Mike Aquilina

Intro to Lent III: Almsgiving

Thursday February 23rd 2012, 5:13 pm

Third in a series of three posts.

Of the three marks of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — almsgiving is surely the most neglected.

And yet, in the only place where the Bible brings all three together, the inspired author puts the emphasis firmly on the last: “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness … It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life” (Tob 12:8-9).

Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting? Because it is prayer, and it involves fasting. Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is “giving to God” — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.

Jesus presented almsgiving as a necessary part of Christian life: “when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:2-3). He does not say IF you give alms, but WHEN. Like fasting and prayer, almsgiving is non-negotiable.

The first Christians knew this. “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4:34-35).

That was the living embodiment of a basic principle of Catholic social teaching, what tradition calls “the universal destination of goods.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it succinctly: “The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race” (n. 2452).

But they can’t get there unless we put them there — and that requires effort.

As with prayer and fasting, so with almsgiving. If we have a plan, we’ll find it easier to do. Throughout history, many Christians have used the Old Testament practice of “tithing” as a guide — that is, they give a tenth of their income “to God.” In practice, that means giving it to the poor, to the parish, or to charitable institutions.

My friend Ed Kenna, an octogenarian and dad, remembers the day he decided to start tithing. “When I was a senior in high school, back in 1939-40, I read an article on charitable giving in a Catholic newspaper,” he recalls. “And it had a lot of testimonies to the fruits of tithing. Breadwinners told how God provided whenever they were in need or had an emergency. I decided, then and there, to start tithing, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

For Kenna, those 65 years have had their financial ups and downs. He served in the military during World War II, went to college and raised a family of nine children. Through it all, he says, he was often tempted, but he never wavered in his tithing. “There were many times when I reached a point where I said, ‘Something has to give — but I’m not going to give up on my tithing.'”

It’s a matter of trusting God, Kenna adds, “and God will not be outdone in generosity.”

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), but those who tithe often find themselves on the receiving end as well. “I worked as an industrial engineer through the highs and lows of American industry,” Kenna recalls. “Twice my job fell victim to corporate mergers, but the phone always rang just in time. I never lost an hour of work to layoffs.”

He sees the difficult times as God’s test of our trust. “It’s especially hard in the beginning. On your first paycheck, it hurts. On the second, the pain’s a little less. At about the third or fourth, there’s no pain at all. You get used to it. It’s a habit. But you have to make that firm resolution: I’m gonna do it and not give in.”

Kenna, like many others, interprets tithing to mean taking ten percent off the “first fruits” — gross income, rather than net. He divides this up as “5 percent to the parish and 5 percent to other Catholic institutions.” He also gives of his time and has, for many decades, been a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Indeed, many Catholics extend the concept of almsgiving beyond money to include time and talent as well, donating a portion of these to worthy causes.

In the late fourth century, St. John Chrysostom looked at the good life people were living in the imperial court, and he was filled with righteous anger. In the name of God, he raged against those who owned toilet seats made of gold, while other people starved in cold hovels.

While our commodes may be made of less precious materials, many Americans today enjoy a better standard of life than any Byzantine emperor ever knew. Central heat, central air conditioning, electric lights, consistently safe food and water, antibiotics, and even aspirin — these are luxuries beyond the dreams of our ancient ancestors.

We are living high, but are we giving high?

It’s a good question to ask ourselves during Lent. It is a scandal, after all, for Christians to have closets overstuffed with clothing when there are families who are shivering because they can’t pay their heating bill. It is a scandal for Christians to be epidemically overweight when they have near neighbors who go to bed hungry.

We need to give to God — whom we meet in our neighbor — until these problems go away. Whatever we give, whether it’s a tenth or a twentieth or half, is symbolic of the greater giving that defines the Christian life. As God gave himself entirely to us, so we give ourselves entirely to Him. In the Eucharist, He holds nothing back. He gives us His body, blood, soul and divinity — everything He has. That’s the giving we need to imitate.

Charity begins at home, where we daily make the choice to give our time, our attention, our affirming smile, and give generously. But charity must not stop there, because for Catholics “home” is universal, and our family is as big as the world. We need to dig deep and give much where much is needed. But, whenever possible, our charity should also involve personal acts, not just automatic withdrawals from our bank account. Pope John Paul asked us to see, and be seen by, “the human face of poverty.”

We give what we have till we have nothing left to give. My friend and sometime co-author Regis Flaherty remembers his sister Pat as a woman who practiced giving all her life, to her sibilings, her husband, her children and her friends. To the end, she gave what she could. “When she was dying she was in and out of consciousness, but whenever she looked up at us, she would invariable smile — absolutely amazing considering how much she was suffering.”

Sometimes all we can give is a smile, but sometimes that is the greatest sacrifice, the greatest prayer, and indeed the most generous and most sacrificial alms.

Intro to Lent II: Fasting

Wednesday February 22nd 2012, 11:43 pm

Second in a series of three posts.

“Why do Catholics have to fast?”

The question came from a non-Catholic Boy Scout in my son’s troop. We had spent a long, soggy weekend in the middle of the woods. And now, Sunday morning, the adults announced that breakfast would be delayed so that the Catholics could keep the Communion fast. He was not a happy camper.

His question comes to mind again as Lent begin, because fasting is the most distinguishing practice of the season. On two days in Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics limit their eating to one full, meatless meal. On all the Fridays of Lent we abstain from meat.

Why do Catholics fast? Our reasons find firm grounding in the Bible.

When we fast, we follow holy example. Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before going into God’s presence (Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). Anna the Prophetess fasted to prepare herself for the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:37). They all wanted to see God, and they considered fasting a basic prerequisite. We, too, wish to enter God’s presence, so we fast.

Jesus fasted (Mt 4:2). And since He needed no purification, He surely did this only to set an example for us. In fact, He assumed that all Christians would follow His example. “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). Note that He did not say “IF you fast,” but “when.”

And WHEN is now. In Lent the Church extends the idea of fasting, beyond the minimal skipping of meals, to a more far-reaching program of self-denial. Jesus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself … daily” (Lk 9:23). So we “give up” something that we’d ordinarily enjoy: sweets, soda pop, a favorite TV show, or the snooze alarm.

