Category Archives: Christmas
— 1 —
A few months ago I came across the essay “How God Makes a Pencil” on the Acton Institute’s blog. In 1958 Leonard Read published his essay “I, Pencil” and recently a video illustrating Read’s point was made. The article itself by Joe Carter is worth a read; most especially the video (and essay) is worth a look.
— 2 —
In his essay Read quotes G.K. Chesterton:
You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, the wise G. K. Chesterton observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
What Chesterton wrote a century ago is more true today. In this single paragraph one could make the argument that we are more than ever today treating and using the wonder that is human life with the same “supercilious attitude” with which we regard the pencil. It struck me during the course of the past few weeks how deeply shocked we were and how strongly we mourn the deaths of so many young and innocent children in Connecticut. And rightly so! But every day in this country we silently acquiesce to the murder of over 3300 infants in their mother’s wombs. We are a society leaning ever more closer to legalizing euthanasia for our elderly and infirm. Our blind eyes turn away from prostitution, the sex-trafficking of children and the strength and stability of the traditional family unit for reasons too numerous and complicated to get into here today. We glorify violence, paying ever increasing amounts of money to reward those who produce it, and accept the ridicule and scorn heaped upon the institution of fatherhood. Joseph was a man of whom no words or speech is recorded in Scripture. Silently he did the honorable and just things by protecting his young bride and child and providing for them. In fact today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, to honor the memory of the children of Bethlehem slaughtered by King Herod. These children died specifically because Herod wanted to kill the Christ child of whom he’d heard the prophecies regarding Christ being a king. Those children died in place of the baby Jesus, who was saved by Joseph’s obedience to an angelic dream warning him to take his family and flee to safety in Egypt.
Today Joseph would be celebrated only had he been a drunken, belching fool sitting on a barstool with his buddies and bedding the occasional bar floozy while shooting one-liners from the hip that would be posted on Facebook. “Good ol’ Joe,” we’d snicker. And then he’d get a sitcom on ABC Family called “Who’s Yer Daddy?” in which Mary is a lesbian and teen Jesus is supporting the family by dropping out of school and running a porn site.
This is what we glorify today. It is the truth-that-no-one-dares-admit-or-mention. No one will because to admit this fact is to admit our own guilt and complicitness. So we ignore it all…all the wonder around us represented in our neighbors, family and friends…and turn on the damned television and pass the blame on to other things. We’re perishing without having a clue.
— 3 —
All of this can be disheartening to a Catholic guy. Fortunately there exists in the world strong Catholic women. (Talk about a portion of society who is not only vastly misunderstood but openly ridiculed!) One of them, Supertradmum, recently posted some encouragement for her Catholic male friends:
First of all, as heads of families and as husband and fathers, you cannot wallow in depression. You must rise to the occasion.
Second, did you not expect these turns of events-the mystery of evil, which some of us have seen for 40 years coming?
Third, it is your responsibility to be the spiritual as well as material leaders in your families and in your parishes. Leaders, like Christ, pray, accept the burden of suffering and decide what to do.
She lists twelve, of which I pasted the first three above. All of them are good reminders, but just receiving acknowledgement and encouragement from someone was salve to the wound. Her list is mostly about shaking off the depression surrounding recent events in the world. And the truth is I was depressed for several weeks after November 6. That Depression has given way to disgust and contempt, but I try to remind myself of something J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters:
“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” (Letter 195)
And so I am first made courageous, then humble, and finally I remain hopeful. I’m hopeful because as Mark Shea wrote last week:
The journey into God’s love does not end here. It never ends. The horrors in Connecticut are not a sudden revelation that the gospel is a fraud, but a sudden revelation of how blind we have become to the depths of human and demonic evil that Jesus died and rose to defeat. We have been too long comfortable and sentimental about the gospel. But the gospel was born into a world that welcomed the Christ Child by slaughtering innocents in Bethlehem. … Christmas is not and never was a celebration of Kodak moments. It is D-Day: the moment when the Son of God landed on the beaches of Occupied Earth and began the work of liberating a population captive to sin, death, and the powers of hell. The powers of hell shoot back and have a special hatred for children and other innocents – and they will continue to do so until they are cornered in the last bunker of hell. But Christ, who has conquered death, is the great champion of children and good martyrs still. And he is coming with all the Holy Innocents from down the ages to exact judgment against the devil and all his angels and on That Day, to wipe away every tear from our eyes. So we weep at this obscenity as He did at the grave of Lazarus. But we also are “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33 – the Greek contains the idea of growling anger) and when we are done weeping, we get up, don our spiritual armor, seek all the graces of Christ in the sacraments, and go off to make war on sin, hell and death with the weapons of the Spirit and not the weapons of this world.
