Facebook and Christian Time: Some Disturbing and Comforting Aspects

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision

Contact Author

Hidden in Time

To celebrate its 10th anniversary at the beginning of 2014, the geniuses at Facebook dreamed up an audacious and complicated project: create a retrospective video montage for every Facebook user. It took them all of 25 days to get the job done. On February 4—the very date on which thefacebook.com launched a decade earlier—they shipped the finished products to Facebook’s more than 1 billion users. These “Look Back” videos were a smashing success, with more than 40% of users sharing their own videos with their friends. (You can find and edit yours at facebook.com/lookback.)

What the Look Back video presents is a highlight reel drawn from how Facebook is normally ordered (Facebook is now also making year-end review videos for its users). Each user’s personal timeline stretches down one’s profile page in reverse chronological order so that one can scroll all the way back to the start of one’s Facebook presence. (Actually, the timeline goes back beyond this date if something in your profile—like the date of your birth—precedes your arrival in the social network.) When a user dies, Facebook memorializes the user’s account, fixing and locking the timeline so that one’s friends—and possibly others—can view it indefinitely. If someone dies without a Facebook account, no one can create one for the deceased posthumously—instead, they must create a page or a group to memorialize the person. This means there are no Look Back videos for those who fail to plug themselves in to the social network.

Everyone who has ever been plugged in to Facebook has established a history. Even if a user deactivates an account, that user’s history is still there even though it remains hidden until reactivated. Dig down on the timeline of any individual user, and you will see their own downloadpersonal chronology: you can move from their present into their past. If, however, you stay on the newsfeed (the common space, as it were), all you will see is what is happening right now, or at least what happened pretty recently. The commonplace viewing experience on Facebook offers a streaming view of the (near) present because the newsfeed organizes what is happening now (or just about). Return to the newsfeed five days from now and the stream of the present will be revised. The newsfeed is always current, unless someone intentionally disturbs the feed.

How do you disturb the feed? It’s pretty easy, actually. If you go back to an individual user’s timeline and scroll down to some past event or post (or otherwise search out a dated photo from one of their albums), then either “like” or comment on it, this past event or post or photo will resurrect in the news feed as if it were current. For those who share the common area (newsfeed) with that person, this artifact of bygone days is embedded within current happenings. Now—Now—Now—Now—Now becomes Now—Now—Now—8 Years Ago—Now—Now. I know a few people (and you know who you are [Renée]) who have turned disturbing the tyranny of the present into an art form: they select just the right photo or post from a friend’s less refined past and cause it to be distributed in their network of today. Convivial ridiculing ensues.

Whereas the Look Back obviously discloses that it is presenting the past in the view of the present, the “feed disturbance” causes temporal dissonance by sneaking the past into the present. Both of these phenomena are possible because Facebook holds on to the past. In fact, one could argue that Facebook never forgets: it retains everything (perhaps even those things you think you have deleted). Facebook is designed to continually run along with the “present” towards the “future” while archiving elapsed “presents” as the “past”. The “past” is retrievable in the “present”, but it doesn’t properly belong there.

In short, Facebook is a study in time. It is built as an enormous capacity to store histories and suggest interconnected meanings for those histories through its sophisticated algorithms. To establish an identity on Facebook is to plug in to a (seemingly) unlimited storehouse. In this storehouse, individual Facebook identities are preserved into perpetuity along with all the moments of connections that made those identities appear.

As interesting or disturbing as this might seem, what happens with time on Facebook bears a resemblance to what the pre-Facebook Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote about time, personal histories, and the memory of the inerasable you:

[Y]our whole life remains preserved for you; everything you have done and suffered is gathered together in your being. You may have forgotten it, yet it is still there. It may appear to you as a pale dream even when you do remember who you once were, did and thought. All this you still are (“The Comfort of Time,” 147).

Measuring Time

On the one hand, most of us flee from being defined by who we once were, and not one of us wants to be held responsible for all she has said, done, or thought (just ask the executives at Sony Pictures). On the other hand, the many things we have lost throughout our lives haunt us: unfinished relationships, faded memories, joys desired too late. We often conceive of ourselves as strange hybrid products of pasts that we both do and do not want, and of futures that we both hasten to and shy away from. It can seem, thus, like the time of life is measured as a trial without end (Augustine, Confessions, X.28.39).

TimeThe Facebook manner of measuring time exacerbates this feeling. If you are not current, you do not exist… unless someone goes to find you and perhaps collects some piece of your past to deposit in the present. Facebook existence is enhanced and perpetuated according to the approval one receives in the common space of the newsfeed or (less effectively) the sheer quantity of newsfeed appearances. Every posting in the present pushes the past farther down the timeline even while the present posting is always threatened by the next series of present moments already appearing. Even though Facebook is a vast storehouse, it is one in which notoriety and repetitive self-announcement determine the substantiality of one’s presence.

This is why the difference between Facebook’s notion of time and the Christian notion of time that Karl Rahner contemplates is even more important than the resemblance they bear to one another. The most important distinction lies in this fact: no one prays to Facebook. Despite the sophistication of its programming, it remains an impersonal platform that does not, itself, know you even as it facilitates social connections between people who may or may not really know each other. Psalm 139 sounds like the beginning of a very miss-able dystopian thriller when Facebook becomes the addressee:

O [Facebook], you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

behold, O [Facebook], you know it altogether.

You beset me behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is high, I cannot attain it (Ps 139:1-6, RSV).

Facebook tracks you; it doesn’t know you. Its memory of what you have done and what has been done to you is so vast that it may seem as if it discerns your meaning, but in fact it is forever limited to analyzing patterns.

Contemplating the Christian meaning of time means coming to the truth that the one who holds the entire memory of your life, who binds who you have been to who you are and who carries this all forward into who you shall become, is the tripersonal God. The impersonal matrix mimics this God. He knows you.

