The following are remarks by a few of the monks from the Advent Evening of Reflection on Dec. 10.
THE TRUTH OF OUR CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS:
An Advent Response to the Ebenezer Scrooges by Father Ambrose
In the first chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, we behold the figure of Mary when the angel announced to her that she was to bear in her womb the Savior of Israel and of all mankind. At that decisive moment, Mary answered, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1.38). The Fathers of the Church liken Mary to a New Eve, who by her faith and willing obedience repaired the disobedience of Eve.
Now there a great many who do not fully grasp the implications of the Incarnation, of God’s coming to us in the flesh. There are anti-Catholic groups that attack Christmas itself as pagan: they say that the Catholic Church simply took over the Roman pagan celebration of the Saturnalia and of the Unconquered Sun.
So how does this affect our approach to Christmas? Well, even if it were true that the Church simply took over the Roman Saturnalia from paganism and gave it a Christian meaning, there would be nothing wrong in that. If that were the case, it would simply be applying a principle that we already know: that the created universe belongs to God, not to the Devil; and that Christ has exorcised the pagan error from the winter holiday.
But, as it turns out, the usual claim that Christmas is merely a Christianized pagan holiday seems to be entirely mistaken. You see, the early Christians thought that the date of Jesus’ death on the Cross was either March 25 or April 6: the difference in calculation has to do with the difficulty of harmonizing Jewish, Greek, and Roman calendars. In any case, Jews in ancient times believed that the great prophets of Israel died on the date of their birth or of their conception: it was symbolically fitting that it be so. So the earliest Christians—influenced by Jewish, not pagan—beliefs, also concluded that Jesus was likely conceived either on March 25 (according to the Roman Christians) or on April 6 (according to the Greek Christians), in order to match the estimated date of Good Friday. And if one counts the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy, then we arrive at either December 25 (that is, Christmas) or January 6 (the Epiphany). And so that is how we got our twelve days of Christmas! Those twelve days of celebration tell us something more: that what really matters is not the specific date of his birth but that the Lord has come at last, in the symbolic fullness of time.
Also, about sixty years ago, an Israeli scholar named Shemaryahu Talmon reconstructed the priestly calendar. According to his calculations, Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father) would have been exercising his priestly ministry in the Temple on September 23; John the Baptist would then have been born on June 24, the date on which we still celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist. And if Jesus was six months younger than his cousin, then we can date his birth approximately to December 25. So it’s entirely plausible that Jesus was born on December 25 or close to it.
What about Christmas trees and other such customs? Aren’t they of pagan origin? Again, it was God, not the Devil, who made the trees that the Germanic tribes considered sacred. What could be more fitting than to show Christ’s victory over the pagan gods by exorcising and consecrating those very trees to the true God? After all, the New Testament does speak of our Lord’s Cross as a “tree”:
Acts 13.29-30: “And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead.” (cf also Acts 5.30; 10.39-41; 13.29-30).
Gal 3.13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’ (Deut 21.23)—that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
1 Pet 2.24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
In Holy Week, we sing that on the Cross, “God reigned from the tree.” The Book of Revelation speaks of the Tree of Life—Christ himself—as the living tree whose leaves bring healing to the nations (Rev. 22.2), and that yields fruit each month. For the Book of Revelation tells us “to him who conquers I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2.7; cf Rev 22.14). So the tree actually is a symbol of Christ and of his life-giving Cross. It has nothing to do with paganism.
In Germany in the late Middle Ages, the evergreen tree was brought into the church as a prop for a Christmas Eve play. It is not well-known that December 24 is the Feast of St. Adam and St. Eve, the forefather and the foremother of our human race; for according to tradition, they died in the peace of God and so were brought by Christ into heaven. This Christmas Eve play dramatized the story of Adam and Eve, their fall, and God’s promise that one day the Seed of the Woman would crush the Serpent’s head (Gen 3.15).
