pope if he could teach Copernicus. The pope said no. But Galileo continued to believe the pope was on his side. He was profoundly mistaken.

Galileo returned  to Florence and wrote “The Dialogue on the Great World Systems” (1632). Because the book did not present Copernicus as fact but merely debated his ideas, Galileo thought he was safe. But just to make sure he got four imprimaturs from Church censors.

It did not work. The pope stopped the presses and tried to buy back all the copies. Then in 1633 he called Galileo before the Inquisition. They threatened him with torture, twice, and forced him to state that Copernicus was wrong. Silencing him, the Church banned his book for over 200 years.

That all but killed science in Catholic countries. Now the cutting edge of science moved to the Protestant north. Indeed, in the year that Galileo died, in 1642, on Christmas day was born Isaac Newton in England.

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burkaThe burka – or burqa as some write it – is the head-to-toe covering that some Muslim women wear over their clothes when they go out in public. Sometimes all you can see is their eyes, but sometimes even their eyes are covered (with a netting that they can see through).

Burkas are mostly seen in Afghanistan and South Asia – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In India only one Muslim woman in 20 might wear it; in Afghanistan under the Taliban all women were forced to wear it. In Pakistan it used to be quite common, but it has been dying out, especially in the big cities.

Even though some will argue it is not in the Koran, in most of the Muslim world hijab, or modest dress, is understood to be a religious duty or virtue for women (and, to a lesser degree, for men).

The form that hijab takes is different from place to place. The burka is the most extreme form.

In Iran women wear a chador, which covers everything but their face, hands and feet. In some Arab countries women wear the abaya which does the same thing. In other places, like Turkey, women wear just a headscarf. And some Muslim women dress in a completely Western fashion, though with more of their body covered than Western women.

Burkas, abayas and chadors are just for going out in public. They are something women wear over their clothes. When they are at home they take them off and you find out that they are not dressed quite so plainly. When Neda died during the election protests in Iran in 2009, for example, we found out that under her chador she was wearing  blue jeans!

Governments sometimes force women to follow hijab, like the Taliban or Iran under Islamic rule. Yet others  have forced women to do the opposite, like Iran under the shah.

In France it has been against the law to wear a burka to public school since 2004. And now they want to go even further and outlaw it altogether. In 2009 President Sarkozy said:

The issue of the burka is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burka is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory… I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values, we must not be afraid of defending them.

This only makes sense to me as a piece of xenophobia: Muslims make him feel uncomfortable.

For many Muslim women it is in fact a matter of religion. And keeping themselves covered up from the eyes of men is a matter of dignity. Even in the West, modest dress was seen as part of a woman’s dignity until the 1900s.

Your religion – or even a lack of religion – is part of who you are. To be told you cannot express it when you are hurting no one goes against one’s freedom and dignity.

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Here is my second rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2, this time as a blog post. A much harder thing than turning Greek into English since it requires understanding what the Bible says and putting it in a way that works as a blog post, which is not how Paul wrote it back in the days before Blogger and WordPress. But since this is my first try, I will pretty much stick to the points Paul made and in the order he made them. As a start.

Corinthians: put your faith not in what people tell you but in the spirit of God.

When I visited you I was weak, I was afraid, I was shaking like a leaf. I did not have fine words, I was not up on all the latest thinking. All I had, all I knew – all I thought I should have to know – was Jesus Christ, Christ dying on the cross.

So instead of trying to persuade you with fine words and subtle points, I showed you the spirit and power of God. Because your faith should be built on that, the spirit of God, not on words, not on what people say, not on the wisdom of man.

The things we told you were based not the wisdom of man, but on what the spirit of God has showed us: a secret that has been hidden by God since the beginning of time – for us, for this moment, for our glory. That is what the Bible was talking about it when it said:

Eye hath not seen,
nor ear heard,
neither have entered into the heart of man,
the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

Think about it: no one knows what is in a man’s heart except for that man’s spirit. In the same way, no one can possibly know what is in God’s heart except for the spirit of God.