Fasting has its health benefits, but it’s not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body.

The Bible spells out specific spiritual benefits of fasting. It produces humility (Ps 69:10). It shows our sorrow for our sins (1 Sam 7:6). It clears a path to God (Dan 9:3). It is a means of discerning God’s will (Ezr 8:21) and a powerful method of prayer (8:23). It’s a mark of true conversion (Jl 2:12).

Fasting helps us to be detached from the things of this world. We fast, not because earthly things are evil, but precisely because they’re good. They’re God’s gifts to us. But they’re so good that we sometimes prefer the gifts to the Giver. We practice self-indulgence rather than self-denial. We tend to eat and drink to the point where we forget God. Such indulgence is really a form of idolatry. It’s what St. Paul meant when he said, “their god is the belly … with minds set on earthly things” (Phi 3:19).

How can we enjoy God’s gifts without forgetting the Giver? Fasting is a good way to start. The body wants more than it needs, so we should give it less than it wants.

St. John of the Cross said that we cannot rise up to God if we are bound to the things of this world. So we give up good things, and gradually we grow less dependent on them, less needy.

All of this is part of our preparation for heaven. For we’re destined to lose our earthly goods anyway. Time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate, our ability to enjoy a cold beer, and even the intimate embrace of a loved one. If we have no discipline over our desires, then these losses will leave us bitter and estranged from God. But if we follow Jesus in self-denial, we’ll find a more habitual consolation in the ultimate good — God Himself.

How is it that some people are able to remain serene and cheeful amid extreme suffering and even when facing imminent death? It’s not just a matter of temperament. They’ve prepared themselves for the moment by giving up the things of this world, one small thing at a time. They’ve grown so accustomed to small sacrifice that the big one isn’t such a stretch.

No one says that fasting is easy. In fact, says Benedictine Father Thomas Acklin, author of The Passion of the Lamb: God’s Love Poured Out in Jesus. “Fasting can seem very hard, and it can seem that if I do not eat I will become weak and will not be able to work, or pray, or do anything.

“Yet there is that marvelous moment,” he adds, “when, after some hours have passed, my stomach has stopped growling and I’ve even forgotten what I’ve given up, when there is a lightness, a freedom, a clarity of the senses and a brightness of attitude and feeling, an incomparable closeness to the Lord.”

Lent is a special season, but God wants these forty days to have a lasting effect on our lives. So, in a sense, fasting is for always. Father Rene Schatteman, an Opus Dei chaplain in Pittsburgh, says that he received this lesson directly from a canonized saint. “I learned from St. Josemaria Escriva, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, that a person should make some small sacrifice at each meal, always, and not just during Lent.”

Fr. Schatteman emphasizes the importance of little things, and the big effect they can have: “We should all feel the need to help Christ redeem the world by practicing self-denial in everyday, ordinary eating and drinking … to take a bit less, or a bit less of what we like most, to avoid eating between meals, to skip a snack or dessert, etc., without making a big deal of it.”

A Pittsburgh businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me of his longtime practice of fasting on Fridays, “a 12-15 hour fast from food, water-only.” He said, however, that this can be difficult to carry out, not because of the hunger, but because it can disrupt family life. “It’s very hard to sit at the family table and not eat. It’s not so much a question of resisting the temptation of the food. I always felt like I was breaking fellowship. My fasting actually felt selfish, like I was taking something away from our time together as a family.”

He has since modified his fast, “to be broken at the family dinner in the evening.”

Why do Catholics fast? Our anonymous businessman put it well: “It’s medicine for my biggest problem — selfishness and lack of self-control. To force myself to curb my appetites, to not satisfy my desires — even for a short period of time — this is a good thing. To offer up the little sacrifice to God, for my family, for people who are hungry through no choice of their own, this I think is also good.”

Celebrate St. Valentine …

Tuesday February 14th 2012, 3:12 pm

… with Maureen’s great historical roundup.

Through the Prayers of the Holy Fathers …

Saturday January 14th 2012, 6:36 pm

A dear reader of A Year with the Church Fathers writes to let me know he completed his 365 days with the book and was beginning again. He sent along a beautiful prayer from the Divine Liturgy of St.John Chrysostom. He offered it for me, and I offer it for you: “through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.”

Novena for Healing of Breast Ailments

Sunday January 08th 2012, 8:27 pm

February 5 is the memorial of St. Agatha, patroness of Sicily, the land of my grandparents, and one of the patrons of my parish.

Because of the tortures she endured in martyrdom, St. Agatha is also patron for those living with diseases of the breast. My friend Paul Zalonski has a deep devotion to the third-century martyr. He sent me a prayer card with the saint’s image on front and the novena below on back. Pass it around. Think of it as a deeply traditional version of the pink ribbon.

Paul heads up the religious education programs at St. Catherine of Siena Church in NYC (411 East 68th Street). There, at noon Mass on Feb. 5, people who live with diseases of the breast will receive a special blessing and have the opportunity to receive the Anointing of the Sick. You’re invited to attend and pray for healing of those who have breast cancer. Bring a friend.
Here’s that novena prayer …

O glorious Saint Agatha, through whose intercession in Christ I hope for the restored health of body and soul, hasten to lead me to the true Good, God alone. By your intercession, O blessed Agatha, may I ever enjoy your protection by faithfully witnessing to Christ. You invite all who come to you to enjoy the treasure of of communion with the Holy Trinity. Moreover, if it be for God’s greater glory and the good of my person, please intercede for me with the request of [mention request here].

Saint Agatha, you found favor with God by your chastity and by your courage in suffering death for the gospel. Teach me how to suffer with cheerfulness, uniting myself to Christ crucified with a simplicity and purity of heart. Amen.

Saint Agatha, eloquent confessor of Jesus Christ as Savior, pray for me.

Saint Agatha, the martyr who says to Jesus, “possess all that I am,” pray for me.

Saint Agatha, concerned with the welfare of all God’s children, pray for me.

Saint Agatha, pray for me.

(I’ve found other prayers for breast ailments, to Christ and to Our Lady, in the book Celtic Spiritual Verse: Poems of the Western Highlanders from the Gaelic.)