The tree used in this play was called a “Paradise Tree,” decorated with red apples to symbolize both the fruit of the Tree of Life and the Precious Blood of Christ. The decorated cookies originally represented the Eucharist—Christ as the Bread of Life, the Living Bread come down from heaven. Soon there were candles to represent Christ as the Light of the world, a star to recall that Christ is the Son of David whom the Magi adored, and angels to herald his birth. Consider the natural symbolism of the evergreen tree: when in the dark of winter everything else seems cold and dead, the evergreen tree is always green and alive and never succumbs to the death of winter. The Tree of the Cross is like that, too: the Cross, which is in itself a sign of bloody death, in the power of the Lord’s resurrection becomes for us a Tree of Life. Our Savior himself tells us that God is not the God of the dead but of the living (Mt 22.32). From that came our Christmas tree: is there any better symbol of the victory of Christ over paganism than this?
And as for “commercialism”: well, frankly, I rather like it. Besides, on the Octave of Christmas, we actually call the Incarnation an admirabile commercium, a wondrous exchange in which mankind in the person of Mary—the new Eve—assents to the Word becoming flesh, giving to God her humanity as God gives his divinity. When the know-it-alls and the Ebenezer Scrooges find fault with us for buying presents or for celebrating the sacred liturgy with fitting and joyful splendor, remind them that the Magi brought costly gifts and that the Christ Child and Mary and Joseph were pleased with them.
So by all means, let us rejoice: decorate the tree, sing the carols, feast, and give presents, all in due time. Rather than listening to the critics of Christmas, let us rather keep Advent in a somewhat subdued spirit, as a time of preparation. If possible, put off the big festivities till at least the last few days before Christmas, so that the joy of that day will be all the greater. And don’t stop celebrating Christmas till January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany: remember to keep the twelve days of Christmas.
Though Advent is not exactly like Lent, there is a penitential dimension to it. Above all, then, let us make a good confession before Christmas. Then our Christmas gifts and worship will embody the true spirit of Christmas expressed in Our Lady’s own words: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy Word” (Luke 1:38).
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 85:9-14; Luke 5: 17-26
We can imagine the paralyzed man lying on a stretcher in front of Jesus experiencing a rush of strength in his limbs, standing up, and walking away singing God’s praises. This is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the lame leaping and the mute singing. Hearing this story we want to allow the love of Jesus, the mercy of Jesus, to invigorate us with the same strength. Wherever we feel paralyzed or even hardened against God, he wishes us to experience his healing strength, to let it possess our bodies and our spirits.
Jesus himself makes the connection between body and spirit in the story. For him the physical healing, so striking and verifiable, is the proof of a more mysterious but profound healing, the forgiveness of sins. So the story provides us with a hermeneutical key for interpreting the Old Testament prophecies. We learn that what Isaiah’s magnificent prophecy of the exiles returning to Sion on a highway across the desert, the lame walking, the mute singing, water springing up in abundance, the desert blossoming—all of this is a vivid image for the great miracle, the wiping away of our sins by the mercy of God. If that doesn’t produce in us singing and dancing, what will? The barrier of our own rejection of God has been dissolved by the mercy and power of God. We are now friends with God.
Our task in Advent and especially as we approach the year of mercy, is to open ourselves to the gift, to show the faith in Jesus of the men who lowered the paralytic through the roof. The work of God in the bible is to forgive; the work of man is to believe. May these two personal actions meet at Christmas, so that we may give birth to the Son of God in our lives and become vehicles of his mercy to the world.
Advent: The Season of Waiting
Here is a brief poetic meditation written by an early-twentieth century Greek novelist named Nikos Kazantzakis. In this meditation, the author imagines a young man standing on a mountain overlooking Nazareth. It’s the middle of the night. It’s some time within the opening years of the first century A.D. He describes what the young man sees:
“Little by little your eyes became accustomed to the darkness and you were able to distinguish a stern straight-trunked cypress darker than night itself, a clump of date palms grouped like a fountain and, rustling in the wind, sparsely leafed olive trees which shone silver in the blackness. And there on a green spot of land you saw wretched cottages thrown down now in groups, now singly, constructed of night, mud and brick, and smeared all over with whitewash. You realized from the smell and filth that human forms, some covered with white sheets, others uncovered, were sleeping on the rooftops.