And that spirit has been given to us.

And what we say comes from that spirit.

Now the things we say might seem utterly foolish to you. And that is just how it will seem if you look at it the way most people do. Because the only way you can understand it, the only way it can make sense, is to have the spirit of God in you.

Once you have the spirit of God you will see everything the right way. What people say will no longer matter to you. Because then, like us, you will see things from God’s point of view, not man’s point of view. Because knowing the mind of Christ is knowing the mind of God. And that is all you need.

My first observations: some would call this a translation, but for me it is too loose for that. But, come to think of it, maybe you could blog the whole Bible, or at least good stretches of it, this way. At Wal-Mart I once saw the New Testament sold as a girl’s magazine!

My second observations (December 2009): This is way easier to understand than the Bible!! But it could be made better if I made the points in a different order and lost some of the old-fashioned, King James sort of language.

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My rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2 in the Bible:

  1. And I, when I came to you, brothers, came not with better words or better wisdom, telling you about the mystery of God.
  2. For I thought it best not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
  3. And I in weakness and in fear and in much trembling was with you.
  4. And my speech and my message was not in the persuading words of wisdom, but in showing the Spirit and the power,
  5. so that your faith be not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
  6. We speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who come to nothing:
  7. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a hidden wisdom, which God foresaw before the ages in glory for us,
  8. which none of the rulers of this world knew: for if they knew, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
  9. But as it has been written, “What the eye did not see and the ear did not hear and into the heart of man did not enter, these things God prepared for those who love him.”
  10. But God showed them to us through his Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
  11. For who among men knows the things of a man except for the spirit in the man himself?  In the same way too the things of God no one knows except for the Spirit of God.
  12. Now we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which comes from God, so that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.
  13. Which things also we speak, not in the words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
  14. A man in his soul does not accept the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are to be judged spiritually.
  15. But in his spirit he judges all things, yet is judged by no one.
  16. For “who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may teach him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I took the the Authorized (King James) Version and changed it as little as possible while remaining as true to the Greek and as clear in current English as I could.

The main differences between me and the Authorized Version:

  • aion = age, not world
  • psykhikos = in his soul, not natural
  • pneuma = Spirit, not Holy Ghost
  • peithois = persuading, not enticing
  • kerygma = message, not preaching
  • arkhontes = rulers, not princes
  • mysterion = mystery, not testimony
  • pro-orisen = foresaw, not ordained
  • apodeixei = showing, not demonstration

In addition I changed some of the prepositions to make their meaning clearer.

During my rewrite I also looked at the Vulgate (Latin) and the New Jerusalem Bible (Grey English).

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Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan (1987-2007), an American soldier. Colin Powell said it well:

Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that [Obama] is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life.

– Colin Powell

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When I was reading some of the early Greek Christian writers, like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius and Athanasius, from the period from 100 to 400, I noticed something strange: they misquote the Bible, and in a way that favours the Christian position over the Jewish one.

This was strange because they did not otherwise seem so dishonest. Then I noticed that Justin Martyr and Clement both misquoted Psalms 96:5 in just the same way, replacing “idols” with “demons” (daimones in the Greek). That was odd because although demons are being cast out right and left in the New Testament, almost nothing is said of them in the Old Testament.

What is going on?

As it turns out, they were faithfully quoting the Septuagint, the main Greek translation of the Old Testament in those day. The Septuagint was translated by Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria in the centuries before Christ, back in the days of the Ptolemies. When Christianity arrived on the scene, the Septuagint was disowned by the Jews, but it is still, to this day, used by  Eastern Orthodox Christians to translate the Bible.

Not just that, but the Septuagint also happens to be what the New Testament mainly quotes. Jesus and Paul rarely quote what we know as the Hebrew Bible. Instead they quote the Septuagint, the Greek Bible that most people knew. In Palestine in those days people knew Aramaic and Greek and maybe some Latin, but only scholars knew Hebrew.

