Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 25, 2010

Wishing you a catastrophic Christmas

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on December 25, 2010

A decade ago my supposed specialty was in prevention.  In more recent years I have advocated resilience.  Over the last year I have focused mostly on catastrophe.

This trend may seem pessimistic.  But the goal remains to prevent – or at least mitigate – the experience of harm.

We live in a world well-acquainted with suffering and grief. This will persist.

If we can predict anything, we can be sure of earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, death and taxes.  We can be equally sure the violence of an infinitesimal few will trouble and terrorize whole nations. Future historians may well call this the Age of Terror.  This is our shared narrative, the apparent plot of the play in which we find ourselves.

This is why I wish you a catastrophic Christmas.

In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle explains that katastrophe – often translated as reversal of fortune – “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite… Thus in the Oedipus the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, produces the opposite effect.” (Poetics XI, scroll to bottom of link.)

For Christians the birth of Jesus remains a catastrophic event.  The plot of our play has been permanently altered.

The painting is Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli.  The inscription along the top reads: “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him buried as in this picture.”

Botticelli was sure he was living through the end-times described in the Revelation according to St. John.  His was a troubled time full of religious, political, and economic convulsion. Yet we now look back and see – especially in the art, architecture, and literature emerging from the struggle – an apogee of human creativity.

Commenting on Mystic Nativity, Sir Kenneth Clarke wrote, “This vision of joy and love has not been achieved, as in a Buddhist painting, by peaceful contemplation, but through participation in disasters.”

The key is how we choose to participate. Botticelli kept painting. He found in his art and faith the strength to keep creating, even as all around him others chose to destroy.

We are each co-authors of the play.  The plot is ours to choose and – with our neighbors – to craft meaning from the troubles that will surely come.  May we choose joy and love.


More is available on Mystic Nativity from the National Gallery of Art (London).

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Comment by Emanuele - an Italian in NZ

December 25, 2010 @ 5:23 am

Great post, great blog, am sharing and twitting it everywhere, Merry Christmas from the Kapiti Coast

Comment by Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2010 @ 4:16 pm


We here on Main Street USA wish you and those who rejoice in the glorious birth of Jeus Christ a Merry Christmas!

In fact, We are so Blessed by his Love and compassion for each of us amidst the dastardly deeds of those who depict the ugliness and catastrophic and intentional murder of fellow human with no other having the right to make judgement on another.

Unless the world is willing to stand Now and be counted, the evil ways of the devil so apparent in very circle will continue to make strides and erode the value and principles of Life as God bequeathed it to us with responsibility and vigilance.

Biblical scripture in Hebrew, Greek and English has always been quite clear in its messages of Goodness and the written verse in the Quran is quite clear, unmistakeable in its clarity to respect one another….not this compromise in value and harm inflicted on innocent, a fellow human and God’s creation!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 27, 2010 @ 7:54 am


Your use of the word respect — as in “… unmistakable in its clarity to respect one another” — is, I perceive, precisely consistent with the meaning of the Samaritan texts.

There is a Hebrew word: yare’, often translated as fear. For example in Deuteronomy 10:12 we read, “You shall fear the Lord your God…” I have always considered this an unfortunate translation.

Yare’ can also mean to stand in awe of, to honor, revere, or respect. I am not trying to diminish the element of fear, but it is worth highlighting the other aspects as well.

Outside the religious context yare’ means to shoot or pour. The notion is a transfer of energy, as when you shoot an arrow or pour the wine.

We are to approach the “other” with respect. This may well include some fear. But we are encouraged to overcome this initial response. In this way we learn from one another’s difference and, at least in the Samaritan sayings of Jesus, we see this learning of the other as a way to better understand ourselves and our most profound relationships.


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