CHAPTER THE FIRST - THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year, as distinct, by its own special spirit, from every other, as are Advent, Lent, Easter, or Pentecost. One same Mystery is celebrated and kept in view during the whole forty days. Neither the Feasts of the Saints, which so abound during this Season; nor the time of Septuagesima, with its mournful Purple, which often begins before Christmastide is over, seem able to distract our Holy Mother the Church from the immense joy of which she received the good tidings from the Angels [St Luke ii 10] on that glorious Night for which the world had been longing four thousand years. The Faithful will remember that the Liturgy commemorates this long expectation by the four penitential weeks of Advent.
The custom of celebrating the Solemnity of our Saviour’s Nativity by a feast or commemoration of forty days’ duration is founded on the holy Gospel itself; for it tells us that the Blessed Virgin Mary, after spending forty days in the contemplation of the Divine Fruit of her glorious Maternity, went to the Temple, there to fulfil, in most perfect humility, the ceremonies which the Law demanded of the daughters of Israel, when they became mothers.
The Feast of Mary’s Purification is, therefore, part of that of Jesus’ Birth; and the custom of keeping this holy and glorious period of forty days as one continued Festival has every appearance of being a very ancient one, at least in the Roman Church. And firstly, with regard to our Saviour’s Birth on December 25, we have St John Chrysostom telling us, in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on this day. He is not satisfied with merely mentioning the tradition; he undertakes to show that it is well founded, inasmuch as the Church of Rome had every means of knowing the true day of our Saviour’s Birth, since the acts of the Enrolment, taken in Judea by command of Augustus, were kept in the public archives of Rome. The holy Doctor adduces a second argument, which he founds upon the Gospel of St Luke, and he reasons thus: we know from the sacred Scriptures that it must have been in the fast of the seventh month [Lev. xxiii 24 and following verses. The seventh month (or Tisri) corresponded to the end of our September and beginning of our October. -Tr.] that the Priest Zachary had the vision in the Temple; after which Elizabeth, his wife, conceived St John the Baptist: hence it follows that the Blessed Virgin Mary having, as the Evangelist St Luke relates, received the Angel Gabriel’s visit, and conceived the Saviour of the world in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, that is to say, in March, the Birth of Jesus must have taken place in the month of December.
But it was not till the fourth century that the Churches of the East began to keep the Feast of our Saviour’s Birth in the month of December. Up to that period they had kept it at one time on the sixth of January, thus uniting it, under the generic term of Epiphany, with the Manifestation of our Saviour made to the Magi, and in them to the Gentiles; at another time, as Clement of Alexandria tells us, they kept it on the 25th of the month Pachon (May 15), or on the 25th of the month Pharmuth (April 20). St John Chrysostom, in the Homily we have just cited, which he gave in 386, tells us that the Roman custom of celebrating the Birth of our Saviour on December 25 had then only been observed ten years in the Church of Antioch. It is probable that this change had been introduced in obedience to the wishes of the Apostolic See, wishes which received additional weight by the edict of the Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, which appeared towards the close of the fourth century, and decreed that the Nativity and Epiphany of our Lord should be made two distinct Festivals. The only Church that has maintained the custom of celebrating the two mysteries on January 6 is that of Armenia; owing, no doubt, to the circumstance of that country not being under the authority of the Emperors; as also because it was withdrawn at an early period from the influence of Rome by schism and heresy.
The Feast of our Lady’s Purification, with which the forty days of Christmas close, is, in the Latin Church, of very great antiquity; so ancient, indeed, as to preclude the possibility of our fixing the date of its institution. According to the unanimous opinion of Liturgists, it is the most ancient of all the Feasts of the Holy Mother of God; and as her Purification is related in the Gospel itself, they rightly infer that its anniversary was solemnized at the very commencement of Christianity. Of course, this is only to be understood of the Roman Church; for as regards the Oriental Church, we find that this Feast was not definitely fixed to February 2 until the reign of the Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century. It is true that the Eastern Christians had previously to that time a sort of commemoration of this Mystery, but it was far from being a universal custom, and it was kept a few days after the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and not on the day itself of Mary’s going up to the Temple.
