The December issue of First Things has just appeared, the first of the Yuletide deliveries to arrive and mark the beginning of the Christmas season.

Well, maybe not, since the issue contains a short piece from me called “The End of Advent,” which bemoans the omnipresence of Christmas:

Christmas has devoured Advent, gobbled it up with the turkey giblets and the goblets of seasonal ale.

Every secularized holiday tends to lose the context it had in the liturgical year. Across the nation, even in many churches, Easter has hopped across Lent, Halloween has frightened away All Saints, and New Year’s has drunk up Epiphany. Still, the disappearance of Advent seems especially disturbing—for it’s injured even the secular Christmas season: opening a hole, from Thanksgiving on, that can be filled only with fiercer, madder, and wilder attempts to anticipate Christmas.

Still, the issue would make a good Christmas gift —even if you have to give it to yourself. It features, for example, Richard John Neuhaus’ “True Devotion to Mary” (a reference to Louis de Montfort’s eighteenth-century classic ), which points out the ways Catholics and Protestants can get Mariology wrong—and the ways they can get it right:

If you would draw close to Jesus, draw close to Mary; if you would draw close to Mary, draw close to Jesus. That maxim captures a rightly ordered faith and rightly ordered devotion . . . . Disordered Marian devotion has been with us since the beginning of the Christian story.

In Marian devotion, as in much else, there will always be excesses and abuses . . . . That having been said, there are basic differences between evangelical and Catholic attitudes toward Marian devotion, including differences in our response to what both can agree are excesses and abuses.

Meanwhile, in the December issue , the historian Mark Noll addresses a fundamental mistake too many make as they look entirely to the era of the Revolutionary War for an understanding of the nation’s premises: “Serious study of the period from 1774 to 1800 is hardly pointless, wrongheaded, or misguided. And yet, for the purpose of clarifying contemporary debates over religion and public life, we must recognize that both religion and politics experienced two foundings in the United States.”

For the more politically minded, the issue contains Hadley Arkes’ “Abortion Politics 2008,” a warning that “The nomination and election of Rudy Giuliani would mark the end of the Republican party as the pro-life party in our politics. And that would be the case regardless of whether pro-lifers respond to his nomination by refusing to vote for Giuliani, forming a third party, or folding themselves into a coalition that succeeds in electing Giuliani.”

And for the more poetically minded, the December issue presents a portion of A.M. Juster’s translation of Horace’s Satires :

This is the life of anybody free

of burdensome, depressing aspirations.

These things provide me with the consolations

of a life more pleasantly employed

than what my grandfather would have enjoyed—

my father and my uncle in addition—

had they gained a senator’s position.

The centerpiece of the issue is probably “Saving Ecumenism from Itself” by Avery Cardinal Dulles. This month’s free article, available even to nonsubscribers, points out:

The principal instrument of ecumenism over the past half century has been a series of theological conversations between separated churches. Proceeding on the basis of what they held in common, the partners tried to show that their shared patrimony contained the seeds of much closer agreement than had yet been recognized. Rereading their confessional documents in light of Scripture and early creeds as shared authorities, they produced remarkable convergence statements on traditionally divisive subjects such as justification, Mariology, Scripture and tradition, the Eucharist, and the ordained ministry . . . .

And yet, valuable though it was, the convergence method was not without limitations.

Can anything good come out of the Ninth Circuit? In the case of Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, a judge on that circuit, the answer is yes, and in “The Curious Case of Free Exercise” he argues,

If the Roberts Court follows the admonitions of its conservative justices and continues its slow retreat from substantive due process, religious practitioners may have even narrower grounds on which to base their claims . . . .

The future of religious freedom may now shift to the hands of voters and lawmakers. Although the courts can continue to protect religious practices against laws motivated by discriminatory purposes, or can grant relief when Free Exercise claims are made “in conjunction with other constitutional protections,” most protective action must be legislative.

In Books this month, there’s Lewis Ayres’ interesting review of Voting About God in Early Church Councils and the prolific A.M. Juster’s takedown of Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher .

The mathematician Fernando Q. Gouvêa looks at Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith , and the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox examines Kay Hymowitz’s Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age : “When society and its institutions stopped enforcing norms demanding that marriage and children go together, many poor and working-class Americans had nothing to ensure that they would find their way to the altar before the delivery room. By contrast, their better-educated and more strategic peers made sure¯one way or another¯that the baby came after the wedding, knowing full well that this would raise the odds that they and their progeny could make good on the American dream.”

On and on the issue goes¯one Christmas gift after another. We’ve got stern letters on Richard Hays’ less-than-glowing review of Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth and a sharp exchange between Thomas Derr and his critics on global warming. Harvey Mansfield’s essay on politics produced a generous outpouring of letters from the cream of the political-theory field, including Rémi Brague, Patrick J. Deneen, Timothy Fuller, Jean M. Yarbrough, and Eva Brann.

The issue even has “The Art of Transgression,” an attack of the would-be spirituality of the contemporary art scene by the young Princetonian Matthew J. Milliner, and more original poetry by Samuel Menashe, A.E. Stallings, and me .

And, as always, the issue concludes with Richard John Neuhaus’ extraordinary column, The Public Square . This month, Fr. Neuhaus speaks of his “Rereading the Civil War” and concludes his three-part analysis of Paul Collier’s book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It . Along the way he spices the whole with his usual tasty run of bite-sized While We’re At Its:

A priest on Long Island tells me that, when he was newly ordained, he had the chance to visit with the legendary Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was famed for, among other things, winning many converts to the Catholic Church. Sheen was in the hospital and, as it turned out, on his deathbed. “Archbishop Sheen,” my friend said, “I have come for your counsel. I want to be a convert-making priest like you. I’ve already won fifteen people to the faith. What is your advice?” Sheen painfully pushed himself up on his elbows from his reclining position and looked my friend in the eye. “The first thing to do,” he said, “is to stop counting.”

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Articles by Joseph Bottum

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