EternityThis fundamental difference has everything to do with the issue of how to measure time. In reference to God, time is not measured according to a series of events that move continuously from the indeterminate future through the present into the fixed past. In reference to God, time is measured by eternity. But what is eternity? Eternity, in our own creaturely terms, is the correspondence between God’s knowing us and our own free response to God’s address. Rather than an unending stream of passing “now” moments where the doing and saying of new, up-to-date things determines “reality”, the Christian doctrine of eternity is concerned with the fullness of the response of a human life to the gift of life and call to communion that come from the God who creates all things, sustains all things, and moves all things. This means that what is eternal is what we each ultimately becomes in response to—as a response to—the God who ‘searches me and knows me.’ Eternity is thus dependent upon God’s relating to us and time is measured according to the degree to which the free decisions of a lifetime correspond with the final decision of who I become in relation to God (see again Rahner, 151 and 157). God knows us through his desire to create, redeem, and sanctify; through his absolute freedom to give for our own good; by his mercy. We come to know ourselves in time as we come to desire what God desires, participate in the freedom of what and how God gives, and move in the stream of his mercy. In the end, we are not fixed and locked into the chronology of what we have done but transformed by what God does for, with, and through us.

The Comfort of Time

To be only what we are today, at this moment, would be most distressing. Even more, if we were each responsible for holding ourselves together and establishing the content of the memorial for ourselves before our identity is fixed and locked, anxiety would rule the day. To exist for a time in a series of changes without end and, ultimately, without reason, rendered visible according to what appears in the ever-fleeting “present”, would push each of us toward the ultimate horizon of insignificance. If algorithms or the turning of calendar pages marked the meaning of our time, then we would be most pitiable of all. And how great, how unbearable the weight would be if we ever found ourselves in the position to make a definitive decision about ourselves once and for all, in a single moment. Angels alone bear this burden: we have time to make a decision about ourselves in relation to God.

God brings comfort to time because he both retains and perfects what we always have been. God does not just do this for us; God does this with us. Christian hope is both harsher and more beautiful than we typically imagine: for in him who knows us and has claimed us and seeks our own good, we shall come to claim and complete even those things that we are unable or unwilling to claim and complete in this “present” time. What’s more, the meaning of this “present” time is measured according to the fulfillment of who we shall become in him Christmas(1 Jn 3:2; cf. 1 Cor 13:12). Unlike Facebook time, our time does not move ceaselessly along the steady newsfeed conveyor belt that turns the future into the past through the mechanism of the present. There is an end to time in God, not just in the sense that there is a point at which time will be no more but also in that time itself has as its definitive referent in God who works unceasingly to draw his creation into full communion (see Rev 10:5-7).

Many of us feel the strain of time more acutely at the turning of the calendar year, when what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost presses upon our consciousness out of turn, while when we peer ahead to pitfalls and possibilities yet to come. Lest we think that we are carried along in a stream of impersonal quasi-realism powered by the machinations of fate, we should take comfort in remembering that we are each created in a world that is itself created through the knowing love of a tripersonal God who preserves us even when we lose ourselves. For good reason, then, Karl Rahner announces:

The comforting aspect of time! We do not lose anything but are always gaining. It is true that ultimately this is known only to the believer. But is it any the less true for this, and any the less the comfort of time? Life gathers itself together more and more, the more apparently the past lies behind us. The more it seems like that, the more we have in front of us. And when we arrive, we find our whole life and all its real possibilities, and the meaning of all the possibilities which had been given to us. There is not only a resurrection of the body but also a resurrection of time in eternity. This is not the remaining of an abstract subject, which continues to enjoy life, because it had at some time in the distant past behaved itself properly, but it is a changed and transfigured time. In it we are not, indeed, peasant or pope, poor or rich, but then one has not simply ‘been’ all this just to become something different now. One sees oneself completely now and is not merely someone receiving a pension for past services rendered, someone who now follows a different occupation. For in everything one has done in the past, one really did only one thing after all (even though it became part of a synthesis together with the many other things one did, a synthesis which characterizes it even in its fulfillment), viz. one tried to attain oneself completely, together with everything one had by nature and grace, and to make a complete transfer of this one total reality in believing love into the incomprehensible mystery of God. And this attempt has now completely succeeded. In all we experienced of it in our life, it always seemed to be successful only in part and bit by bit. We seemed always to land back again in ourselves, in our empty poverty, our total weakness and the miserable dilettantism of our love of God. What we seemed to have only succeeded with in a piecemeal fashion, even that seemed to be consumed again without trace in that demolition of our corporeal, earthly existence which we call our life proceeding towards death. But all this is only the darkness in which – as the common milieu of guilt and redemption, as the sphere of faith and despair – man must allow his life and himself to be hidden. Yet in it he is completely preserved. Eternity does not, properly speaking, come after time but rather is the fulfillment of time. Our eternity ripens out of time as the fruit in which, when it has fully grown, everything we were and became in this time is conserved (Rahner, 156-57).

Crèches from around the World, 4th Stop: The Middle East

Egypt: With Mandolin and Tambourine
by the Coptic Christian Art Studio
soft pine wood

Egypt Nativity

The Eastern icon has roots in Coptic art. Hailed as a link between Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, and Islamic art, Coptic art seeks beauty in simplicity. What is meant is both the simplicity of idea and form. The idea centers on what is essential. Form lends color and body to make the essential present and visible. But what is essential? It is the age-old celebration of God’s revelation in Incarnation and Redemption. Here lies the challenge of Coptic art and all Eastern iconography: to make visible in humble and simple form the beauty of divine presence and beauty. Its program consists of maximum meaning in minimal form. The abstract design of this nativity set created by turning each piece of wood on a lathe is reminiscent in some way of the very spirit of Coptic art.

