Thinking about Christmas, the nativity scene, an almost universally recognized symbol of the holiday, one that in recent times has provoked so much controversy, begging the question, where does private religion end and public indifference begin: I wondered to myself, how many people, Christian or not, even know where and when this Christmas tradition began? Once you’ve seen it—the straw-filled manger with baby, surrounded by adoring mother, standing-guard father, curious shepherds, and three visitors richly-robed and crowned—even without reading the bible, you know what’s going on, and unless you have a spoil-sport streak in you, you’re not likely to be offended by seeing a public display.
I was thinking about Francesco di Bernardone, the 12th-13th century Italian saint, who so greatly astonished his contemporaries, and me as well when I first read their accounts of him, that they believed he was, after Christ, the most perfect man who ever lived, a veritable second Jesus. His closest female disciple, Chiara Offreduccio, was likewise compared to the blessed virgin Mary. In one account, a devil who was being driven out of a possessed person, angrily revealed that St Francis and St Clare were purposely sent by God in His mercy to renew and refresh the Church, which had become so carnal and corrupt that if it didn’t repent and revive, He would’ve had to destroy it. I accepted all this uncritically.
From these same medieval records, we know that on a Christmas Eve of a certain year, Francesco had the idea to celebrate the midnight mass with a live representation of the Nativity of Christ. Out of this initial inspiration a tradition grew up, year after year, which eventually spread through the whole Church, changing to fit various cultures. Surprisingly, many groups of Christians that reject the traditions of Catholicism are avid promoters of the nativity scene, some of them using it to dislodge other traditions which they see as pagan superstition: they set out crèches instead of jack-o-lanterns at Halloween! But enough of this nonsense. For the disciple, Jesus is ‘a light that darkness cannot overpower.’
Thinking back to the stories about Francis and Clare, and of all the saints, as a new Christian my feeling for them was one of awe, and I held them in great reverence, as did my relatives and most other people around me. My faith was a religious faith, a kind of children’s version of Christianity, and imagination supplied what was lacking in personal experience. People can go through their entire lives never moving beyond this simple faith, and who’s to say it’s wrong? But for me, that was not enough, though at the time I little knew how insufficient it really was. Growing up in Christ opens your eyes to see the saints in a new way. It doesn’t diminish their stature. It magnifies it, because they cease being images; they come alive.
And coming alive, they invite you into their company, where no one is even thinking of being religious or of becoming saints. Why not? Because where they are is Paradise. There is no need of religion there, because men see God and speak with Him face to face. Why is where they are Paradise? Because they are in Christ, and they know it, and He is Paradise, and that is all that they know. When you follow them as they follow Him, very soon that is all that you know too. Nothing that you ever did before as a religious Christian goes away or is abandoned. You just grow up. Grow up into the stature of Christ. Francesco’s stigmata don’t cease being wonderful; they are just no longer a source of wonder: only Christ is.
Christ says, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ This is not mere rhetoric or a pious promissory redeemable in heavenly assets. Life in Christ never can be because it never was or will be ‘pie in the sky,’ but it is always here, always today, always yes, because of His word, ‘Behold, I am with you till the end of the age.’ If we cannot wrap our minds around concepts like the Holy Trinity, we can at least experience the effects it has on us. I must say ‘it’ because no human language contains the fourth person pronoun comprised of the other three, which is singular and plural, masculine and feminine in the same iteration. ‘All who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.’ Incomparable to each other or to anyone, they are ‘saints.’
We are entering into the time beyond times, the great kairós of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Why let ourselves look on uncomprehending? Why not enter into the Nativity of the Son and Word of God, as Francesco of Assisi shows us? The pre-eternal Divine Nature reveals Himself as a new born child, and we can migrate with the magi following the star that stops and shines above where the Child lies. We have not and never come too late. The star still shines. The Child still is born, and He lives, and His birth of a virgin womb renews, recreates all human nature, and soon, even the whole material universe.‘The ox and the ass know their Master’s crib.’ What about us? What about you? Christ is born! Let us glorify!
Χριστός Γεννάται, Δοξάσατε!
Christ is Everything. He is joy, He is life, He is light. He is the true light who makes man joyful, makes him soar with happiness; makes him see everything, everybody; makes him feel for everyone, to want everyone with him, everyone with Christ.
‘The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.’ — Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange
Η Αγία Γραφή
The Jerusalem Bible (1966)
‘As though a minute’s worth or a day’s worth of doubt could cast me into hell. As though God were a nitpicking tyrant and waiting for that gotcha instant. It is sin that is tyrannical. God is merciful.’ — Aunt Melanie
Where there is no love, there is no Church. There remains only its external form, a deceit, which repulses people. That is why our churches remain empty, that is why our young people lapse. Lord, help us to become Your Church, not just its appearance.
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