During these liturgical feasts of Christmas, the Holy Family, and Epiphany, we celebrate the giving and receiving of gifts. There are the physical gifts around our Christmas trees that we give to each other; there are the spiritual gifts of presence and prayer that we share; and most of all, there is the gift of God in human flesh for the salvation of us all.
God gives himself to us! That is an incredible, extraordinary, marvelous, and life-changing gift which we receive if we allow our hearts to be open to his coming, but it is also a gift which begs the perennial human question in response to this action of divine mercy,
“What can I possibly give to God in return?”
So often I feel like the old shepherd in the film The Nativity Story who feels that he has no gift to bring to God and to others. He says this to Mary and Joseph, who are warming themselves by the fire he had offered to them on their way to Bethlehem because they seemed cold. While they are sitting by the fire, Mary says to the shepherd, “I will tell our child about you. About your kindness.” The shepherd replies, “My father told me a long time ago that we are all given something. A gift. Your gift is what you carry inside.” Mary then asks him, “What was your gift?” The shepherd says, “Nothing. Nothing but the hope of waiting for one.”
I would say that many of us feel similarly. Growing up, we are frequently asked by others questions like these: “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” “How do you want to use your gifts?” “What will you do to make a difference in this world?”
Sometimes we have an idea of what we would like to do with our lives, so we say what that might be. But that vision often changes with our circumstances, and by the time our student lives are over, and we are working to make a living, sometimes we wonder, “How did I get here?” “What I have missed?” “Where am I really going?” “This is not what I had planned.” “Am I really making a difference in this big world?” We can feel small and poor because the world can be a lonely and confusing place. The gifts that we thought we had don’t seem to be massively impacting the world, we don’t feel fulfilled in giving of ourselves to our daily labors, we’re working in ways that don’t make use of our gifts because we’re struggling just to scrape by, or we’re still searching for our gifts.
I remember during one year in high school when I was on a retreat, my small group leader asked the members of our group to make a list of ten gifts that we have. I thought about it and wrote down two or three, which seemed inconsequential to me and not of much use. Then tears started to form in my eyes because I couldn’t think of any more gifts to write down. I felt so small and poor in comparison to others around me. I could only hope that I was wrong and wait for someone to tell me how immeasurably blessed I am and what a difference I can make in this world. I didn’t know it then, but I had to understand first what “gift” really is and what “making a difference” means.
When someone does tell us about a gift that we have, which we did not initially recognize in ourselves, it is great news to us – just like when the angel appears to the old shepherd and announces to him the great gift of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. When we receive news of such a gift, we are taken aback, an awareness is awakened in us, and we go to seek out what this great gift is and how we might share it. When we find it and touch it, we are surprised by joy, and we express thanksgiving by sharing it with others.
And so, in The Nativity Story, the old shepherd travels to the stable in Bethlehem to see what this gift is that he almost despaired of waiting for in thinking that he had nothing to give. When he approaches Mary cradling the infant Jesus, he kneels down and looks at the newborn Jesus with amazement. He then slowly reaches out to touch Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to do so. He seems too good to be true. And why would he want to give himself to me, a poor, lowly shepherd with no gifts to give in return.
As Christina Rossetti writes in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,”
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?”
There are people who can give their property as shelter – a stable for animals that the Holy Family uses – and there are those like the magi who can give gold, frankincense, and myrrh out of their wealth. But what can poor, lowly shepherds give? They don’t seem to have anything of real value to give to such an extraordinary person – God made flesh in love for us. The old shepherd withdraws his trembling hand, but he continues to gaze in wonder at this newborn child, this indescribable gift.
Mary, however, turns to the old shepherd and holds Jesus toward him, saying,
“He is for all mankind.”
Encouraged by these words, the shepherd then slowly reaches out his hand again to touch the infant Jesus. When he finally touches Jesus, the shepherd is overcome with emotion and closes his eyes. Mary then says to the shepherd,
“We are each given a gift.”
The old shepherd’s eyes widen with realization. It’s as if Mary is saying to him, “Touch him. He is your gift. He is what you carry inside. Touch him, open your heart, and he is yours!” This infant Jesus is a gift for all human beings, including the old shepherd himself. We are each given the profound gift of love, God in the flesh, become one of us and who shares in our suffering and in our joy. That is the gift that we carry in our hearts – love himself.
Thus, this Christmas event radically transforms our understanding of “gift” and of “making a difference.” Our epiphany is this: His striking manifestation to us as true God in true human flesh reveals to us that our sinful humanity is not worthless. He loves us! He has mercy on us! He is one of us! This gift of Jesus leads us to recognize how we might share that gift of love with others. The old shepherd, even when he thought he had nothing to give, had the gift of love: he gave to the Holy Family kindness, warmth, comfort, and friendship, even though he was just a stranger on the road. Even though he may have felt cold and empty, he still carried the little flame of hope inside. The gift of Jesus helped him to recognize the value and purpose of his own life. Life is not just about survival. It is so much more than that. Love makes the difference. Talents that we have may be gifts, but they will remain just abilities if not given to others in love. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7,
“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
They are gifts because they are not our own; they are meant to be shared. They are gifts precisely because they involve a gift of the self in love to the other. Gift is an embodied act, and it is the way in which we are to see the world.
We are each given a gift. What gift do I carry inside? Do I know what gift I can give to the Christ child in my heart? What can I give? As Christina Rossetti writes in the last stanza of her poem,
“Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”
We can’t really give anything to God, except what has been first given to us. When we give gifts, it is because something or someone makes a claim on us, and we want to express our gratitude. It can never really be an exchange. In the case of God, moreover, God makes His claim on us; we cannot make a claim on God. No gift of our own will ever really be adequate to express our thanksgiving. We can only offer back the gift he has given us first: His love. Our love is formed and perfected in His love, and it is that we are to give. Jesus is the gift that we receive, and at the same time, he is the gift that we give in our worship because he is the true gift, the perfect gift, the gift of love. He is the only one who leads us to the Father, and the way we meet the Father is through love. Jesus is this love. In our hearts, if only we prepare Him room, dwells Love incarnate. The gift that we can give Him is our hearts filled with love , as we give of ourselves for each other.