Agatha’s story is in Butler, of course, and critically dissected and patristically pedigreed in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. Her images abound at Artcyclopedia.

The Senses of Christmas

Saturday December 24th 2011, 11:02 am

Christmas could rightly be called the holiday of the senses.

It is the season of lights and tinsel, choirs and carols, the aroma of pine and roasting chestnuts. Christmas comes to us with sumptuous meals, hearty laughter, and kisses beneath the mistletoe. Christmas scenes — by the old masters and by modern advertisers — decorate the walls of museums, billboards on the roadside, and cards in the mailbox. For nearly 2,000 years, the world has marked the birth of Jesus Christ as its most festive jubilee. No other day of the year offers the world so many earthly pleasures.

But why? No pope or Church council ever declared that it should be so. Yet every year, Christmas comes onto the calendar like a sudden December wind, like the blinding sun reflected off new snow. It is a shock to the senses, to go from barren winter to the season of lights and feasting.

And so it should be, for the first Christmas — the day when Jesus Christ was born — was a shock to human history.

For millennia, humankind had lived and died, uncomprehending, in its sin, the miseries of this world inevitable and the joys few and fleeting. Then Christmas arrived, and even the calendar went mad. From that moment, all of history was cleft in two: before that day (B.C.), and after that day (A.D.). The world — with all its sights and sounds and aromas and embraces — was instantly transfigured. For the world’s redemption had begun the moment God took human flesh for His own, the moment God was born in a poor stable in Bethlehem.

The greatest Christian poem commemorates this moment when God definitively came to dwell on earth. St. John begins his Gospel by describing a God of awesome power, remote in space and transcending time: a Spirit, a Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him.”

This is the God that even the pagan philosophers knew: the Prime Mover, the One, the Creator. Yet, precisely where the pagan philosophers stalled, John’s drama proceeded to a remarkable climax: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

This was shocking news. From the distant heavens, from remotest time, God Himself had come in flesh to “pitch His tent” among His people. Yes, God is eternally the Word, but a word is elusive, and not everyone may grasp it. Now He is also a baby, and a baby may be picked up and held and embraced.

Of all the amazing and confounding truths of the Christian religion, there is none so outrageous as this: that the Word was made flesh, in a particular little town, in a stable filled with animals, on a certain day of the year. The Word was made flesh and changed everything. This makes Christmas the most shocking feast in the calendar.

And all the meaning of Christmas is summed up in this fact. God lived in a family the way we do. He shivered against the cold the way we do. The Word-made-flesh nursed at His mother’s breast like any other human baby. Suddenly, God was not a watchmaker, some remote mechanic who wound up the world and let it go. God was a baby, crying to be picked up.

Tradition tells us that John wrote the Prologue to his Gospel in a white heat of inspiration. His friends had asked him to set down the story of Jesus, so he asked them a favor in return: to fast and pray with him. When the fast was over, the Spirit came upon John, and he could not contain himself. The words poured out — perhaps the very words he had been trying to say all his long life, but had never quite managed to find before.

You can hear the astonishment in his voice when he tells us that the Word was made flesh. As he was writing, he must have felt that same thrill again, the thrill he felt when it first hit home that this Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, was the Anointed, the Son of God.

And that same astonishment carries over into his first epistle. According to tradition, John wrote that letter sixty-six years after the Ascension of Christ, but the amazement is still fresh in his voice. He still can hardly believe that “that which was from the beginning” is also that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the earliest days of the Church, Christmas was not one of the important feasts. Jesus’ life was still a living memory, and His extraordinary resurrection rightly occupied the central spot in the calendar. But as time went on, false teachers began to deny the fact of Jesus’ humanity. They claimed that Jesus’ body had been an elaborate disguise, that, in reality, God had never debased Himself by taking on human flesh. Later heretics denied also that Mary gave birth to the Word: instead, they said, she gave birth to a “vessel” into which the Word was later poured. Still other heretics believed that the Son was a subordinate being — divine, but not coeternal with God the Father.

All these heresies had one thing in common: an unwillingness to face the apparent foolishness of the Incarnation. Arius, the founder of the Arian heresy, was an eminently reasonable man. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity because, he said, three cannot be one; that’s elementary arithmetic. The infinite God cannot become finite man; that’s elementary philosophy. Therefore there could be no Incarnation.

Heretics like Arius wanted to spare God the unreasonable indignity of being corrupted by too close an association with humanity. It was the same problem the Pharisees could not get over: If this Jesus is so good, why does He associate with sinners and tax collectors? In fact, though the heretics would have insisted that they were defending the perfection of the Deity, they were actually denying the perfection of God’s love. Love, after all, can seem unreasonable. Anyone who values another as much as oneself seems entirely unreasonable.

It can hardly be coincidence that the celebration of the literal, historical birth of Jesus the carpenter’s son began to take on more importance just when the true faith was most dangerously beset by these flesh-denying errors. The scandalously human birth of the Son of God was the very thing that separated orthodoxy from heresy. Celebrating that Nativity committed the Church to a clear statement of principle.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the beginning, there was no universal agreement on the date of Christmas. The Church in Egypt at first placed the date of Christ’s birth in May or April. Others put it in March, and still others in any other month you care to name. It was also popular to combine the celebration of Christ’s birth with the celebration of the Epiphany, putting them both on January 6. But sometime in the 400s the date of the Feast of the Incarnation settled on December 25, and there it stayed.

There are at least three plausible theories to account for how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25. No one of the theories excludes the others; all three could be correct.

The first theory is the simplest. An old story says that, in about the year 350, Pope Julius I looked up the date of Jesus’ birth in the census records. Certainly there is nothing outlandish in the idea of census records holding that information even three and a half centuries later. We know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was born during a census. The Romans, with their almost compulsive love of order, might well have kept those records forever in some bureaucratic hole in Rome.

The second theory has it that Christians, unable to stamp out a pagan midwinter celebration, simply took it over. Throughout history, people have celebrated the passing of the shortest day in the year, the solstice. When the days begin to lengthen again, it means that the death of winter will certainly pass, and the world will be reborn in spring.

