We’re beginning our annual silent Advent retreat now, so I won’t be posting during this week—though I hope that I might have the opportunity to announce the availability of my new book toward the end of the week. It is at the printer now. In any case, I’ll be back with my Sunday homily on (most appropriately) Sunday! Let us pray for each other as we advance toward the mystery of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Archive for November, 2010
I watched a video a few days ago that you probably ought to see. It is not news that there are Islamic terrorist training camps all over the world, but it was news to me that there are 35 of them right here in the good old USA. Most of them are in rural areas of the eastern states, but there are a few out here in the west as well. I’ll quote a bit here from the explanation on the video.
“Under the leadership of a radical Pakistani cleric, Sheikh Mubarak Gilani, Muslims of America [known also as Jamaat ul-Fuqra, which has been involved in many criminal and terrorist activities here since the 1980s] has thousands of devoted followers who are being groomed for Homegrown Jihad [that is the title of the documentary]. In never-before-seen video footage, the Christian Action Network exposes these dangerous terrorist compounds and reveals for the first time a secret training tape in which American Muslims are recruited to ‘join one of the most advanced training courses in Islamic military warfare’ … right here in America! They are called ‘Soldiers of Allah’ and they are trained in explosives, kidnapping, murder, firing weapons, and guerilla warfare. They are told, ‘Act like you are a friend, then kill him just like from the book.’”
Does something seem wrong with this picture? These people are avowed haters of America, training to commit all kinds of atrocities upon our citizens and institutions, yet they are allowed to flourish. Government agents molest citizens in airports as a public manifestation of “homeland security,” yet the terrorist training camps are left alone. These camps aren’t easily accessible, and usually are guarded with armed men, and they mostly hope to train in secret. But other Muslims are testing the waters to see how much they have already succeeded in cowing the hearts of Americans, especially our leaders. Those who want the build a mosque on Ground Zero in NY are now brazenly requesting federal funds to do it! Yes, your hard-earned money, confiscated as taxes by the government, may end up building a victory mosque near the very place where radical Muslims massacred thousands of our citizens.
America is sleeping and may soon be rudely awakened, but by then it may already be too late. Who knows, though, if this is even part of a divine chastisement for our arrogant perseverance in permitting abortions and other sins against life, and blessing gay sex and other sins against holiness and human nature itself. Well, the Muslims don’t permit any of that, and if we refuse to obey God’s commandments, He may clean up this country in a most unpleasant way (after that He will have to deal with the Muslims and purge them of their insane rage, satanic hatred, and suicidal/homicidal fanaticism, and then convert them to the True Faith, though that would be a miracle the likes of which have never been seen, except in some individual cases).
I won’t go on about all this, in case you’re not interested, but it seems to me that if you are a Christian and an American, the existence of Islamic paramilitary training camps on our soil ought to be a matter of concern.
To get documentary videos and more information about what is going on here and internationally, click on the Islamic Terror link on the sidebar. I’ll go back to prayer and fasting now, but I think we should be aware of some important things we ought to be praying and fasting about…
I tend to have a certain ambivalence toward the holiday known as Thanksgiving. This has nothing to do with the essence and meaning of the day, which is as close to the Gospel as any secular holiday can get: giving thanks for all the blessings we have received as individuals and as a nation, and, by extension, as Christians and as Church. For our nation was once a Christian nation, and the original intention of the holiday was to give thanks to God.
The ambivalence comes with the way the day is usually celebrated: with overeating, over-drinking, and various other excesses that really aren’t expressions of thanksgiving, but rather of self-indulgence, greed, and indifference toward those who have not received the superabundance of material goods that most people in this country enjoy.
St Paul has a good expression in the Epistle that is read on this day (1Tim. 6:6-11, 17-19), and perhaps this should guide both our understanding and our celebration of this feast. It is this: “godliness with contentment,” and in that, he says, there is great gain.
This section of Scripture deals with true versus false riches, and with the perils of pursuing material wealth. The famous saying, “the love of money is the root of all evils” comes from this passage. The Apostle does not here recommend destitution or even poverty as an ideal, for in fact he says we ought to find some contentment with what God provides. But he says that food and clothing should be sufficient for material contentment—and it is godliness, that is, the ordering of our lives according to the wisdom and righteousness of God, that enables us to be content in this life without the pursuit or possession of riches.