How can we do that? Through the practice of mercy, which is what God demonstrates for us as the face of mercy in Jesus. We can do corporal and spiritual works of mercy for each other, and in doing so, we give our hearts to God. Likewise at Mass, we “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer. We can proclaim the praises of the Lord, as Mary does in her Magnificat, humbly lifting up her heart to God and magnifying His name. That is how we can make a difference in the world. It starts person to person. Mercy must be practiced constantly for love to bear fruit. In Jesus, our poverty is made rich because he is the gift of love, and he invites us to become sharers in that gift of love. Our life reveals its meaning in gift. Let us lift up our hearts to embrace that love and to share it with all we may encounter. Let us approach the newborn Jesus each day, gaze upon him in wonder in each person we meet, touch his face, and realize this gift of love that animates our lives. Let us walk rejoicing and share this gift with gratitude.
Every year, I lament the fact that there simply aren’t enough days in the Christmas season to listen to all of the incredible music that helps us enter the exultant hymn of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. Let’s face it: there’s a reason we secretly start listening to Christmas music around the middle of Advent (or that we at least really want to). Christmas music is sacred music par excellence. Whether it’s a traditional carol like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, or a chant like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or a more recent addition to the repertoire like Morten Lauridsen’s anthem O Magnum Mysterium, or Alfred Burt’s carol Jesu Parvule, the songs of Christmas make real the idea of “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” a phrase that comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions as he addresses God himself. Some may balk at this analogy between the earthly beauty of music and the divine beauty, but I maintain that one can indeed use Augustine’s description with reference to Christmas music, because its material beauty points beyond itself to the divine beauty present in the very mystery this music helps us celebrate.
On the one hand, Christmas music does seem ancient: we know it intimately. It has accompanied us to the manger each and every year. And yet, on the other hand, it is indeed ever new: we never seem to grow tired of it. The reason for this, I believe, is that every year, we approach this season and this music different people than we were at this time last year, and as a result, though the music remains the same, we will hear it differently. This is the gift of a set repertoire of carols and hymns and chants, and the gift of the new additions to the repertoire that have slowly and steadily found a home within this treasury over time. The music of Christmas allows us to return to it year after year after year, and, like a wellspring, it continually slakes our thirst for beauty and mystery and meaning.
So, with the vast breadth of music, how does one choose a single piece to encapsulate the Christmas season? With the understanding that there is not ever going to be one piece that does so, but with the hope that, at least for this year, this one will help unfold the mystery a little more fully. With that, I offer Egil Hovland’s The Glory of the Father. I came across this piece as an undergraduate member of the St. Isidore Catholic Student Center Choir at my alma mater, Kansas State University, and I have come back to it every Christmas since then. This piece, written in 1957 by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, uses as its text excerpts from the stunning prologue of St. John’s Gospel. This passage is proclaimed on Christmas at the Mass during the day, which perhaps seems an unusual choice. There is no mention of a journey to Bethlehem or a manger, no angels singing or shepherds dropping in. Instead, what we have is light. The light of the human race. The light that shines in darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light that was coming into the world. And what is this light? St. John tells us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
This text serves as the beginning and end of Hovland’s stunning yet simple piece. In constructing the piece this way, Hovland is holding up the Incarnation—Jesus Christ Himself—as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The music in these sections is open—hollow sounding and yet somehow also full. The first words of the piece—“The Word became flesh”—are sung with a chant-like rhythm using the interval of a perfect fifth, one of the two intervals used in the medieval period to create the first instances of harmony. The other interval was the perfect fourth, and Hovland ends the phrase “dwelt among us” on this sonority (the italics designate the syllables on which this interval occurs). Why mention this? To demonstrate that the openness of the piece comes from a compositional technique that signaled the birth of harmony as we now know it. A beauty ever ancient. On the other hand, the composer uses close harmonies and controlled dissonance (clashing notes) to create a sense of fullness, particularly when the choir sings “We beheld the glory of the Father” the second time. A beauty ever new.
At the heart of the piece, Hovland returns to the beginning of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God.” The piece takes on more life and movement here, indicating the life and movement of the eternal Word, the second Person of the triune God. With the text “In him was life,” a stirring drama builds, and suddenly, a tension is introduced with the phrase “and the life was the light of men.” The startling chord on the word “men” indicates a new presence: darkness. Through the sin of humanity, darkness enters the world and threatens to blot out the life of the Word, “the light of men.” This darkness continues as the composer holds up for our attention a reality that we would rather forget as we celebrate Christmas: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” This child, the Word made flesh, the true light which enlightens everyone, was rejected by those whom he called his own. Is still rejected.
And yet, immediately after this sobering, convicting statement, the composer returns to the opening section, indicating that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Moreover, the abrupt shift from the darkness back to the light indicates that the glory of the Incarnate Word—“the glory as of the Father’s only Son”—is not contingent upon our acceptance of Him. The light has come into the world. It is offered as gift for those with the eyes to see it, and “to those who did accept him”—who accept him still today—“he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This season, as we sing the mysteries of the Incarnation, may we open our eyes to see and our hearts to welcome the light of the world, the Word made flesh, the glory of the Father.