But what is the characteristic of Christmas in the Latin Liturgy? It is twofold: it is joy, which the whole Church feels at the coming of the divine Word in the Flesh; and it is admiration of that glorious Virgin, who was made the Mother of God. There is scarcely a prayer, or a rite, in the Liturgy of this glad Season, which does not imply these two grand Mysteries: an Infant-God, and a Virgin-Mother.
For example, on all Sundays and Feasts which are not Doubles, the Church, throughout these forty days, makes a commemoration of the fruitful virginity [The Collect, Deus qui salutis aeternae beatae Mariae Virginiate fecunda humano generi, etc.] of the Mother of God, by three special Prayers in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. She begs the suffrage of Mary by proclaiming her quality of Mother of God and her inviolate purity [V. Post partum, Virgo, inviolata permansisti. R. Dei Genitrix, intercede pro nobis.], which remained in her even after she had given birth to her Son. And again the magnificent Anthem, Alma Redemptoris, composed by the Monk Herman Contractus, continues, up to the very day of the Purification, to be the termination of each Canonical Hour. It is by such manifestations of her love and veneration that the Church, honouring the Son in the Mother, testifies her holy joy during this season of the Liturgical Year, which we call Christmas.
Our readers are aware that, when Easter Sunday falls at its latest - that is, in April - the Ecclesiastical Calendar counts as many as six Sundays after the Epiphany. Christmastide (that is, the forty days between Christmas Day and the Purification) includes sometimes four out of these six Sundays; frequently only two; and some times only one, as in the case when Easter comes so early as to necessitate keeping Septuagesima, and even Sexagesima Sunday, in January. Still, nothing is changed, as we have already said, in the ritual observances of this joyous season, excepting only that on those two Sundays, the fore-runners of Lent, the Vestments are purple, and the Gloria in excelsis is omitted.
Although our holy Mother the Church honours with especial devotion the Mystery of the Divine Infancy during the whole season of Christmas; yet, she is obliged to introduce into the Liturgy of this same season passages from the holy Gospels which seem premature, inasmuch as they relate to the active life of Jesus. This is owing to there being less than six months allotted by the Calendar for the celebration of the entire work of our Redemption: in other words, Christmas and Easter are so near each other, even when Easter is as late as it can be, that Mysteries must of necessity be crowded into the interval; and this entails anticipation. And yet the Liturgy never loses sight of the Divine Babe and his incomparable Mother, and never tires in their praises, during the whole period from the Nativity to the day when Mary comes to the Temple to present her Jesus.
The Greeks, too, make frequent commemorations of the Maternity of Mary in their Offices of this Season: but they have a special veneration for the twelve days between Christmas Day and the Epiphany, which, in their Liturgy, are called the Dodecameron. During this time they observe no days of Abstinence from flesh-meat; and the Emperors of the East had, out of respect for the great Mystery, decreed that no servile work should be done, and that the Courts of Law should be closed, until after January 6.
From this outline of the history of the holy season, we can understand what is the characteristic of this second portion of the Liturgical Year, which we call Christmas, and which has ever been a season most dear to the Christian world. What are the Mysteries embodied in its Liturgy will be shown in the following chapter.
CHAPTER THE SECOND - THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS
Everything is Mystery in this holy season. The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star [Ps. cix 3], is born in time - a Child is God - a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains a Virgin - things divine are commingled with those that are human - and the sublime, the ineffable antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple in those words of his Gospel, THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church;- and rightly, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent which unites in one Person the nature of Man and the nature of God.
The splendour of this Mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time. It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints; nay, is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see how the Church offers this Mystery to her children, veiled under the symbolism of her Liturgy.