The secret of contentment comes not from having everything we could possibly desire of this world’s goods. It comes primarily from our relationship to God, who reveals to us the meaning of life, and hence what is important and what is not, what we ought to strive for and what we ought to be detached from. Once we learn the secret of contentment, it matters little how much or how little we actually possess. St Paul tells the Philippians: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (4:11-13).
He takes this a step further when writing to the Corinthians, and this is in the context of spiritual experience and the trials sent to purify us and unite us to our crucified Lord. “For the sake of Christ,” he writes, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities” (2Cor. 12:10). That’s a far cry from the usual Thanksgiving contentment, which often consists in little more than a full stomach, a comfortable chair, and a wide-screen TV in front of you.
“For the sake of Christ” the Apostle was content. That is the key. No one in his right mind would prefer hardships and calamities to abundance and comfort—unless there were a higher purpose involved, a loftier goal than mere personal satisfaction. So, for the sake of Christ we are content with the basic necessities of life and do not seek our contentment in superfluous riches or the fulfillment of our every desire.
In the Gospel (Lk. 12:13-15, 22-32), Jesus too warns us about seeking the things that the unbelievers are always focused on. He tells us instead to seek the Kingdom of God, and everything else we need will be granted us as well. This is, in Paul’s terms, godliness with contentment. This is setting our priorities in favor of the will of God and then being content with what He decides we need. And God is not stingy with his providence, for St Paul goes on to say that He “richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.”
Immediately, though, he writes that those who are richly furnished with everything to enjoy ought to be rich in good deeds and generous to others, for in this way they prepare well for the true and eternal life that is to come (as is made clear in Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment; see Mt 25:31-46).
Despite the fact that we live better than about 80-90% of the world, there’s a certain spiritual disease that tends to afflict many of us, one that this feast of Thanksgiving ought to bring to light. I call it “woe-is-me-itis.” The main symptom is the focusing on one’s own relatively small problems while not realizing—or refusing to take into consideration—how much so many others suffer while we live in relative peace and prosperity.
Many millions of people in this world live in abject poverty, without adequate food, clean water, shelter, or medical care. Because of this, many suffer from serious and painful diseases. Others suffer extreme hardships from wars, persecutions, natural disasters and other severe trials. We suffer practically none of this, but we still manage to go around with the “woe is me” attitude that magnifies our pet peeves or personal issues with others, or minor sufferings or trials or inconveniences. The best medicine for the healing of “woe-is-me-itis,” short of a crisp slap in the face, is the spirit of gratitude, and this is what we are called to develop on the occasion of this Thanksgiving Day.
It doesn’t take much effort to notice the things we have that millions of people don’t have. We can flip a switch and lights come on, as well as the numerous appliances we take for granted. We can open the faucet and clean water comes out, which is a luxury for many in the world. We have full pantries, we have beds and books, cars and clothing, and various means to enhance communication and culture. We also have all the means of salvation, Scripture and Sacrament, and all the other ways that God brings truth and goodness and beauty into our lives.
After having given us privileged people so much more than He has given others, God will certainly not take kindly to our grumbling and complaining and being unhappy over the difficulties and pains and annoyances we inevitably have to face in this life. We seem easily and often to forget that we are called and required to take up our crosses and lay down our lives for the sake of Christ and the salvation of souls.
So we have a day of Thanksgiving to reopen our eyes and our hearts. Gratitude is the best antidote to self-pity, to the blindness caused by self-absorption, to the false notion that we are entitled to everything we have while rarely doing anything to help those who are in chronically desperate straits. In short, gratitude is the cure for “woe-is-me-itis.”
I was wondering what was at the root of the maladies indicated by today’s readings. The Apostle says love of money is the root of evil, but I still want to ask: why do so many people have this love of money or of the things money buys, so that they become self-centered, indifferent to others’ urgent needs, becoming bitter or depressed when things don’t go their way?
