Great Little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts Earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to Earth.
— Richard Crashaw
These last days of December have suddenly come upon us, leaving in their wake the wonder of a God who without loss of divinity dared to assume the burden of a broken and fallen humanity. Moved by an incomprehensible depth of mercy and love, the manifestation of which exceeds every expectation of deity to be found in the ancient world, Christ chose to lay aside his majesty in order to take on the misery of a lost race. It is a sublime paradox, perfectly caught by that superb artist of the Catholic Baroque, Richard Crashaw, for whom there could be no end of the marvels wrought by God:
That Glorie’s self should serve our Griefs and feares:
And free Eternity submit to yeares.
In Hopkins, too, the paradox is struck, only this time from the vantage point of the Mother, “who gave God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy / Welcome in womb and breast / Birth and the rest.”
Who has not felt some tremor of astonishment, of bliss even, that the Almighty and Eternal God, in fashioning our salvation, should himself condescend to enter our world, wounded in every respect, as a poor and helpless child? That the Word spoken from all eternity should all at once be unable to speak a word! The God who nailed the universe into place having to learn how to hold a hammer at the hands of a poor carpenter man! Can there be anything more stupefying than this?
For me, during these final days of December, it is not the Nativity narrative alone that arrests the attention. Yes, there is the undoubted charm of the crèche and all the sweet-sounding carols that come winsomely to mind. And the delights, too, of countless “tissued fripperies,” to borrow a phrase from a John Betjeman poem, left so lovingly beneath the tree. But what comes especially to my mind in the time of late December are the awful ironies of God. How else does one account for those violent juxtapositions that follow the feast of Christmas?
No sooner have we dug ourselves out from under an avalanche of toys and gifts, the happy detritus of the holiday, and there we are, staring straight ahead into the grave of poor Stephen, first martyr of the Church. How quickly we have come from Crib to Cross! In a single, shattering moment we’ve gone from the quaintness of a stable to the grotesquerie of a stoning. Then, in yet another sudden and violent jerk, we see the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, their hapless cries cruelly silenced by the impacted hatred of Herod, who will stop at nothing to destroy the Infant. And then, the very next day, we commemorate the butchery of Archbishop Becket at the altar of his own cathedral.
Finally, of course, at week’s end, Jesus himself will shed blood, the feast of Circumcision being but a foretaste of the much bloodier Passion to come.
As a wise mother who cares for her children, but not at the expense of telling them lies, the Church lets us know straightaway that life is hedged about by death. That the helpless Child we see in Bethlehem’s Crib has come to die on Calvary, his spirit descending into the silence of Sheol. The saints know this, of course, but we, cosseted in cheap holiday cheer, prefer not to notice.
“We run heedlessly into the abyss,” writes Pascal, “after putting something in front of us to prevent our seeing it.” Isn’t this because, for most of us, when faced with the unpleasantness of death, we resolve in order to remain happy not to think about it? And so our lives, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” to recall the line from Eliot’s Four Quartets—“filled with fancies and empty of meaning”—are driven remorselessly toward the very thing we fear.
How like the Christmas Season, so adroitly arranged by an ironical God, to set us straight. Who forces each moment, as it were, to a crisis; a judgment concerning the whole of our existence, not merely as creatures obliged to die, but as Christians destined to follow Jesus into death, and so to rise and rejoice with him in Paradise. This is the logic implicit in the sequence of feasts that seem so incongruously to follow upon the laughter and mirth of Christmas morn.
In a Christmas sermon preached in the last week of his life, Archbishop Becket reminds us of the essential irony of a God who, in bringing us together for Mass, even on the morning of his Son’s birth, does so in order to re-enact the Passion and Death for which he came in the first place. “So that at the same moment we rejoice in his coming for the salvation of men, we offer again to God his Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”
Is this not passing strange, he asks, in a world where vision is so often defined only by what we see? “For who in the world will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once and for the same reason.”
Is it no accident, he seems to be saying, that the birth of the Christ Child whom we commemorate each Christmas (even as he has come only in order to die), is at once followed by the death (and promised re-birth) of the other, to wit, Stephen; for it is equally fitting that we rejoice and mourn over both since the witness of the latter surely anneals him to the former. “We mourn,” says Becket, “for the sins of the world that have martyred him; we rejoice that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and the salvation of men.”
This shedding of blood for God, it must be said, is never the result of human design; it is instead always a work of God. For the genuine martyr, he concludes shortly before the point will be sealed in his own blood, “is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.”
Here is a lesson not even Becket himself will be spared, who for a time flirts dangerously with the thought of self-sought glory. “The last temptation,” the martyred saint tells us in Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s masterful retelling of the tale, “is the greatest treason: To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
In the end, of course, Thomas Becket, like all who suffer for Christ, shaping his will in perfect submission to God’s own will, meets death with serene and resolute courage. For him motive and act are finally made one. He too, like Stephen, will live out the meaning of these last days of December, his example of heroism a summons to us to go and do likewise.
Editor’s note: The stained glass window above is the oldest image of St. Thomas Becket. It was reassembled from fragments by Samuel Caldwell in 1919 and is displayed in Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral.