DECEMBER 23 2011 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Listen to the cry of baby JesusTheChristChildwasno porcelain figurine, says Caroline Farrow. He was a living, breathing child who may have given Mary sleepless nights
This Christmas will be the third consecutive occasion that we have celebrated in the company of a young baby. As the mother of young children it is all too easy to get drawn into the physical narrative of the Nativity, with discussions about the shepherds, wise men and angels while neglecting the theological truth of the Incarnation and our true reason for celebration.
Contemporary culture celebrates the Christmas story in a vague, general sense, with as much emphasis upon the peripheral characters in the tale, as opposed to the infant Christ. When we are invited to consider the birth of Christ, it is purely in the sense of the “cute little baby Jesus in the manger” as opposed to Christ humbling himself by taking the form of a helpless and feeble baby: mankind in its weakest and most vulnerable form.
One of the many blessings and privileges of parenthood at Christmas is that it brings the joy of the Incarnation into a much sharper focus. I cannot be the only parent who metaphorically rolls their eyes heavenwards whilst forcing a rictus grin upon hearing or singing about the immaculately behaved infant who never uttered a single cry. The idealised, cloying, mawkish stained-glass image of a mute infant Christ is not reflective of the real truth of the Incarnation. A real baby will cry as it has no other way to communicate its needs and so we can be assured that, even if he did not go through the terrible twos, throwing constant temper tantrums out of anger and frustration, Jesus most certainly would have cried to indicate to his mother that he required feeding. Tending to a baby who is totally reliant upon you to meet all of its basic needs is a constant reminder of both the self-emptying – or, to use the correct theological term, kenosis – manifested in the Incarnation as well as the way in which God takes into Himself humanity’s weaknesses without losing any of his divine grandeur.
So much of the Christmas pageantry revolves around a sentimentalised image of the baby Jesus, the plastic dolly or porcelain figure in the manger. A living, breathing baby with all of its bodily functions is a welcome counterpoint. Rooting the Incarnation in the realities of life with a newborn baby is a reminder that Jesus was not some abstract figure but a real human being with inherent physical frailties and bodily needs, and yet at the same time not simply another baby, but the Redeemer of the world. Every year a priest friend of ours affixes a cross to the cradle on Christmas Eve, in time for the arrival of the baby in the manger, as a reminder of just that. We are not just celebrating the birth of a sweet baby in inauspicious and unusual circumstances, but the Word of God made flesh. Without Christ’s Passion and victory over death, his birth is meaningless. We cannot celebrate
A detail from Rembrandt’s Holy Family with Angels: ‘Jesus most certainly would have cried to indicate to his mother that he required feeding’ CNS /Art Institute of Chicago the cradle without celebrating the Cross.
As any parent with young children will testify they are constantly changing and growing, often looking entirely different from one day to the next. Inevitably at Christmas we cast our minds back to previous years, and as I look at my toddler chasing about the house, demolishing Christmas decorations and attempting to dissect the undecorated Christmas cake it seems like only yesterday that she was a twoweek-old baby fast asleep in her Santa Babygro on Christmas Day. It seems incredible when I contemplate that the almost eightmonth-old who has recently had a growth spurt and sprouted some teeth this time last year had just hit the point where she could be considered viable and a person in her own right.
Very often when cradling my baby sleeping peacefully in my arms there is an awareness that this is a brief and fleeting moment in time, which only serves to make the moment more precious: it won’t be long before the baby decides that there are exciting things to discover and explore beyond the confines of my breast. A line from Shadowlands seems particularly fitting: “The happiness now is part of the pain then.” As parents, we witness and guide our children on their journey to adulthood knowing that the way will be littered with moments of great sadness as well as joy. The beautiful innocence and childhood wonderment cannot last forever and we wonder what will become of our children. As we reflect on the image of the infant Christ it is important to remember that this a snapshot in time, like a mosquito caught in amber, not the whole story or the whole person of
Christ. We already know the end of the story and part of the pain of the Crucifixion is present in the happiness we feel in the lowly birth of our Saviour. We can unite our fears as parents to those of Mary, who while unaware of the terrible price that her son would need to pay for the salvation of the world, must nonetheless have been filled with trepidation as to the future, having been informed that her son was the Messiah with whatever that might entail. Simeon will shortly prophesy that “a sword will pierce your soul” and Mary’s joy must have been all the more poignant as she contemplated what must have seemed an uncertain and turbulent future for her tiny baby.