Palestine: Joy of the Moment
by Y. Yashir
fabric

Palestine Nativity

Nativity sets made of olive wood are widely known. They represent one of two créche traditions originating in Christian Palestine. The other tradition adopted fabric for its Nativity creations. If the wooden carved figures reflect the solemn character of Orientalist art, we discover a more genuinely native aura among the Nativity actors and actresses made of fabric. Colorful yet unpretentious, they suggest joy of life amid simplicity and hardship. This Nativity set brings to life memories of sun and dust, the fragrances of the marketplace and the excited shouts of merchants. Most important, this Christmas scene wants to be a festive hymn of welcome to the newborn. But somehow the impression lingers that joy is but a moment, and that its bright intensity mercifully hides the long haul ahead, a trying journey through the valley of tears.

Crèches from around the World, 3rd Stop: France

While the crèches from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa come from many different countries within those continents, the crèches from Europe were all created in France. These were chosen specifically to honor the birthplace of Father Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C. (1814–1893), founder of the University of Notre Dame, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year.

The Quimper Saints
by HB-Henriot Quimper Faience

France Quimper

In France nativity figures go by the name of santons after the fa- mous santons of Provence. Thus, the santons of Alsace (P. Delorme) and the santons of Brittany (Roi de Bretagne, see below) are well known. A popular name for small and cheap statues of saints in the beginning (1850–1900), these “little saints” or santons are the guardians of at least one small corner of the French soul: its charming, gregarious, and joyful nature. In Quimper (Brittany), one of the citadels of French faience creations, they achieve a special patrician look thanks to their intense colored glazes: the white, yellow, and blue colors of the magi, and the greens for the shepherds. Only Mary and Joseph, no doubt to single out their humble station, are clad in colors of grayish green. The Christ-child matches the kingly visitors in regal blue, white, and yellow.

Santons of Brittany
by Roi de Bretagne
wood

France Santons of Brittany

Ferociously independent and intensely dedicated to the sea, to Saint Anne, and to its reputation of being the guardian of the end of the world (Finistère), Brittany, situated in the northwestern corner of France, has its own brand of Santons. Manufactured by the studio of “Roi de Bretagne” in Plougastel, the figures are entirely handcrafted and painted. Each piece bears the initials of the artisan who made it. The costumes are based on models exhibited in the “Musée departemental Breton” of Quimper. Jesus is featured in the baptismal attire of Plougastel, whereas Mary and Joseph are wearing the costumes of Point-Aven respectively, Bannalec. The couple of Guérande, called “swampers,” are collectors of salt. Johnny of Roscoff is selling onions in England. He is accompanied by his friend, the fisherman, who takes him across the channel. The ladies of Morbihan represent the human condition: they are the “chatter boxes.” The couple of Plougastel carries an apple tree laden with red apples—a promise of new life in the midst of winter, and a symbol of Christmas.

Peaceful Interiority
by the Bethlehem Sisters of Mougères
carved wood

France Peaceful Interiority Nativity

Bombastic and superficial, some of contemporary Christmas culture irks and annoys adult taste. A possible reaction is illustrated in this Romanesque nativity. Retrieving the art of medieval bas-reliefs and sculpted capitals, the Sisters of Bethlehem offer a Christmas world of peaceful interiority and serene contemplation.

Elegant Piety
by Fernand Py

Puzzled by the prosaic and ordinary simplicity of the first Christmas, adult generosity seeks to enhance the original with added elegance and riches. Fernand Py’s figures have the noble profile of Gothic art enriched with a touch of ornamental magic. In elevated station like the kings, or huddled around the manger, the actors of this scene are a tribute to elegant piety.

Guardians of the Savior
by Marie Arbel
plaster

France Guardians Nativity

This nativity set was created by Marie Arbel, a French liturgical artist. It bears the marks of the mid-twentieth century reawakening of sacred art. The simple lines and classical forms of the figures reflect a downright departure from the sentimental art of St. Sulpice. They signal at the same time a new spiritual realism and openness to the stylistic canons of contemporary art. The calm stability of the various characters, ox and ass in particular, amply justifies the title of “Guardians of the Savior.”

Christ in the Village
by J. Peyron
clay, textiles

In the French tradition of Provence, the Holy Family comes to the village, and only then will the people gather around the manger. Provençal Santons—the so-called “little saints”—are most gregarious. And when Christmas comes, the whole village from the mayor to the village jester is mobilized. Without exception! Even the Gypsy woman with tambourine and brightly colored clothes is part of the cortege. Now, have you ever seen a congregation of Frenchmen and women that does not engage in some lively discussion and dispute? And so this nativity scene could have been called “The Dispute.” From the running commentary by the farmer on the left looking at you—to the two women engrossed in conversation on the right, the whole scene is bristling with a mixture of curiosity and enthusiasm. Not even Joseph escapes the quizzing of Professor Boniface. Meanwhile, Mary holds silent watch, and the “Bousquae-tiero, “ the woman with the bundle of wood, delivers her modest gift.

Crèches from around the World, 2nd Stop: South America

Chile: Naturally Bent (Cow Horn Nativity)
by Carmen and Antonio Jerez and Carevic
cow horn

Chile

“Naturally Bent” has a double meaning in this nativity set. Visually, the title refers to the posture of the figures in this set. Like two waves coming in from different directions, the joyful piety of the holy couple and the wise men is closing in on and literally enveloping the baby in the manger. There is a grace in their movement, and a tenderness in their respectful gesture. And there is nothing artificial about these figures; they are naturally bent. However, “naturally bent” also refers to the physical reality of the characters of this nativity. Using naturally bent cow horns, the artists transformed them into the darling figures of this set. Each culture has its own method and its own materials to represent the Nativity. Frequently, these materials are taken from the common riches of the country. But no material is worthless. In Christ’s birth, all of human reality and nature achieve new value and nobility.