Candidate, Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame
Have you read “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor? It is the story of hers that I find the most moving, and it is digestible even by readers of the weakest constitutions when it comes to the Southern grotesque. In sum – and without ruining it for you – “Revelation” is the story of a woman whose understanding of herself in the eyes of God is turned upside down. She is made to see the greater faults in herself and the hidden virtues in others, and in an ending that I think is one of the most beautiful in fictional literature, O’Connor describes the fullness of this woman’s revelation; it entails the strange and ineffable grandeur of the Kingdom of God. I would encourage you to go here and read the story right this very minute. Please do. I will not be upset if you stop reading this post.
It did not occur to me that “Revelation” was an Advent story until I read the Gospel for Monday in the first week of Advent. It was the passage from Matthew in which the Roman centurion asks the Lord to heal his sick servant. The centurion is the man from whom we have received a congregational response of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy, that You should enter under my roof…” What I had never taken notice of before is the entirety of Jesus’ response to the soldier’s request. He of course says, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” But then He says, “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11).
The Lord seems to be remarking that the table of the Heavenly Banquet will be filled with more than just the usual suspects. Whenever I hear the words “east and west” in Scripture, I immediately think of the three kings; those exotic, noble men, most likely unaware of the salvation history of the people of Israel, coming from the Orient to adore a baby simply because they knew a cosmic event when they saw one. For all their regality and fineness, they carried within them humble hearts, awake and ready to receive the Wonder to which the star had led them. These men of Oriental nobility are not the type of folks you would have thought would have been among the first to recognize and believe in the Messiah. They share that quality in common with the Roman centurion.
A few days later, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard the words “east and west” once again:
“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Bar. 5: 1-9).
These words are from the first reading, and they hearken to a lesser known “O Antiphon” that was sung in the medieval Church. It is the antiphon dedicated to Jerusalem, the Heavenly City:
O Hierusalem! Civitas Dei summi, leva in circuitu oculos tuos; et vide Dominum tuum, quia jam veniet solvere te a vinculis.
“O Jerusalem! City of the great God: lift up thine eyes round about, and see thy Lord, for he is coming to loose thee from thy chains.”
Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, is the destination of all peoples, from all sides of the world. Every single person of every single race, country, and creed, is meant to be a child of this Kingdom. And Jesus seems to want to tell us that the strongest faith is found in the most surprising of places. His own experience certainly reflects this: He struggled over and over again to communicate the truth of His mission to the religious leaders in His midst who were supposedly of a faith that had been waiting for a Savior for hundreds of years. Then, out of nowhere comes the centurion, graced with a faith in Jesus that, according to a history of religion, had no business being there. “Never make the mistake of thinking you have pegged people,” the Lord seems to say. “The sheep who hear my voice may not look the way you think they would.”
You really must read Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” because it situates the universality of the heavenly Jerusalem in the daily environment of a doctor’s office, a conversation amongst strangers, and the relationship between a Southern woman and the people who work for her. As Advent draws to a close, this story can help us to see how we may have made the perfect Christian believer in our own image and likeness. We expect the population of the Holy City to be widely made up of people like ourselves, but the Sciptural characters of the Christmas season show us that such an idea could not be further from the truth. On the heavenly day we arrive at the gates of the Holy City, our brothers and sisters from the east and the west will astonish us in their strange, unpredictable, and glorious variety. O Jerusalem, eternal home of us all, let us welcome our coming Lord with joy!
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
This hymn, a text written by Christina Rossetti, rifts upon a number of the motifs that were implicit in O Magnum Mysterium. The silence of the bleak mid-winter is intensified through a placing of the Nativity in an English village, covered with snow. Worship is offered by the angels, yet the marvel of the Incarnation is upon display in Jesus’ drinking of milk from his mother’s bosom, worship being offered most fully through the tender kiss of a mother upon the cheek of her son. Yet, at the end, the hymn takes a turn common in devotional poetry of the time. The contemplation of the pastoral nativity demands some response by the poet and reader alike. A shepherd might bring a lamb, a Wise Man would bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but me—what is left but to give myself?
In this sense, Rossetti’s poetry functions almost Eucharistically. God’s action has unfolded in the Incarnation and what remains but the giving of oneself as a return-gift to the infant Son. And the icon of this return-gift is the blessed Virgin herself, who offers the kiss of love that the poet now desires to give to the Son. Such poetry is self-implicating, wooing one to participate in the gift of what takes place in the hidden indwelling of the God-man.
The liturgical poetry of Romanos the Melodist takes up this same perspective, where the reader of the poem, the singer of the hymn assumes a central role in the drama of salvation. In his hymn on the Nativity, Romanos invites the reader to assume the Marian role in the story:
“For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Savior;
it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,
but for the sake of all I implore you.
You have made me the mouth and boast of all my race,
and your world has me,
as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.
They look to me, those who were cast out
of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.
May all things understand that, through me, you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages (The Nativity, 23).
While also reflecting upon the role of Mary in the drama of the Nativity, the hymn forms the reader to see him or herself as the Marian actor in the drama. In this age, as this hymn is sung, the Christian is also to become the place where Christ is born into the world.
Indeed, it is the very pedagogy of the crèche scene to invite us to participate within our own time in the Incarnation. The “Painted Houses” of South Africa uses tribal imagery to demonstrate how God’s dwelling among us might put an end to the hostility between rival factions.
The material of the banana tree of Paraguay incarnates the Christmas narrative into the agricultural milieu of that country.
Alaska’s own wintry background is now where the Savior of the world is born.
The crèche scenes are moments in which the story of Christmas is seen in its contemporaneity—the world grown weary through sin and death, now renewed through the glory of the Incarnate Word.
