Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor’s Note: This second of two posts is part of a lecture given to inaugurate the Institute for Church Life’s 2nd annual International Crèche Pilgrimage, Dwelling with Love Incarnate.
In the Bleak Mid-Winter
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
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).