Though we must not forget that the baby is not the Jesus who will challenge us on the Day of Judgment, there is still much to be said about the contemplative gaze of love when we look upon the manger, a gaze that is echoed every time I look at my children, whether they are feeding at the breast, marauding through the house or peacefully reading or sleeping. They are yet to acquire any personal sin, and I see reflections of the perfect nature of Christ in them and experience a renewed gratefulness, not only for the gift of my children and the special blessing of a newborn baby, but also for the child of God, fully human and yet fully divine. John’s Gospel tells us of how the Word speaks creation into being, and yet here is the Word made flesh and unable to speak. Here is Emmanuel physically come to be with us in the second person of the Trinity. Here is a physical representation of how God is with us all the time, gazing upon us with reciprocal eyes of love, perhaps best summarised by the French peasant’s conversation with the Curé d’Ars: “I look at Him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together.”
The simple act of a mother fondly gazing at her child with love while reflecting on the nature of God is in itself an act of contemplative prayer. Throughout the rest of the liturgical year we are invited to listen, to engage with and to act upon the words of Christ. The Christmas celebration of the Incarnation is the perfect opportunity to take a step back to watch and to wonder, just to be with God as we contemplate His son in the form of a tiny baby. No matter how we look upon the image of the Incarnation, we remember that to gaze is to love. Our whole soul is in our gaze. Caroline Farrow blogs at Carolinefarrow.com
Rejoicing doesn’t require a huge budget The media say that Britons will have an ‘austerity Christmas’. But Catholics should celebrate the feast with gusto, says Oliver Marre
Writing at the beginning of December, I am surrounded by predictions of an “austerity Christmas”. It’s not just a subject of chatter among friends: the papers are full of it and their evidence is manifold, if disparate.
On the one hand, there have been numerous gloomy prognostications about low spending on the high street; on the other, a robust denunciation in the Daily Mail of the decision taken by the listings magazine Radio Times not to put Father Christmas on its front cover this year. “Would Father Christmas be seen as a bloated, red-faced symbol of over indulgence?” asked Radio Times’s editor, who has recently increased the price of his publication by 10 pence.
Elsewhere, there have been handy tips provided for saving money, some enticing and some less so: “Don’t buy wrapping paper” and “buy your gifts in January” were two of the more Scrooge-like. Whereas making your own jams and chutneys and wrapping them in brown parcel paper to go under the tree has old-world charm, eco-cred and requires love, effort and forward planning – much more so than a trip to Selfridges.
Last Christmas Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scotland’s Catholics, suggested that a little less cash-flashing might not be a bad thing. “There was no pomp and ceremony in connection with the birth of Jesus – rather the opposite: it took place in simplicity and in poverty,” he said in his Christmas message, a sentiment echoed in the sermon in my local church last Sunday. Unsurprisingly, Cardinal Keith is quite right, although I hope the gold, frankincense and myrrh were
‘It surely is not a good thing if Catholics start to appear as the anti-Father Christmas: lean, pale and mean at a time of great celebration’
nicely wrapped and not nearing their best-before dates.
It is not always obvious where to draw the line. On the one hand, it is definitely true that the limitless consumption which characterised the Christmases of the boom years was not a good thing. Not only, as we now know, was so much of it based on unsupportable levels of credit, but it did obscure any other meaning of Christmas. It got in the way of remembering and celebrating the birth of Christ. A little more reflectiveness, a tiny bit of temperance: these are attributes to be valued all year long.
On the other hand, you do not have to be a hardcore hedonist to believe that celebrations should actually be fun. Lent well serves its important purpose, and avoiding meat on Fridays has turned out, as far as I can tell, to be a worthwhile exercise in abstinence and not just a ritual embrace of fish and chips. But Christmas is a feast day and, goodness, we want a feast. It surely is not a good thing if Catholics start to appear as the anti-Father Christmas: lean, pale and mean at this time of great celebration.