The pagan origin of the date should not scandalize us. Indeed, many Christmas traditions have pagan origins. The Christmas tree, for example, has no obvious connection with the birth of Jesus, but certainly makes sense as a pagan midwinter rite: By sympathetic magic, we bring back the dormant spirit of vegetation when we bring an evergreen tree — still living when everything around it is dead — back from the forest. And yet it is an appropriate symbol for Christians, too. The evergreen tree is an obvious metaphor for the hope of new life that Christ brought us.

Again, the lights we string everywhere for Christmas may be a survival of an old heathen rite — once again, a kind of sympathetic magic, lighting fires to bring the dying sun back to life. But light has always been a favorite Christian symbol, too.

We know that the early Church frequently took advantage of local beliefs or customs to spread the Gospel. Paul himself founded one of his most famous orations on the altar to an unknown god in Athens. “What therefore you worship, without knowing it,” he told the gawking Athenians, “that I preach to you.” (Acts 17:23.) It would be very much in the spirit of Paul for the Church to develop a Christian interpretation of a beloved heathen festival, explaining to eager converts that they were really worshipping not the light, but the Light.

The third theory to account for the specific date December 25 is that it corresponded with the early Church’s notion of Jesus’ perfect life. Tradition had it that Jesus died on March 25. In order for His life to be appealingly perfect, the theologians reasoned, He must also have been conceived on March 25, then born exactly nine months later.

The idea of Jesus’ life having a kind of aesthetic perfection must have been satisfying to an age still under the spell of Neoplatonist philosophy. It would have satisfied the intellect, and that Roman passion for order, as much as the continuation of the beloved midwinter festival satisfied the sentiments.

All of these theories could be true. One can imagine, for example, the Pope discovering the date in census records, and the Church taking advantage of its happy correspondence with the date of a favorite pagan festival, even as the more philosophical Christians capitalized on its appealing symmetry with the traditional date of Jesus’ death. As always, Christians would have reached out to the nations in ways the nations were prepared to hear. By giving a Christian interpretation to a favorite local custom or an appealing philosophical idea, the Church gave the newly converted a way of seeing the story of the Incarnation in terms they could understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

As the festival spread throughout the newly Christianized nations of Europe and the East, it gathered more old pagan customs and gave them new Christian interpretations. Everywhere Christmas went, it must have seemed new but somehow familiar to newly converted pagans. Perhaps that very familiarity made it the most beloved feast in the calendar.

At any rate, by about 1100, Christmas had become the most important celebration of the year. Throughout the high Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated everywhere with tremendous spectacles and rejoicing. The people sang their favorite carols; psychedelic processions wound noisily through the narrow streets of medieval cities; and everywhere there was the heavenly aroma of Christmas cooking.

With the Protestant Reformation, however, came changes on the cultural scene. In their zealous rage against any perceived abuses in the Church, many of the Reformers targeted Christmas as nothing more than a mishmash of heathen festivals. In a sense, of course, they were correct: many of the traditions did come from pagan roots. But the anti-Christmas factions judged by the stem when they ought to have judged by the fruit.

When the Puritans took over in England, they banned Christmas outright. Shops were ordered to stay open. Anyone caught with a mince pie was in serious trouble. All the greenery, Yule logs, plum puddings, and carols that make up a traditional English Christmas were (the Puritans said) nothing but heathen idolatry, and heathen idolatry must be suppressed. There were stubborn pockets of resistance — some people were even willing to die for Christmas, so strong was the popular attachment to the traditional holiday — but the Puritans prevailed, though only for a while.

To counteract all that heathen wallowing in sensory pleasures, the Puritans decreed that Christmas would be a day of fasting. Somehow that tradition never caught on. It would be easy to say that the fast never caught on because of human weakness — people, after all, prefer feasting to fasting almost as naturally as they prefer joy to sorrow. But Lent never dropped out of the calendar from lack of demand. Good Christians are willing to endure self-denial when it seems appropriate. It just does not seem appropriate for Christmas.

What the Puritans could not understand, and what many good people still fail to understand, is that there is no contradiction between worshipping God and enjoying God’s creation. It is no shame to enjoy the good things God has given us. Jesus’ first recorded miracle was turning water into wine — and not just ordinary wine, St. John is careful to point out that this was the good stuff. Apparently, the Son of Man had, in the most human and fleshly sense, good taste.

Some misguided Christians, like the Puritans, are ashamed to sully the affairs of faith with earthly enjoyment. But the miracle of Christ’s birth is that it was earthly. The Word became flesh — real, unmistakably earthly flesh. “Flesh,” said St. Athanasius, the heroic champion of orthodoxy when the clouds of heresy seemed blackest, “did not diminish the glory of the Word; far be the thought. On the contrary, it was glorified by Him.”

Some Church Fathers called Christmas the Feast of the Incarnation.

Incarnation comes from a Latin word that means “enfleshment.” What sounds to English-speakers like a rarefied theological term is really just a statement of fact: God took on flesh. When that happened, flesh itself became something holy, something to be celebrated with paintings and statues and Christmas cards.

Yet in the eighth century, a faction arose in the Church calling themselves “Iconoclasts,” Greek for “picture-smashers.” The iconoclasts tried to “purify” and “spiritualize” Christian life by obliterating all artistic representations of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. They seized and destroyed most of the religious images in the Eastern Roman Empire, and they cut off the hands of those Christians who would not part with their icons. God, they said, could not be represented in a picture; any attempt to do so was rank idolatry. But this is how St. John of Damascus answered them: “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but worship the creator of matter Who became matter for my sake . . . and Who, through matter, accomplished my salvation.”

In other words, the Incarnation makes art, too, a holy thing, just as it made the body a holy thing. The artists who have painted the Nativity throughout the centuries were not creating idols. Their visible representations are hymns of praise to the invisible God made visible.

Look at any of the classic Nativity paintings and marvel at the care taken with the tiniest details. Every animal in the stable is an individual creature; every straw in the manger seems to be drawn with infinite care. Of all the biblical scenes artists have loved to paint for centuries, the Nativity is the one that seems to provoke the most thorough delight in the simple pleasure of drawing things. It seems as if God is in every detail.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Everyone’s favorite Christmas story is the one in Luke’s Gospel. What makes it so beloved is the familiarity of it all. Luke, who seems to have been writing for a gentile audience, strives to place Jesus exactly in history and geography. His point is that the birth of the Christ is not a metaphor or parable (something a sophisticated Mediterranean audience, accustomed to hearing the philosophers and sophists reinterpret classical mythology allegorically, would easily be tempted to suppose). It was a real event in a real place, related in a precisely knowable way to the other real events of recent history.