Peru: Hands and Feet
by A. Jiminez

Peru Nativity

Although the Peruvian Andes Mountains are some of the most rugged in the world, many small villages can be found in their high valleys and plateaus. The men of these villages farm the level areas and raise what livestock they can on the slopes of the mountains, while the women, in their spare time, make handicraft items. In this manner, they barely eke out a living. It is only through the sale of the handicrafts that they earn money to buy the modern goods which they need. These handicrafts reflect beliefs and lifestyles, drawn from a mixture of folk tales and religion, for their themes. Once, possibly twice a year, they come down from the mountains with their goods packed on the backs of their llamas, in order to sell them at various markets and fairs. (There are no roads in the Andes—only narrow foot trails which require the services of pack animals.) This trip may take over a month to complete.

Argentina: Still Coming
by Gracia Kuchaczuk

Argentina figure

Attentive observation suggests that representations of the Nativity follow two typical movements. There are nativity sets where all the characters move forward and gather around the manger. A different and more recent tradition reverses the movement and sends the Holy Family in search of the world and of people. In this set we see the Holy Family in open space, limited only by a distant horizon separating water and sky. We don’t know where their boat—made from leather—will take them. The sheer limitless space seems like an unfair challenge for the humble couple and their child. But there lingers a confident joy on their faces. The mission is engaged. It must continue. This set is reminiscent of a different boat ride and a different river. This representation of the flight to Egypt has the Holy Family riding the river Nile. The banks of the river are infested with wild animals, lions, and dragons. Threatening at first, they will eventually follow the Holy Family, subdued and subservient. And thus, again and again, the message of Christmas travels the world.

Bolivia: Eyes, Eyes
by Walter Melendres

Bolivia Nativity

These figures from Jesús de Machaca (Bolivia) are affectionately called “Tilinchos,” meaning “small” in Aymara, the local language. Though dressed in the colorful costumes of the Aymara culture, their one characteristic feature is their eyes. Wider than heaven and darker than amber, they are an ever-moving kaleidoscope of frank curiosity and bottomless wonder—a true child’s delight of conquering the world.

Ecuador: Flying Camels
by Esther Bedoya de Arias

Ecuador Nativity

Well, not all three camels are flying. But the one who is, perched high above the others, seems to thoroughly enjoy it. The sumptuous robes of the master and magus lend wings to his endeavor. Using his artfully twisted head and neck as rudder, he seeks out the winds of providence which will take both camel and rider to safe port. Speaking about safe port, have a look at him who is our port of salvation. Doesn’t he look cute on his bed of pink flowers, legs elegantly crossed and arms extended in a noble gesture of universal invitation? For once, the adjective cute seems to apply, not only to the representation of the Christ child but to the whole set. All these figures are pretty, dainty and sweet. There is more, however. These personages exude an aura of seasoned wisdom and saintly shrewdness, so much so that even the sheep seem to know what this commotion is all about. At first glance, baby Jesus and his whole company may look like the highly elaborate sugar-coating on an expensive wedding cake. A closer look reveals that these figures of hardened bread dough, intricately decorated and robed with glistening veneer, play a role not unlike Egyptian art. All flat and frontal, they have no life of their own. Their whole purpose is to show and tell the story.

Crèches From Around the World, 1st Stop: Central America

Over the past month, crèches (nativity scenes) from all over the world have been displayed at various locations throughout the Notre Dame campus. These crèches are on loan from The Marian Library International Crèche at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and the exhibit has provided many different points of contemplation for the mystery of the Incarnation to the many who have viewed them during this Advent season. On Sunday, December 7, more than 200 people gathered at Notre Dame to participate in a pilgrimage, viewing the crèches on display in four different locations. Through the magic of technology, we invite you to make a digital pilgrimage, as over the next several days, we will be posting images of these beautiful crèches. We are also including descriptive reflections written by Fr. Johann Roten, SM of the University of Dayton, and we hope that this will be an opportunity for you to contemplate anew the mystery of the Word made flesh as he is depicted in these unique and extraordinary crèches.

By way of introduction, we would like to share a reflection from the pilgrimage itself, written by Institute for Church Life Director John Cavadini:

For God so loved the world that he gave his Only-begotten Son. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law (Jn 3:16; Gal 4:4). In these beautiful words, Scripture solemnly proclaims the great mystery of the Incarnation. We learn that it is a mystery of God’s love for the world. The sign that it is a mystery of God’s love for the world is that it occurs not outside of the world, but at the heart of the world, in the womb of a woman, in the midst of God’s people. In the crèche, we see this heart of the world, the world which God so loved. We see the Only-begotten Son, and the woman of whom he was born. We see them received into the hearts of all those who come, in these crèche scenes, from all over the world. We see here depicted the fullness of time, the intimate meeting of Creator and creation. We see the world taken into the heart of God, living in the heart of God, right there before our eyes, and we see God living in the heart of the world, and received gladly by so many global citizens . . . in a mystery of welcome, the welcome of the world into God’s heart, and the welcome of God into the heart of the world.

By gazing upon these artistic representations of the Incarnate Word of God, may we enter more deeply into the mystery of his birth, so that he might continue to take flesh in our hearts and in our world.

CENTRAL AMERICA

El Salvador: Upland Living by Fernando Llort (b.1949, San Salvador)
glazed terracotta

El Salvador

From the mountains of Chalatenango close to Honduras, these tiny figures in sparkling black, red, and green tell the story of upland living. Though sparse and harsh, life is a constant reminder that grandeur and riches are from above. Llort’s figures speak the common sense of humility, the language of the little ones.

