The immediate present, such as the Holiday Season that is so often no longer publicly recognized as Christmas, gives us an opportunity to peer into a few of the tracks and trails contained in words with long histories we indistinctly know or are sometimes not aware of at all. The Holiday (Christmas) Season carries one interesting trail in the ancient term Advent. The current Christian Calendar holds Advent as the Coming of Christ culminating at birth on December 25. But use of advent was in circulation well before it came to be associated with the singular event Christians call Advent. Interestingly, the earlier applications of advent (from Latin) also had a religious context in the Roman world. An advent in those times was the coming of any important event as seen or forecast by an Augur, a Roman Priest who read and interpreted the signs, portents, and omens. A true Roman citizen had the duty and responsibility to honor and uphold the Republic as both a civic and religious obligation. There is a clearly superstitious element in portents (also called auguries). If the signs and timing were favorable a prospect was said to augur well. That’s not an expression you’ll hear often, but it goes back further than I’ll trail it here.

A term such as advent comes with a history from Greco Roman times that became the Christian Era that is also known as Western Culture. A past record of religious belief is held in language in somewhat the same way an ancient insect is encapsulated in amber. I don’t think it’s reasonable to attempt forcing separation of words from their varied histories and expect to have much left after doing so other than drooling ignorance happy to be oblivious of the many sides of meaning. It’s also, I think, ironic that effort to clean and correct our usage and terms to be non-offensive is a modern form of superstition based on fears and suppositions about the ways this or that might be seen. I find superstition the same whether held in regard of gods and demons or of human groups and cultures. Modern day Augurs are quick to foretell what ominous things will befall if this magic expression isn’t used instead of a supposedly ill incantation left over from a past we are told to reject with superstitious sureness. Deliberate avoidance of the past is hardly different in function from ignorance of it. A cultural tradition such as that we call Western has roots that can’t be discarded without radical loss of content. Nip picking about approved meaning is a fine thing to occupy the fancy until the favored solution becomes removal of the head as the best way to get rid of a louse.

Whether a person is aware of it or not or whether they approve of it or not contemporary Western culture and civilization has Judeo Christian content in much the same way as it retains concepts going back to the Greco Roman era. To some this is quite bothersome and offensive. I feel sorry for them because that seems about as reasonable as being offended by your pancreas or bothered by having an appendix. It seems to me, too, that complaint often misses the simple notion that a society could do much worse than have the birth of a child at Christmastide as a prominent symbol. The tradition is understandably human and of ancestry predating the Christian era because celebrating around the time when short days begin growing longer is human as awareness of the seasons. I would not be anywhere near the first to note a connection between contemporary celebrations and ancient observances. Whether it was an Augur foretelling an advent or a Priest announcing Advent the theme of looking forward to a brighter future is present and alive. It is optimistic. From my point of view as well it appears that at least some of what we call humanism or populism or social justice stems from recognition of birth and rebirth as positive values represented in symbols and in religious observance. It’s a much tougher slog to reach humanism by way of a route filled with punishing demons than it is following (so to speak) a star to a stable holding a lowly child who becomes an instrument of inspiration. There are lots of dark spots in the past and current of our culture, but things would likely be a good deal darker if the dominating theme was subservience.

I’m probably as poor an excuse for a Christian as you’d find. I say that in recognition of the ills that can come of religion but also with some awareness that specific elements of religious belief are constructive. I do not have to believe in divinity or be an Adventist to feel a positive result from articles of faith featuring rebirth, forgiveness, or the value of humbly making a sacrifice for others. Those are worthy human values. All of us have or follow a creed of some sort. Better it be one with human leanings than a dogma of death.

There’s a funny thing about death. Before Christianity made its impact death in the form of offering animal sacrifice (death) was a major part of religious ritual and belief. (Ritual animal slaughter is still important in some beliefs, including some that are widely practiced.) Ancient Greece and Rome were each full of blood offerings for all manner of placating and pleasing gods in one’s favor. Burnt offerings and animal sacrifice was also a prominent element in Judaism as it was in much ancient religious belief. Consider the intellectual leap from actual animal sacrifice to the symbolic form known as communion. In the trail of words communion is a form of human union, a social agreement recognizing shared human values rather than an imposed system of correct ritual. The most mystical side of faith is found in loving one another as communing humans. The root of this mystic belief is very old. Its cultivation is something to work toward with eyes open to the wonderful leap toward love unknown.