Having established the exact time and place, Luke goes on to give us, with a professional historian’s skill, exactly the details we need to bring home the earthly reality of Jesus’ birth. We learn how Joseph and Mary felt when they found there was no room at the inn, and how grateful they were for even the scant shelter of a stable — not because Luke tells us how they felt, but because he gives us just enough detail to put us right there with them, and we can feel it for ourselves. Probably no one could ever make a movie out of those events that would really convince us: We were there, we know what it was like, and whatever we saw on the screen or on the stage would never seem half so real.

The other Gospel writers do not provide the same details. They have their own points to make, each one as valuable as Luke’s — but not so immediately appealing to our sentimental side.

Mark is the only one who has nothing to say about Jesus’ birth. His compact and economical narrative begins with John the Baptist and wastes no time getting Jesus baptized by him.

Matthew tells us only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then skips straight to the Wise Men. Matthew and Luke seem to have been writing for different audiences: Matthew for people who had heard of or seen Jesus the man and needed to know that He was also Jesus the Christ, and Luke for people who had heard of Jesus the Christ and needed to be told that He was also Jesus the man.

And then there is John. He actually tells the same story as Luke, but in words so different that at first we do not recognize the story at all. We could almost say that, where Luke saw the events from earth’s point of view, John saw them from heaven’s. Luke gives us the details that let us see the earthliness of the Incarnation; John gives us the poetry that lets us see the miracle of it all.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It is important to have John’s divine words in mind when we read the story in Luke, because the Incarnation was not a one-time event that ended on the Cross or with the Ascension. Jesus Christ came into the world in a particular place at a particular time, but He established a Church that would be His body in the world. The gloriously diverse congregation of believers who inhabit every corner of our planet — they are Christ’s body. If you want to know what Jesus looks like, go to church and look around you.

Even more, we encounter the Lord in the flesh in the Holy Eucharist. “For My flesh is real food,” He said, “and My blood real drink.” The Incarnation is not an abstract principle — it is a miraculous concrete fact every day of our lives. It didn’t just happen two thousand years ago. It happened today.

The “incarnational principle” — that embodiment of love — is present in all the sacramental realities Jesus gave us. It is not simply for the sake of weak human understandings that all the sacraments are celebrated with physical signs. God the Son made the physical sacred.

In the Holy Eucharist itself, we see the nourishment for our spirits expressed in the most elementary form of nourishment for the body. The eternal God appears to us in the very temporal form of bread and wine. “This is My body, broken for you,” Our Lord told us. “This is My blood, shed for you.” As often as we celebrate the Eucharist, we are roused to remember that Jesus the Son of God had real flesh to break and real blood to shed.

That fact is what the Feast of the Incarnation celebrates, and it is what makes enjoying the pleasures of the senses feel so appropriate for Christmas. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus of Nazareth healed the sick and fed the hungry. He loved us not just enough to take us with Him into paradise, but to wish us every happiness while we still live here on Earth. And the only thing He asked us to do in return was to love Him, and to love others as much as He loved us.

You can still see traces of that Christian love in the ancient and beautiful custom of giving Christmas presents. There is more than a little irony in the fact that today’s manic rush to buy and sell Christmas exists only because we have managed to pervert the beautiful Christian urge to give. That perversion is the very sin that Jesus Himself condemned most angrily when He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, the only sin that could have driven Him to use a whip on the sinners. What does Jesus think when he sees our “Sparkle Season,” the modern midwinter festival of greed? Perhaps (for Jesus is more perfectly forgiving than we could ever be) He sees the good in us, and the earnest desire many of us have to make others happy, and forgives us our excesses. We should pray that it might be so.

But we should not be ashamed to enjoy the beautiful traditions of Christmas, the delights of the senses that go naturally with the season. Eat, drink, sing, laugh, dance, come in before His presence with exceeding great joy. Why, after all, do we have bodies?
“Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.”

This is what Jesus taught us: We have bodies so that we can use them to worship God, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies so that we can use them to serve others, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies so that we can bring comfort and consolation and healing, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies for glory’s sake.

And Christmas is full of that glory. The Gloria, the song of Christmas, comes to us from the Christmas Eve mass of the ancient Church. The angels sang it when they announced Christ’s birth: Glory to God in the highest! What was so glorious? This Jesus was born to a poor working family in a drafty stable filled with smelly animals. And that is precisely what was so glorious. There was nothing idealized about Jesus’ birth. The Son of God was born in an absolutely ordinary way. The first people to hear of the miracle were certain poor shepherds — not the great and mighty Emperor Augustus in his palace at Rome, not even that tin-plated despot Herod. That is the wonder of the Word-made-flesh: the Word was truly made one of us.

The Christmas story is the story of how the flesh became holy, the body was sanctified, and simple earthly joys became hymns of praise to God. Thus Christmas is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and all the senses. We love to hear the story over and over, and we always will love it so long as a scrap of humanity remains in us.

Philly Pro-Life Conference

Friday October 21st 2011, 10:48 pm

I’m speaking Nov. 20 at a pro-life conference in Philadelphia. It’s a great (international) lineup of music and speakers. I’m talking about the pro-life work of the Fathers — with a second talk on devotion to the guardian angels. Any chance I’ll see you there?

Well, Happy Fathers’ Day

Sunday June 19th 2011, 6:15 pm

It’s a feast day, of course, for a patristics blog — even one whose custodian has been distracted lately. I do recommend that you visit Michael Ripple’s post for a good meditation.

Yesterday’s First Communion

Sunday May 08th 2011, 7:16 am

Mary, Mom

Sunday February 27th 2011, 6:43 pm

Mary (DeMarco) Aquilina, born Nov. 5, 1916, died Feb. 27, 2011. Our last long conversation was about the phrase “gratia plena.” May she know the fullness. May she enjoy the rest. With my father. With our Father.