Mexico: Wonders of Life by José Tomás Esparza León
ceramic

The artist of this set is from Tonalá in the state of Jalisco (Mexico). He has won Mexico’s presidential award for his art, and this nativity set was awarded first prize in the 1996 International Crèche contest in Bellingham, Washington. Esparza makes his nativity sets using pre-Columbian techniques inherited from his ancestors. The clay is dug from the hillsides near his town, and the dyes are all natural materials. The distinctive features of this set are the lively and varied design elements, mainly floral and animal figures interspersed with geometric ornaments. The ornamental figures are the real reason for this nativity set. Christmas rose, peacock or rabbit: they all proclaim, in so many voices, the wonders of life.

Mexico: Hymn of Creation by José Tomás Esparza León
painted terracotta

This second set by José Tomás Esparza León reflects one of many styles of Mexican nacimientos.  Its figures are rounded and sturdy, providing the painter with much surface to demonstrate his skills. Influenced by pre-Christian indigenous culture, the personages are covered in front and back with artful ornaments, luxuriant flora and mythic animals. This hymn of creation, showing fish and fowl, rabbits and deer, is also a hymn to life and its manifold plenty. The figures, representatives of life in its various forms, are gathered respectfully around the very source of life, the Christ-child. In contrast with life as it should be, exuberant and plentiful, the setting is humble and sober. It conveys the frequent opposition between material poverty and the riches of the soul, or, life as it could and should be and its fallen present reality.

Humbly Discovering the Gift of Christmas

LauraMcCarthyLaura McCarty

Notre Dame Alumna, Class of 2011

Contact Author

I have a short temper with things that aren’t real. This is why I proudly disdain most fashion magazines, pop culture, and mainstream music on the radio. I take great pride in searching for the ‘authentic’ things in life, not often seeing the danger in dismissing the things that are ‘beneath’ me. It is always dangerous to assume personal superiority, like the Pharisee in the temple who thanks God he is not like the repentant tax collector praying nearby. Pride goes before the fall, right? But every year, I ask myself the same question: “Why do I dislike Christmas so much?” Then I haul myself up onto my annual soapbox about how Christmas is so materialistic, business-oriented, and politically correct with all of the “Happy Holidays” greetings. In short, it seems like Christmas is on a mission to aggravate all of my personal pet peeves. In my pride, I say, “These things aren’t REAL!! I am better than this holiday, better than the people who scurry around the mall looking for gifts and better than store employees who tiptoe around wishing people “Happy Holidays!!” I’m better than all of this! I want what’s real!”

But in our broken world, things that are eternal rarely appear in a ‘pure’ form. They often come wrapped up in things that will pass away, and we know their holiness because they are humble enough to be hidden in things that are less than themselves. Imagine a diamond wrapped up in paper, and you’ll get the idea. The seekers of truth are rewarded when they choose their path based on the unconditional desire for truth, regardless of the form it takes when it is found. They do not demand the terms of their pursuit or the circumstances of their discovery: they only follow with trust and are therefore led by grace.

Christ was born in a shelter for animals, and His first resting-place was a feeding trough. He was humble enough to be laid in a poor, ordinary place, and the shepherds and kings alike were humble enough to seek Him in those surroundings. The eternal Son of God was not too mighty to surround Himself in humble beginnings, and the test of His followers’ faith was whether their hearts were open enough to find Him there.

So the question for me, on my mighty high-horse of wanting Christmas to be ‘real’, is this: will I be humble enough to search for the heart of Christmas, surrounded by flawed things like materialism that are less than itself? Will I, like the kings and shepherds, follow the Star to Christ even if it leads me on paths I do not expect? Will my longing for the truth help me forgive the humility of its surroundings when it is found? Will I understand that, like Christ in human form, true and lovely things show their sanctity by not disdaining what is passing and broken but by making their home there so that we, the broken human race, might find the presence of God?
God is humble enough to be found in a manger among poor and mean circumstances. With all of the superficial circumstances of modern-day Christmas, will we trust that the heart of Christmas in Christ’s birth is worth searching for, hidden as it may be by the broken things we’ve propped up around it? So far, our Lord has not crash-landed our modern Christmas by saying, “NO NO NO, ALL OF THIS MATERIALISM IS WRONG!!” So it stands to reason that He intends for us to seek Him in Christmas, even though there’s a lot of other things to wade through on the way. If we want what is ‘real’, we need to take a lesson from the shepherds and kings in Scripture: to search for what is true, holy, and beautiful, regardless of where the road takes us on the way.
Come, Lord Jesus. Make us humble as your first followers were humble, whose love was strong enough to make them seek You where you were found rather than where they expected You to be. Make us gentle enough to be surprised by You, and make our hearts after Your own heart by seeing God’s eternal love at work in places we don’t expect. Give us the humility to be led by You, now and always. Amen.

Weeping with Rachel, in Sorrow and Hope

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

There are some stereotypes that often accompany the college stage of a woman’s life. Some (like loving babies, studying in coffee shops, etc), I embrace. Others I do my absolute best to avoid (and we’ll leave those ones to the imagination). My friends and I all proudly take up an affection for and gravitation toward all infants and young children within a mile radius as our stereotypical banner of choice. In fact, we have an unspoken arrangement that involves Mutter und Kindimmediately informing each other of the presence of any nearby bundle(s) of joy. My girlfriends and I revel in the wonder that small children have; we discuss how there is nothing on this earth more precious than tiny fingers, toes, and noses; we feel the urge to play peek-a-boo with any and all small children who cross our path. And if we see a little tyke just wobbily learning to walk, it is absolutely the game-over-highlight of our day. Not having children of our own yet means that we certainly still have a somewhat romanticized view of young children and parenthood, but we honestly mean well, and the call of Jesus to “let the little children come” resonates with us.