But why are the Hebew and Greek Bibles so different, why idols instead of demons? Did the Septuagint translators just make a mess of it?

In the centuries before Christ there was more than just one Hebrew Bible. We know this from the Dead Sea scrolls. There were three main ones: the Masoretic, the Samaritan (for the first five books only) and the version from which the Septuagint was translated.

Later, after the rise of Christianity, the Masoretic text became the main Bible for the  Jews and it is what present-day Protestant and Catholic Bibles translate. So what we read in our Old Testaments is not quite what Paul and Jesus read. For them Psalm 96 spoke of demons, not idols. And the Christ that Isaiah foretold in verse 7:14 of his book was to be born of a virgin (parthenos), and not just of a young girl (ha’almah).

Another strange fact: the earliest near-complete manuscripts of the Bible are not the Hebrew Masoretic texts of the Jews, but the Greek Septuagints of the Christians! The translations made by an offshoot of Judaism are older than anything we have in Hebrew! The reason for this is that Greek and Christianity were far more common than Hebrew or Judaism, and so created far more copies, more of which last down to our day.

Saint Jerome, when he translated the Bible into Latin, started with the Septuagint, but later switched to “the Hebrew truth”. A practice the West has followed ever since. It is still unclear to me why he switched and which Hebrew text he was using….

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For a long time I could not understand why so many Christians in America favoured the Republicans over the Democrats. The Republicans, after all, were for the rich and the military while the Democrats were for the poor and the common man. It was hard for me to imagine Jesus siding with the generals and the moneymen against the man in the street.

But in those days I did not believe in God. I did not call myself a Marxist, but that is what I was. What Marx said just seemed like common sense to me. But later I read the Bible all the way through and, after a few years of failing to explain it away, I became a Christian myself.

Then suddenly it made sense to me why so many Christians voted Republican: it pretty much came down to abortion and moral issues like that. Republicans represent the old Christian morals, more or less, while the Democrats were for things like abortion, gays and keeping prayer out of schools.

The ends do not justify the means. So no amount good deeds by the government can make up for its support for abortion. Just like no amount of good deeds by the government could make up for its support for slavery.

And so millions of ordinary Americans wind up supporting the party of the rich. They find themselves siding with the generals and the moneymen against the man in the street – against themselves!

In the 1980s and 1990s the Democratic party lost the support of most white Southerners and serious Catholics. The Democrats – well some Democrats – said it was because of racism. But given the timing of the white flight it seemed abortion not racism was more to blame. Besides, racism could not explain why serious Catholics left but the not-so-serious ones remained. But abortion could explain it. (“Serious” in this case means those who go to church every week – just because it is easier to measure it that way.)

The feeling I get about the people at the top of the Democratic party is that they do not take the Bible and religion seriously. They think that stuff is for those who do not know any better. They know better.

So, just like 14-year-olds who think they know better than their parents, they throw out what God or the Bible or thousands of years of human wisdom say and make up their own morals.

Their approach to the Constitution is the same as their approach to the Bible: they think they know better than the wisdom of their forefathers and so they read it the way that suits them. They call that progress.

But in doing this they are losing touch with ordinary people, people who still believe in the Bible, God and hell. They have already lost most of the white Christian vote. In 2004 it seems they were starting to lose even the black Christian vote.

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Am I homophobic?

Here is how I feel about homosexuals as a straight man:

  • When I see two men kiss I feel uncomfortable.
  • When I see two women kiss I am turned on. Do not ask me why.
  • I believe that men having sex with men is a sin. The same for women with women. But then so are most sex acts, not just those. That comes from my badly practised Catholic religion.
  • That same religion – and my own experience – teaches me that homosexuals are no worse or better than I am. Men are naturally sinful. I have sins enough of my own. It is part of the fallen nature of man.
  • I do not believe in same-sex marriage.
  • If my son married a man I would be saddened, but I would not disown him.

From this some say that I hate gays.