The family that keeps watch before the crèche participates in this drama of salvation. And indeed, this drama is unfolding even in the mundane world of family life. Cardinal Marc Ouellet writes, “…the love of Christian spouses and the richness of their family relationships become a sacred sign, a vehicle and sanctuary of a greater Love, the love of the Trinitarian, incarnate God, who enters into a humble and indissoluble bond with their community of life and love” (Divine Likeness, 53). The love of the Father poured out in his Son and then given over to women and men in history itself is still become manifest in the nuptial union. The family becomes an incarnate and inculturated sign of God’s love for the world to contemplate. Each of the families, in their own particularities, reveal something about the triune love of God made manifest in the Incarnation: the couple with a plurality of children, the elderly couple who now live alone, the family forced into migration, and the infertile couple who open their house to care for the poorest of the poor.
In this way, the nativity set can renew family life insofar as it reminds them that although domesticity is often mundane, it is in fact a participation in the drama of salvation in this time and place. It is a participation in a drama where there is not only joy but also signs of sorrow that mark the human condition. And the set invites us, just like the poetry of Christian Rossetti or Romanos the Melodist, to assume our role in the drama.
Born On a New Day
You are the new day.
Meekness, love, humility
Come down to us this day:
Christ, your birth has proved to me
You are the new day.
Quiet in a stall you lie,
Angels watching in the sky
Whisper to you from on high
“You are the new day”.
When our life is darkest night,
Hope has burned away;
Love, your ray of guiding light,
Show us the new day.
Love of all things great and small
Leaving none, embracing all,
Fold around me where I fall,
Bring in the new day.
This new day will be
A turning point for everyone.
If we let the Christ-child in, and
Reach for the new day.
Christ the Way, the Truth, the Life;
Healing sadness, ending strife;
You we welcome, Lord of life,
Born on a new day.
You are the new day.
A relatively modern carol, “Born On a New Day” is an adaptation of a secular song, one that promises the renewal of humanity through the burgeoning hope of love. The irony of the song, of course, is that the language of “new day” is fitting for the feast of Christmas. The hope of newness, of God’s renewal of the created order, is in fact at the font of the season of Advent itself, where we await the glad tidings of the Savior, who comes to renew all things.
And indeed, the crèche itself captures this newness through the presence of the Magi, who come from the ends of the world to greet the king whose power is made manifest in weakness. T.S. Eliot, in his “Journey of the Magi,” gives voice to these kings who have returned to their land:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
With the coming of this new day is a necessary death, a giving up of the old dispensation for the new. Can we participate in a world grown tired from the reign of sign and death, when we have gazed with wonder upon the king who dwells among us? Is this not the reign we long for?
The new day that we long for, that was supposed to be inaugurated through the birth and death and resurrection of the beloved Son, seems so far away. The tragedies in Paris, together with the suffering of the Syrian migrants now denied homes make this patently clear to us. Should we turn away from this weary world? Should we give up on the project of waiting altogether?
The crèche, as one might imagine, serves as a kind of medicine against this hopelessness, this world weariness of those who await the Incarnate Word’s reign on earth. To put up a crèche each year, in the midst of a world that has grown callous to the life of the unborn, to the suffering of the migrant and immigrant, to the prisoner condemned to death is a supreme act of hope. It is akin to the role of the tabernacle lamp, described by Charles Peguy in his poetics of hope in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope:
One trembling flame has endured the weight of worlds.
One vacillating flame has endured the weight of time.
One anxious flame has endured the weight of nights.
Since the first time my grace flowed for the creation of the world.
Since my grace has been flowing forever for the preservation of the world.
Since the time that the blood of my son flowed for the salvation of the world.
A flame impossible to reach, impossible to extinguish with the breath of death (Peguy, 5).
The family who each year puts up the crèche scene is doing more than following the liturgical calendar. Rather, they are manifesting to the world a hope that cannot be defeated by a politics or culture of death. Hope is born anew in the heart of the child, who recognizes for the first time the fact that that little babe in the crèche scene is Savior of the world; hope is born anew as the family prays before this scene each evening before darkness descends upon the world; hope is born anew when the family becomes the love they receive in this crèche.
Indeed, the manner in which hope is kept alive in the hearth of the domestic church is the reason why something so small as setting up a crèche scene is integral to the new evangelization. Secularity will ultimately not be defeated by intellectual argument alone; individualism cannot be destroyed by building a philosophical case alone against the irrationality of the position; nor for that matter will the coldness of the human heart toward the suffering of the unborn be “fixed” through a really fine op-ed. Rather, the hope of the Incarnation is passed on as a living flame from family to family, each time that they place in the infant Christ as the center of their home, manifesting to the world once against the fact that God is love. This, in fact, is the new day.
The Christmas crèche is thus more than a nice tradition, whereby Christians throughout the world mark the arrival of the season, just as they put up lights upon their homes or drink coffee out of a red cup from Starbucks. Rather, it is an embodied practice of remembering what the Father has accomplished through the humility of the Son, who is Love made flesh; it is an invitation to participation in this narrative again and again, renewing each season the hope for salvation that comes from God alone. It is a practice that serves as a bastion against a practical atheism that lives as if God is not more. It is a practice that renews from year to year the memory of the story that makes sense of all other stories.
And perhaps, it is the simple practice of praying before and setting up this crèche in the context of the domestic church that might be a source of renewal for the world itself. For as Cardinal Ouellet writes:
Evangelizing the family’s various relationships in the image of the Trinity, cultivating its sacramental life and consciousness, and revealing to the family the divine missions in which it participates; all of this could have a planetary impact on the mission of the Church and the future of humanity (76).
For the family to gaze with love upon the crèche, to contemplate the wonderful mystery taking place, and to pledge to become this mystery for the world: in this way, even now, the possibility of a new day, a new world of love can come into being. For when we dwell with love incarnate, we may find (perhaps even against our wills) that we become this love that we abide with: “Jesus, immortal boy, let this your birth give/to us peace and joy” (Adam of St. Victor 5.11).