Saint_Bernard_Church_(Burkettsville,_OH)_-_clerestory,_Let_the_Children_Come_to_Me,_detail

At Christmas, that love and the gravitational pull of my heart towards little ones seasonally intensifies. And every year, the fact that our Lord came to earth not as an adult but as a helpless, innocent, dependent little one who needed the arms of His mother Mary and his foster-flight into egyptfather Joseph repeatedly stuns me.

But the Feast of the Holy Innocents is not warm and fuzzy. This feast is not a day where we can blithely wonder what it would have been like to count the toes of Baby Jesus and to kiss His head. The Church commemorates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, as it has been doing so since at least the fifth century. The Gospel of Matthew helps us to remember that Joseph and Mary left a dire situation when they fled with Jesus toward Egypt:

“When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

How can a day when we remember the martyrdom of infant and toddler baby boys who died in Jesus’ stead because of Herod’s fear, wrath, and pride fit in with the love of children, littleness, and humility that permeates the very foundations of our faith at Christmas? Why do we celebrate and remember a day when infant boys were massacred? We were reminded in the Office of Readings on Christmas of a sentiment that at first glance might not seem to fit with today:

“Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life.” (St. Leo)

Yet here we are, only a few days later, remembering the mothers who “wept with Rachel,” and aching for the infants whose lives were cruelly snuffed out by Herod’s soldiers. How are we supposed to reconcile that brutal fact and painful reality with warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas?

Put simply, we don’t.

St. Leo’s sermon on Christmas did not end with telling us sadness should have no place in the Christian life ever because of the feast of Christmas. The next line continues the story: “The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.” That is what makes the reality of the Holy Innocents livable. If we reduce Christmas to feelings of togetherness and cheerfulness, or if we disable the Mystery of the Incarnation and cripple it to fit in our boxes of gift giving and kitchens full of holiday smells, it will become impossible to reconcile the deaths of the little ones with a good God in faith. Instead, if we remember that the Incarnation actually means that our Savior became flesh and came to dwell among us, and that He was born in order that He could die for us so that we could have the hope of eternal glory, the narrative shifts. It shifts from one that would despair at the death of the Holy Innocents to one that celebrates and remembers them, counting them as martyrs, knowing that they did not die totally in vain.

imagesSt. Bede, the Doctor of the Church who is often mentioned for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” but who wrote enough to fill a library of material, penned a hymn in Latin titled, “Hymnum canentes martyrum” in memory of these infant martyrs whom we commemorate today. His hymn captures that narrative shift. This shift enables us to realize that Christmas is not about the saccharine fuzziness that we might societally associate it with, but rather the hope of heaven that became reality because our God became flesh, and dwelt among us, for us.

“A Hymn for Martyrs sweetly sing;

For Innocents your praises bring;

Of whom in tears was earth bereaved,

Whom heaven with songs of joy received

 Whose angels see the Father’s face

World without end, and hymn His grace;

And, while they praise their glorious King,

A hymn for Martyrs sweetly sing.

 A voice from Ramah was there sent,

holy-innocents-rachel-weepingA voice of weeping and lament,

While Rachel mourned her children sore,

Whom for the tyrant’s sword she bore

 After brief taste of earthly woe

Eternal triumph now they know;

For whom, by cruel torments rent,

A voice from Ramah was there sent

And every tear is wiped away

By your dear Father’s hands for aye:

Death hath no power to hurt you more;

Your own is life’s eternal shore

And all who, good seed bearing, weep,

In everlasting joy shall reap,

What time they shine in heavenly day,

And every tear is wiped away.

Bede’s song and our knowledge in faith does not mean that we shrug our shoulders at the pain and the injustice of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents; it does not mean that Herod (or his modern-day counterparts) gets a free pass. It does, however, mean that the meaning of the Incarnation is held together because of the Paschal Mystery. And that’s why when we hear of the deaths of the Innocents, we might still cry. But we can cry with hope, knowing that there is a place where every tear is wiped away.

The birth of our Savior has ripped apart the fabric of time. By His later death and resurrection,the Little One whose birth we celebrated this past Thursday saved the souls of the infants who died as Herod greedily tried to salvage his earthly power. And so when those baby boys died, they did not die in vain, but in the hope and promise of eternal life. We celebrate their memory as some of the first martyrs of our faith, knowing that our God can write straight with even the most crooked and sad lines of history.

The Feast of the Holy Family: Not Just a Model

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Those of us suspicious of the pious platitudes that too often make their home in Catholic homiletic practice know that the feast of the Holy Family is a “code-red” day for such platitudes. We families assemble in our parishes and are exhorted that we should conform our domestic life according to the peaceful, loving relationships of Jesus, Mary, and Jesus. The image of the Holy Family that we receive is one pictured on holy cards where perfect beauty and order and HolyFamilyattention are mutually given by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (I suppose there were no smartphones to distract attention…otherwise Christ would have been found in the temple playing Angry Birds).

Those of us with toddlers normally do not hear this point of homiletic insight (ironically) because our children want to take up their vocation as amateur arsonists by playing with the candles placed before the statue of the Blessed Mother or take a swim in the baptismal font. But for those of us able to attend to the preaching this day, we walk away with a sense of guilt that our own family lives (whether married with children or not) are too messy. Not one of us come from or are perfectly replicating a family that includes the Word made flesh, the Virgin conceived without sin, and the most just Joseph. Our family histories are marked by sin, by violence, by disorder. Even more so, not everyone in our parishes are themselves part of such families. Single men and women (with and without children), the infertile, the divorced, the widowed–should they tune out on the Feast of the Holy Family because this day is not ultimately about them?