Do people love money simply because they love pleasure and comfort? That is probably part of it. But I think there may be something more primal at the root of it, perhaps the most primal emotion there is: fear. Fear in this case is manifested as insecurity, a fear that we will not have enough, that we will not obtain happiness, that we will suffer hardship, that someone else will try to take what is ours. This insecurity excludes gratitude, because it is always seeking more. “Godliness with contentment” is then out of the question. This fear also closes us off to the needs of others, and makes us selfish and even angry that another might solicit help from us in their dire need.
This is why Jesus says at the end of the Gospel: “Fear not, little flock, it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom.” We forget that we have a loving Father in Heaven who knows our needs and will generously provide if we do not selfishly cling to what we have because of our fears and insecurities.
I’m reading George Weigel’s latest book on the life of the Venerable Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s first words to the world upon his election were, “Be not afraid!” This was not a mere bromide for a neurotic generation. He was making a profound statement here, one that the author made very clear. Our not being afraid is not related to a lack of fearful things in this world; it is related to our faith and trust in Christ who has overcome the world. The author noted that it is not only our sins that Christ bore in Himself on the Cross—He also bore our fears, and that is why the Pope could confidently exhort us to be not afraid. That is why we can afford to be generous, self-sacrificing, courageous, and also content with whatever God sends or permits in this life. This deserves considerable reflection, and it should be yet another reason for our gratitude on this day.
So as we celebrate this Thanksgiving Day, let us take the medicine of gratitude for the cure of our “woe-is-me-itis.” Let us learn godliness with contentment, discovering in Christ the secret for living contentedly in any situation, in the face of any difficulties, be they interior or exterior ones. Let us realize the extent to which God has lavished both material and spiritual blessings upon us, and let us begin to live in greater joy and peace and selfless service because of it. There should be no place among the children of God for the insecurities, the disordered desires, the selfishness and suspicions, and the pursuit of superfluous things that characterize the lives of unbelievers. It has pleased our Father to give us the Kingdom. If we seek this first, He will see to it that we have everything else we need to do his will and be generous to others in this world, while we store up treasures in Heaven, where we will enjoy eternal contentment in God and in the family of his holy ones.
“You gotta serve somebody,” sang Bob Dylan, in the time of his life when he considered himself to be “saved.” If you don’t serve Heaven, you’ll end up serving Hell. He seems to have fallen away since then, but his words are still true. As contingent beings, we are not self-sufficient, which means we are dependent, and as dependent we are by nature in a position only to serve.
The Scriptures make this clear, sometimes in striking and even rather disturbing terms (at least for the modern mindset). St Paul understood that we all gotta serve somebody. He says that in this life we have two choices of obedience, to sin or to righteousness. He says further that we are slaves of sin or righteousness, depending on which we choose. To be a slave of sin (which is what this world calls “freedom”) is to end up in Hell. To be a slave of righteousness is to enter eternal life. To be set free from sin is to become a “slave of God,” and this results in sanctification unto eternal happiness (see Rom. 6:15-23).
This is language that most people don’t want to hear, probably because they don’t like the idea of serving, even serving God, at least to the extent of total belonging to Him, as a slave belongs to his master, though St Paul also says, “you are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1Cor. 6:19-20). It is true that the evils that have often historically befallen the slaves of cruel masters have left such a bad taste in the collective human mouth as to make most people reject the concept entirely, and not even try to see if there is a way to understand it without all its negative connotations. But the term and concept are used repeatedly in Scripture, even though modern translators tend to use other words, leaving us with a more palatable, but less accurate, translation of the word of God.
Whenever you see St Paul, or one of the other Apostles, open their epistles by identifying themselves as “servants” of God or of Christ, they are literally saying “slaves.” They do not at all understand this to mean a loss of human dignity or freedom, but rather a total, but free and loving, belonging to the Master whom they serve. That is why, for example, two chapters after St Paul says we are slaves of God and slaves of righteousness, he speaks of “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). So in the context of Christian life, practice, and devotion, slavery and liberty are not contradictory terms. This is one of the many paradoxes of the Christian revelation.