One more from Supertradmum’s list:
Eleven, Christ was crucified. So what do you expect?
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Just three days ago we celebrated the birth of a baby whose mom had no inn in which to give him birth. Her husband found the best place he could and made it as comfortable for her as possible. I read a quote that I considered posting all alone as my Friday Five this week. At first glance it appears to be a bumper sticker slogan that could be posted to Facebook and quickly forgotten. But there is much here to contemplate upon.
“Life is a night spent at an uncomfortable inn.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila
While we’re spending this long night at such an uncomfortable inn, I thought of something that Chesterton (yes, him again) wrote about Charles Dickens. I had forgotten it until reading an article in the National Catholic Register last night about the final lecture given at Georgetown University by one of my favorite authors, Fr. James Schall, who quotes the passage. I happen to own a copy of a biography Chesterton wrote about Dickens because a friend of mine in California, knowing of my love of books, of Dickens and of Chesterton, purchased and shipped it to me when she found it in a used bookstore in San Diego.
“There is ‘a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick traveled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure forever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: And when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.’”
As Clarence wrote to George Bailey: “No man is a failure who has friends.” I have been truly blessed with many and can only hope I’ve been the same in return. May we hoist our flagons together in the hereafter.
— 5 —
As a palate cleanser, I offer one of my favorite scenes from a series laden with favorite scenes.
Merry Christmas. Because it’s still Christmas, ya know. It didn’t end at midnight on the 25th.
ALL after pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,
With full crie of affections, quite astray;
I took up in the next inne I could finde.
There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
THE shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymne for thee?
My soul ’s a shepherd too: a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word; the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light houres.
Then we will chide the sunne for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I finde a sunne
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt sunnes look sadly.
Then we will sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my musick shine.
George Herbert (1593-1633). The Poetical Works of George Herbert.
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1857. 101-102.
LATIN: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
ENGLISH: O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.
Emmanuel. “God with us.”
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
…it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Emmanuel. (Isaiah 8:8)
“Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic. Yes, the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us”. (Isaiah 33:22)
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
We have reached the final of the O Antiphons. Each of the four candles on our Advent wreaths have been lit. The Light is near.
Traditionally, each of the four candles on an Advent wreath has their own meaning. The first Sunday of Advent symbolizes Hope with the Prophet’s Candle reminding us that Jesus is coming. The second Sunday of Advent symbolizes Faith with the Bethlehem Candle reminding us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. The third Sunday of Advent symbolizes Joy with the Shepherd’s Candle reminding us of the Joy the world experienced at the coming birth of Jesus. The fourth Sunday symbolizes Peace with the Angel’s Candle reminding us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.”
The light again signifies Christ, the Light of the world. Some wreaths will include a white candle placed in the middle of the wreath, which represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to replace the three purple and one rose candles with four white candles, which will be lit throughout Christmas season.
Our expectation now finds joy in the certainty of fulfillment. We call Jesus by a most intimate and personal name: Emmanuel. God with us. We remember that in being born of the Virgin Mary the Creator of the Universe takes upon Himself our very flesh. He comes more near to us than ever before. Yet He is also to be exclaimed as our King, the judge and lawgiver whom we both honor and obey.