The silence had fled. The blissful uninhabited night filled with anguish. Human hands and feet twisted and turned, unable to find repose. Human hearts sighed. Despairing, obstinate cries from hundreds of mouths fought in this mute God-trodden chaos to unite, toiled to find expression for what they longed to say. But they could not, and the cries scattered and were lost in disjointed ravings.
Suddenly there was a shrill, heart-rending scream from the highest rooftop, in the center of the village. A human breast was tearing itself in two: “God of Israel, God of Israel, Adonai, how long?” It was not a man; it was the whole village dreaming and shouting together, the whole soil of Israel with the bones of its dead and the roots of its trees, the soil of Israel in labor, unable to give birth, and screaming.”
The young man, you find out eventually, is Christ himself—a teenager still, not yet ready to begin his ministry, but acutely, painfully sensitive to the longing and suffering of his people. The God of Israel is there among them—but they don’t know it yet.
I’ve always liked this image, and for a long time, I used to keep it on my nightstand next to my bed. I like it because it gives me a sense of the longing I should feel during this time of Advent—indeed, the longing I should feel my whole life. And so too there’s something so poignant about that image of these people—these suffering people—groaning and crying and waiting—and not realizing that they’re redeemer is already there.
And I was reading this to my students the other day, as I do every year at the start of Advent, and one of them said to me after class, sort of off-hand-like: “I’ll bet that’s how Jesus feels now too.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “You know, Jesus, sitting there in the tabernacle, and us just walking past like he isn’t even there.”
So lately, I’ve had this new image in my Advent prayers, of Jesus, waiting in the tabernacle, looking out over his people. Hearing our groans and our pleas and our cries. And waiting. This time it is he who is waiting for us.
Waiting. All this waiting.
Yet somehow, this is the way God chooses to come to us. The birth of the Messiah is THE KEY EVENT IN ALL HUMAN HISTORY, and yet God wanted it to take place “so quietly that the world went about its business as if nothing had happened.” A few shepherds noticed. Those few magi noticed. Herod noticed. And then, apparently, the whole thing was forgotten. For a time.
In the end, therefore, waiting is not necessarily a BAD thing. I would like to beg you, dear Sir, writes Rilke in a famous passage from his "Letters to a Young Poet" "...to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. John Keats wrote of “Negative Capability,” that is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” ADVENT is the season when we learn to LOVE THE QUESTION. Where we learn to love the waiting.
So you see, there’s this simultaneous sense of urgency—that we need to answer God’s call and that we need him to answer our call—and soon. “Answer me, Lord, when I call to you,” the psalmist says. “Answer me, when I call to you”…there’s something so brazen about it that it’s charming. There’s an urgency in the psalms. But there is also this sense that we must learn to be patient, and wait—wait in joyful hope—find God’s answer in the waiting.
In the monastery, we have an Advent tradition that goes back all the way to the fifth century—and probably earlier. For seven days preceding Christmas, we sing a set of antiphons—short chants that precede the Magnificat at Vespers. And we call these, “The Great O Antiphons.” Seven meditations on the seven titles of our savior. Each night we sing one more:
“O Wisdom….O Adonai…O Root of Jesse…O Key of David…O Rising Sun…O King…O Emmanuel.” “O come!” we sing each night. “Come and teach us, come and free us, come and deliver us…” Each night, the chant shifts in emphasis, builds in urgency, until on the last night, December 23, we sing “O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Savior. O come and save us, Lord, our God.” And the O is drawn out…like a cry. It has an almost Eastern ring to it.
Backwards: The first letter of each title spells “ero cras”—“Tomorrow, I come.”