The problem with the homiletic platitudes delivered on this feast day in the Octave of Christmas is that it quickly reduces the mystery of the Incarnation into a series of moral maxims nearly impossible for most of us to fulfill. It is Christianity as a form of works righteousness, an American gospel of “try a little harder and you too can be like Mary and Joseph and Jesus.” Liturgical feasts are not lessons of morality (at least primarily). They present to us some facet of Christ’s own life (or life in Christ in the case of the saints) that the universal Church HolyFamilyatWorkshould contemplate. In the case of the feast of the Holy Family, we contemplate nothing less than the total, self-emptying love of the Word made flesh, who chose to dwell among the human race in a family.

For those of us who have experience with families, I find this fact at least as shocking as the cross. Family life is exceedingly difficult. To be in a family involves learning to give yourself away even when you have no desire to do so. It is learning the virtue of obligation, of being there, of taking up one’s duties as a husband or father, a wife or mother, a child or a sibling. Yet, the real difficult part (and where salvation comes from) of family life is learning to “forget” that this love that you offer to the other is an obligation in the first place.  Of course, wives and husbands are obligated to one another. They may even take turns with particularly onerous tasks (like getting up in the middle of the night to soothe a crying child). Yet, only the most ridiculous of marriages operate out of a system of exchange in which a couple keeps track of every thing that his or her partner is obliged to do.

This obligation extends to child as well. As a child, I have called home to speak to my parents every Sunday since I went off to college in the year 2000. At this point, this phone call is obligatory (on the part of the caller and the receiver of the call I should say). Yet, the grace of family life is that obedience and obligation is transformed into gift. What we owe is to become what we give out of love. If family life is a Nativityschool of love, it is not because existence within a family (at least for those of us who are fallen) is intrinsically harmonious, full of good will and cheer. Rather, family life teaches us to give and to give and to give, forgetting what the gift costs and costs and costs. Everything.

The scandal of the feast of the Holy Family is that the Word made flesh, the very creator of the universe, learned the art of this gift-giving from us. He was obedient to Mary and Joseph, obliged to live under their care. The absolute love that he manifested in his ministry and upon the cross was not only divine love. Rather, it was a love made possible because he learned to love from Mary and Joseph. He learned what it means to give oneself away without counting the cost. The prayers of Christmas often speak about the marvelous exchange of humanity and divinity that took place in the babe born in Bethlehem. This exchange of divinity and humanity did not conclude at his birth but unfolded as the Word became flesh, became part of a family. And now too (after all it’s an exchange), our very own families in all of their messiness can become a place where the Word becomes flesh, where obligation becomes love, where the fullness of salvation unfolds.

For this reason, the feast of the Holy Family is not intended to make us feel bad that our families fall short of the measure of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (and they do and will). Rather, it presents to us the fact that even the messiness of family life is part of our salvation. And our family life (like that of the Holy Family) is not absolute peace and perfection. The Holy Family exists in a world in which the innocents are slaughtered, in which they become migrants in Egypt, in whichDeathofStJoseph they lose their son in the temple, in which they gather around Joseph at his death, in which Mary watches her son die upon a cross at the hands of the Roman Empire. Even in this mess, salvation does unfold.

Thus, I would urge homilists of all sorts to preach not pious platitudes but the mystery of salvation that all families need to hear.

  • We all need to hear that the Word became flesh, forever transforming what it means to be in relationship with one another.
  • We all need to hear that God loved us so much that God entered into the messiness of history not as idea but as embodied in a family.
  • We all need to hear that our salvation is inseparable from those very real obligations that we enter into as members of the human family as a whole–obligations that become gifts.

That is, the feast of the Holy Family is not simply for perfect families, with 2.5 children, with a nice house, where fighting and discord is absent. Rather, this feast is for the divorced, for those that struggle to love a parent who has done something atrocious, for those that long for children but cannot have them, for those who are forgotten and unloved, for single moms and single dads, for those who have left their homeland and families behind to send money to feed spouse and child, for those who are single but don’t want to be, and on and on. Even here, even in this messiness, the Word wants to become flesh and dwell among us.

And for our families, the goal is not to become merely like the Holy Family (Mom = Mary, Dad = Joseph, Child = Jesus). Rather, it is to become like the Word made flesh himself. To enter into the sorrowful places of the world, the places where neither obligation or love is found, and to offer the gift of love that is the heart of Christmas. This is a feast worth celebrating and preaching upon. This is the feast of the Holy Family.

Auden on the Feast of Stephen

Sam Bellafiore

 

Samuel Bellafiore
Undergraduate Fellow
B.A. 2015 Music, Philosophy

 

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.
– from W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being

December 26 can be a miserable morning. The fresh-looking print in one’s new books already has the dull glaze of familiarity. If you’re me, your new pants may already have a tear in them. Yesterday weren’t all things supposed to be made new?

Didn’t I just try for four weeks to egg on my longing for Christ, dragging it slouching and grumbling out from under my rocky heart? If I did, I have nothing to show for it. I’m still crabby and arrogant and hoping the Christ child will enjoy His generous allotment of one-quarter to one-half of my heart.

Auden knows me too well. “Once again/As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed/To do more than entertain it as an agreeable/Possibility…” On loathsome Boxing Day, tender and sympathetic Mother Church hands us St. Stephen.

Stephen was one of the first deacons, chosen by the apostles in Acts 6 to aid their ministry to the poor. By the end of the chapter the Jewish priests try him for blasphemy. And by the end of Chapter 7, he has been stoned. He is called the first martyr.

ststephen5I’ve liked Stephen since I first encountered him in my childhood Lives of the Saints.  Recently I’ve been drawn to his freshness and innocence. The picture (at right) from my saints book shows as much. Stephen wants nothing but God. Acts says those who tried him “looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15)

Perhaps many people find this sort of purity off-putting, especially in male saints. It looks weak; the art is not always good. Christianity asks everyone, including men, for weakness. This was as weird in 40 AD as it is today. But there’s also something compelling and attractive about it. Stephen’s weakness was not weakness born of flimsiness or spinelessness. His purity was born of intensity, for being pure means being intent. Søren Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing. At the end of his life Stephen came to will nothing other than God. It showed, on his face and in his dying.