And it is in His being born in a simple cave and placed in a manger, used to feed lowly animals, that we are reminded of the simplicity and poverty surrounding the birth of Jesus as well as His life of humility. He would proclaim “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35) years after being born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.”
The final O Antiphon is referred to in the following verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel. It is the first verse, and the one most commonly known:
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!
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Last night I noticed a title on my DVR list that I’d recorded and forgot: a short film called Janey Mary. Filmed in 2007 the film is based on the original short story by Irish author James Plunkett about a young five-year old girl in 1940s Dublin who is sent out by her mother onto the cold and wet winter streets to beg for food.
The film is 19 minutes long and outside of The Butterfly Circus is one of the greatest examples of storytelling in film that I could cite. It is also something that I would not recommend someone watch if they are, like me, still nursing a very deep grieving after the events of just one week ago in Connecticut. It could be said that it is a metaphor for our culture, with adults trampling on children to satisfy their needs. It is a beautiful little film that led to my wife finding me a sobbing wreck last night on our sofa as the credits rolled.
Do not let my reaction discourage you from its viewing should you be able to watch the entire film. All I ask is that when it is over you spend more than a few seconds or minutes thinking about what it portrays. There is much to meditate upon and I’m willing to bet that like me, you will fall in love with little Janey Mary and recognize that there is much truth in Plunkett’s fiction.
God bless good storytellers, and may He give us more of them.
Website for Janey Mary: www.janeymary.com
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Two ladies who are excellent storytellers in their own right are the Writing Sisters. If you haven’t subscribed to their Facebook page you should, as more times than not you will be blessed with little snippets to launch your day. This morning’s was no exception as they shared something by Sharon Jaynes. It is 1 Corinthians 13 for Christmas, and I won’t post it here because I want you to check it out on their blog right here. After you do, take a look around. Laurie and Betsy do what as yet alludes me: create beauty in brevity.
— 3 —
While driving in to work this morning and listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the following lyrics from the song Old City Bar struck with much clarity:
If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask
— 4 —
A woman who has been a favorite columnist of mine for over a decade is Alicia Colon. In her column on December 18 she touches on the subjects of faith and belief, and the sneering condescension with which both traits are met by the so-called “intelligent” secularists of our age. As always, Ms. Colon is worth reading in toto, but I’m going to focus on one part below because she correctly gets to the heart of the one thing that separates people of faith from those who profess to have none:
People of faith have no problem believing that there is evil personified in the Devil but the way more ‘intelligent’ secularists think he’s a myth. Christians have been taught to regard Satan as an entity that loathes humanity and delights in our anguish and unlike the Rolling Stones; I have no sympathy for him.
While I was at Mass on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I listened to a reading from Genesis and another reading was about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary telling her she would become a mother and I thought, “Boy, is that hard for some to swallow.” Such a fantasy – a virgin birth – a legend and yet, one that is the core of my faith. It then occurred to me that belief in the supernatural and otherworldly events requires one to be humble. Humility is probably the hardest virtue and Pride probably the most deadly sin. To surrender to a higher power and feel its love is a gift that is there for us all and it is in the Christmas season that we are reminded that God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son.
Pride and its antithesis: Humility. If you’ve the time I invite you to listen to a twenty minute homily given last Sunday by Bishop Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin. In his talk he uses the question asked of John the Baptist in the Gospel, What should we to do?, to reflect on last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. There is only one explanation: Satan. And there is only one solution: turn back to God, and turn back to beauty.
I’ll put it this way: while I have admitted to avoiding much of the media this past week I have seen enough to know that there is no wisdom in what explanations they are struggling to feed the public. Of all I’ve seen or heard since last Friday, Bishop Morlino provides the most clarity I’ve encountered.
Lord, grant us humility this Christmas.
— 5 —
One more lyric from Old City Bar: “If one could be home, they’d be already there.”
This week I touched upon the following: truth, beauty, and humility.
One more: Home.
Home sweet home. Dolce Domum. I hope that this Christmas season finds you home, wherever your home may be. Whether home is a physical place or one of spirit, may you travel safely there for a time and warm yourself by the fire of its hearth.