Taking this a step further, when the Blessed Virgin Mary accepted to become the Mother of God, she said to the angel (literally): “I am the slave of the Lord.” And for her humble acceptance of this role, which she practiced faithfully throughout her life, she has become the Queen of Heaven, higher in glory than angels and other saints. Jesus has said repeatedly, “whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Finally, the Son of God Himself “took the form of a slave” (see Phil. 2:5-11), and was obedient unto death, and therefore the Father exalted Him, so that at Jesus’ name every knee should bend, both in Heaven and on Earth. And while in this world, He didn’t consider it to be beneath Him to do the work of a slave, like washing his disciples’ feet. So we see that ultimately to serve is to reign—and this not to serve when it is convenient or when we feel so inclined, but as a way of life.
St Louis de Montfort has been sometimes misunderstood when he has used this language and concept when speaking of our relationship with Jesus and Mary. Living in a time when there were still European monarchies, he used the analogy of the slaves who served the King and Queen (this was a common enough situation back then, but modern egalitarian sensitivities shudder at the thought of even being ruled by a sovereign). But Jesus as the King of Heaven, and Mary as the Queen of Heaven—whom He made such because of her unsurpassed holiness and her indispensable role in his incarnation—fit the biblical paradigm of those whom we serve if we would have eternal life. St Louis writes: “a subject would please and honor his King my making himself a slave of the Queen… since the honor paid to her and the power she exercises is honor done to him and is his power.”
So when the saint speaks of being slaves of Jesus and Mary, or of Jesus through Mary, he is speaking in the biblical sense in which to be a slave is not contrary to human dignity or freedom, especially since it is a choice and commitment that we freely make. The paradox of slavery which is liberty is expressed again as St Louis relates the story of a saintly Dominican nun, Mother Agnes of Jesus, who offered herself as a loving slave to Jesus and Mary, in the spirit described above. He writes: “One day, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her and placed a golden chain about her neck to show her how pleased this good Mother had been when she made herself the slave of Jesus and of Mary; and Saint Cecilia, who accompanied the Blessed Virgin in this vision, said to Mother Agnes: ‘Blessed are the faithful slaves of the Queen of Heaven, because they enjoy true liberty.’”
You gotta serve somebody. If you don’t serve Our Lord and Our Lady, you will by default serve the devil and sin (or yourself, which amounts to the same thing in its results). As for me, I’m happy to be a slave of the Queen of Heaven, and thus of the King of Heaven, while I simultaneously enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. The liberty is the fruit of the servitude, of the total belonging and surrender in faith and love. Things may not work like that today in human society, but they work like that in divine society, in the realm of faith and spiritual life. If I haven’t given myself and all I’m worth totally to the King and Queen, if my life isn’t wholly ordered to God and the things of God, to Heaven and all that this implies, then I’m a slave of sin. There’s really no middle ground. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn. 8:34).
Practically seen, it may be that most modern people will never be able to stomach the language of slavery—even properly understood in a Christian way—when it comes to our relationship to the Lord and to the Mother of God, even if they do honor them as King and Queen of Heaven. But everyone should at least know that this is the language of the Bible in many places, and it is also the language of the saints, at least some of them, whom the Church has approved by declaring that they are in fact saints. By their fruits we know them.
In any case, don’t bristle if the Bible tells you to be a slave of righteousness. Be willing to serve, to give all, call it what you may. The Lord “came not to be served but to serve” and said “whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk. 10:44-45). He who took the form of a slave the Father highly exalted. Jesus in turn exalted the “slave of the Lord” who offered her body and her life to be his Mother, giving flesh to God. And the rest of us will be exalted to the extent we humble ourselves. We gotta serve somebody. Why not the King and Queen?
We have another curious configuration of readings today because it is both a Sunday (Eph 5:8-19; Lk 12:16-21) and a feast of the Mother of God (Heb 9:1-7; Lk 10:38-42, 11:27-28). The fact that this all occurs during Advent makes the mix even more interesting! We’ll try to bring all of this together, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Looking first at the time of Advent, St Paul tells us in the Epistle for the Sunday that we are to “make the most of the time,” and that we are to live this time carefully, not as unwise but as wise persons, trying to discern and understand the will of the Lord. A related theme in this passage is that of darkness and light, darkness being a metaphor for evil, and light for “all that is good and right and true.” This time of year the days are growing progressively darker, since the sun shines a little less each day. The material darkness ought to be dispelled by our inner, spiritual light, through our prayer and fasting during these holy days, and our diligent efforts to change within ourselves anything that is not worthy of welcoming the pure, uncreated Light of the presence of Christ on the coming feast of his Nativity.
