Sense and Nonsense: Christmas Comes But Once A Year

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The famous Christmas carol goes, “Adeste fideles, laeti tri­umphantes.” The translation reads, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” The Latin is more succinct: “Come, be present, happy, triumphant.” The carol continues, “come”, then repeats, “venite.”

Few refrains are more haunting. But “be present where?” we wonder. The answer comes: “Venite, venite in Beth­lehem.” Come, come to Bethlehem. We cannot go to Bethlehem, it is a distant, war-torn area. Yet it remains a place to which, even now, we are “command­ed” or “invited” to “come.” Evidently, our time and place matter not. Once He who is to come has come, He is ever in our midst.

Why are we asked to come to Bethlehem? What is triumphant there? A “triumph” was a Roman pub­lic celebration for a successful vic­tory, a reward of honor. Why should Bethlehem engender happiness in us? The answer is forthcoming: “Natum vi­dete Regem Angelorum.” In this place and time is “born” the “king of angels.” An­gels are not born, yet they have a king who evidently is. In what condition is this king? He is simply born a baby, a child. We ask ourselves again: Is He really a child, but also the king of an­gels? This is rather much.

What is this verb, videte? What are we to do on arrival there? Are we only there to “see” Him? This is about all we can do to any baby, after all. We are indeed ordered to see Him. “See the one who is born.” The first wonder is seeing what has been born to us. We realize that such a child could be at all. Initially, we only know that He exists.

But why does the hymn sound so much better sung? If we just memo­rized the words, but not the music, would we remember it at all? It is no accident that music takes words be­yond themselves. Each stanza to the hymn is followed by a chorus: “Venite adoremus.” Literally this reads, “Come, let us adore.” In English, we add “let us adore Him.” This “adoration” harkens back to the title He is given, “king of angels.” We do not “adore” angels. The verb, adorare, has a special meaning. We ought not adore just anybody or anything. We are warned about idola­try. “To adore” is reserved for a rela­tion to whom and what this “king of angels” really is. If He is not “divine,” we ought not to adore Him.

The refrain continues, “Venite adore­mus.” The same words are repeated. Repetition is sometimes the best thing we can do before what is glorious. The Latin finally gives us the “object” of this adoration: “Dominum.” The Lord is Christ, the Child in Bethlehem. This is the Incarnation, the most dif­ficult of all Christian doctrines to be­lieve, even more so than the Trinity.

The sixth and last stanza of this hymn sings, “Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning. Jesus, to Thee be all glory given, Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” I have always loved phrases that begin, “Yea, Lord.” The theology is correct. Jesus is the Word of the Father, the Logos, now ap­pearing in the flesh. We do not “greet” Jesus only because He is another man, however wonderful that may be.

Christmas morning is “happy” not because it is another morning but because it is “this happy morning.” We now have someone among us to whom “glory” is to be given. This is all we can do: give glory, acknowledge what is. But present at His birth were His mother and Joseph; soon also the shepherds from the fields, the Magi from the East. From the Magi, word reached Herod that something might threaten his reign—a “king of angels,” no less. So Herod set about seeking to kill Him. In the processes, he killed a few male children from the neighbor­hood—the holy innocents, who still witness to all wanton killing of chil­dren, in or outside the womb. Others would later succeed to kill Him where Herod failed.

Venite adoremus, Venite adoremus Dominum.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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