And after the gifts have been opened and should you find yourself looking at all of the wrapping paper, bows and ribbons scattered about, remember the gift you received that was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.
From TAN Books and Saint Benedict Press yesterday came a message to its customers from publisher Robert M. Gallagher. I present a portion of it here, and close this Friday Five with his thoughts on Our Gift, that when read in the light of the pride that Alicia Colon touched upon gives me much to contemplate this season with regards to that Gift, and to remember that despite mankind’s efforts to defeat God the message of faith, hope and love that the babe of Bethlehem proclaimed throughout His life is still being conveyed by men and women around the globe.
Merry Christmas to you all. “Rejoice and be glad for today is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.”
Therefore the birth of Jesus that we are preparing to celebrate is the most unimaginable of gifts: God the Creator offering Himself to His creatures out of pure unselfish love.
And, what have we done with this gift?
Today our secular culture attacks not only the meaning and public celebration of His birth, it attacks the very mention of His name. As brazen attacks increase against the Christ child and the Church He established, I must remember that attempts to destroy Jesus started not long after His birth, with Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents.
Then I am heartened by the fact that for almost two thousand years this old world of ours has tried to stamp out the Christ child and the meaning of His life, death and resurrection; and, for two thousand years every attempt has failed.
Herod could not kill Him as a baby; the grave could not hold Him as a man; and all the might of the Roman Empire could not destroy His message or the establishment of His Church. From the blood of His martyrs, which stained the floor of the ancient coliseum, the Roman Empire itself was converted to Christianity in less than four hundred years. Today, the ruins of that ancient coliseum stands in the shadow of St. Peter’s where His vicar still resides.
Throughout history many have tried and failed to stamp out His message. Within our own memories, the Nazis have tried and failed and the Communists have tried and failed. Today even our own government is trying to suppress His message, and force His Church to violate its own principles or subject it to unconscionable fines. Our government too shall ultimately fail in its attempt.
We’re getting our first snowfall of the season and it’s shaping up to be a doozy. I drove home late from the downtown office because I brought my laptop and work home with me just in case the weather gets as bad as they say it will. School is likely to be cancelled tomorrow, which will be disappointing to our kindergartner who was all set to bleat her one-word line in the Christmas program…as a sheep. I had to dig the shovels and snowblower out of the shed since we haven’t used them in almost ten months. Late winter/early spring 2012 was very mild. This meant I also needed to fill my two-gallon gas can with the 2-cycle engine mix so I ventured back out into the elements, taking my camera-phone along for the ride.
I’ve been meaning to post this video for a few weeks after discovering the poem by Christina Rossetti in the back of my breviary. Even without the snow it has seemed bleaker than bleak for some time now: economic and political stagnation, news filled with horror stories and a media all-too-seemingly eager to showcase the worst of humanity. It’s not just the frosty wind that moans or the earth that stands hard as iron. Just as water freezes to stone our hearts are susceptible to doing the same if we’re not careful and leave them exposed to the elements of this world for too long. Only just this afternoon I wrote to a long-time friend of mine, exchanging Christmas greetings and discussing one of our favorite topics: Middle-Earth and hobbits. She asked me how my Christmas season was going and this is my reply. I apologize in advance for the language, but emotions remain raw as they will for some time. It is the recognition of that rawness that has forced me to discipline myself from commenting or writing on a subject too painful to grasp.
As for my Christmas, well….it’s been a struggle this Advent. I have to be honest. Since the election I have been in a massive funk trying to wrap my brain around the mind-set of the country, but when the tragedy of last Friday occurred in Connecticut I went numb. I have largely avoided the news, the internet and even Facebook. As we both have children that age I know you understand. Having a child of any age…but they were 6 and 7. What a complete fucking bastard. I’ve had to withdraw from the media to keep my sanity. I’ve instead immersed myself in prayer, my family, my parish, any good works or service I can provide…anything to keep moving forward and avoid not just the news of that awful day, but also the political football those who would seize a political opportunity have made of those poor children and people before they are even buried.
