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.
My secret spot for necessary moments of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of college life is the children’s book section of the Notre Dame bookstore. The children’s book section features wonders aplenty: the sight of tiny humans sitting at tiny tables reading tiny books, the occasional grandparent or parent reading lovingly to a little one in their lap, and bright-colored book covers that look infinitely more enjoyable than most of the things I am forced to read for class. Usually, I browse the storybooks until I have sufficiently escaped into a world where the biggest challenges are counting the number of baby animals on the farm or helping the lost princess find her way back to the castle.
But this didn’t happen last time. What happened was that my casual browsing was interrupted by my beholding of a far-too-accurate cartoon depiction of my impatient soul: the exasperated Elephant of Mo Willem’s book, Waiting Is Not Easy.Allow me to give you a brief summary of Elephant’s simple story. Things start out grandly for our protagonist: he learns that his dearest friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him. A surprise which, as he learns to his dismay, must be awaited. He receives only a simple promise: “It will be worth it.” But of course, this does not pacify our protagonist. For Elephant, this process of waiting is filled with impatience, anger, and doubt.
“I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!”
“I will not wait anymore!”
“We have waited too long!”
“It is getting dark! It is getting darker! Soon we will not be able to see anything!”
“We have wasted the whole day.”
Now, as I reached the page containing Elephant’s massive groan, my soul did a massive groan of its own. When I read Elephant’s words of impatience, anger, and doubt, I knew I was reading reactions so very familiar to my own heart. Waiting is hard. And it is something that I don’t know how to do very well at all: not in my relationships, in my spiritual life, or in the unfolding of my vocation.
In his book Waiting for God, Henri Nouwen writes of the holy and waiting people of Luke’s Gospel. As he points out, all of the figures who appear in the first pages are waiting: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna. Like Elephant, they learn the surprising news of a great gift, which is immediately followed by the news that this gift must be awaited. And they are promised that this will be good.
“The whole opening of the Good News is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you. Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait.”
Waiting is not easy. During Advent, we ponder in our hearts what it would mean for us to practice holy and joyful waiting, the very waiting that is the space where the Good News breaks open. As we wait for Christ, we learn to wait in a way that dwells in the promise of His love for us: waiting that dwells in love and hope instead of fear and doubt. As the days get shorter and shorter, we are reminded of how it is often precisely when we feel that it has been getting darker and darker (“Soon we will not be able to see anything!”) that the light of Christ shines clearest and most brightly. It is the patient heart that is able to encounter the infant Jesus hidden under a starry sky in a lowly manger.
May this Advent teach our hearts the worthiness of waiting.
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
For almost as far back as I can remember (and stretching far into my foreseeable future) the conclusion of the Christmas season has inevitably meant the beginning of a new academic semester. For the past five years, as my family has taken down the Christmas tree and put away the ornaments and decorations, I have packed up my dad’s old Dodge Caravan and made my way back down to South Bend to start the spring semester at Notre Dame. This year, as I reflected on this sequence, I was struck by a kind of paradox in it all. On the one hand, throughout Advent and Christmas I found myself noticing the elements of secrecy or ‘hiddenness’ that characterized the Incarnation. The birth of the Creator into His world was not some global or explosive phenomenon. It was not so much like a shout as it was more of a whisper. Very few people noticed when Christ was born.
On the other hand, I have spent the past eight semesters at the University of Notre Dame, which aims not to go hidden or unnoticed in the world, but instead strives for prestige and recognition. At a place full of highly achieving, highly motivated individuals, it is tough to imagine a provost’s speech at the opening of the academic year or a commencement speaker’s address ever touting the virtues of being “hidden.” Students are reminded of their successes and achievements, and are charged with forging their own unique paths and changing the world around them. We champion individuality, boldness, and creativity, and would likely find it odd if at the beginning of the new academic year the president or provost stood before all of our students and urged them to live interiorly, or to blend in, to hide themselves. Part of Notre Dame’s mission is to breed success, and to stand out in the world as a prestigious institution. This is certainly not the only part of our institutional identity (and neither am I attempting to label such an aspiration as a negative thing). But this is all simply to say that Notre Dame is a bold and ambitious institution, full of bold and ambitious people pursuing bold and ambitious projects: this can be seen all across campus, from the accomplishments of the students, faculty, and alumni to the expansion of campus and recent construction and renovation initiatives.