Stephen lived in the very earliest of the early Church, in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s life on earth. Perhaps he can teach those of us who wonder what it means to live the day after Christmas, when our presents get tarnished, our faith gets weary and we wonder whether we really let Christ come after all. Stephen had what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness,” which my presents and I lack. He didn’t, as Auden says, entertain Christ an agreeable possibility. He entertained Christ as the true guest of his heart, a tenant who could have every room and never pay rent.

To do this, he had to become weak. Somewhere along the way, one doesn’t know when, Stephen had to let down some bars, give away some goods and give up some petty loves. He was, Acts tells us, a talented man — a good speaker, a quick thinker. He probably had to let go of some pride. In this process Christ came toThe Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen live in Him more and more. Christ took possession of his gifts and used them to preach the Gospel, maybe even to plant seeds in the heart of Saul, who Acts says was present at Stephen’s martyrdom.

Stephen did just what Auden’s modern subjects didn’t do. I “have grossly overestimated my powers” and grossly underestimated God’s. Stephen didn’t regurgitate some self-created love. He let Himself be taken in the divine love. This is how one learns to love one’s enemies and one’s relatives (and sometimes the twain does meet).

On Stephen’s feast,  the Gospel of peace already meets with violence the day after Christ’s birth. Stephen’s weakness, his vulnerability to divine love and power, lets him meet the violence with peace. In many images of St. Stephen, the priests’ stones simply rest on his head. Stephen’s is the weakness and purity of the Incarnate Son.Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 12.00.04 AM

On December 26 we look at Stephen’s seraphic face, but more still at the crèche. There in the manger lies the puzzling baby Word, unable to speak a single word. And what will become of Him? He shall become great and be called the Mighty God and Everlasting Father. So we are told. For a while it looks like it will all work out…miracles and crowds and fame. But after 30 years the wordless, vulnerable baby hasn’t made it very far. Thirty years after sleeping in the wood trough, He’s dying on a tree. Apparently the only words He’s learned are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

St. Stephen shows forth the Christmas mystery of purity, intensity, weakness and captivation by love. If you missed “the actual Vision” yesterday, here He is the next day alive in His saints. I think I’ve seen the Vision. Will I entertain it? Will I keep on seeing it?

The day after Christmas, despite the violence, the order is already being restored. The eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are cleared. The mighty are already being cast down from their thrones, the lowly already raised up. Though I may not see it, a real freshness is here. The clouds have dropped down dew. The Just One has sprung up from the earth, even if there’s constant injustice. Have I seen the Kingdom of God, already at hand in that boring and arduous now, the Time Being?

 Your hands from your ears!
Away from your eyes!
See who comes, a child with tears;
Hear the God who sniffs and cries.

The Wonder of God’s Becoming

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.

Program Director, Human Dignity and Life Initiatives

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Every year I try to give each of my godsons something to mark the anniversary of their baptism. This year I gave my oldest godson and nephew a small, illustrated abridged book of the Psalms adapted for young children. Last night as he lay in bed with a fever we read one, then two, then three, then all the Psalms. Occasionally, I would pause and ask him a question. When the Psalmist expressed the desire to sing God’s praises, I wondered aloud, “What song would you want to sing to God?” The answer: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” When the Psalmist spoke of conversing with God each day, I asked, “Do you ever talk to God?” This child, who earlier in the day declared amid a flood of tears that he only likes to go to Mass if there are doughnuts, raised his eyebrows over his glassy half-shut eyes, as though the question I had just asked was more than a little absurd, and replied matter-of-factly, “Of course.” And with that we read on.

As we made our way through the book together, I was struck by the way in which the Psalms seemed to speak to his six-year-old heart, touching on themes of fear, comfort, safety, consolation, abandonment, joy, vulnerability, beauty, mercy, and thanksgiving. This small act, of reading and listening to these brief bits of Scripture with this child on this quiet evening, filled me with a renewed sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation.

NativityTapistry

God has become human. Sure, he never refused to go to the Temple in Jerusalem unless promised the first-century equivalent of doughnuts, but he really and truly took up our human nature. Indeed, the one of whom the psalmist sings—“O God, you are my God—it is you I seek! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts in a land parched, lifeless, and without water”–has set aside His glory and become a hungry, naked, blind, helpless infant. The God who “makes the snow like and spread the frost like ash” and “disperses hail like crumbs” plunges into the depths of our humanity—into our sorrow, our fear, our joy, our beauty, our wonder (Ps.147: 16-17). In the flesh of His Son, God experiences all that my six-year-old nephew experiences—gratitude, love, comfort, affliction, consolation.  The God who “spread the heavens out like a tent,” who made the clouds his chariot, who “fixed the earth on its foundation,” who “made the moon to mark the seasons,” now stoops down from the heights to become a vulnerable infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, speechless and blindly gazing at His mother (Ps.104: 2, 3, 5, 19; 113: 5-6; Lk. 2:7). The one who guides the celestial bodies became “a nursling at the breast,” hungry, cold, and weary (St. Augustine, Sermon 187).

Why would God do something so risky, so audacious? Precisely for this reason: so that my six-year-old nephew might call upon him in the quiet of the night when no one else can hear or see…when there are no doughnuts. He becomes a speechless child, so that we can learn to speak his praise. He becomes human to cast out the fears of the child. He became hungry, that we might be nourished by his body and blood. He thirsted so that the thirsting soul may be quenched. He became blind, that we might see God’s glory.