Ripple to Tsunami

Friday February 04th 2011, 10:36 pm

My friend Michael Ripple is blogging. Look out — it’s going to be provocative.

New Place to Get the News

Saturday January 22nd 2011, 9:24 pm

ThePulp.it searches far and wide for the best punditry in the Catholic blogosphere and puts the best in a single post twice a day.

Love, and Draw What You Will

Thursday December 30th 2010, 5:47 pm

St. Augustine in a book I got for Christmas — handmade by someone I love …

The Senses of Christmas

Friday December 24th 2010, 9:59 am

Christmas could rightly be called the holiday of the senses.

It is the season of lights and tinsel, choirs and carols, the aroma of pine and roasting chestnuts. Christmas comes to us with sumptuous meals, hearty laughter, and kisses beneath the mistletoe. Christmas scenes — by the old masters and by modern advertisers — decorate the walls of museums, billboards on the roadside, and cards in the mailbox. For nearly 2,000 years, the world has marked the birth of Jesus Christ as its most festive jubilee. No other day of the year offers the world so many earthly pleasures.

But why? No pope or Church council ever declared that it should be so. Yet every year, Christmas comes onto the calendar like a sudden December wind, like the blinding sun reflected off new snow. It is a shock to the senses, to go from barren winter to the season of lights and feasting.

And so it should be, for the first Christmas — the day when Jesus Christ was born — was a shock to human history.

For millennia, humankind had lived and died, uncomprehending, in its sin, the miseries of this world inevitable and the joys few and fleeting. Then Christmas arrived, and even the calendar went mad. From that moment, all of history was cleft in two: before that day (B.C.), and after that day (A.D.). The world — with all its sights and sounds and aromas and embraces — was instantly transfigured. For the world’s redemption had begun the moment God took human flesh for His own, the moment God was born in a poor stable in Bethlehem.

The greatest Christian poem commemorates this moment when God definitively came to dwell on earth. St. John begins his Gospel by describing a God of awesome power, remote in space and transcending time: a Spirit, a Word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him.

This is the God that even the pagan philosophers knew: the Prime Mover, the One, the Creator. Yet, precisely where the pagan philosophers stalled, John’s drama proceeded to a remarkable climax:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

This was shocking news. From the distant heavens, from remotest time, God Himself had come in flesh to “pitch His tent” among His people. Yes, God is eternally the Word, but a word is elusive, and not everyone may grasp it. Now He is also a baby, and a baby may be picked up and held and embraced.

Of all the amazing and confounding truths of the Christian religion, there is none so outrageous as this: that the Word was made flesh, in a particular little town, in a stable filled with animals, on a certain day of the year. The Word was made flesh and changed everything. This makes Christmas the most shocking feast in the calendar.

And all the meaning of Christmas is summed up in this fact. God lived in a family the way we do. He shivered against the cold the way we do. The Word-made-flesh nursed at His mother’s breast like any other human baby. Suddenly, God was not a watchmaker, some remote mechanic who wound up the world and let it go. God was a baby, crying to be picked up.

Tradition tells us that John wrote the Prologue to his Gospel in a white heat of inspiration. His friends had asked him to set down the story of Jesus, so he asked them a favor in return: to fast and pray with him. When the fast was over, the Spirit came upon John, and he could not contain himself. The words poured out — perhaps the very words he had been trying to say all his long life, but had never quite managed to find before.

You can hear the astonishment in his voice when he tells us that the Word was made flesh. As he was writing, he must have felt that same thrill again, the thrill he felt when it first hit home that this Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, was the Anointed, the Son of God.

And that same astonishment carries over into his first epistle. According to tradition, John wrote that letter sixty-six years after the Ascension of Christ, but the amazement is still fresh in his voice. He still can hardly believe that “that which was from the beginning” is also that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the earliest days of the Church, Christmas was not one of the important feasts. Jesus’ life was still a living memory, and His extraordinary resurrection rightly occupied the central spot in the calendar. But as time went on, false teachers began to deny the fact of Jesus’ humanity. They claimed that Jesus’ body had been an elaborate disguise, that, in reality, God had never debased Himself by taking on human flesh. Later heretics denied also that Mary gave birth to the Word: instead, they said, she gave birth to a “vessel” into which the Word was later poured. Still other heretics believed that the Son was a subordinate being — divine, but not coeternal with God the Father.

All these heresies had one thing in common: an unwillingness to face the apparent foolishness of the Incarnation. Arius, the founder of the Arian heresy, was an eminently reasonable man. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity because, he said, three cannot be one; that’s elementary arithmetic. The infinite God cannot become finite man; that’s elementary philosophy. Therefore there could be no Incarnation.

Heretics like Arius wanted to spare God the unreasonable indignity of being corrupted by too close an association with humanity. It was the same problem the Pharisees could not get over: If this Jesus is so good, why does He associate with sinners and tax collectors? In fact, though the heretics would have insisted that they were defending the perfection of the Deity, they were actually denying the perfection of God’s love. Love, after all, can seem unreasonable. Anyone who values another as much as oneself seems entirely unreasonable.

It can hardly be coincidence that the celebration of the literal, historical birth of Jesus the carpenter’s son began to take on more importance just when the true faith was most dangerously beset by these flesh-denying errors. The scandalously human birth of the Son of God was the very thing that separated orthodoxy from heresy. Celebrating that Nativity committed the Church to a clear statement of principle.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the beginning, there was no universal agreement on the date of Christmas. The Church in Egypt at first placed the date of Christ’s birth in May or April. Others put it in March, and still others in any other month you care to name. It was also popular to combine the celebration of Christ’s birth with the celebration of the Epiphany, putting them both on January 6. But sometime in the 400s the date of the Feast of the Incarnation settled on December 25, and there it stayed.

There are at least three plausible theories to account for how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25. No one of the theories excludes the others; all three could be correct.

The first theory is the simplest. An old story says that, in about the year 350, Pope Julius I looked up the date of Jesus’ birth in the census records. Certainly there is nothing outlandish in the idea of census records holding that information even three and a half centuries later. We know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was born during a census. The Romans, with their almost compulsive love of order, might well have kept those records forever in some bureaucratic hole in Rome.