Yet the Incarnation teaches us that the perfect Christian life is not one of prestige or recognition. Rather, the true Christian life is irreducibly hidden, or as Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C. writes: “The perfect life will be an interior life, elevated to God by the habitual practice of acts of faith, hope, and charity after the example of Jesus Christ, who is to be the particular model of our conduct. It is absolutely essential for us to lead with our Lord a life hidden in God.”
Origen of Alexandria, too, draws attention to this inherently hidden life of a Christian. Citing Lamentations, he writes: “The breath of our countenance is Christ the Lord, of whom we said that we shall live under his shadow among the nations” (cf. Lam 4:20).
“For the nations which imitate that soul through faith and so reach salvation,” Origen goes on to write, “live in the mystery of this assumption” (On First Principles, II.VI.7). That notions of the irreducible “hiddenness” of the Christian life is essential to Origen’s thought can be gleaned from the passages he chooses to draw on from Scripture, such as Colossians 3:3 (“Our life is hid with Christ in God”), Ephesians 3:9 (“Christ is ‘hid in God'”), Luke 1:35 (“The Spirit of the Lord shall come upon thee and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee”), and Job 8:9 (“Is not our life on the earth a shadow?”). This theme also emerges in Origen’s Homilies on Luke, in which he writes that Elizabeth, when she had conceived, “kept herself hidden for five months” (Homilies on Luke, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., 23). Even the Incarnation, for Origen, is a “hidden” event, as “it was Christ’s will that the devil should be ignorant of the coming of God’s Son … and thus the mystery of the Savior was hidden from the rulers of this age” (Homilies on Luke, 25). Origen is certainly not lacking in scriptural evidence for the assertion that the Christian life, lived in “the mystery” of Christ’s shadow, is turned into something “hidden.”
What, though, might such a “hidden” life look like, in practice? There are countless examples that we could look to in the vast treasury of saints and figures the Church gives us. Who better to turn to, however, than the preeminent disciple of Christian hiddenness: St. Joseph?
As Scripture attests, Joseph plays an indispensable role in the Incarnation. In the infancy narratives of both Luke and Matthew, Joseph is presented as a crucial link between the coming of Christ and the Davidic covenant of the Old Testament. Matthew, for example, tracing Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham, shows that it is through Joseph—and not Mary—that the Davidic lineage is passed to Jesus. What is more, when the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in Matthew 1:20, he refers to Joseph as “son of David.” Luke, too, in relating the story of the Annunciation, simply calls Mary “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Lk 1:27), later commenting again that Joseph was “descended from the house and family of David” (Lk 2:4). It is evident, then, that the Gospel writers wished to show that Jesus is a descendent of King David, which they accomplish by tracing the genealogy through his father, Joseph. This gives a special kind of weight to Joseph’s own fiat to become husband to Mary and father to Jesus.
Joseph’s relation to David is not merely accidental, and it is also clear that Joseph’s connection to David is not only historical but typological as well, as it is through Joseph that God fulfills the covenant established with David. To explain, the second book of Samuel records: “David was afraid of the LORD that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’ So David was unwilling to take the ark of the LORD into his care in the city of David” (2 Sam 6:9–10). Yet later we are told that David finally, at the command of the Lord, “brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing” (2 Sam 6:12). This event prefigures Joseph, who, when commanded by the angel of the Lord to “not be afraid to take Mary” as his wife, brought the ark of the New Covenant “into his home” and “to the city of David called Bethlehem” (see especially Mt 1:20 and Lk 2:4). It is also through Joseph that God’s promise to David is fulfilled:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. (2 Sam 7:12-14)
Compare this promise with the following passage from Luke concerning Jesus:
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Lk 1:32-33).