To keep from falling into loathing hatred or depression I serve. It is in serving that I love. And that’s what keeps me from collapsing into a blubbering zombie.
That is what I’ve done. Looked anywhere and everywhere for ways to serve, one fellow human being at a time. It does help, and when my eyes are on others they are not on myself. That has made all the difference.
During Midnight Mass next week is probably when I will release it all and let it go. I hope the people sitting around me can ignore the sobs of gratitude and release.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
We have only a week of Advent waiting to go. The good news of course is that Heaven cannot hold Him and into the stable of our hearts He comes. To we poor, small people He comes.
May we react to Our Savior’s coming with as much exuberance and jubilation as our family’s 10-month old beagle Buster did tonight when encountering snow for the first time.
As with gladness men of old,
Did the guiding star behold,
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onwards, beaming bright,
So, most gracious God, may we
Evermore be led to thee.
~ from the Evening Prayer II hymn on the Feast of the Epiphany, Liturgy of the Hours
I wanted to take a moment and thank those of you who have joined me on the journey I began in November on the first Sunday of Advent. Whether you were there at the start or joined us somewhere along the way, I thank you. Each day I posted something for your edification, but mostly it was for my own. My goal was to avoid the crass commercialism and busyness that is the holiday season while keeping my focus on the Light that entered into the world in that stable two millenia ago. And it worked, for while the past month has brought some difficult and challenging times as a parent and father, there was a lot of peace internally that enabled me to handle the situation. And it’s ok that there was no earth-shattering alteration for me this season. Instead what I found was a gentle nudge to maintain the course I’ve set upon and keep walking this road. Reaffirmation, and the knowledge that while the time of preparation ended with the Incarnation, the miracle remains. And we’ve got work to do, you and I.
For long after the angels disappear into the heavens, the shepherds return to their flocks, the magi journey home and the great star sets, Jesus remains.
The Child in whom we rediscover God’s great love for humanity becomes the adult Redeemer who challenges us to imitate his selflessness and compassion in order that we might transform our world in love. For today that little baby, born into such pitiful humility and then cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.
This is why, behind all of the fun and games we had during Christmastime, we should not have tried to escape a sense of awe at what God has done. We must take care to never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago.
What we just celebrated was no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.
May we allow the miracle of Christmas to continue long after the holiday trappings have been packed away.
May we welcome the adult Messiah and his challenging Gospel to recreate our lives, making the peace, justice and hope of this holy season a reality in every season of the new year.
Strengthened, and with renewed vigor, may we evermore walk this path in full knowledge of the fact that the Miracle remains.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. We celebrate a holy day adorned with three mysteries: that on this day the star led the Magi to the manger; that wine was made from water at the wedding at Cana; that on this day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist. Today we celebrate that Christ has washed away our sins in the Jordan; that the Magi hasten with gifts to the newborn babe, and that the guests are gladdened with wine made from water.
But how do we internalize these things and celebrate them as our own? From his Epiphany homily in 2001 Blessed Pope John Paul II provides us with some guidance:
“…we are like the Three Wise Men who journeyed to Jesus. Now, like those Wise Men, we return to the world from which we came, to the everyday life where we will witness to what we have seen.
Indeed it compels us to start out afresh on a new stage of the journey on which we become proclaimers and heralds. The Wise Men were in a sense the first missionaries. Their encounter with Christ did not keep them in Bethlehem, but made them set out anew on the paths of the world.
We need to ‘set out anew from Christ,’ with the zeal of Pentecost, with renewed enthusiasm. To set out from him above all in a daily commitment to holiness, with an attitude of prayer and of listening to his word. To set out from him in order to testify to his Love by living a Christian life marked by communion, charity, and witness before the world.”
So what now? Now, as Howard Thurman writes below, the work of “living a Christian life marked by communion, charity, and witness” must begin.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.