For this, we must be wise, careful, and discerning, as the Apostle exhorts. This is a time to detach ourselves from any concerns that are not strictly necessary, from any superfluous activities or frivolous uses of time. Advent is a time to focus all our energies on preparing for the Lord, making of our souls acceptable dwelling places for Him, like the cave in Bethlehem, which, though poor, was chosen by the Lord as suitable for his entrance into our world.
Speaking of dwelling-places and entrances, today is the feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the temple, she who was the most pure and perfect dwelling-place of the Lord. Though Mary was materially poor, the Lord had enriched her with unique graces so as to make her the perfect place of his repose as He entered upon his own Advent waiting—not for six weeks but for nine months—within the confines of her immaculate womb.
But we’re not ready yet to speak of his birth, for the Virgin Mary herself was still in a time of preparation when the events of the feast we are celebrating were taking place. We know that the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God was foreseen and prepared for countless ages in the Heart of the Holy Trinity. Likewise, the manner of his incarnation and the human instrumentality of it were eternally foreseen. So the Mother was prepared from the moment of her conception to be the immaculate dwelling place of the Son of God, who would take flesh within her so that, as one of us, He could save us through his sacrificial death and bodily resurrection.
Now Mary would not have known from her earliest childhood that she was thus chosen and graced for this unique and unrepeatable mission, but that was not necessary in the plans of God. Indeed, who would have believed the precocious little girl anyway, if she went about saying that she would one day give birth to God in the flesh? They would have assumed she was mentally disturbed and then would have silenced or ostracized her, or even persecuted her as a blasphemer. So these great mysteries were held only in the depths of God until such time as He deemed it right to send the Angel to the young maiden with the annunciation of the awesome will of the Almighty, in which Mary would play an indispensable part.
Meanwhile, however, she was carefully prepared by her parents to be a devout and loving handmaid of the Lord. According to the tradition of Mary’s birth, her parents, who were advancing in years and childless, earnestly besought the Lord to grant them a child. If He would do so, they promised that the child would be consecrated to God and to his service in gratitude for his gift. God must have smiled when He heard that prayer. “Yes,” He likely mused to Himself, “she will indeed be consecrated to Me and My service, but in ways that you, my beloved Joachim and Anne, cannot even begin to imagine. So I will answer your prayer and give you this precious child, whom I have willed and foreseen in my everlasting love from all eternity. She will be a consecrated temple unto Me, for she will bear within herself and give birth in the flesh to my only-begotten Son, for the life and the salvation of the world.”
What we are celebrating in her feast today is the mystery of her total consecration to God, symbolized and prefigured by her being brought into the temple at the tender age of three. This is the time at which her parents fulfilled their promise to give her over to the Lord as his exclusive possession, for the incredibly great things He was preparing for her, and through her, for all people of all times and places.
In the Offices for the feast, we sing to Mary as “the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God… consecrated to God as his dwelling… now being brought into the temple as an immaculate offering… and the choir of angels mystically celebrates… while we celebrate with them and cry out with Gabriel: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you…” And again: “Heaven and Earth today rejoice together at the sight of the mystical Heaven; the immaculate and pure Virgin is coming into the holy temple.” Mary herself is called “Heaven” because Heaven is where God dwells, and Mary is where God dwelled uniquely and bodily for nine months, and He has also dwelled in her Immaculate Heart for her whole life on Earth and will do so for the whole of eternity in Heaven. He dwells in our hearts as well, yet only in Mary did He become man for our salvation, so she is worthy of praise and honor for her exceptional role in our salvation.
The mystery of consecration, however, is not wholly completed in the Mother of God. While her personal consecration and mission were unique, she is still a sign for us, an icon, as it were, of the fullness of life in God to which all of us are called. One of the reasons that we are baptized as infants is so that we can be consecrated to God from the earliest days of our lives, to enter into this Marian mystery of lifelong consecration to God for the sake of his glory and the fulfillment of his will in us. So we are brought into the temple to be immersed in the love and grace of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, through our baptismal adoption as children of the Father, born of water and the Spirit, members of the mystical Body of Christ.