Having been a student for the last two years, I am no stranger to careful Christmases. I’ve never had the competence to make my own jam, but I am well-practised at strategic planning and necessarily modest expenditure. Rejoicing does not have to rely on a big budget. There’s no reason we cannot be moderate in what we eat, what we give and what we hope to receive. But it would be a pity if, after the summer’s illicit, materialistic orgy of rioting, that convenient chameleon “anticapitalism” now takes the opportunity to seize the moral high ground in the guise of austerity Christmas, eclipsing the birth of Christ and encouraging us to stay at home and feel smugly miserable.
Puzzling, as I have been, about this, I did something I’ve never done before. Call it my way of boosting high street sales. I bought an Advent calendar which is stuffed full of fairly unpleasant milk chocolates. In fact, I bought two of them. They are decorated with pictures of trains and fat, jolly children skiing and snowballing, and – he’s in there too – Father Christmas looking as much a symbol of over-indulgence as you could care to find. I think there might be some angels at the top, floating around, confused. And I gave these two pieces of over-priced, consumer tat to two of my impressionable young sons. In doing so, I hoped first to make them happy. I wanted them to be excited about
Advent. If this isn’t a good time to have a bit more of a sugar rush, then when is? But secondly, I wanted to embrace the possibility that you can understand what Christmas is really about – and you can impart that to others, whether by explaining it to children, or living and sharing the Gospel in a thousand other ways – at the same time as enjoying mulled wine and a third helping of turkey roast.
As far as I can make out, chocolate calendars need not be incompatible with the moment the Word became Flesh. I don’t see how they are at odds with praying for world peace, thanking God that we are not the starving ones or, for that matter, wrapping parcels of more worthwhile food for those who are. Nor, I think, do they present a barrier to silent and awestruck contemplation of what occurred that night in Bethlehem. I’ll be encouraging my sons to think of all these: but, then, preferring a cardboard version of the Nativity to a cardboard Father Christmas does not do away with the need for that either.
As it happens, this Cadburyfuelled gesture of mine was unexpectedly undermined by the discreet delivery of a parcel (ordered on the quiet by my wife) from Aid to the Church in Need, consisting of an Advent candle and rather beautiful calendar. Disconcertingly, the children are all far more excited by these than they are by my chocolate offerings. I don’t know whether to put this down to premature good taste, pyromania or the working of the Holy Spirit. Maybe they are not mutually exclusive.
Happy Christmas. Oliver Marre is a pupil barrister and former Observer journalist THE CATHOLIC HERALD DECEMBER 23 2011
The night of the world’s remaking On Christmas night the Creator became one of his own creatures, says Fr Aidan Nichols OP, changing the very web of life itself
Each year the Vigil of Christmas and the Mass at dawn remind us that the event of the Nativity takes place under the cover of darkness. The youthfulness of God is made known to us as veiled by night. But the night of the Christian mystics – of St Gregory of Nyssa, say, or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing – is a very positive affair. Indeed, it is an ultra-positive affair: it is by excess of radiance, not a lack of it, that this night is dark. “Night” here is not, evidently, just a matter of climate or of clock time – it is not simply the cessation of the human day, the day of physical nature. It is the dawning of the great Day of God, that Day of the Lord which – as the prophets expected it – is necessarily painful and purifying and hence has a very important negative aspect albeit in the service of the positive. The Christian mystic, at the heart of his or her experience, is un-made so as to be re-made by God in the terms proper to God’s own order.
I mention the mystic because the mystic goes deeper into the common faith of the Church than the rest of us. According to the Thomist school, the soul that has nothing of the mystical life about it can hardly be said to have gone beyond spiritual adolesence. Every Christian has received the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the question is: do we let them predominate in our life and outlook? That is not possible if we are complete strangers to mortification, humility, docility. But for the Church, the transformation involved is not something just for individuals in their solitude (though there can be no serious religion without solitude). All rational creatures and in a sense all the beings of the cosmos are invited into this night of the world’s remaking, Christmas night, when its All-holy Maker became one of his own creatures and thus changed crucially the composition of the web of life. Revelation is silent on just how animals and plants and the nonanimate creation will share in the Age to Come, but we can be sure from the imagery of Scripture that they will do so.
