I was privileged to spend this Christmas day with some very precious people. It was a special time because I had never spent Christmas Day with them before. Both they and my household love our Lord, and we love each other, but we are self consciously members of two different traditions- two different communities within God’s larger household. Because of our love for each other and of our God, time together can be stressful, if we’re not really careful.
They worry about us.
Specifically, about a perceived lack of attention regarding the cross of Christ- especially at Christmas. Out of love for them, I return the compliment (for their concern is evidence of their love for us) by worrying that they fail to grasp the vicarious nature of Christ’s humanity.
While it is true that the Word became flesh at Jesus’ conception (and so the Feast of the Annunciation is in many respect the most fitting feast day of the Incarnation), tradition has made Christmas the season for reflection on the mystery of the personal Union of God and man.
It was this emphasis that caused concern on Christmas Day. My kids seemed too interested in the Nativity and God becoming man. Not one mentioned the cross… not without being ‘primed, anyway. And so… when prayers were offered before dinner, the point was strongly made that Christmas must never be separated from the Cross. Christ came to die for our sins. This is the message of Christmas.
Now, I don’t believe that is true- at least it’s not the whole truth. I don’t believe the Incarnation ought to be viewed simply as a means to the end of Calvary. I believe Benedict XVI got it right when he wrote :
‘The history of salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist – the encounter between God and his creature. In this sense, salvation history, the covenant, precedes creation. During the Hellenistic period, Judaism developed the idea that the Torah would have preceded the creation of the material world. This material world seems to have been created solely to make room for the Torah, for this Word of God that creates the answer and becomes the history of love. The mystery of Christ already is mysteriously revealed here…. One can say that, while material creation is the condition for the history of salvation, the history of the covenant is the true cause of the cosmos.’
God came not simply ‘for our salvation,’ but for ‘us men.’ The Incarnation was and is the point of creation.
Anyway, I do see the point of the concerns. Our disagreement lies elsewhere.
They attributed our emphasis to the sentimentality of the secular season and (a misunderstanding of) our Tradition’s teaching about the cross. I want to return the complement (for my concern is evidence of my love for them) by worrying that their concern was rooted in the unintentional exchange of our faith’s ancient inheritance for that of the culture around us. By celebrating as the world celebrates, they hear only what the world’s celebration wishes to convey.
You can see its a loving game of “Am not; are too.”
I wished that I could have pointed out that this was Christmas Day– not Holy Week. I wish I could explain the beauty of the Christian calendar (the very one they were acknowledging by reading Luke chapter two on December 25th)- how it makes the very point they wished to emphasize, but I couldn’t without igniting unprofitable discussion and reminding us of the few things we hadn’t in common, while covering the great things that we do share.
Christmas lasts for twelve days. It is a season. The first four days form a beautiful quartet on the theme of Jesus birth. Around the tenor of ‘Nativity’ entwines a threefold proclamation that Death belongs with Christmas.
Of course weeks before, the largely abandoned season of Advent makes the same point: we need to keep Satan in Christmas.
We welcome him on Christmas day. On the Second day of Christmas we remember the feast day of St. Stephen of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ fame- the first Martyr of the church. On the third day we remember St. John the Evangelist– the only disciple who wasn’t martyred. Today, on the Fourth day of Christmas we remember the children who lost their lives because of God’s claim that the throne of Israel belonged to the new born babe.
This connection between Christmas and death is one that the church has understood for a very long time. In 1672 Anglican Anthony Sparrow explained the ancient practice when he wrote:
‘Immediately after Christmas follow as attendants upon this high Festival S. Stephen. S. John, and Innocents; not because this was the very time of their suffering, but because none are thought fitter attendants on Christ’s Nativity, than the blessed Martyrs, who have laid down their lives for him, from whose birth they received spiritual life. And there being three kinds of Martyrdom; 1. In will and deed, which is the highest. 2. In will, but not in deed. 3. In deed, but not in will: in this order they attend; S. Stephen first, who suffered both in will and deed. Next S. John, who suffered Martyrdom in will, but not in deed, being miraculously delivered out of boyling Cauldron, into which he was put before Port-Latin in Rome. Lastly, the holy Innocents who suffered in deed, but not in will: yet are reckoned amongst the Martyrs, because they suffered for Christ: whose praise these his witnesses confest and shewed forth not in speaking but in dying.’
The newborn babe would one day die, and we are called to die with him.
It is a precious thing to be part of a community that works these things into the very way we number our days. I thought of my brothers and sisters who, by the millions, were gathering around the body and blood of Christ on this past Christmas morning, while we observed the day like every other American, distinguished only by the fact that we lamented that few understood the reason for the season.
I know all of us desired to ‘Keep Christ in Christmas.’ We all tried to do so with the means that any secular Christmas provides. I was saddened by the reminder that history- both secular and sacred- has played out so that it now seems natural to wonder at the glory of God with Us, by enacting the most minimalist endorsement of God with Me.
Perhaps the church at large would profit from a break with the world’s celebration of economics and politics, which is reflected in construction of its calendar. Perhaps the reason ‘Christ’ is missing from America’s Christmas is because ‘Mass” is missing from most of American Christian’s Christmas’.
Either way, today we remember the children who died when Darkness met Light. On this day, in the heart of her joyous ‘Merry Christmas’ the church hears Rachel weeping.
‘O ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths; Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’