Disambiguating Christmas

Irrepressibly joyful as the season is, Christmas remains an occasion of recurring conflict for contemporary Christians.

One challenge is to “keep Christ” in what often passes as “X-Mas” or “the Holidays.”

Yet even those intrepid souls resolved not to banish the Babe of Bethlehem (once again) to the outskirts of civilization face a further, and one might say more fundamental, question: precisely when Christmas is to be kept.

Eons ago, after reverting to the faith of my youth, I chanced upon a disc of what purported to be “Christmas music” by J. S. Bach. On closer inspection, the contents turned out to be cantatas for the Sundays of Advent. Years later I would discover that Bach had, of course, written exquisite pieces for Christmas, properly so-called.

It was my first encounter with a conundrum that has long since become an old if annoying acquaintance: the conflation of Christmas with its anticipatory season, such that, just when a Christian is ready to break out the eggnog and tinsel, that spicy beverage is no longer sold in supermarkets, and the neighborhood alleyways are scattered with undecorated evergreens.

In countercultural circles, it is agreed that the keeping of Christmas is to be preceded by the keeping of Advent, and hence to commence when the rest of society is turning from candy canes to chocolate hearts.

In those same circles, however, there seems to be far less certainty concerning the vexing question of when it becomes appropriate, or even obligatory, to lovingly place Christmas back upon the shelf.

Though I am no authority when it comes to matters calendrical, two decades of familiarity with the traditional Roman Missal have convinced me that answering this question requires a careful parsing of the multiple senses in which the word “Christmas” is rightly employed.

From the broadest to the narrowest, these uses are as follows:

The Christmas Cycle of connected commemorations begins with the first Sunday of Advent and ends on February 2nd, with Candlemas. In this sense, all of December and January are Christmas, and we can calm our nerves by reflecting that the world is not yet (completely) insane.

Next comes Christmastide, beginning on the Vigil of the Nativity (December 24th) and ending on January 13th, the Octave of the Epiphany and Baptism of our Lord.

Said Christmastide can be subdivided into the Christmas season, or “twelve days of Christmas,” from Christmas Day to Epiphany Eve; and the Octave (and also the Season) of Epiphany.

Since Christmas itself has an Octave, the next-smallest unit of Christmas is that eight-day period.

Finally, we have Christmas Day itself, weighing in at a mere twenty-four hours, but punching (as they say) far above its weight.

Of course, Scrooge is perfectly right to insist that the man who honors Christmas in his heart will “try to keep it all the year.”

And on a similar note, one may observe that every Mass is in fact Christ’s Mass, pointing to the greatest possible meaning of the phrase.

As for my family, notwithstanding the sadness of the event, our tree generally comes down on January 14th. But a little light burns in our hearts until February 2nd, and I’d like to think it never goes out completely in the remainder of the year.

Supernatural Results

The man of faith judges active works by quite a different light from the man who lives in outward things.

What he looks at is not so much the outward appearance of things, as their place in the divine plan and their supernatural results.

This abandonment does not in the least diminish his zeal for action. He acts as though success depended entirely on his own activity, but in point of fact he expects it from God alone.

He has no trouble subordinating all his projects and hopes to the unfathomable designs of a God who often uses failure even better than success to bring about the good of souls.

The genuine apostle makes use of everything, success as well as failure, to increase his hope and expand his soul in confident abandonment to Providence.

~ Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard

What the Church Always Is

Those who really believe do not attribute too much importance to the struggle for the reform of ecclesiastical structures.

They live on what the Church always is; and if one wants to know what the Church really is, one must go to them.

For the Church is most present, not where organizing, reforming, and governing are going on, but in those who simply believe and receive from her the gift of faith that is life to them.

~ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Requiescat in Pace

O God, who in thy ineffable providence, didst will that thy servant Benedict should be numbered among the high priests, grant, we beseech thee, that he who on earth held the place of thine only-begotten Son, may be joined forevermore to the fellowship of thy holy pontiffs. Through the same Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

“God is visible in a number of ways. In the love-story recounted by the Bible, he comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross, to his appearances after the Resurrection, and to the great deeds by which, through the activity of the Apostles, he guided the nascent Church along its path.”

“Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.”

“In the Church’s Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives.”

“He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love.”

~ Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

Hail, Master!

Years ago, the immortal David Warren admitted to the guilty pleasure of enjoying the Christmas Mass of Jakub Jan Ryba (1765 – 1815), amidst the austerities of Lent.

The occasion serves to illustrate the true value of asceticism, the purpose of which is not so much to have us forego what is good, as to teach us to make room for what is better.

Whilst he was clearing his library of vainly acquired discs, replete with the grandiose monstrosities of ascendant modernity, Warren bumped into the post-baroque Czech masterpiece, and could not help listening all the way through.

“Ryba’s Kyrie sounds like a Gloria. The Gloria sounds like a Gloria. The Gradual sounds like a Gloria. The Credo, Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnes Dei, — all sound like Glorias. And there is a recessional attached, a final choral exposition, which sounds very much like a Gloria.”

Not the most Lenten fare, to be sure. But within these glorious days of Christmas, just the thing to remind us that even the darkest of nights may herald the brightest of dawns.

