As a cradle Catholic long accustomed to the rituals and feasts of faith, the earliest memories I have coincide, most happily, with membership in what the comedian Lenny Bruce used to call the only the Church. And so there was never a time when Christmas was not an occasion for sheer wonderment and joy, an event to be welcomed with many gifts and no end of gratitude. Had not God himself, after all, suddenly stepped into our world, moving among us in the cunning disguise of a child? “God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy,” to quote the poet Hopkins, who exulted endlessly over the paradox of a God choosing to hide himself amid every human thing. “For Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
Who would not want to go to that party? Why would anyone disdain to join in a celebration so positively glorious? “Earth’s crammed with heaven,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning tells us. “And every common bush afire with God.” All because the Lord of the universe elected to walk among us, becoming one of us. Indeed, if he had not so resolutely inserted himself in that first shattering episode of Incarnation, how would we know his presence continues in the Church he founded, which lays such a scandalous claim to being his bride? Or—and here the Church’s faith pushes the envelope right to the limit—in the Eucharist itself, which, by a singular power given to her by Christ, mysteriously prolongs that very presence until the end of time?
“The greatest love story of all time,” Fulton Sheen rightly reminds us, “is contained in a tiny white host.” What else have we got to equal such promised intimacy with God? Will the grape juice among the Methodists, however piously poured, prove as profound and fulfilling? What sane man would bow before a mere wafer, or suffer another to place it upon his tongue, unless he believed it to be God himself? Not even holy scripture, for all that the faithful exegete remains enamored of its revelatory power, aspires to compete with, much less eclipse, the centrality of Real Presence. Either this is God or, transubstantiation having failed the test, it is nothing. A mere symbol, the emptiness of which even an anthropologist would soon tire of describing. How I treasure the riposte offered by Flannery O’Connor, who, on being pompously lectured to by Mary McCarthy on the “interesting symbolism” of that which Vatican II would shortly define as “the source and summit of the entire Christian life,” replied most fiercely: “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it.”
Shortly after he became a Catholic, Mr. Dale Ahlquist, whose enthusiasm for the life and writings of G.K. Chesterton exceeds that of any mortal I’ve ever met, found himself at a dinner party surrounded by ex-Catholics, who, the moment they learned of his conversion, eagerly pounced. Working themselves up into a great lather over all the usual horrors—from the evil Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to Papal Infallibility—the assault reached its climax when one fellow announced that he could never bring himself to belong to a Church that refused to ordain women. No, not ever. On that note every trumpet in the room was sounded in a great chorus of umbrage against a Church so benighted as to deprive women of their right to say Mass.
So how did poor Mr. Ahlquist cope with all that heavy artillery?
“Tell me,” he says, turning to his tormentors before running his Chestertonian sword through them with a single fatal thrust: “Do you believe when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, that it literally becomes the Body and Blood of Christ?” And of course they didn’t believe it. Couldn’t possibly be expected to believe such arrant nonsense. “Well, if a man can’t do it,” Ahlquist then asks, “why does it bother you if a woman can’t do it, either?”
How I wish I had been there to hear the howls of pain provoked by that putdown.
And, to be sure, it is utterly unanswerable.
“First and foremost,” writes Josef Pieper in a lovely little book he wrote near the end of his life (he died in 1997) called In Search of the Sacred, “one has to understand this about the central Christian liturgy: it is characterized by being derivative, subordinated, and secondary. What takes place in it is essentially an echo, a continuation of something other.” And what that something other is, says Pieper, can only be one thing: the Incarnation of God. Which means that unless one accepts this original event as having truly taken place, “not only in time but also in essence … then any genuine grasping of what ‘happens’ in the Church’s liturgy … becomes impossible.”
In other words, unless one were first to believe that it happened—God bursting through the clouds, as it were, to become one of us—then it would not be possible—no, not ever—to abide. One must first stand most firmly in faith before one may truly understand in theology. Absent that faith and the mind will soon vacate the room as well. Everything depends on this central datum of faith, an event of an absolutely stunning congruence of Word and flesh, of the Mystery itself entering into, indeed fusing itself with, the material universe, right down to the very molecular structure of the human being Jesus. In whom the whole meaning of being is to be found and thus adored. And those who, for whatever reason, will not bend the knee before this truth, that the Incarnate God has come into our world to take possession of it once more, cannot possibly access the reality signified by that event.
How beautifully Professor Pieper has fleshed out the obvious implication of this. That if, in fact, the very Logos of God has come among us, to live and to move about as a man like us,
then such an event can never be conceived as limited merely to those few years at the beginning of our present calendar, almost twenty centuries ago. God’s Incarnation—if it really happened, and if it indeed should confront a man to change his life—must necessarily be conceived as an event of abiding presence, now and for all future time—this, however, not in the form of a “necessary truth of reason,” as Lessing postulated, but rather as a tangible historical event, incomprehensible, and grasped through faith alone, yet entirely real nevertheless.
In short, the whole sacramental order is mobilized the moment the priest mounts the altar to say Mass. It becomes the setting, this most sublime stone of sacrifice, where eternity touches time, where the unseen God breaks himself to become our bread. Take away that reality, recourse to which any Catholic in the world is free to experience any day of the week, then you had better jettison Christmas and the Church as well. Because the Church is, to quote the most perfect sentence I ever saw, taken from a letter written by Flannery O’Connor to a friend about to leave the Church she had just joined, “…the only thing that will make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; and the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this body we are fed.”
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Sacred Family” painted by Pompeo Batoni (1708 – 1787).