This December, during the season of Advent, my wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I say this not as an invitation for the wider internet community to bestow me with some gift to honor the occasion. Married in the midst of Advent, the most common gift that we received were nativity sets. All sorts. Nativity sets that were Christmas tree ornaments; small stand-alone sets from Mexico, Thailand, and Palestine; a large nativity set purchased by a group of friends (and now in the midst of being systematically destroyed by our son). Our marriage has unfolded in a home overflowing with crèches.
When asked to give this second annual lecture, I wanted to reflect a bit on what the crèche means for family life in general. In the heated debates that seemed to mark the recent Synod on the Family, it nonetheless became obvious that a robust spiritual vision of family life is necessary as we find ourselves immersed in the third millennium. That is, it is the family in particular in which the renewal of the Church will unfold. As Pope Francis noted in his homily delivered at the World Meeting of Families:
These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.
Thus, in this series, I would like to invite us to reflect on how the practice of keeping a crèche in the home is in fact one of these small acts of love, ultimately transformative of what it means for the family to dwell together in love incarnate. It is an occasion of evangelization, that is to quote Paul VI, “…bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (EN 18).
Yet, it seems right in examining family life through the lens of the crèche that we adopt the same aesthetic pedagogy of the crèches themselves. Thus, this series will unfold in three parts, each beginning with a piece of music related to the nativity of Christ. Through these pieces of music, we will explore three ways that the crèche provides a way of renewing the domestic Church in particular:
1) Forming us to see domestic life as a locus for the enfleshment of God’s love.
2) Inviting us to participate in the Incarnation through the drama of history.
3) Seeing the family as an icon of the new evangelization, one in which the practice of keeping a crèche manifests the Church’s memory in history.
O Magnum Mysterium
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
The irony of the nativity of Jesus Christ is that its prevalence within various forms of artistic media, including our nativity sets, has perhaps led us to no longer be filled with awe at the wonderful event taking place in the manger. We see a mother and a father. A collection of angels, singing songs of joy at the birth of Jesus. Three kings, offerings gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A cast of animals, perhaps even overly interested in the birth of this human child.
Yet, the setting of O Magnum Mysterium (a text sung by monks at the rising of the sun on Christmas morning) invites us to look anew at the iconic mystery unfolding in these crèches. O great mystery, O wonderful sacrament that these animals in particular are the ones, who see the Lord born of a Virgin. What is this mystery, this sacred sign? And what’s the deal with the animals?
For some time, I imagined that I would want to return to being an infant. I considered a world in which I no longer had to be awake for significant periods of times; a world in which my every hunger was met by someone when I made the smallest cry; a world in which although immobile, everyone seemed to delight in moving me about. Yet, as I watched my son in the earliest days of his life, I came to the realization that infancy is in fact a rather humiliating period of life. The infant has thoughts that he or she cannot communicate to anyone, being reduced to making desires known through tears alone. The infant must rely on those around him or her for food, for shelter, for cleanliness, for comfort in the midst of sorrows. The infant is subject to the powers of the world, unable to even really recognize threats against his or her welfare.
Thus, the great mystery, the wonderful sacrament of the Nativity is the fact that God became fully human as an infant. Divine love was poured out from the bosom of the Father through the Son, a love that makes God radically vulnerable. The very Word that orders creation, that gives meaning to all of human life, that gazes with love upon the Father in the Godhead, becomes flesh pro nobis, for us. Augustine of Hippo, commenting on this fact, preaches:
He lies in a manger, but he holds the whole world in his hands: he sucks his mother’s breasts, but feeds the angels; he is swaddled in rags, but clothes us in immortality; he is suckled, but also worshiped; he could find no room in the inn, but makes a temple for himself in the hearts of believers. It was in order, you see, that weakness might become strong, that strength became weak (Augustine, s. 190.4).
Iconography of the nativity unfolds the radical vulnerability in God in particular ways. The newborn son is depicted wrapped in swaddling clothes, a sign already of the burial clothes that will clothe Mary’s son in the tomb on Good Friday. These icons depict the first bath of the Word made flesh, an image of God’s radical solidarity with the human condition. The crèche scene functions as an icon of the kenosis of the Son, the radical self-emptying love that is the source of the world’s very renewal.
Which brings us to the animals gathered around the crèche? For, perhaps the greatest scandal of the Incarnation, of the enfleshment of the Word, is the hiddenness of the birth of the Son in the first place. He is not born in a palace, a place where the power of the world could be exercised. He is born among the beasts of the field, unable to comprehend the marvel taking place. As Benedict XVI notes about the hiddenness of this birth:
From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in wordly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Volume 3, 67).
In the birth of the first born Son in the silence of the evening, we have an image of what it now means to be fully human. The fullness of our humanity is exercised through the powerlessness of love.
Thus, the wonderful mystery of Christ’s birth is that the renewal of humanity already has begun through the nativity of the Lord. As Ephrem the Syrian notes in Hymn 3 on the Nativity:
Glory to Him, Who never needs us to thank Him.
Yet He [became] need for He loves us, and He thirsted for He cherishes us.
And He asks us to give to Him so that He may give us even more.
His Fruit was mingled with our human nature
to draw us toward Him Who bent down to us (3.17).
As God becomes human, the horizon of humanity opens up so that every aspect of the human condition has the possibility of being drawn into divine life.