The Church provides opportunities for further consecrations to God, if we are so called, to the priesthood, or to the profession of monastic or marital vows. There are also various types of personal consecrations that can be made, to deepen our relationship and commitment to Our Lord and Our Lady. Being set apart to serve Christ with and through our Blessed Mother, we are granted grace to live carefully and wisely, and to discern and understand the will of God, so that we can make the most of the time—not only of Advent but of our whole time in this world—bearing the fruit of light and renouncing deeds of darkness.
So we come now to the Gospel of the Sunday, of the foolish rich man who gained the world and lost his soul. How does this relate to all we’ve been reflecting upon so far? It is summarized in the last line of the Gospel. Concerning the unhappy fate of the rich man, Jesus makes a universal application: “So it is for whoever lays up treasure for himself and is not rich in the sight of God.”
I said earlier that Mary was materially poor but rich in God’s grace. Most of us do not have material wealth (President Obama has made sure of that!) but we all have the opportunity to grow rich in the sight of God, that is, rich in his grace by bearing the fruit of our consecration to Him. The message is clear in the Gospel: more often than not, riches are an obstacle to a life of consecration to God. One of the most obvious reasons is that one can hardly imitate Christ, who chose poverty as a way of life, if one is rich and enjoys an opulent, or even very comfortable, lifestyle. But the more serious reason is that riches create attachments and even addictions, they distort priorities, they distract from the One Thing Necessary, they create false security and tend to harden the hearts of those who possess them, so that they do not generously and even sacrificially give to the poor.
St Faustina, in reflecting upon similar mysteries during the months of her final illness, noted that, during the Christmas holy days, even though she was very sick and weak, she had immense joy throughout the season because her soul was unceasingly united to the Lord. She commented that people “would like to have divine comforts, but [they are] by no means willing to forsake human comforts, whereas these two things cannot be reconciled.” This corresponds to the Gospel as well as to Jesus’ teaching about two masters. You can’t serve God and mammon, you can’t store up material wealth and still be rich in divine grace, you can’t seek out human comforts and then expect to have divine ones as icing on your cake. We have to choose our master, order our priorities, decide to what we are going to give our time and energy and attention.
The mystery of the consecration of the child Mary to God in the temple points us in the proper direction. If we wish to belong to God, we have to live accordingly. If we wish to be set apart as his own, we have to love and serve Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. If we want the joys of Heaven, we have to be detached from—and even be willing to sacrifice—the joys and pleasures of this life, at least the material ones.
So, as we take another step forward in the time of Advent, let us embrace its truth and meaning. Let us live as children of light, as the days grow darker, and let us grow rich in the sight of God as we divest ourselves of all that is displeasing to Him, of all that keeps our focus on ourselves and our own comfort or advantage. And let us, with and through Our Lady, live our consecration to God with fervor and dedication, with love and trust and diligence, that we might be found worthy to receive an abundance of his grace at Christmas, and go on living as consecrated temples of the Holy Spirit—so that at last all Heaven will celebrate our entrance into the New Jerusalem, there to live with Our Lady and the angels and saints in the light of the glory of Our Lord.
The Advent-Christmas issue of our monastery newsletter, Gladsome Light, is now available online. You already got a sneak preview in my last post here on the blog, but I have another article in this issue, and the monks have offered some Christmas reflections as well. So click here to read it, and may your heart be opened during this holy Advent season to welcome anew the Savior!
[It may seem a bit early for Christmas reflections, but in our tradition Advent has already begun. The following is an autobiographical reflection on Christmas that will appear in our monastery newsletter, shortly to be published on our site, but I thought I’d get a little extra mileage by publishing it first here. There will be plenty more to read in the newsletter.]
I don’t recall any particularly outstanding Christmas experiences from my childhood, but that doesn’t mean that the mystery was insignificant for me—for I immensely enjoyed them all! Christmas was always a time of wonder and blessing, with even a hint of the miraculous. Prescinding for a moment from the spiritual heart of Christmas, which is the birth of the incarnate Son of God from the Virgin Mary, I’d like to begin by looking at the phenomenon of the gifts given by “Santa Claus,” and how this perhaps prepared me for deeper things.
There is something enchanting about Christmas morning: a kind of a hush that is filled with expectation, as if the world were suddenly suffused with angels and magic and living happily ever after. It would begin with the transition from the evening before, with the decorated and colorfully-lit tree—and the notable absence of treasures beneath it—to the dawn of the longed-for day, when I would softly (but rather quickly) descend the stairs and then gaze in wide-eyed wonder and delight at the mysterious appearance of lovingly-wrapped gifts beneath the tree, some of which actually had my name on them! We had an agreement among the siblings (my one brother and two sisters), that nobody would rush down first and start tearing into the gifts, but the first one awake would then rouse the others—not a difficult task on that blessed morn!—and we would all go down together. So even as children, we learned to exercise a certain charitable restraint for the sake of sharing the joy together. We would usually go to a late-morning Divine Liturgy, our parents being wisely aware that if we went to church before opening the gifts, we would have been (to say the least) somewhat lacking in focused and prayerful recollection, and even positively antsy!
Even though there was perhaps a certain materialistic element to Christmas, with the presence of toys and similar gifts, in retrospect I think that it still somehow spoke to me of God, “who gives to everyone generously and without reproaching” (James 1:5). It may be that the sudden proliferation of gifts occasioned the beginnings of an understanding of the unmerited graciousness of God. The Lord was known for working miracles after all, and He could multiply bread and fish, turn water into wine, and generally make people happy by healing them or granting their requests. So even if my budding religious sensibility was not the first thing stimulated by the blessings of Christmas morn, the sense of gratitude and joy in the “miraculous” manifestation of gifts was already setting me on the right track.
I remember once, when I was probably around ten years old, making a pious declaration on Christmas to the effect that even if I had not received any gifts at all, I would still be happy because of the birth of Jesus. I was, of course, lying through my teeth; I would have been devastated if I had discovered that our humble home had somehow been overlooked in the distribution of goodies. But I think I still knew that it was the right thing to say, that it did point to a deeper truth than my personal enjoyment in hoped-for gifts—even if I wasn’t yet mature enough to be satisfied with such deep truths! We were brought up to have the right priorities; it just took me a while to grow into them and make them an integral part of my own identity.
Little by little I grew up, was disabused of the myth of Santa Claus (we kids had pretty much figured it out before our parents summoned the courage to break the bad news), felt “grown up” in being allowed to go to church at midnight, and made the uneasy transition into adolescence and young adulthood. I think there was a period during those years of a kind of disillusionment with Christmas. The enchantment of Christmas morning had worn off along with the sense of the miraculous and the fairy-tale-like ambience of the whole experience. I had developed other interests, the mystery of Jesus was on a “back burner,” and I wasn’t interested in the kid stuff—and therefore my taste in gifts had grown accordingly expensive!
For some people, Christmas is actually a time that is almost dreaded, because it brings on a kind of sadness or even depression, especially if one finds oneself alone during that time, while the rest of the world seems to be enjoying the company of loved ones and the other blessings of the season. I have experienced the “Christmas depression” myself, more than once, though I’m not entirely sure of the cause. Perhaps, in that transition from childhood to adulthood, there is a more or less sub-conscious mourning of the loss of innocence, a sense that the ingenuous wonder over miraculous surprises is forever gone. Other times it might have been little more than loneliness or self-pity, a sense of dissatisfaction, perhaps because the childish joy was gone and I hadn’t really discovered anything to replace it—or rather, I did know what was meant to replace it, but I hadn’t matured enough to allow it to do so.
If Christmas degenerates into just another day off from work, or an excuse to overeat and over-drink, a significant void is created in the soul—at least if one’s Christmas experience in the past has been joyful and even a highlight of the year. Yet I believe this void is present even if Christmas has not been a particularly special time in one’s life: the fact remains that there is an empty manger in the heart, in some deep place the soul knows its need for true fulfillment, and it cries for the warm embrace of the Hope that once lit up Bethlehem’s lonely night.