These two passages make clear not only Joseph’s centrality in the mystery of the Incarnation, but also his imitation—through faith and obedience—of that soul, the shadow of Christ contemplated by Origen. Joseph, called a “law-abiding” or “righteous” man by Scripture (Mt 1:19), accomplished what David initially could not in taking Mary, the ark of the New Covenant, into his home (consider also the angel’s commands to Joseph to not only take Mary as his wife, but to also take her to Egypt [Mt 2:13-14] and eventually out of Egypt to the land of Israel [Mt 2:19-21], which call to mind the Lord’s commands to David [cf. 2 Sam]). Additionally, none, save Joseph, could have recited the prayer of David so truly and familiarly:
Who am I, O lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? … And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. …for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever. (2 Sam 7:18–29)
Therefore it is clear that Joseph is presented in Scripture as not only a descendent of David, but in many ways can be read as a kind of New David.
Yet it must be noted that, aside from the infancy narratives, Scripture is mysteriously and notably silent when it comes to Joseph, whose fiat held such significance in the economy of salvation history. We can conclude from what the evangelists chose to include among the Gospel narratives regarding Joseph that what they found most important was his obedience, righteousness, and ties to the Davidic lineage. The Joseph of Scripture, then, is the ‘hidden’ Christian par excellence because he is a soul that so imitated the obedience and righteousness achieved by Christ’s soul, living entirely “under his shadow,” that he was taken up, as it were, into the “mystery of this assumption” (Origen, On First Principles II.VI.7). Joseph, whose identity is so completely wrapped up in the mystery of divine revelation to the point that he almost has no identity of his own apart from his role in the Incarnation, points to what it means to become “hid with Christ in God.” This virtue of “hiddenness,” however, gave Joseph an individuality, influence, and boldness that changed history. Perhaps this may even provide clues as to why the Congregation of Holy Cross’ own “hidden disciple”—St. André Bessette, C.S.C., whose feast day is celebrated on January 6—found such a friend and patron in St. Joseph. What might our own lives and institutions look like if we more readily accepted this invitation to “lead with our Lord a life hidden with God”?
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.
El Salvador: Upland Livingby Fernando Llort (b.1949, San 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 Lifeby José Tomás Esparza León
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 Creationby José Tomás Esparza León
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.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior,
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humankind became stunningly and at times disastrously aware that we are capable of shaping history and society. Social structures that were once thought to be the result of the eternal workings of Divine Providence have been exposed as human creations (or perhaps better desecrations). Our action in history can change these structures; foster anew a sense of radical peace and justice through promotion of the common good and solidarity. Yet, there is a dark side to our awakening to the possibility that we shape history. Namely, we may begin to imagine that we alone are the creators of history, that human ingenuity and striving can enact the fullness of justice in the world. Such an approach eliminates any sense of God acting in history. On an individual level, we embrace a rough and ready “atheism” (by no means an intellectual atheism), whereby every aspect of our lives unfolds solely according to our desires, our concerns, our interests. Our career choices, our relationships become a cultivation of the self apart from community. Simultaneously, we develop a society whose only concern is growth for its own sake, unaware of any transcendent good. In the United States, should we be surprised that Congress has found itself in an impossible gridlock, an inertia made possible through arguments that unfold not according to transcendent principles of truth and goodness, but the constraints of an all too consuming and addictive power?
In some ways, the present social and political reality finds its corollary in eighth century B.C., in the kingdom of Israel, under the reign of Ahaz. In an attempt to save Israel from destruction, King Ahaz sought to court the king of Assyria. To enter into a political alliance, one in which there would be an inevitable capitulation to breaking the covenant with the LORD. For the covenant that Israel made on Mt. Sinai was never simply about following a series of arbitrary laws. Rather, Israel’s signing of the covenant was an agreement to live their existence entirely oriented toward the transcendent LORD, toward God alone. Even when Israel begs for a king and receives Saul, the narrative is quite clear: the nation, even the king, must rely on the LORD alone. The nation cannot surrender itself to the intrigues of power, of fame, and of fortune. The nation cannot ignore the Sabbath because of how it promotes inefficient labor practices, cannot despoil the orphan and the widow to increase profits, cannot enter into treaties with foreign empires to save itself from destruction. For such sins are an implicit denial that the LORD will act anew in history, in this day. That all power, all possibility for life, comes from the LORD alone. It is the prophet Isaiah (read with such frequency during this season of Advent), who speaks against Ahaz. Abraham Heschel, in his classic text The Prophets, writes:
A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment (83).