The second theory has it that Christians, unable to stamp out a pagan midwinter celebration, simply took it over. Throughout history, people have celebrated the passing of the shortest day in the year, the solstice. When the days begin to lengthen again, it means that the death of winter will certainly pass, and the world will be reborn in spring.

The pagan origin of the date should not scandalize us. Indeed, many Christmas traditions have pagan origins. The Christmas tree, for example, has no obvious connection with the birth of Jesus, but certainly makes sense as a pagan midwinter rite: By sympathetic magic, we bring back the dormant spirit of vegetation when we bring an evergreen tree — still living when everything around it is dead — back from the forest. And yet it is an appropriate symbol for Christians, too. The evergreen tree is an obvious metaphor for the hope of new life that Christ brought us.

Again, the lights we string everywhere for Christmas may be a survival of an old heathen rite — once again, a kind of sympathetic magic, lighting fires to bring the dying sun back to life. But light has always been a favorite Christian symbol, too.

We know that the early Church frequently took advantage of local beliefs or customs to spread the Gospel. Paul himself founded one of his most famous orations on the altar to an unknown god in Athens. “What therefore you worship, without knowing it,” he told the gawking Athenians, “that I preach to you.” (Acts 17:23.) It would be very much in the spirit of Paul for the Church to develop a Christian interpretation of a beloved heathen festival, explaining to eager converts that they were really worshipping not the light, but the Light.

The third theory to account for the specific date December 25 is that it corresponded with the early Church’s notion of Jesus’ perfect life. Tradition had it that Jesus died on March 25. In order for His life to be appealingly perfect, the theologians reasoned, He must also have been conceived on March 25, then born exactly nine months later.

The idea of Jesus’ life having a kind of aesthetic perfection must have been satisfying to an age still under the spell of Neoplatonist philosophy. It would have satisfied the intellect, and that Roman passion for order, as much as the continuation of the beloved midwinter festival satisfied the sentiments.

All of these theories could be true. One can imagine, for example, the Pope discovering the date in census records, and the Church taking advantage of its happy correspondence with the date of a favorite pagan festival, even as the more philosophical Christians capitalized on its appealing symmetry with the traditional date of Jesus’ death. As always, Christians would have reached out to the nations in ways the nations were prepared to hear. By giving a Christian interpretation to a favorite local custom or an appealing philosophical idea, the Church gave the newly converted a way of seeing the story of the Incarnation in terms they could understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

As the festival spread throughout the newly Christianized nations of Europe and the East, it gathered more old pagan customs and gave them new Christian interpretations. Everywhere Christmas went, it must have seemed new but somehow familiar to newly converted pagans. Perhaps that very familiarity made it the most beloved feast in the calendar.

At any rate, by about 1100, Christmas had become the most important celebration of the year. Throughout the high Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated everywhere with tremendous spectacles and rejoicing. The people sang their favorite carols; psychedelic processions wound noisily through the narrow streets of medieval cities; and everywhere there was the heavenly aroma of Christmas cooking.

With the Protestant Reformation, however, came changes on the cultural scene. In their zealous rage against any perceived abuses in the Church, many of the Reformers targeted Christmas as nothing more than a mishmash of heathen festivals. In a sense, of course, they were correct: many of the traditions did come from pagan roots. But the anti-Christmas factions judged by the stem when they ought to have judged by the fruit.

When the Puritans took over in England, they banned Christmas outright. Shops were ordered to stay open. Anyone caught with a mince pie was in serious trouble. All the greenery, Yule logs, plum puddings, and carols that make up a traditional English Christmas were (the Puritans said) nothing but heathen idolatry, and heathen idolatry must be suppressed. There were stubborn pockets of resistance — some people were even willing to die for Christmas, so strong was the popular attachment to the traditional holiday — but the Puritans prevailed, though only for a while.

To counteract all that heathen wallowing in sensory pleasures, the Puritans decreed that Christmas would be a day of fasting. Somehow that tradition never caught on. It would be easy to say that the fast never caught on because of human weakness — people, after all, prefer feasting to fasting almost as naturally as they prefer joy to sorrow. But Lent never dropped out of the calendar from lack of demand. Good Christians are willing to endure self-denial when it seems appropriate. It just does not seem appropriate for Christmas.

What the Puritans could not understand, and what many good people still fail to understand, is that there is no contradiction between worshipping God and enjoying God’s creation. It is no shame to enjoy the good things God has given us. Jesus’ first recorded miracle was turning water into wine — and not just ordinary wine, St. John is careful to point out that this was the good stuff. Apparently, the Son of Man had, in the most human and fleshly sense, good taste.

Some misguided Christians, like the Puritans, are ashamed to sully the affairs of faith with earthly enjoyment. But the miracle of Christ’s birth is that it was earthly. The Word became flesh — real, unmistakably earthly flesh. “Flesh,” said St. Athanasius, the heroic champion of orthodoxy when the clouds of heresy seemed blackest, “did not diminish the glory of the Word; far be the thought. On the contrary, it was glorified by Him.”

Some Church Fathers called Christmas the Feast of the Incarnation.

Incarnation comes from a Latin word that means “enfleshment.” What sounds to English-speakers like a rarefied theological term is really just a statement of fact: God took on flesh. When that happened, flesh itself became something holy, something to be celebrated with paintings and statues and Christmas cards.

Yet in the eighth century, a faction arose in the Church calling themselves “Iconoclasts,” Greek for “picture-smashers.” The iconoclasts tried to “purify” and “spiritualize” Christian life by obliterating all artistic representations of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. They seized and destroyed most of the religious images in the Eastern Roman Empire, and they cut off the hands of those Christians who would not part with their icons. God, they said, could not be represented in a picture; any attempt to do so was rank idolatry. But this is how St. John of Damascus answered them: “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but worship the creator of matter Who became matter for my sake . . . and Who, through matter, accomplished my salvation.”

In other words, the Incarnation makes art, too, a holy thing, just as it made the body a holy thing. The artists who have painted the Nativity throughout the centuries were not creating idols. Their visible representations are hymns of praise to the invisible God made visible.