The four weeks of our preparation are over - they were the image of the four thousand years which preceded the great coming - and we have reached the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, as a long desired place of sweetest rest. But why is it that the celebration of our Saviour’s Birth should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day; whilst the whole liturgical Cycle has, every year, to be changed and remodelled, in order to yield that ever-varying day which is to be the feast of his Resurrection - Easter Sunday?
The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered, even so far back as the fourth century; and that, too, by St Augustine, in his celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation: We solemnize the day of our Saviour’s Birth, in order that we may honour that Birth, which was for our salvation; but the precise day of the week, on which he was born, is void of any mystical signification. Sunday, on the contrary, the day of our Lord’s Resurrection, is the day marked, in the Creator’s designs, to express a mystery which was to be commemorated for all ages. St Isidore of Seville, and the ancient Interpreter of Sacred Rites who, for a long time, was supposed to be the learned Alcuin, have also adopted this explanation of the Bishop of Hippo; and our readers may see their words interpreted by Durandus, in his Rationale.
These writers, then, observe that as, according to a sacred tradition, the creation of man took place on a Friday, and our Saviour suffered death also on a Friday for the redemption of man; that as, moreover, the Resurrection of our Lord was on the third day after his death, that is, on a Sunday, which is the day on which the Light was created, as we learn from the Book of Genesis - ‘the two Solemnities of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection,’ says St Augustine, ‘do not only remind us of those divine facts; but they moreover represent and signify some other mysterious and holy thing.’ [Epist. ad Januarium.]
And yet we are not to suppose that because the Feast of Jesus’ Birth is not fixed to any particular day of the week, there is no mystery expressed by its being always on the twenty-fifth of December. For firstly we may observe, with the old Liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept by turns on each of the days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid them of the curse which Adam’s sin had put upon them. But secondly, the great mystery of the twenty-fifth of December, being the Feast of our Saviour’s Birth, has reference, not to the division of time marked out by God himself, which is called the Week; but to the course of that great Luminary which gives life to the world, because it gives it light and warmth. Jesus, our Saviour, the Light of the World [St John viii 12], was born when the night of idolatry and crime was at its darkest; and the day of his Birth, the twenty-fifth of December, is that on which the material Sun begins to gain his ascendency over the reign of gloomy night, and show to the world his triumph of brightness.
In our ‘Advent’ we showed, after the Holy Fathers, that the diminution of the physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times which preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people of the Old Testament; and, with our holy Mother the Church, we cried out to the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that he would deign to come and deliver us from the twofold death of body and soul. God has heard our prayers; and it is on the day of the Winter Solstice - which the Pagans of old made so much of by their fears and rejoicings - that he gives us both the increase of the natural light, and him who is the Light of our souls.
St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ambrose, St Maximus of Turin, St Leo, St Bernard, and the principal Liturgists, dwell with complacency on this profound mystery, which the Creator of the universe has willed should mark both the natural and the supernatural world. We shall find the Church also making continual allusion to it during this season of Christmas, as she did in that of Advent.
‘On this the Day which the Lord hath made,’ says St Gregory of Nyssa, ‘darkness decreases, light increases, and Night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will, that this natural change begins on the day when he shows himself in the brightness of his coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance of our Saviour’s coming. Nature seems to me to say: Know, O Man! that under the things which I show thee Mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had reached its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward its duration shall be shortened, until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his position higher in the heavens: learn from that how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth.’ [Homily On the Nativity.]
Let us, my Brethren, rejoice,’ cries out St Augustine: [Sermon On the Nativity of our Lord, iii] ‘this day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of him who is the invisible Creator of the sun. ... He chose this day whereon to be born, as he chose the Mother of whom to be born, and he made both the day and the Mother. The day he chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it tvpifies the work of Christ, who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator having willed to be born in time, his Birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of his creation.’