It is within this context that the prophet Isaiah announces God’s action in history through the birth of a child. The prophet writes:
The LORD spoke further to Ahaz: ‘Ask for a sign from the LORD your God, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky’. But Ahaz replied, ‘I will not ask, and I will not test the LORD. ‘Listen, House of David,’ [Isaiah] retorted, ‘is it not enough for you to treat men as helpless that you also treat my God as helpless? Assuredly, my LORD will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel’ (Is 7:7-9).
The birth of the child is remarkable for two reasons. First, one should note that this birth is by no means ordinary, precisely because the child to be born is to carry out the LORD’s desires for the nations. The child is a sign of God acting in history, of the refusal of the LORD to let humanity construct an order forgetful of the covenant. This child, so small, still in utero, will defeat nations precisely in orienting his existence entirely to the LORD. Second, and relatedly, the name of the child is to be Immanuel, God is with us. Despite Ahaz’s (and thus the entire nation’s) attempt to construct his own history, the LORD continues to dwell with Israel, the LORD does not forget, does not give up his end of the covenant. The salvation of Israel remains deeply entrenched in the mind of the LORD. Something novel, unimaginable will take place: “But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, A twig shall sprout from his stock. The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD” (Is 11:1-2).
Thus, when in the final O Antiphon, the Church proclaims that the infant born in Bethlehem, Jesus, is Emmanuel, God with us, we make a remarkable claim. This child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, is the very sign of God dwelling among us. This child, so small, so devoid of power, is the creator of the stars of night, the Savior of the world. God’s definitive action in history is revealed not in pomp and circumstance but in the poverty of an infant, who will give Himself over to the will of the Father, even unto death itself. The presence of this infant, who will reign upon the wood of the Cross, is a constant sign that we are not the sole creators of history. In fact, the accomplishments of history are a shadow of this hidden event in Bethlehem, one that transforms what it means to be human, to function as a society. As Benedict XVI wrote in an editorial for the Financial Times during his Pontificate:
“In Italy, many crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged. Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love. He brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society. He brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious world. From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on earth.”
The Christian, therefore, who adores Emmanuel, who proclaims the O Antiphon on this day, announces the newness of history as it unfolds in Christ. A history in which human love is transfigured through the self-gift of the Christ, the anointed One, the Messiah who announces the radical reign of divine justice.
As we celebrate the feast of Christmas, we must learn to give up such self-sufficiency, the attempt to seize and control our own lives at all costs, to construct our own political order apart from any transcendent source. And instead, we must give ourselves over to the logic of love revealed in the poverty of the infant. We cannot sentimentalize the presence of the birth of Jesus on Christmas day. For sentimentality ignores the historical magnitude of the birth of Jesus. At this power, all human power, all attempts to construct our own historical narrative apart from the LORD of all nations, is defeated by the cooing of the Word made flesh. Come and save us, O Lord our God.
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
For five years, my morning commute took me along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago at the crack of dawn. As I made my way south, the lake stretched out to my left – some mornings calm and still like glass, and other days windswept whitecaps and waves crashing upon the shore. Over the course of the year there were a few precious weeks when I could watch the sun rise over the lake.
Slowly, the sky lightens – the first hints brightening in the sky. I begin to see more clearly the details of things around me, as the all-encompassing darkness fades to a mixture of shadows and light. The sky begins to reflect a splendor of color and then, the first rays begin to peek over the horizon.
The light now shines freely across the water, bathing the city in its radiant glow as everything takes on a hint of reflected glory. As the sun rises above the surface of the lake, the reflected rays in the water are almost like a path leading me directly towards the light. All too quickly, the sun rises above the horizon and the day begins. The gentle expectant glow fades into the routine of daily life. Yet I carry with me the memory of hopeful splendor.