The darkness of Christmas night, like the dark night of the soul described by John of the Cross as “more lovely than the dawn”, should be carefully distinguished from the murk in which much modern Christian sensibility seems to move. At the hands of some modern writers, apophaticism – negative theology, the theology of the dark night – is not what it once was. One contemporary Eastern Orthodox writer in the United States speaks of the emergence of what he calls a via negativa vulgaris – a vulgarised version of the negative way – which robs true apophaticism of its force by reducing it to saying that, since God is obscure, theological doctrine should glory in being hazy and provisional.
But in orthodox Christian tradition (little “o” or large), the affirmation of the divine incomprehensibility has nothing to do with being in a muddle about who or what God is. Rather, is it an expression of the adoration and longing of the Church in her worship and contemplation. In the words of Isaac the Syrian:
Behold, Lord, the waves of thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of thy thanksgiving. Apophaticism, from the Greek words for “not speaking”, an acknowledgement of the mystery of God, is not an excuse for practising shoddy theology, much less for pooh-poohing the whole value of the doctrinal tradition. What the Church worships and contemplates in her adoration and longing is the abyss of the Father as made known to us by the Son in the Holy Spirit with whose hypostases the Father shares out the divine nature. We would not practice apophasis as an expression of our loving approach to God were it not for the fact that the Father has expressed himself by the Son and the Spirit in the radiant darkness of the Incarnation.
The Eucharist gives expression to this. We are used to the idea that the Mass is the Sacrifice of the Cross, of the Atonement, enacted by means of a regime of signs. But every time we assist at
Palestinian Catholic priests celebrate midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Mass we attend the Incarnation in sign also. The two – the Incarnation and the Atonement – are inter-related. In the Byzantine icon, the crib is often shown as a walled or stone edifice like an altar, while in western art the crib can appear as a coffin or sepulchre, and the Babe’s swaddling clothes resemble the grave clothes of the tomb, since from the start this Child is born to die in a different sense from the way we are.
In the Byzantine Rite the Incarnation is re-enacted liturgically when the Eucharistic Gifts are brought out from behind the iconostasis, through the royal doors, where the Annunciation – the beginning of the Nativity – is depicted as the central image of the Flesh-taking. In the West, the retable, or painted panel behind the altar, has functioned analogously to the Eastern icon screen. Hence its customary embellishment with images not only of the Easter cycle but of the Christmas cycle too. The Mass is a new Incarnation as well as a new Calvary. But unless married perhaps to a choir screen of the sort still found in many medieval parish churches in England (this is the Latin equivalent of the iconostasis), the western arrangements cannot make their point as graphically as do the Byzantine.
Part of the meaning of the eastward celebration of the Eucharist was to maintain the dialectic of hiddenness and revelation. For Newman, the Gospel does not remove the “veil” between this world and the next. “It remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it.” And Newman went on to survey the sacramental life of this Church in this perspective:
We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were,
sensible of the contact of something more than earthly.
We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tell us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary.
Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled Him who with a touch gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream,
surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave.
People say: “They have taken the mystery out of the churches” or “They have taken the mystery from the Mass”, and such comments are often regarded as either silly or dangerously illinformed. They sink the specificity of the Gospel, it is said, in some general notion of the sacred that has nothing distinctively
CNS photo by Reuters
Christian about it. But sometimes at least those comments are founded, I believe, in the feeling of the faithful for the Incarnation. They represent a reaction of the sensus fidelium in what touches the coming forth of God from out of his own mystery, his coming forth in a revelation which, thanks to its abundance of light, is all the darker the more thoroughly it is perceived. Fr Aidan Nichols’s recent books include Lost in Wonder: Essays on Liturgy and the Arts and The Poet as Believer: A Theological Study of Paul Claudel. This is an extract from a forthcoming book, Lessons in a Rose-Garden: Reviving the Doctrinal Rosary which will be published in 2012
The hinge on which Christianity turns At the Incarnation God himself entered into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man, says theologian Fr Robert Barron
The Gospel reading for the Mass of Christmas Day is taken from the prologue of John’s Gospel, and it includes what is probably the best-known line of the New Testament: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God’s Word became flesh, entering into the temporality, finitude, muck and mud of our human condition. This Incarnation of God is the hinge on which the whole of Christianity turns.