The same holy Father, in another sermon for the same Feast, gives us the interpretation of a mysterious expression of St John Baptist, which admirably confirms the tradition of the Church. The great Precursor said on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease [St John iii 30]. These prophetic words signify, in their literal sense, that the Baptist’s mission was at its close, because Jesus was entering upon his. But they convey, as St Augustine assures us, a second meaning: ‘John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases.’ [Sermon In Natali Domini, xi]. Thus, there is mystery both in the rising of that glorious Star, the Baptist, at the summer solstice: and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter.
[It is almost unnecessary to add that this doctrine of the Holy Fathers which is embodied in the Christmas Liturgy is not in any degree falsified by the fact that there are some parts of God’s earth where Christmas falls in a season the very opposite of Winter. Our Lord selected, for the place of his Birth, one which made it Winter when he came upon earth; and by that selection he stamped the Mystery taught in the text on the season of darkness and cold. Our brethren in Australia, for example, will have the Mystery without the Winter, when they are keeping Christmas; or, more correctly, their faith and the Holy Liturgy will unite them with us, both in the Winter and the Mystery of the great Birth in Bethlehem. - Translator’s Note.]
There have been men who dared to scoff at Christianity as a superstition, because they discovered that the ancient Pagans used to keep a feast of the sun on the winter solstice! In their shallow erudition they concluded that a Religion could not be divinely instituted, which had certain rites or customs originating in an analogy to certain phenomena of this world: in other words, these writers denied what Revelation asserts, namely, that God only created this world for the sake of his Christ and his Church. The very facts which these enemies of our holy Religion brought forward as objections to the true Faith are, to us Catholics, additional proof of its being worthy of our most devoted love.
Thus, then, have we explained the fundamental Mystery of these Forty Days of Christmas, by having shown the grand secret hidden in the choice made by God’s eternal decree, that the twenty-fifth day of December should be the Birthday of God upon this earth. Let us now respectfully study another mystery: that which is involved in the place where this Birth happened.
This place is Bethlehem. Out of Bethlehem, says the Prophet, shall he come for/h that is to be the Ruler in Israel [Mich. v 2]. The Jewish Priests are well aware of the prophecy, and a few days hence will tell it to Herod [St Matt. ii 5]. But why was this insignificant town chosen in preference to every other to be the birth-place of Jesus? Be attentive, Christians, to the mystery! The name of this City of David signifies the House of Bread: therefore did he, who is the living Bread come down from heaven [St John vi 41], choose it for his first visible home. Our Fathers did eat manna in the desert and are dead [Ibid. vi 49]; but lo! here is the Saviour of the world, come to give life to his creature Man by means of his own divine Flesh, which is meat indeed [Ibid. vi. 56]. Up to this time the Creator and the creature had been separated from each other; henceforth they shall abide together in closest union. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the manna which fed but the body, is now replaced by the Ark of a New Covenant, purer and more incorruptible than the other: the incomparable Virgin Mary, who gives us Jesus, the Bread of Angels, the nourishment which will give us a divine transformation; for this Jesus himself has said: He that eateth my flesh abideth in me, and I in him [Ibid. vi 57].
It is for this divine transformation that the world was in expectation for four thousand years, and for which the Church prepared herself by the four weeks of Advent. It has come at last, and Jesus is about to enter within us, if we will but receive him [Ibid. i 12]. He asks to be united to each one of us in particular, just as he is united by his Incarnation to the whole human race; and for this end he wishes to become our Bread, our spiritual nourishment. His coming into the souls of men at this mystic season has no other aim than this union. He comes not to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him [Ibid. iii 17], and that all may have life, and may have it more abundantly [Ibid. x 10]. This divine Lover of our souls will not be satisfied, therefore, until he have substituted himself in our place, so that we may live not we ourselves, but he in us; and in order that this mystery may be effected in a sweeter way, it is under the form of an Infant that this Beautiful Fruit of Bethlehem wishes first to enter into us, there to grow afterwards in wisdom and age before God and men [St Luke ii 40, 52].