For this reason, perhaps, it is most appropriate that the crèche finds pride in place in the home itself. The sacrament of marriage is that taking up of what is most human, most mundane, the domesticity of love, into divine life: “In the union of husband and wife/you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace,/so that the Sacrament we celebrate/might draw us back more deeply/into the wondrous design of your love” (Eucharistic Prayer, For the Celebration of Marriage, B). Yet, there is nothing stunning about this love, as any married couple might note. The love of marriage is lived out through those hidden practices of tenderness that mark married life. With the birth of children, the powerlessness of this love becomes even more evident. Salvation unfolds in the context of the Christian family as it did in the manger: without anyone powerful aware of the mystery taking place.
The crèche, then, forms the family to see its own life as the hidden manifestation of divine love. It reminds the family to expect the unfolding of salvation not simply through signs and wonders but first and foremost in the tender compassion we learn to show one another. In this way, in a world that often devalues such a hidden life, the crèche restores the family to its proper place as the dramatic locale for salvation in the world; as itself a great mystery of divine love.
Ask a friend to rattle off their Top 10 Christmas Carols, and you’re bound to get an instant response of the perennial favorites. For example: O Holy Night, Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, What Child is This, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem—this list could go on and on. Ask that same friend to rattle off their Top 10 Advent hymns, and you’re more likely to get one or two right away (maybe even four or five), and then perhaps the stymied silence of trying to come up with a few more: O Come O Come Emmanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, Creator of the Stars of Night, Wait for the Lord, My Soul in Stillness Waits, People Look East, Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn, Wake O Wake and Sleep No Longer, O Come Divine Messiah, The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (or, if you’re a Stephen Colbert fan, The King of Glory).
The truth is, we’re more familiar with Christmas music because we’re inundated with it 24/7 beginning the day after Thanksgiving. It’s piped over the speakers of stores and restaurants; it’s performed in children’s school concerts; it’s on the radio; it’s everywhere. In such an environment, our experience of Advent music can often become relegated to what we hear and sing at Mass, meaning that we might only spend four days of the Advent season singing of our longing for the Messiah. In many parishes, the celebration of Advent Lessons and Carols provides a way to bring the music of this season front and center but outside of that, it can be difficult to find opportunities to immerse oneself in this repertoire. There are a number of excellent recordings that feature music exclusively for the Advent season, and a recent composition that’s finding its way onto more of those recordings is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. More than ten years ago, Minnesota Public Radio ran a profile on the composer and his wife (who compiled the lyrics to this piece from Scripture), which detailed how this composition grew out of the couple’s anguish in facing a child’s life-threatening illness, and when one listens to this piece knowing its back-story, its impact becomes all the greater. The longing expressed in this piece is not disembodied; it’s not detached from real life or written merely to tug at the heartstrings during what many people find to be an emotionally difficult time of year. This piece is an expression of one couple’s longing for the coming of Christ as an answer to their prayers during a time of great duress, and now, it has the capacity to give voice to the anguished longings of those who hear it this season and every season, whatever those longings may be.
The minor key and the dark color of this piece seem at first glance to clash with the text of the opening measures: “Peace be to you and grace from him who freed us from our sins, who loved us all and shed his blood that we might saved be.” Yet, the minor key testifies to the fact that the peace and grace of Christ are stained with his blood, shed out of pure love to save the human race. This saving work of God in Christ is the reason for the acclamation in the next section of the piece: “Sing Holy, Holy to our Lord, the Lord Almighty God, who was and is, and is to come—Sing Holy, Holy Lord.” Following this acclamation, an exhortation: “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein; rejoice on earth, ye saints below, for Christ is coming—is coming soon! For Christ is coming soon!” This section represents the musical climax of the piece: the soaring soprano line and the noble harmonies suggest the majesty of Christ’s return in glory, but the section ends with the harmony unresolved. Christ is coming soon, but not yet.
The final section returns us to the here and now, where the coming of Christ in history has not taken away our present trials and tribulations, but insofar as we unite our sufferings to his, Christ may transfigure those sufferings and give us the grace to endure them until he returns in glory, when he will end suffering forever: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more. They need no light, nor lamp, nor sun, for Christ will be their all.” The title lyric of this piece takes the final prayer from the book of Revelation—“Come, Lord Jesus,” and heightens it—“Lord Jesus, quickly come.” Come, quickly, Lord Jesus, delay no longer, for the night is vast and the world is in need of your light, the light in and by which we see light (Ps. 36:10), the light no darkness can overcome (Jn 1:5).
Our annual observance of Advent and Christmas doesn’t suspend the trials and sufferings we experience as human beings. As individuals, we may be facing loneliness or illness or death, and as a members of a global community, we live in a time plagued with violence and poverty and corruption, just like Jesus himself lived in a time that was plagued with violence and poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Jesus’ coming in history, his future coming in glory, and his coming to us even now in the liturgical life of the Church provide sure footing for us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, and even as we lift our hearts and voices in anguished longing, we also look forward to the day “when night shall be no more,” “when Christ will be [our] all.”
American culture loves programs for self-improvement. We idolize celebrities, who are able to turn over a new leaf in their lives. We subscribe to magazines that show us how to live more simply (by finally organizing our cabinets). We watch with tear-stained eyes as contestants on reality TV are physically or emotionally transformed.
This program of self-improvement leading to happiness is part of American religion as well. Within Catholicism, the season of Lent is that time par excellence in which projects of self-improvement are taken up. We pray more. We fast from electronics or food. We engage in works of mercy. And we hope, through it all, that we will find a space in our hearts to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord with fervent devotion.
This desire for self-improvement is indeed important to the Christian life. The Church herself encourages us to take up practices that renew us in divine love. The Eucharistic preface for the First Sunday of Lent notes:
By abstaining forty days from earthly food,/he consecrated through his fast/the pattern of our Lenten observance/and, by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent,/taught us to cast out the leaven of malice,/so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery,/we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.