On this day we pray O Oriens, O Dayspring, O Radiant Dawn! From the darkness of the shadow of death we yearn for the Light of Christ, Light of the World.
Moving through Advent, the days grow shorter as darkness appears to be overwhelming our world. Until today – the Winter Solstice, the day with the least amount of sunlight – where we proclaim the dawning of Christ’s light into our lives. From this day forward we look to the light that shines in the darkness,
“…because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high
will visit us, to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).
Each morning we encounter anew the dawning of Christ’s love in our lives. Jesus’ light, the eternal light, shines forth in our lives at all times, yet is sometimes hidden from our view by the obstacles, attitudes, actions, and circumstances that cast a shadow upon our lives. In praying O Oriens we call for the light to break through like the dawn.
During Advent, in the shortest of days when darkness seems to be winning the battle outside and the shadow of death seems to be creeping into our hearts, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the Light of Life, the Sun of Justice, shines forth.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Is 9:1)
O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and no one shuts; you shut and no one opens.
Come and lead the captives from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.
As the Key of David, the Messiah will open the gate of heaven that has been shut since the fall of Adam and Eve. In addition, He will open the gate of the prison that has bound humanity since that same time: the prison of sin and death. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Is 22:22).
A key is a symbol of authority: the one who wields it has the power to imprison and to set free, and the One who wields the key to the House of David has an authority and a power that none can impeach. In this antiphon, the Messiah is not the holder of the Key of David, the Messiah is the Key of David. In His very Person, the Messiah is the One who forever opens the door to life and who will, at the end of all things, forever shut the door to death and destruction.
As the Key of David, the Messiah is the great liberator, not only on a universal, eschatological level, but also on a personal level. He is the One who can truly say: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61:1-2a; see also Lk 4:16-21). The Messiah comes to all, but He also comes to each, seeking out every single person imprisoned by doubts, fears, or addictions. The Key of David comes to unlock the prison of the heart, where the soul is held captive, bound by the chains of sin. He comes, fulfilling the words of Isaiah: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you” (Is 35:4).
The Key of David comes – He, the way, the truth, and the life – leading “the captives from the prison house” on the path to beatitude: “A highway will be there, called the holy way; no one unclean may pass over it, nor fools go astray on it. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee” (Is 35:8, 9b-10).
O Lord and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush
and gave him the Law on Sinai:
come, and with an outstretched arm, redeem us.
The Messianic title “Adonai” contains within it an aura of mystery that cannot be easily unpacked. Even the ancient Church had difficulties pinning down its exact meaning; rather than try to translate it into Latin for this particular antiphon, the writers retained the Hebrew word:
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
Most frequently translated as “Lord,” the word “Adonai” was used by the people of Israel as a substitute for the unutterable name of God, revealed to Moses from the burning bush. When the Hebrew people spoke the title “Adonai,” they did so out of reverence for God, for the very name of God, for the One who said to Moses, “I am the God of your father … the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6a). When Moses heard these words, Scripture says, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex 3:6b)
How astonishing it is that the same God from whom Moses hid his face would choose to redeem us by becoming an infant, One on whom shepherds gazed in rapt wonder. How incredible it is that this God – Adonai – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would come to deliver us not from the hands of Pharoah but from our sins, from death itself. How marvelous it is (that is, worthy of marvel and awe) that this same God who spoke from the burning bush and lay wordless in a manger humbled Himself even further, coming to His people under the appearance of bread and wine each and every time the Mass is celebrated.
Yet how often do we speak the titles “Lord” of “God” out of reverence for this work of redemption? I know that I am frequently guilty of using those titles casually, or worse, as expressions of frustration or anger (particularly when driving–I’m sure I’m not alone here). One of the many fruits of the Advent season is that we can regain a sense of profound wonder in contemplating the miracle of the Incarnation. Perhaps we would do well to channel that wonder into a renewed sense of reverence for God, and especially for the name of God.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life