To get a further feel for the texture of it, I would suggest that we turn from the prologue of John to the prologue of Matthew. The opening lines of Matthew’s Gospel – and hence the first words that one reads in the New Testament – are a listing of the genealogy of Jesus, the 42 generations that stretch from Abraham to Christ. If the Word truly became flesh, then God had, not only a mother, but also a grandmother, cousins, great-aunts and weird uncles. If the Word truly dwelt among us, then he was part of a family that, like most, was fairly dysfunctional, a mix of the good and bad, the saintly and the sinful, the glorious and the not so glorious. And this is such good news for us.
Let me highlight just a few figures from Jesus’s family tree. Matthew tells us that the Messiah was descended from Jacob, a great patriarch and hero of Israel, and also a man who wrestled with God. In a lyrical passage from the 32nd chapter of the book of Genesis, we hear that Jacob struggled all night with the Lord and was wounded permanently in the process. I imagine that there are some reading these words who have wrestled all their lives with
The south dome of the inner narthex at Chora Church, Istanbul, depicts the ancestors of Christ from Adam onward
God, questioning, doubting, wondering, struggling mightily with the Lord, perhaps even bearing spiritual wounds as a consequence. Well, the Messiah came forth from Jacob and was pleased to be a relative of this fighter. Matthew’s genealogy informs us that Ruth was an ancestor of the Lord. Ruth was not an Israelite, but rather a Moabite, a foreigner. She married into an Israelite family, and even after her husband died she remained loyal to her mother in law, returning with her to the town of Bethlehem, where she eventually married Boaz and became the mother of Jesse, who in turn became the father of King David. I would be willing to bet that there are some reading these words who have felt all their lives like outsiders, not part of the “in” crowd, perhaps looked at askance by others. Well, the Messiah came forth from Ruth the foreigner and was pleased to be her relative.
And we should say a word about Ruth’s famous grandson, who is mentioned prominently in the genealogy. David was, it could be argued, the greatest figure in the Old Testament. He was the slayer of Goliath, the king who united Israel and formed her into a great power, a man of intense prayer and piety, the composer of psalms, and an incomparable warrior. But he was also a murderer and an adulterer. Re-read that devastating account of David’s seduction of Bathsheba from the Second Book of Samuel to get the details. I’m sure that there are some reading these words who feel a bit like David. Perhaps you’re a person of great success, power, and influence… but harbour a secret sin. Perhaps you’ve abused your power in order to freeze out someone who was threatening you or to demean someone whom you envied. Maybe you’ve done worse. Well, the Messiah came forth from David and was pleased to be a relative of that deeply ambiguous character.
If preserving Jesus’s respectability was Matthew’s goal, he would certainly have found a way to eliminate the name of Rahab from the genealogy. As you recall from the Book of Joshua, Rahab was a prostitute living and working in Jericho at the time of the Israelite conquest of the promised land. When Joshua sent spies into the city, Rahab hid and protected them. As a consequence, when the entire city was destroyed and the people put to the sword, Rahab and her family were spared. Are there people reading these words who feel like Rahab? Who think that their whole lives have been sunk in sin, who have become unrecognisable to themselves? Well, the Messiah came forth from Rahab the prostitute, and he was pleased to be her relative. And Matthew mentions Abiud, Zadok, and Azor as ancestors of Jesus. Who were they? No one really knows. Their identities and accomplishments are lost in the mists of history. I’d be willing to bet that there are some reading this article who feel like those forgotten figures: unsung, unaccomplished, unknown. Well, the Messiah was pleased to become a member of those nobodies Abiud, Zadok, and Azor.
The good news of Christmas is that God himself pushed into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man. And he continues to join us, even though we, like so many of his Israelite ancestors, are unworthy of him. Like them, we are flawed, compromised, halffinished. But he becomes our brother anyway. That’s the amazing grace of the Incarnation. Fr Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry Word on Fire and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He is also the creator and host of a new 10-episode documentary series called Catholicism