I think I didn’t really recover the wonder of Christmas until I entered the monastery. Even then it took a while to “connect” with the deeper mystery—though of course all of our prayer and worship and time were devoted to celebrating our incarnate Savior. The renewed joy actually seemed to come from the fellowship that was an extension of our worship. I remember early on having some apprehension concerning Christmas in a monastery, with people whom God had chosen as my brothers in Christ, but whom I likely would not have chosen on my own. My family and friends would all be 3000 miles away, and I would be in a forest in an obscure corner of the world, praying in a simple wooden church with straw on the floor—not unlike an oversized manger! What would Christmas be like in this environment in which I hadn’t any childhood memories, and in which there weren’t all the usual amenities of the holidays?
It was during either the first or second Christmas at the monastery that I was, to use C.S. Lewis’ expression, surprised by joy. There were some friends of the monastery whom we would invite to share our “holy meal” on Christmas Eve as well as the festive “breakfast” after the midnight Liturgy, in the wee hours of the morning. The unfeigned happiness on the faces of the people was contagious, the conversation was light and spontaneous, and there was a complete absence of anything that was not of God. It was really a glimpse of the life of the blessed in the Lord’s joyful Kingdom, and I recognized it. I reflected with honest satisfaction that I really could find joy in an environment that was all about God and not about the “world”—that is, not directed toward material possessions, personal self-indulgence, or any sort of dubious excess that could dull the bright radiance of spiritual joy. It was unlike my childhood experience of Christmas, but it was better, because it fed my soul with something that would last. It wouldn’t fade as a child’s happiness dims when the decorations are put away and the novelty has worn off the shiny new toys.
There still is some connection with my past experiences, though. In the monastery refectory we place a large fir tree that one of the hardier brethren retrieves from the ample forest, and we decorate it and light it up in full holiday glory. The nostalgic scent of the needles and the sap, and the festive atmosphere created by the decorations, have the uncanny ability to lift spirits, dispel darkness, and to create a bit of heavenly peace in the hearts of those who have the good fortune to bask in these blessings. Everyone rejoices when the tree goes up and regrets to see it come down.
Since the first Christmases here at Mt. Tabor there has been some variation in my experience of the mystery of God-with-us at this blessed feast. Some years it seems more joyful than others, but I try not to assess it by how it feels. Like the magi and the shepherds I come to worship the Lord and to give thanks for his inexpressible gift, singing to Him with the angels. I dare even to embrace Him with the Virgin Mother, begging her to allow me a share in her own tenderness and contemplation as she gazed upon the Lord of Heaven who came forth from the Father before time began, now having come forth from her own body in time as her little baby Boy.
The Holy Night remains a time of wonder—still, I think, my favorite of the great feasts of the year. I’m preparing now to celebrate my 53rd Christmas in this earthly exile, my 29th in the monastery, and I’m still looking up toward the breathtaking midnight sky for a sign of the Lord’s coming. The night chills me as I walk down the hill from my hermitage, but the church is lit like a candle in the window of the Kingdom of Heaven. I’m far from the home of my childhood Christmas joys, and I’m still but a pilgrim on a long journey. Yet there is room for me at the inn of the holy Catholic Church, the true Bethlehem (that is, the “house of bread”) where a Child is born, a Son is given to us as Bread and Wine, as life and joy to the world.
In a new and transformed way, Christmas is still enchanted, still miraculous, still full of unmerited gifts. So we ought to lay aside childish desires and self-indulgence, but retain (or recover) the wide-eyed wonder that springs from a childlike and pure heart. All the blessings of Christmas giving and receiving are summed up in a simple “yes” to Jesus: an “amen” to who He is, to what He has done, to his everlasting love, to all He wills us to be and to do, and to his invitation to share life forever with Him.
Christmas means many things to many people, and it is often emotionally-charged, either positively or negatively, while others just seem to draw a blank. But we have to go deeper, because Christmas is more than the sum total of our experiences or attitudes toward it. It’s about Love coming to hearts that will never find peace without Him. It’s about a bright Star shining in the silent nights of tragic lives, promising redemption, offering hope. It’s about the restoration all that is good, true, beautiful, warm, loving, and holy—all that perhaps we’re afraid we have lost somewhere along the toilsome paths of life. The Newborn King is He who makes all things new, who says, “Come, there is a place for you with Me—yes, you, the weary, the sinner, the failure, the confused, the ravaged, the hopeless. Give me your sorrow and I will give you My joy.”
Make a new Christmas memory this year. All shall be calm, then; all shall be bright.