Christmas Traditions

by Fr. Ambrose Criste, O.Praem.


His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.

How does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

These days just before Christmas have a wonderful familiarity to them—familiar tunes and familiar texts, tired old decorations and ornaments that simply have to reappear this week, or somehow the holiday just wouldn’t be complete. There are old recipes and old repeated stories, and even here when you come to church in these days, everything is somehow consolingly and yet almost terribly familiar.

For example, we began Holy Mass with the Rorate Caeli introit antiphon. This text from Isaiah—“Drop down dew from above, you heavens, and let the clouds rain down the Just One!”—is repeated so often in the Advent liturgy that it is practically the anthem or ritornello of this season. And if that introit wasn’t enough of a clue that we are covering some very familiar ground at Mass, we have an opening prayer that is so well worn, that we pray it not only several times a year—including the feast of the Annunciation, amongst other times—but even several times every single day. It’s the end of the Angelus: “Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts …” and so forth.

These clues of the familiarity of the season are something of a crescendo into Christmas. But what kind of a crescendo is it? It’s that marvelous last-being-first and first-being-last logic of God’s ways. It’s an upside-down crescendo, if you will, everything building up, louder and louder, to a moment of … silence. It’s the greatness of our Lord’s coming in the flesh into this universe of His own creation, in a moment that most everyone would miss, even if you were standing right there when it happened—a moment of silence and peace, of darkness and mystery. It’s like the angel Gabriel appearing to a humble virgin in the backwater town of Nazareth, or like two expectant mothers sharing a few quiet words in the wooded hills outside Jerusalem, or like a poor young couple who have to enroll in the census in Bethlehem, and who cannot even find a place to sleep, apart from a cave on the edge of town. God works marvels through the medium of ordinariness.

This is what the Prophet Micah means when he speaks of God’s greatness reaching to the ends of the earth, but beginning in Bethlehem, a town too small even to be numbered among the clans of Judah. The-marvelous-through-the-ordinary is also abundantly clear in the angel Gabriel’s announcing our Lord’s Incarnation to our Lady in Nazareth.

When our Lady lived there in Nazareth with St. Joseph, the archeologists tell us that there were about 120 people living in that place. That’s far fewer people even than there are in our church on Sundays. So we could say that the marvelous Incarnation occurred in the ordinariness of an unknown and practically unpopulated village. Out of nothingness, or practically nothingness, we have the likes of our Lady, and then on a perfectly ordinary day in her life, the Incarnation of our Lord.

And then there is that perfectly ordinary scene of two expectant mothers greeting one another, the Visitation, and just look at the marvels that God works through them. The Holy Spirit comes shining radiantly through the very words of human beings and the unborn children they carry within their wombs. St. Ambrose writes, “For where could Mary go, filled as she was with God, but up into the heights with haste? For the grace of the Holy Spirit knows not of slow workings.” He continues, “Elizabeth first heard the word, but John first experienced the grace. She heard by the order of nature; he leaped by reason of the mystery. She perceived the coming of Mary; he the coming of the Lord.”

What Spirit-filled wonders shining through the language and gestures of human mothers! Speaking about little St. John the Baptist there in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, Origen writes, “He was not filled with the Spirit, until she, the one who bore Christ in her womb, stood near him. Then indeed he both was filled with the Spirit and, leaping, imparted that grace to his mother. … We cannot doubt that she who was then filled with the Holy Spirit, was filled because of her son.” We see this amazing communication of grace between these unborn children through the perfectly ordinary words exchanged by their human mothers.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: You might have Advent or Christmas tunes running through your mind these days. I certainly do, and I hear many of my confreres these days humming their favorite carols and songs. I love the tune of “Conditor Alme Siderum,” which we sing during the Divine Office in these weeks, and also the texts of some of our other liturgical hymns, like my holy patron’s “Savior of the Nations, Come.” These texts are works of unbelievable richness. And then at the same time, I have to confess that I keep humming in my head that holiday standard from the 1940s, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

God continues to work marvels through the medium of ordinariness, and He wants to do that with our Christmas preparations and celebrations this year. So what’s the point of all of that? you might ask.

Remember, the Holy Spirit dwells in our souls through grace, and so He uses us as His instruments in the most familiar and ordinary of moments. We too bring Christ to birth when we speak, when we sing Christmas carols, when we enjoy those old recipes and listen to those old repeated stories, and when we hum in our heads old familiar and favorite tunes.  

As we prayed in the collect, the Incarnation of Christ was made known to us in an instant, by the message of an angel to our Lady, by the message of a whole choir of angels to the shepherds (and so to us). Likewise, the Incarnation is made known when you listen with attention to your spouse at the dinner table, or when we waste time with our confreres in the recreation room simply because we love them. And what’s the result? Christ dwells here on earth because Christians believe and because Christians love each other. That’s the upside-down, topsy-turvy logic of God’s ways here among his children. All of that happens in an instant, when you kneel down before a manger scene—even if you feel nothing at all happening in the affections of your heart. It happens in that instant here in a moment as we kneel before this altar at the moment of the Eucharistic sacrifice. And so in these moments, familiar and ordinary moments, we can pray, “Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts.” And at those moments, may we rejoice to hear in the silence, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

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