The message of the Feast of Epiphany announces to all people, everywhere:
Rise up in splendor…your light has come,
The Glory of the Lord shines upon you!
Let the work of Christmas begin, and let it begin with you.
~ Work of Christmas Begins, by Howard Thurman (adapted)
The Child we seek
doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone
he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no sceptor,
his haloed head will wear no crown;
his might will not be built
on your toil.
Swifter than lightning
he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life
and receive our death,
and the keys to his city
belong to the poor.
~ Gian Carlo Menotti
A montage of images of the Magi from around the world.
During the Advent and Christmas season we encounter angels, and their lessons, that until now I’ve neglected to talk about.
The first angel is the angel that visits Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. While in the Temple an angel appeared to him and announced the he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. This he announced despite their advanced years. Not believing this to be possible Zechariah asks for a sign. Instead he was struck silent, losing his voice until little John was born. While he doubted at first the experience did strengthen his faith. It was he who went on to say “Through the bottomless mercy of our God, one born on high will visit us to give light to those who walk in darkness, who live in the shadow of death; to lead our feet in the path of peace.” Through his encounter with an angel, Zechariah experienced a renewed faith.
The second angel is the heavenly messenger to St. Joseph. At the time Joseph was betrothed to Mary when it was discovered she was pregnant. While planning on divorcing her quietly, the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The angel who came to Joseph serves to remind us through encouragement to “Be not afraid.”
If ever there was a man who had reason to be afraid, it was Joseph. Jewish law dictated that a girl who became pregnant outside of marriage could be stoned to death. Joseph had reason to fear not only for Mary but also for himself. As they were betrothed he was the obvious culprit of her pregnancy in the eyes of their peers, and marrying her would be an admission of guilt. But upon hearing the word of the angel: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”, he responded with courage. He would respond with this same trait later when warned by an angel to take his fragile family and flee for safety into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution.
A third angel is the one who lead the Heavenly Hosts of angels who descended in a blaze of light and sang out “good news of great joy” to the Bethlehem shepherds. There is some speculation that this angel is Gabriel whom the shepherds receive and respond to. They put aside their fears and open their hearts to joy. They even imitate the angels in two ways: praising God by repeating the “glory!” of the heavenly choir, and they spread the news of Jesus’ birth. Taking faith and courage from the example given to them these simple and unlikely men become the first evangelists.
These are just a few of the examples we can take from the angels who appear and put to use in our own lives. I want to touch briefly upon another, one I took from reading a short story by J.B. Phillips called “The Visited Planet.”
In his story, a senior angel is showing a very young angel around the splendors of the universe. They view the whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and the fly across the infinite distances of space until they enter one particular galaxy.
As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”
To this young angel the earth does not seem so impressive. He listens in stunned disbelief as the senior angle tells him that this planet, small and insignificant and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet:
“Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?”
“It isn’t for us,” said his senior a little stiffly, “to question His ‘why’s’, except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that. As to why He became one of them – how else do you suppose could He visit them?”
The little angels face wrinkled in disgust.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”
“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
It is beyond my comprehension as well. But I accept this notion as a key to understanding Christmas and that it is also a touchstone of my faith. That one night in the cold, in the dark, among the chilled hills of Bethlehem came God, entering into time and space. God, who knows no boundaries, took on the confines of a baby’s skin and the restraints of mortality.
It is from this non-biblical story, one that offers much food for thought, that I glean the lesson of humility.
Faith. Courage. Humility. Lessons to take with us beyond Christmas and throughout rest of the year.
A great representation of this last lesson is found in Terrence Malick’s wonderful film The Tree of Life. Below is a portion of his creation sequence from the movie.
by Henry Van Dyke
Are you willing…
- To forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
- To ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
- To put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
- To see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
- To own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
- To close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.
- Are you willing to do these things even for a day?
Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing…
- To stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
- To remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
- To stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
- To bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
- To try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
- To trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
- To make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open;
- Are you willing to do these things even for a day?
Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing…
- To believe that love is the strongest thing in the world – stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death – and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.