And when, having thus visited us by his grace and nourished us in his love, he shall have changed us into himself, there shall be accomplished in us a still further mystery. Having become one in spirit and heart with Jesus, the Son of the heavenly Father, we shall also become sons of this same God our Father. The Beloved Disciple, speaking of this our dignity, cries out: Behold! what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the Sons of God! [St John iii 1]. We will not now stay to consider this immense happiness of the Christian soul, as we shall have a more fitting occasion, further on, to speak of it, and show by what means it is to be maintained and increased.
There is another subject, too, which we regret being obliged to notice only in a passing way. It is, that, from the day itself of our Saviours Birth even to the day of our Lady’s Purification, there is, in the Calendar, an extraordinary richness of Saints’ Feasts, doing homage to the master feast of Bethlehem, and clustering in adoring love round the Crib of the Infant-God. To say nothing of the four great Stars which shine so brightly near our Divine Sun, from whom they borrow all their own grand beauty - St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and our own St Thomas of Canterbury: what other portion of the Liturgical Year is there that can show within the same number of days so brilliant a constellation? The Apostolic College contributes its two grand luminaries, St Peter and St Paul: the first in his Chair of Rome; the second in the miracle of his Conversion. The Martyr-host sends us the splendid champions of Christ, Timothy, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Vincent, and Sebastian. The radiant line of Roman Pontiffs lends us four of its glorious links, named Sylvester, Telesphorus, Hyginus and Marcellus. The sublime school of holy Doctors offers us Hilary, John Chrysostom, and Ildephonsus; and in their company stands a fourth Bishop - the amiable Francis de Sales. The Confessor-kingdom is represented by Paul the Hermit, Anthony the conqueror of Satan, Maurus the Apostle of the Cloister, Peter Nolasco the deliverer of captives, and Raymond of Pennafort, the oracle of Canon Law and guide of the consciences of men. The army of defenders of the Church deputes the pious King Canute, who died in defence of our Holy Mother, and Charlemagne, who loved to sign himself ‘the humble champion of the Church.’ The choir of holy Virgins gives us the sweet Agnes, the generous Emerentiana, the invincible Martina. And lastly, from the saintly ranks which stand below the Virgins - the holy Widows - we have Paula, the enthusiastic lover of Jesus’ Crib. Truly, our Christmastide is a glorious festive season! What magnificence in its Calendar! What a banquet for us in its Liturgy!
A word upon the symbolism of the colours used by the Church during this season. White is her Christmas Vestment; and she employs this colour at every service from Christmas Day to the Octave of the Epiphany. To honour her two Martyrs, Stephen and Thomas of Canterbury, she vests in red; and to condole with Rachel wailing her murdered Innocents, she puts on purple: but these are the only exceptions. On every other day of the twenty she expresses, by her white Robes, the gladness to which the Angels invited the world, the beauty of our Divine Sun that has risen in Bethlehem, the spotless purity of the Virgin-Mother, and the clean heartedness which they should have who come to worship at the mystic Crib.
During the remaining twenty days, the Church vests in accordance with the Feast she keeps; she varies the colour so as to harmonize either with the red Roses which wreathe a Martyr, or with the white Amaranths which grace her Bishops and her Confessors, or again, with the spotless Lilies which crown her Virgins. On the Sundays which come during this time - unless there occur a Feast requiring red or white or, unless Septuagesima has begun its three mournful weeks of preparation for Lent - the colour of the Vestments is green. This, say the interpreters of the Liturgy, is to teach us that in the Birth of Jesus, who is the flower of the fields [Cant. i 1],we first received the hope of salvation, and that after the bleak winter of heathendom and the Synagogue, there opened the verdant spring-time of grace.
With this we must close our mystical interpretation of those rites which belong to Christmas in general. Our readers will have observed that there are many other sacred and symbolical usages, to which we have not even alluded; but as the mysteries to which they belong are peculiar to certain days, and are not, so to speak, common to this portion of the Liturgical Year, we intend to treat fully of them all, as we meet with them on their proper Feasts.