The importance of “practice” is at the heart of Advent as well. In the first week of Advent, we are urged in the prayers of the Church to take up a posture of watchfulness. This watchfulness is an invitation toward conversion as Benedict XVI notes in his 2011 Angelus address:
Therefore, John’s [the Baptist] appeal goes far beyond and deeper than a call to a sober lifestyle: it is a call for inner change, starting with the recognition and confession of our sins. As we prepare for Christmas, it is important that we find time for self contemplation and carry out an honest assessment of our lives. May we be enlightened by a ray of the light that comes from Bethlehem, the light of He who is “the Greatest” and made himself small, he who is “the Strongest” but became weak.
Advent is a time for us to consider where we stand before the living God, who in the first weeks of this season, we ask to come once again. Not as a babe in Bethlehem but in his glory, offering that definitive judgment of the humanity that will renew heaven and earth. We take up practices of watchfulness and self-reflection that prepare us for this coming of the risen Lord. As John Henry Newman writes in a sermon during the season of Advent:
When we kneel down in prayer in private, let us think to ourselves, Thus shall I one day kneel before His very footstool, in this flesh and this blood of mine; and He will be seated over against me, in flesh and blood also, though divine. I come, with the thought of that awful hour before me, I come to confess my sin to Him now, that He may pardon it then, and I say, ‘O Lord, Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, in the hour of death and in the day of judgment, deliver us, O Lord’ (Worship: A Preparation for Christ’s Coming, 964).
Kneeling in prayer becomes a preparation for our encounter with the living God. In this way, the practices of Advent are occasions of learning the proper disposition of humble love that must possess the human being, seeking to encounter God at the end of time. It is learning to become small and weak in imitation of the Word made flesh who became small for the redemption of the world.
Yet, the danger of American religion is that these practices of watchfulness, these preparations for the coming of the risen Lord, become about preparing us to have a great experience. We want to have the “best Advent ever” so that, as Matthew Kelly notes in a primer for a program run by Dynamic Catholic, we can have “the best Christmas ever.” He is right to note that Advent often passes too quickly, swept up into the holiday preparations that occupy American religion. He is right to emphasize that preparing the heart for the coming of the babe at Bethlehem is integral to the proper celebration of Advent (and thus Christmas).
But, the language of “best ever” (although potentially rhetorically effective for the contemporary American) may also lead to the advent of unrealistic expectations. The reality is that Advent preparation often involves coming to the recognition that to prepare for Christ’s coming is surprisingly uncomfortable. As the prophet Isaiah notes in the very first lesson in the Office of Readings for Advent Week 1:
I cannot endure festival and solemnity./Your New Moons and your pilgrimages/I hate with all my soul./They lie heavy on me,/I am tired of bearing them./When you stretch out your hands/I turn my eyes away./You may multiply your prayers,/I shall not listen./Your hands are covered with blood,/wash, make yourselves clean.
Take away wrong-doing out of my sight./Cease to do evil./Learn to do good,/search for justice,/help the oppressed,/be just to the orphan,/plead for the widow…
As we prepare for God’s definitive judgment in history, we realize that it is our very selves that are part of the problem. Though I pray each morning, I somehow find myself annoyed at the driver doing five miles under the speed limit. I lie to myself on a regular basis about my compassion for the widow and the orphan, instead preferring the comfort of my home. I am impatient with my sick toddler, often not considering the mercy I should offer in such a moment. The horrors of violence portrayed regularly on the news leave me often cold, uninspired to do something about the needs of others. I am a sinner, one of those in Matthew 25, who may not be able to recognize the presence of the coming Christ in my midst.
Realizing that one is part of the problem of sin itself is not a “best-ever” experience. It is a humbling one, a recognition of one’s total weakness before God’s triune love revealed in the Christmas creche. The season of Advent opens up a space in the human heart to receive God’s healing mercy in the midst of our poverty. It is often in the midst of the worst Advent, immersed in one’s total failure, that the healing of Christmas might matter most.
Of course, this is not an apology for doing nothing during Advent. It is not a dismissal of practicing watchfulness, which should mark the season. But it is a warning that promising “best-ever” experiences, even for the sake of inviting Catholics to return to a robust practice of their faith, comes with a cost. The cost is that we confuse the liturgical year with a program of self-improvement. We invite those on the margins of our parishes to unrealistic expectations that Christian life is a series of “best-evers” rather than occasions of hidden love in the midst of a God who did not seem to mind remaining hidden in the Bethlehem manger. The Christmas we celebrate may be mundane, lived out in ordinary parish life, still full of the trials and tribulations of family life; but that does not make it less “best-ever.” In fact, the Christian life (and thus the season of Advent) is learning to see (a normally painful process) the hidden ways that the Word still remains flesh among us.
What the Church promises is not that practicing Advent will lead us to the “best Christmas.” Rather, as John Henry Newman hopes: “May each Christmas, as it comes, find us more and more like Him; who as at this time became a little child for our sake, more simple-minded, more humble, more holy, more affectionate, more resigned, more happy, more full of God” (The Mystery of Godliness). And we may find that the more full of God we become, the more we are open to his presence among us, we are led not into “best-ever” experiences. But more and more into that longing for redemption, that anxious awaiting of the God who will put an end to Advent and Christmas itself: Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, Come!
Denise Azores-Gococo Heartland Farm, KS University of Notre Dame ’14
Christmastime is as good a time as any to realize the strange way our secularized society interacts with its Christian roots. Sometimes it rebels against them; the White House this year called its brightly decorated evergreen tree a “holiday tree.” Sometimes it recognizes them, but is careful not to offend those who despise it (next to the Christmas tree and menorah present at Chicago’s Christkindlmarket loomed a giant “A” for all the atheists who still choose to celebrate a fun winter holiday). And sometimes it can’t help but love the tradition, however archaic, irrelevant, or hurtful it’s often portrayed. I think of this every time I hear the radio waves tenderly carrying the same hymns we sing at Mass during the Christmas season.
