There are two things to get right from the start about the mystery of Christmas. The first is that it was not peaceful. The angels sang of peace to men of goodwill but that was precisely what stirred things up. They were angels from eternity and we are humans in time. Even the holy lady Mary had to be calmed down by the archangel Gabriel. There is no description of what he looked like. Perhaps his appearance was that of a man, for that is how angels can assume a benevolent disguise and appear to us as “strangers unaware” (Hebrew 13:2). St. Joan of Arc could only say of Gabriel, that he was brilliant. If you think that is a legend, ask her soldiers. My father died on a cold winter day in the morning leaving me to comfort my grieving mother and that night all the heat went off in our country house. I looked in the directory for plumbers, not easy to get in a rural area, and picked one number out of more than a hundred and he appeared with astonishing celerity: a young man in overalls and curly gold hair with a sympathetic voice. After he repaired everything, he refused any money and for the next day the basement was filled with the perfume of roses. My untutored sense as the house became warm, was that my father was with the Lord.
If that stranger was an angel unaware to me, he must have been one of the lower choirs since he did not frighten me. He fixed the plumbing that, at the moment with my mother cold and in the shock of grief, was more important to me than explaining the Homoousion Formula. The Mother of God deserved an archangel, one of the top ones, and that is why she had to be calmed down. So it was with the shepherds, who had no experience of indoor plumbing in order or out of order. What was happening in Bethlehem was earth shattering. If there is a noise when a jet breaks the sound barrier, there is something more stunning when the Wisdom from on high leaps down from the heavens. The shepherds “were struck with great fear” (Luke 2:9). The peace of which those angels sang was the traumatic contradiction of the Evil One who had prowled this earth since the first Man confused evil with good. The first Christmas peace was “not as the world gives peace” (John 14:27). That baby in the manger had in him all the power that created the universe, and when he cried, his little lungs interpreted through flesh the utterance that made light and all other things. That is why Christmas should frighten humans, and by that fright bestow ineffable gladness.
The other thing about Christmas which cliché neglects is that the infant Jesus was not homeless. Yes, there was no room in the inn, but a few bad days in a barn would be far worse for us than for tougher souls back then. It is true that in his human nature, Jesus spoke wistfully of home, as if he envied the birds of the air who had their nests and foxes who had their holes, but he was really incapable of envying that sort of repose. He liked houses that moral lives made into homes, and he enjoyed the hospitality of Peter in Capernaum whose house still can be seen, as well as the grander house of Zaccheus, and his favorite spot in Bethany by the fireside with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. The return of Lazarus from the dead must have disturbed his sisters’ domestic tranquility but nothing could have unsettled Jesus on his way home to heaven. He was never alone. He said that himself. He spoke of his Father’s house with its many mansions, as an architect who knew all the blueprints. He called the Temple in Jerusalem an earthly house of his Father. What must Joseph have thought when Jesus said that? Joseph had provided a good home for Jesus. Given the economics of the day, one could have called the house of a decently employed “tekton,” or building contractor, such as Joseph, anachronistically, a bourgeois household.
At the next Roman Synod on family life, tribute should be given to Joseph. At the recent Synod more attention was given to aberrant fathers and men who eschew fatherhood altogether, than to earnest men who toil in an unfeeling culture as they love their wives and children. Joseph is their supernal inspiration, for he loved without the natural consolations of human matrimony. Joseph died, as the patron of a holy death, with Jesus and Mary by his bed. Years later, the Holy Spirit gave the Son of God and foster child of Joseph a resting place in a cave in Jerusalem for three days, shorter than the slumber in the cave in Bethlehem. No, Jesus was never homeless. He came from his heavenly home to cure the homesickness of the human race which never truly is at home in homes, daily longing for an eternal house whose earthly zip code is beauty and truth and goodness.