That goes too far. It seems to come from the idea that if I do not like something you do, then I must hate you.

But that is not necessarily true. Here is an example of what I mean:

There are men in my family who seem to be completely incapable of sticking to one woman. I know some of their children, so I know to my bone that what they are doing is wrong.

Do I agree with what they are doing? No way.

Does their behaviour sadden me? Of course.

Do I hate them? No, of course not.

Do I look down on them? When I was younger I did, on that part of them, but not any more. Now that I am older the same thoughts have gone through my head too. Only the grace of God has kept me from doing the same. I know that, so I know I am no better than they are.

There is a difference between thinking something is wrong and hating or looking down on those who do it.

I know full well that American society is run by straight white men, many of whom look down on anyone who is different from them. And that sort of thinking – gays are different, therefore they must be messed up – is something I cannot believe in for one second. They are no worse or better than anyone else. Anyone who has read enough of this blog knows just where I am coming from on that one, since I have written at length about race.

I know that Catholic ideas of sex go flat against human nature. Certainly my own. Does that mean it is wrong? Not necessarily. In my own case it has kept me from making some huge mistakes in my life, even apart from whatever divine authority I believe it has.

Am I applying my religion to people who do not believe in it? Yes. But that is unavoidable. I have to function from one set of moral beliefs or another and apply them to the world.

– Abagond, 2008.

Update (2018): I wrote an update to this post: Am I still homophobic?

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Vulgate-manuscript_1The Vulgate (405) is the Bible as it was put into Latin by Saint Jerome. It was the main Bible people read in the West till the 1500s. It was the only book that Gutenberg ever printed. Even today the Catholic Church still uses it.

It is written in easy Latin: although Jerome wrote to his friends in the old-fashioned Latin of Cicero, for the Vulgate he used the Latin of the streets, which was already beginning to turn into Portuguese and French and so on. His starting point was the (cringey) Old Latin Bible.

Some English Bibles are based on the Vulgate: Wycliffe, Douai-Rheims, Confraternity and Knox. But not the King James or Authorized Version: it goes back to the Greek and Hebrew that the Bible was written in.

Some English words that come from the Vulgate: creation, salvation, justification, rapture, testament, regeneration, apostle, angel and the phrase “far be it”.

The Vulgate’s New Testament is far better than anything in English:

  1. It is much easier to turn the Greek of the New Testament into Latin than into English.
  2. It is more faithful to the wording of the New Testament.
  3. Jerome had much older copies of the New Testament than we do. He even had the book of Matthew in Hebrew. We have it only in Greek, which came later.
  4. The koine Greek that the New Testament was written in was still a living language in Jerome’s day. He would know the shades of meanings of words much better than we possibly can.

For the Old Testament, Jerome started out by basing it on the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Christians had always used up until then. But then he gave that up and based it on the Masorah instead, the Hebrew Bible that Jews used.

It is because of this decision by Jerome that Catholics and Protestants now use the Masorah for the Old Testament while Orthodox Christians still use the Septuagint.

The part of the Old Testament that Christians know best is the book of Psalms. Since Christians knew the wording of the Septuagint psalms so well, Jerome translated them twice: once from the Septuagint and once from the Masorah. That is why you see the book of Psalms twice in some Vulgates.

The Catholic Church says the Vulgate has no errors that would affect religious teachings. That is a natural thing for it to say: it has been using the Vulgate for over a thousand years. Until the 1960s Latin was the language all the priests and bishops knew. It was even the language used in part of the church services.

There are two sorts of Vulgates that you can get these days:

  1. The Stuttgart: an attempt by scholars to get as close to what Jerome wrote as possible. It is based on the oldest copies of the Vulgate that we can find.
  2. The Nova Vulgata: the Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. Not all of it is Jerome’s: some of it is new.

– Abagond, 2008.

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The birth of Jesus Christ took place in the town of Bethlehem near Jerusalem. This is when Christians say that God, who created the heavens and the earth, became a baby, when God was made flesh.