If Dear Reader is unfamiliar with the “Mass” (really more of a cantata)—or even if he is blessedly acquainted with it—he may take special pleasure in observing its performance by these hearty souls, in an apparently unheated cathedral:

The text, along with further information about Ryba and his works, can be found in the notes to the Naxos edition (a truly superb recording).

“A characteristic feature of [this Mass] is the bright mood of joy and the feeling of happiness radiating from every note.”

May that joy radiate from every note we play in the coming year!

What do you think? Please comment, subscribe, & forward to friends!    

Worth the Squeeze

When bad men combine, the good must associate;
else they will fall, one by one,
an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Edmund Burke

Kudos to Roger Simon for locating the original source of the paraphrased wisdom so often attributed to this great statesman and philosopher.

The thought may sound similar, whether we consider Burke’s actual words (above), or their usual adaptation: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

But, unsurprisingly, the sage is more precise than his interpreters. When times get tough, it may become necessary to “do something,” but “something” does not mean “anything.”

What ought we to do, and how? Burke helpfully specifies that isolated action is doomed to end in inglorious failure.

As Alexis de Tocqueville was later to note (and here I paraphrase): only the “art of association” will enable free citizens to guard and enjoy their freedom in a modern world characterized by mass movements and hypertrophic concentrations of social power.

The example of Simon’s sleuthing demonstrates that one form of association is the reading of those great works in which are stored the treasures of civilizational wisdom. The avid study of such works—whether by professionals or by hobbyists—constitutes a vital contribution to the formation or restoration of conditions making life worth living today.

But association also implies real engagement with living people in our present milieu.

By “real,” I mean something like what is described in this inspiring account of a group of citizens who responded to the madness afflicting our contemporary educational system by associating with others ready to form a coalition of the sane.

Setting up a classical academy, focused on the formation of hearts and minds in essential knowledge and civic virtue, these brave souls have dedicated themselves to the advancement of a genuinely common good—one that serves the true interests of students, parents, and society.

For their efforts, they have of course been rewarded with the standard slanders of selfish souls whose principalities they threaten. Though “49 percent of the students enrolled in charter schools are black”—meaning that such schools help to provide minority students with the kind of education their parents consider best—those striving to make this possible are dismissed as “racists.”

In addition to telling us all we need to know about the hypocrisy of the name-callers, this slur illustrates another of Tocqueville’s insights: “It will always be difficult to make a man live well who does not want to die.”

To serve as a board member for a classical academy today, one must be “willing to take a beating publicly, [and] lose friends and acquaintances.” Says one of the school’s founders, “I will die trying to open a classical public charter school.”

As Burke also implied, doing good in a fallen world requires sacrifice. To succeed at overcoming evil, we must be prepared to suffer—and to associate with others to ensure that our sacrifice is no “contemptible struggle” but instead a foundation for the flourishing of our fellow man.

This is the voice of practical hope in the modern world: “We were not afraid to fail. We tried a lot of things. It was hard, but we kept going because we believed the juice was worth the squeeze.”

A penny for your pensées, & a prayer for your patronage! You are cordially invited to comment, subscribe, & share with friends!

The Problem with Politics, and its Solution

Plato says that all would be well if only wise men reigned—or if all those who reigned were philosophers.
But in the same way that wise men
wisely avoid ruling fools,
so do fools foolishly refuse
to submit to the rule of the wise.
And so confusion reigns.

William of St. Thierry

Beginning from the above premise, Plato’s Socrates goes on to suggest that the only reason a decent man would agree to rule is to escape the government of fools.

To complain about the folly of politics is much like griping about the cold of winter. This blogger has frequently been heard doing both. While it is true that the biting of bitter winds wounds our all-too-thin skins, however, no quantity of moaning seems sufficient to lessen the sting.

With politics, unlike the weather, there is at least the hope that those with better sense may band together to “do something about it.” If they are clever enough, they might even find ways to mitigate the misery.

Not the most stirring slogan, perhaps, but one that just might succeed at building a coalition of the sane: Make America Less Nutty Again!

A penny for your pensées, & a prayer for your patronage! You are cordially invited to comment, subscribe, & share with friends!

Conquer in God

Tenor (Hope): I do not fear the grave’s darkness

Alto (Fear): I fear indeed the grave’s darkness

Tenor (Hope): and hoped that my savior should not be torn away.

Alto (Fear): and mourned that my savior should be torn away.

Both: Now my heart is full of comfort, and if an enemy is infuriated, I shall know how to conquer in God.

What do you think? Please comment, subscribe, & forward to friends!   

Only a Slumber

Then cometh Simon Peter, following him, and went into the sepulcher: and saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place. Then that other disciple also went in, who came first to the sepulcher: and he saw and believed. (John 20:6-8)

Gentle should be the sorrow of my death—only a slumber, Jesus, through thy veil. Yes, that will refresh me then, and the tears of my suffering it will wipe comfortingly from my cheeks!

Happy Easter!

What do you think? Please comment, subscribe, & forward to friends!   

%d bloggers like this: