Question: The pastor at my parish does not allow us to celebrate Christmas during Advent. He tells us not to decorate our homes and forbids any parties on Church grounds until Dec. 25. Is this right?
— Phillip Yanek, via email
Answer: The liturgical environment has stricter rules than Catholics are necessarily obliged to follow in their own homes or even in parish settings outside the liturgy. Indeed, no pastor has the “power” to prevent what Catholics do in their homes. While it may be ideal that our homes perfectly reflect the liturgical cycle, practically speaking, many Catholics begin decorating earlier in the month of December.
As for celebrations on Church grounds, that is a matter of pastoral judgment. Frankly, most pastors are rather relaxed about this, understanding that cultural influences, even if less than ideal, can be respected out of regard for the legitimate wishes of people to celebrate conveniently. Frequently, parish groups do have “Christmas” parties during Advent because that is the time many are available for such a celebration. The week between Christmas and New Year often finds many people away on travel or focused on family activities. After New Year’s Day, many shift back to work and other duties. Some concessions to daily realities need to be made, even if we legitimately lament the cultural loss of Advent.
I would encourage you to listen carefully to your pastor’s teachings, and strive to keep Advent as much as possible. But it does seem that some leeway in these matters is acceptable.
Measurement in the Bible
Question: I sometimes read in the Bible that a trip was so many miles away. Isn’t miles an American unit of measurement? Did they use miles in biblical times?
— Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado
Answer: Distances and other units of measurement in the Bible were expressed in ways common at the time. The English term “mile” comes from the Latin and Roman term mille possum, meaning a thousand paces. However, most people in biblical times would speak of distance more in temporal ways. So, Jerusalem was said to be a “three-days journey” from the region of Galilee. Another common biblical term is a cubit, which refers to the distance between the elbow and middle finger of a man (somewhere between 18 and 20 inches). Such terms were often used in a general sort of way because paces and cubits can vary from person to person.
As one might expect, in certain settings, agreed upon standards were necessary. Obviously, weights and measures used in transactions had to be agreed upon, as well as certified weights and scales. In building, there were also certain standardized lengths for the cubits, handbreadths, etc. Hence, having measuring rods that met certain standards was sometimes important. However, even among builders in biblical times there was a lot of “eyeballing” and guesstimating done since most stones and other materials were not cut to exact shapes or uniform length, except in very prominent structures.
Most modern translations do supply modern English and American equivalents to biblical terms. Even if these translations are not scientifically precise, they approximate the distances and sizes for the modern English reader.
One thing to be aware of is that ancient people did not always have precise tools to measure distance or tell time. This helps us to be less obsessed with seeming contradictions in numbers and measures in the Bible. Today, we might be able to say 2 p.m. and have a precise meaning in mind. But that has not been the case until recently. People had to speak of time more generally using terms such as mid-afternoon, after length, at the “third watch of the night” and so forth. Even exact dates were hard to nail down since, at Jesus’ time, there were at least four calendars in use: a solar calendar, a lunar calendar and a couple of Roman calendars. Among the Jews, times requiring precision, such the beginning of Sabbath at Friday sundown and its end at Saturday sundown, required the blowing of a trumpet by an agreed-upon source (usually the temple or synagogue). But, at times, there was disagreement over the exact days that feast began and ended.
This is true even today, as the Eastern Churches use a different calendar than the Western Churches. Hence, Christmas and Easter and other feasts are often celebrated at different times. Somehow we navigate these differences, and so did the ancient people of biblical times. Hence, we need to be careful in demanding a precision of time, distances and other measures from a text written long before such precision was expected or needed.