For a long time people thought Christ was born on December 25th in the year 1. That is why Christmas, the day that marks his birth, falls on December 25th and why the years are numbered the way they are. But from what we know now, it seems more likely that he was born in the spring in about the year 7 BC.

Most of what we know about his birth comes from the Bible, the Christian holy book. Here is the story it tells:

Jesus Christ was born to Mary, a virgin. Even the Koran agrees on that point. The father was not Joseph, the man she was about to marry, but the Holy Spirit. The angel Gabriel visited her and told her about it. She wondered why God chose her but, being a faithful servant of God, she accepted it.

Just before Mary was to give birth, the Romans, who ruled the land in those days, told everyone to go to the town of his birth to be counted. So Joseph and Mary left Nazareth, where they were living, and travelled to Bethlehem.

When they got to Bethlehem the town was full – there was no place for them to stay. So they wound up in a stable for animals. It was there that Mary gave birth to Jesus. He was not born in a palace to a princess but to a simple but pure woman in a stable.

The shepherds who were taking care of their sheep nearby heard about this from angels, who filled the night sky. They went to see.

When Jesus was born there was a strange star in the sky, called the Star of Bethlehem. There are different ideas about what it was, but whatever it was it brought wise men from the east called magi. They gave him three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Westerners say there were three wise men. It does not say that in the Bible (see Matthew 2:1).

King Herod found out from the wise men that a king of the Jews was born, meaning Jesus. Herod was only half Jewish and owed his power to the Romans. Jesus, on the other hand, was born of royal blood in the line of the greatest Jewish king of all time, King David.

Not wanting to take any chances King Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed. An angel warned Joseph. He took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt just in time. They came back after Herod died.

Right up till the day he died many expected Jesus to make himself king and free the Jews from Roman rule. It turned out very differently. He was not here to free Jews from Romans, but man from sin.

– Abagond, 2007.

Update (2021): The post said there were three wise men. I corrected that.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe (1531) is the name given to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she appeared in Mexico in December 1531 to Saint Juan Diego, ten years after the Spanish took over the country.

If you live in Mexico or America you have seen the picture: a woman dressed in a mantle of blue with stars of gold. Rays of light are coming out from her. The Catholic Church says it is the one true picture of Mary.

On the morning of December 9th Juan Diego, a simple Aztec farmer, was on his way to morning mass. When he crossed over a hill called Tepeyac he heard the beautiful singing of birds. Then he saw a beautiful woman dressed in blue. Light as bright as the sun was shining out from her. She called him by name and spoke to him in his mother tongue.

She told him she was the Mother of God. She wanted him to go to the city (what we now call Mexico City) and ask the bishop to build a church on that hill.

He asked her to send someone else: he was just a simple farmer in the country; the bishop was an important man who lived in a palace in the city. But Mary said no, she had chosen him.

So he went.

He sat waiting for hours to see the bishop. When he told him the story the bishop did not believe a word of it and sent him on his way.

The next day Juan Diego saw Mary again at the hill. Again she asked him to see the bishop and ask for a church to be built there. Again he waited for hours. This time the bishop asked for proof that it truly was Mary.

Two days later on December 12th Juan Diego saw her again and said the bishop wanted proof. She said go to the top of the hill, there you will find your proof. At the top were roses growing in the cold of the coming winter. He took off his cloak and Mary put the roses in it.

When he got to the bishop he opened his cloak to show him the roses. The bishop could not believe his eyes: not the roses but what he saw on his cloak: a picture of Mary. That same picture of her that you keep seeing in Mexico to this day.

The story spread like wildfire, among the Spanish, the Aztecs and the other people of Mexico. The church was built on the hill and people came from near and far. Juan Diego lived in a small house nearby and took care of the church. He told everyone about the Blessed Virgin and what she told him. In six years six million Mexicans became Christians.

If you go there now you will see a huge ugly church (now part of the city), but inside is the picture. It gets more pilgrims than any where else in North or South America.

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Vishnu is one of the three main gods of Hinduism: Brahma creates the world, Shiva destroys it and in between Vishnu preserves it.

Vishnu supports the dharma of the world – the moral order. But sometimes evil takes over the world. To restore the balance, Vishnu appears on earth. The earthly form he takes is called an avatar.

He has appeared on earth nine times and will appear one more time. Once he appeared as the hero Rama, another time as Krishna, that blue man in the Bhagavadgita. He was also Buddha.

He will come a tenth time when the world is about to end.

Some worship Vishnu as the greatest of all gods. The Vaishnavas say he is the only true god.

Vishnu has a thousand names. To say them all brings merit.

Vishnu has four arms. So does his lover, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. He flies on the king of the birds, Garuda and sometimes sits on a huge snake called Seshanag in the middle of a vast milk ocean between worlds. He is pictured as a blue or black man. He likes to dress in yellow.

Vishnu holds something different in each of his four hands: a shell that says “Om”, a lotus flower, a club and a disc.

His ten avatars in order of appearance:

  1. Matsya – a fish who saved mankind when water covered the whole earth.
  2. Kurma – a turtle who held a mountain on his back to help the gods to overthrow the demons.
  3. Varaha – a pig who saves the earth when it fell to the bottom of the sea.
  4. Narasimha – half lion, half man.
  5. Vamana – a dwarf. The demon Bali had taken over hell, heaven and earth. Vishnu, appearing as a dwarf, gets Bali to agree to give him everything he can step over in three steps. It is a trick: Vishnu grows into a giant and steps over the heavens and the earth.
  6. Parasurama – a hunter who rids the earth of evil kings.
  7. Rama – a man, the hero of the Ramayana. He overthrows the evil king Ravana and saves Sita, his beloved (who is Lakshmi, of course).
  8. Krishna – a blue man, the hero of the Mahabharata, a long story, the most famous part of which is called the Bhagavadgita. He drives Arjuna’s chariot into battle, a showdown between good and evil that he has brought about. Krishna tells Arjuna the answers to life’s great questions.
  9. Buddha – an all-knowing man who appeared in the 400s BC and founded Buddhism. Some say Balarama, not Buddha, was the ninth avatar.
  10. Kalki – a man on a white horse who will come near the end of the world.

Krishna and Rama are the best known and are worshipped as gods in their own right.

Some say there were more avatars, but these are the generally accepted ones.

It might seem strange for Vishnu to appear as a pig, for example. But he does that to trick whatever demon has taken over the world.

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250px-Decalogue_parchment_by_Jekuthiel_Sofer_1768.jpgThe Ten Commandments (1200 BC), also called the Decalogue, are the first ten laws given by God to Moses at the top of Mount Sinai. More than 600 other laws followed, but these first ten were written into stone and are seen as the heart of the moral law for both Christians and Jews.

In my endless passion for top tens, here are the Ten Commandments as Augustine knew them (I use his numbering and a translation of the Old Testament that he knew, the Septuagint):

  1. I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods beside me. Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation to them that hate me, and bestowing mercy on them that love me to thousands of them, and on them that keep my commandments.
  2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord thy God will not acquit him that takes his name in vain.
  3. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labour, and shalt perform all thy work. But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God; on it thou shalt do no work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy servant nor thy maidservant, thine ox nor thine ass, nor any cattle of thine, nor the stranger that sojourns with thee. For in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, and the sea and all things in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.
  4. Honour thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest live long on the good land, which the Lord thy God gives to thee.
  5. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  6. Thou shalt not steal.
  7. Thou shalt not kill.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife;
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; nor his field, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any of his cattle, nor whatever belongs to thy neighbour.

Jesus Christ put all this more simply as two commandments (see Matthew 22:37-40):

  1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.
  2. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

The first one covers one’s duty to God, the first three commandments.

The second one, also known as the Golden Rule, covers one’s duty to man, the other seven commandments.

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