Look at any of the classic Nativity paintings and marvel at the care taken with the tiniest details. Every animal in the stable is an individual creature; every straw in the manger seems to be drawn with infinite care. Of all the biblical scenes artists have loved to paint for centuries, the Nativity is the one that seems to provoke the most thorough delight in the simple pleasure of drawing things. It seems as if God is in every detail.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Everyone’s favorite Christmas story is the one in Luke’s Gospel. What makes it so beloved is the familiarity of it all. Luke, who seems to have been writing for a gentile audience, strives to place Jesus exactly in history and geography. His point is that the birth of the Christ is not a metaphor or parable (something a sophisticated Mediterranean audience, accustomed to hearing the philosophers and sophists reinterpret classical mythology allegorically, would easily be tempted to suppose). It was a real event in a real place, related in a precisely knowable way to the other real events of recent history.

Having established the exact time and place, Luke goes on to give us, with a professional historian’s skill, exactly the details we need to bring home the earthly reality of Jesus’ birth. We learn how Joseph and Mary felt when they found there was no room at the inn, and how grateful they were for even the scant shelter of a stable — not because Luke tells us how they felt, but because he gives us just enough detail to put us right there with them, and we can feel it for ourselves. Probably no one could ever make a movie out of those events that would really convince us: We were there, we know what it was like, and whatever we saw on the screen or on the stage would never seem half so real.

The other Gospel writers do not provide the same details. They have their own points to make, each one as valuable as Luke’s — but not so immediately appealing to our sentimental side.

Mark is the only one who has nothing to say about Jesus’ birth. His compact and economical narrative begins with John the Baptist and wastes no time getting Jesus baptized by him.

Matthew tells us only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then skips straight to the Wise Men. Matthew and Luke seem to have been writing for different audiences: Matthew for people who had heard of or seen Jesus the man and needed to know that He was also Jesus the Christ, and Luke for people who had heard of Jesus the Christ and needed to be told that He was also Jesus the man.

And then there is John. He actually tells the same story as Luke, but in words so different that at first we do not recognize the story at all. We could almost say that, where Luke saw the events from earth’s point of view, John saw them from heaven’s. Luke gives us the details that let us see the earthliness of the Incarnation; John gives us the poetry that lets us see the miracle of it all.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It is important to have John’s divine words in mind when we read the story in Luke, because the Incarnation was not a one-time event that ended on the Cross or with the Ascension. Jesus Christ came into the world in a particular place at a particular time, but He established a Church that would be His body in the world. The gloriously diverse congregation of believers who inhabit every corner of our planet — they are Christ’s body. If you want to know what Jesus looks like, go to church and look around you.

Even more, we encounter the Lord in the flesh in the Holy Eucharist. “For My flesh is real food,” He said, “and My blood real drink.” The Incarnation is not an abstract principle — it is a miraculous concrete fact every day of our lives. It didn’t just happen two thousand years ago. It happened today.

The “incarnational principle” — that embodiment of love — is present in all the sacramental realities Jesus gave us. It is not simply for the sake of weak human understandings that all the sacraments are celebrated with physical signs. God the Son made the physical sacred.

In the Holy Eucharist itself, we see the nourishment for our spirits expressed in the most elementary form of nourishment for the body. The eternal God appears to us in the very temporal form of bread and wine. “This is My body, broken for you,” Our Lord told us. “This is My blood, shed for you.” As often as we celebrate the Eucharist, we are roused to remember that Jesus the Son of God had real flesh to break and real blood to shed.

That fact is what the Feast of the Incarnation celebrates, and it is what makes enjoying the pleasures of the senses feel so appropriate for Christmas. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus of Nazareth healed the sick and fed the hungry. He loved us not just enough to take us with Him into paradise, but to wish us every happiness while we still live here on Earth. And the only thing He asked us to do in return was to love Him, and to love others as much as He loved us.

You can still see traces of that Christian love in the ancient and beautiful custom of giving Christmas presents. There is more than a little irony in the fact that today’s manic rush to buy and sell Christmas exists only because we have managed to pervert the beautiful Christian urge to give. That perversion is the very sin that Jesus Himself condemned most angrily when He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, the only sin that could have driven Him to use a whip on the sinners. What does Jesus think when he sees our “Sparkle Season,” the modern midwinter festival of greed? Perhaps (for Jesus is more perfectly forgiving than we could ever be) He sees the good in us, and the earnest desire many of us have to make others happy, and forgives us our excesses. We should pray that it might be so.

But we should not be ashamed to enjoy the beautiful traditions of Christmas, the delights of the senses that go naturally with the season. Eat, drink, sing, laugh, dance, come in before His presence with exceeding great joy. Why, after all, do we have bodies?

“Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.”

This is what Jesus taught us: We have bodies so that we can use them to worship God, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies so that we can use them to serve others, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies so that we can bring comfort and consolation and healing, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies for glory’s sake.

And Christmas is full of that glory. The Gloria, the song of Christmas, comes to us from the Christmas Eve mass of the ancient Church. The angels sang it when they announced Christ’s birth: Glory to God in the highest! What was so glorious? This Jesus was born to a poor working family in a drafty stable filled with smelly animals. And that is precisely what was so glorious. There was nothing idealized about Jesus’ birth. The Son of God was born in an absolutely ordinary way. The first people to hear of the miracle were certain poor shepherds — not the great and mighty Emperor Augustus in his palace at Rome, not even that tin-plated despot Herod. That is the wonder of the Word-made-flesh: the Word was truly made one of us.

The Christmas story is the story of how the flesh became holy, the body was sanctified, and simple earthly joys became hymns of praise to God. Thus Christmas is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and all the senses. We love to hear the story over and over, and we always will love it so long as a scrap of humanity remains in us.

All Eyes on Lucy

Monday December 13th 2010, 8:50 am

Celebrate St. Lucy’s Day! When I was a kid, hers was the coolest statue in my parish church — eyeballs on a saucer. I was a typical boy …

Join me today as I pray for two dear Lucys: one lovely little preemie just coming home for the first time; the other Lucy, a friend’s mom, just entering the last phase of a good life.

And here’s a song that will stick with you and remind you to pray.