I have laughably old woman tendencies for my age (some of which even predated my moving in with four Dominican Sisters, aged between 65 and 85, on an isolated homestead in rural Kansas), and my nostalgia for a time before my own is one of them. I would have loved to live in a time and place where Catholicism was valued by popular society as more than a patriarchal, constricting establishment, when religion wasn’t shrugged off as a delusion or a coping mechanism or an effect of cultural brainwashing. I had a recent conversation with an old friend who painted religion as an impediment to free discourse and inclusivity, ultimately getting in the way of an ideal world in which we erase cultural boundaries for the sake of equality. His stance is a popular one. It is one that is careful to include all and offend none except for, of course, the One who both created us and died on the Cross for our sins. It is one that often makes no use of faith.
This past Sunday’s celebration of the feast of the Epiphany reminded me of a topic broached by a lecture I recently attended in Memphis, TN, presented by Fr. Ben Bradshaw. He suggested that the people of today’s proclaimedly post-religious world are on the tipping point of authentic religious faith, like the pagan magi who followed a star to laud the king of a religion not their own. Perhaps the magi opened their hearts to see something else in a star whose appearance could not otherwise be accounted. They swallowed their pride and took a leap, taking practical advice from the prophecy recorded in ancient scriptures. They traveled with faith as their greatest asset, and they found the Christ-child.
On a Christmas two-thousand-and-fourteen years later, the Wall Street Journal publishes an opinion piece by Eric Metaxas: “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” The article chronicles the beginning—and proposes a possible end—of an age where belief in God is obsolete. The beginning is marked by the 1966 issue of Time Magazine entitled “Is God Dead?” The time leading up to and following the publication of the issue were marked by exponential scientific progress that seemed to suffocate God out of the list of rational possibilities. The end of this age, Mr. Metaxas believes, is not far off. The same scientific progress that led a culture out of belief in God could be leading it back. As it turns out, we cannot account for all the things we once thought we could. As it turns out, our existence is greater than science. It is the miracle of miracles.
Articles in popular media such as the one just mentioned , movies like Interstellar, the recent interest of secular media sources in our Pope (however far-fetched the news might be), and numerous celebrities shocking the world with their long-concealed or newfound Christian sensibilities are signs that our culture, as Fr. Bradshaw suggested, is aching to believe in Truth. Bits of stubborn hope graciously persist in a post-Enlightenment world, pushing popular thought closer to giving faith a chance. If we incarnate Christ’s Word in everyday speech, behavior, and prayer, perhaps the magi of today will be inclined to swallow their pride, take up faith, and seek Him themselves.
Nearly two years ago, I was in a hospital in Fort Wayne, IN, awaiting the discharge of my newborn son. At birth, he had trouble breathing (a skill he would learn with ease in a day or two), and thus spent nearly five days surrounded by the whirl of hospital machinery intended to monitor his every breath, a group of top-notch nurses embodying caritas, and the overwhelming love of his ‘newborn’ parents. My son had not yet known the possibility of pain.
Until his circumcision. He was taken from his hospital room for the brief procedure. Upon his arrival back, he cried and cried and cried. We were instructed to put ointment on the place of his recently removed foreskin (otherwise, the skin would stick to the diaper and cause a fresh wound). For weeks, every time I changed his diaper, I encountered a color red as blood–a wound that did not quickly disappear.
I think of this moment in encountering the Gospel for the feast of Mary, the Mother of God. The Gospel speaks about the shepherds glorifying God, having encountered the good news of salvation announced by the angelic hosts. And then, a small, almost throwaway verse:
When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, was circumcised. At one level, the text tells us that Mary and Joseph were simply following the gift of the Law. But at another, for those of us who have watched our sons suffer the pain of circumcision, we encounter the true scandal of the incarnation: God really became human. God really took up all that human life entails. This is such an important point that before the Second Vatican Council, January 1st was not the feast of Mary, the Mother of God but the circumcision of Jesus.
The feast of Christmas, the feast of Mary the Mother of God, is the celebration of something scandalous. The Word took upon himself all that it meant to be human. He did not feed himself in the womb but received total nourishment from the food that his mother consumed. He learned love not as an abstract principle but from the kisses bestowed by Mary and Joseph alike. He learned to obey the will of God through conforming his own will to the Law and his parents alike. He watched Joseph, his father, die. He hungered and thirsted in the desert. He knew the disappointment of total rejection, he knew what it meant to await his own death. He died alone, surrounded only by the mockery of empire and the wounds of love visible upon the faces of his mother and the beloved disciple. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…and the flesh part…the human part…it really matters.
And indeed, this is the scandalous good news of Christmas. That our humanity has become part of God’s very life. Salvation does not mean becoming less human. It means that when we truly become human, when we love unto the end, we become divine. As a letter of St. Athanasius declares (in the Office of Readings):
Our Savior truly became man, and from this has followed the salvation of man as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole man, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself. What was born of Mary was therefore human by nature, in accordance with the inspired Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was a true body: It was a true body because it is the same as ours. Mary, you see, is our sister, for we are all born from Adam.
Christmas means that we will never be saved if try to escape this life, to escape our existence in time and space, as historical bodies intended for relationship and love. Rather, it is only through all that makes us human, all the joys and sorrows of human life, that we too become divine. This world is not to be passed over as mere transitory matter. Instead, we experience the joy of salvation when we conform ourselves to the humanity of the Word made flesh.
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 personal 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).
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).
The 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.
This 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 (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).
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life