Christmas lasts twelve days, to the Epiphany, and includes the feast of the Mother of God, through whom our Lord came into his own creation. It is curious that some extreme Evangelical groups, neglectful of the Lady whom our Lord bequeathed to us from the Cross as our own mother, do not celebrate Christmas on the grounds that it is based on a pagan Roman holiday, but do observe the civil New Year’s Day. There are large so-called “mega churches” or “mall churches” run like corporations, which find it cost-productive to close on Christmas.
January 1 is an arbitrary date for the beginning of the new year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar moved the new year festival from spring to January to synchronize better with the solar cycle. In Catholicism, Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, nine months before the Christmas celebration of Christ’s birth, started the new civil calendar, while Advent began the liturgical year. In some places, this still affects the legal courts and tax calendars. In the United States, the presidential inauguration used to take place in March. January 1 became the civil new year in English-speaking countries only in 1752, when England finally accepted the improved calendar which Pope Gregory XIII had imposed in 1582.
The Church would transform the best of pagan customs rather than destroy them. She was free to appropriate an old Roman winter festival for the Christmas celebration. But it is more likely the anti-Christian emperor Aurelian, who was assassinated in 275, promoted a festival “Natalis Solis Invicti”—the Birth of the Unconquered Sun—to brighten the darkest days of the year at a time of political collapse and decay, and collaterally to distract Christians from worshiping Christ, much as influences in Western civilization today try to dream up alternative “holidays” to the true Christmas. Easter and Pentecost were the Church’s principal feasts, and Christmas became a major celebration only in about 336. But the Church had long tried to establish a specific date for our Lord’s birth, using complicated calculations from the date of the Passion, based on an old custom which ascribed the conception of great figures to the same day of the year on which they died. When the Greek calendar superseded the Roman calendar around 300, the dates differed in the Byzantine and Latin uses.
While December 25 was not the historic date of our Lord’s birth, its selection seems to have had nothing to do with the pagan celebration of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” but Christians were able to make a pun of it, in celebrating the birth of the “Sun of Justice and Righteousness.” This is Catholic reality. In the introduction to the “Essay on the Development of Doctrine,” Cardinal Newman said that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. It is also true that to honor the mystery of the “Mother of God” is to praise without the stain of heresy her “Son who is the Light of the World.”
No one will accuse me of flattering The New York Times and so I was not edified when just before Christmas they announced on their front page that Pope Francis had said that dogs may be in heaven. A nice sentiment. As one who wept at the death of his terrier, the supreme and best dog in the world, I was inclined as a boy to approve an old belief that animals can speak at midnight on Christmas. One year I really thought I heard her say something at that moment. But now as a theologian I consider that, if my terrier can be there, so can dinosaurs and other less congenial creatures. And if dogs can go to heaven, logically they can go to hell. But those distinctions are for humans with free will and animated consciences. We can only say for sure that in Bethlehem rude beasts were able to look at the Lord, by a privilege vouchsafed eternally only to humans who love him. I doubt that the newspaper that featured the item on pets, which wrongly quoted the Pope and had to be meekly corrected, did so for no other reason than to ridicule Holy Church.
Right after Christmas the Church celebrates the sacrifice of the Holy Innocents, as an ancient recollection. Some may think it not in keeping with the celebratory tone of the Twelve Days. I have never seen a Massacre of the Holy Innocents greeting card. But just a few weeks ago four Christian children in Iraq were beheaded for saying “I love Yeshuah (Jesus).” That did not make the front page of The New York Times. Editors so unbalanced in perspective are childish and so they do not enjoy the grace of those who are not childish but childlike. The difference is holy innocence. We may not talk easily about those martyred children as we gather around the Christmas tree, but we can rejoice that this Christmas they are gathered around Yeshuah. And do tell those who would replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” that holidays mean holy days and if the children who love Yeshuah are silenced, the stones themselves will cry out.
For he is our childhood’s pattern,
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Madonna of the Roses” painted by William Bouguereau.