The Gift

JMJ

ONCE UPON A TIME, back in the days when you could go to see Santa Claus in the department store and he would give you presents that were not just sticky candy, two best friends, Jimmy and Billy, went to their local Belks before Christmas. They stood patiently in line and, when their turns came, each one went into a little house made to look as if it were made out of gingerbread and told the man inside what they wanted for Christmas. What they did not know was that the man inside was actually Saint Nicholas, the Archbishop of Myra and Lycea, venerated all over the world as the patron of children, which is to say he was the real Santa Claus. I’m not sure what he was doing there, but the important thing to know is he was the real Santa Claus. As each boy was finished telling Santa Claus what they wanted for Christmas he smiled and gave each an apple. It was the same apple he’d given to all the other children in line: it was gigantic! It smelled amazing! Being polite boys they knew better than to eat it outside where they could get their clothes messy, so each took his apple home.

When Jimmy got home with his apple, he knew immediately that he wanted to eat it and share it with his family. His parents were amazed at the delicious smell it gave off and they wanted to eat it as well. It was big enough to share, so Mom and Dad and Jimmy sat down to supper, and then, for dessert, sliced up the apple and chatted as they ate. Mom added some really superb cheddar cheese which she sliced up, and, to make the evening extra special – even though it was Advent – Dad brought out a bottle of tawny port. Jimmy tried this and, at least in little sips, it was ok. When the fruit was all gone, nothing left but the core and the seeds, Mom said that this was such good tasty, fruit maybe they should plant the seeds and see if they could grow some more. Everyone agreed.

So, Jimmy got himself a project for Christmas that year. He planted the seeds into little seedling pots and waited to see what would happen. In time there were four sprouts which he took outside in the Spring and planted in the backyard. They all did very well and they became young saplings, although it was several years before they bore fruit. Not being grown in Saint Nicholas’ own garden as the first apple was, these apples, though amazingly tasty, were ordinary-sized apples. They smelled much better than the ones you could get in a store, though. Mother canned some every year and baked some into pies. These were coveted gifts even after Jimmy went off to college and then Seminary. He was called James by this time, of course. When he became a priest, he would give these apples, grown in his parents’ own back yard, to folks year after year. In time, when his parents fell asleep in the Lord, Jimmy would take breaks from ministry to go rest in the house, praying for his parents, and offer Mass for their souls in the back yard under the shade of four apple trees he never knew came from the real Santa Claus.

The story of Billy’s apple is different, though. When he reached home, he knew immediately that he would share it with his family. He and his parents were amazed at the delicious smell that it gave off: it seemed to fill the house with a sense of Christmas. They sat it on the mantle thinking they would enjoy the smell for a bit and, in the light of the Christmas Tree, it suddenly seemed to reflect, filling the room with twinkles. They were surprised the next morning to discover it still smelled like Christmas in there! They couldn’t bring themselves to eat the apple, but when friends came over – as friends do in the holiday season (even though it is Advent) – everyone commented on the beautiful smell. Billy’s house seemed to be especially filled with the Christmas Spirit that year. And, when Epiphany came round and it was time to take down the decorations and move on with regular things, Billy and his parents realized this was something of a magical apple (although they didn’t know the giver was the real Santa Claus) and they placed it away gently in a small wooden box filled with excelsior, and they stored it safely.

When they took it out the following year it was still whole, fresh, and smelled like Christmas. Year after year the apple from Santa Claus continued to fill their house with hospitality and Christmas spirit. Invitations to their house at the Holidays were almost like being invited to a royal banquet. Billy’s family was known for their generous table and their love and care for their guests all year round, but never so much as at Christmas time. And didn’t the house literally smell like Christmas?

In time, when his parents fell asleep in the Lord, Billy inherited the house – and the apple. He was called William, by this time, of course. He and his wife and their children were known far and wide for their hospitality in this house that was filled with the smell of Christmas. They knew it was a magic apple, of course, and Billy knew it was given to him one day when his parents took him to Belks, but they never knew that man in the mall was Saint Nicholas, who always gives gifts anonymously.

And then goes away quietly to pray for us.

A Mission, OP

JMJ

Always on Christmas, there is a sense of disconnection for me. Back when I thought I was going to be an Episcopal Priest there was the same sense of disconnect. My Family was hundreds (and later thousands) of miles away. My friends all did their family things. Later I discovered the “orphans’ Christmas” which was a collection of people getting together because they had no other place to go. It always seemed to be at least as dysfunctional a gathering as the families we were all avoiding. I stopped going after a while. We are meant to be with blood-Family, I think, on Holy Days. Family is the smallest unit of the church and it’s not replaceable. So while I can call home on Christmas (and I do) I miss the gathering of 65 people (or more) that were all my relatives in one small town – that was a Holy Day. All I have now is a day off from work with religious obligations.

So I was struck after Midnight Mass by a tweet from a friar calling attention to the Christmas Message of the Master of the Dominican Order. The Master hits on this curious point in the First Christmas story:

At times, we tend to “sanitize” the disturbing details of the Christmas story. The nativity scene in our churches and convents appears to be a tender and warm picture of a loving and peaceful family. But as we pause and ponder, we realize that it must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown,  for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married. It must have been terribly difficult for Mary to deliver a child in a smelly stable and then have a manger for his bed. It must have been terrifying to know that a king who feels so insecure threatens their newborn son and has ordered the killing of many innocent male children. The Gospel on Christmas day speaks about the world rejecting the One they needed the most: He came to his own yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11)There is a “dark side” to Christmas. No matter how big or little they are, the sadness and emptiness we feel even during Christmas day is part of that dark side that we have to acknowledge in order to let Jesus, our LIGHT, shine through that darkness. 

Fr Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP

I’ve never actually thought about it before. Our culture turns the Holy Family into Politically Correct stand-ins for political refugees, migrant workers, or homeless people. Then Christians fight over this reading. The Biblical text tells another story that will be far more familiar to any Christmas Orphans out there. In this story, the Dysfunctional Family of David tried to ruin the first Christmas. …[I]t must have been extremely painful for Joseph to be homeless in his hometown, for he could not find a single relative who could give them a room for the night, thus they had to look for a room in an inn. Probably, Joseph’s kinsmen shunned him for having a young wife who got pregnant even before they were married…

After St Joseph’s experience, the Church spent the first 300 years of her life rescuing not only lost souls, but also those who were rejected by their families: babies, elders, and the infirm who were abandoned on the hillsides. Families could literally throw people away. These are not just the “poor and the homeless” as we think of them today in our cities: these were the rejected, the broken, the used up. Slaves that could no longer to the tasks allotted them, daughters who dishonored their families by getting children outside of wedlock, elders who were too sick and drained the family wealth, unwanted babies (especially girls), or the blind, the deformed, the mentally ill. The Christians went out to the edges of the city and brought these folks in, healed them, raised the babies, comforted the dying. In this way, the Church evangelized literally by action: the religion of your Pater Familias abandoned you to die on the hillside. The religion of your rescuers told them to love and told you to forgive. The early Church didn’t ask these folks to change as the price of admission to love (as Roman Paganism did) but rather these folks changed their lives as a result of the love they experienced from God through the Church.

Pope Francis calls us “to the peripheries”. Speaking before he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Bergolio said:

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

Today on the peripheries we might better think of our homeless encampments as more of the same: adding drug addiction and even prostitution to the list of ways that men and women might end up on this list of Unwanted Family. When I read a newspaper story earlier this year about the Homeless of San Francisco, I was surprised by how many of them had family – but couldn’t go to them.

So, not just peripheries of geography (are there any peripheries there any more?) but the Church also has a mission to the peripheries of sociology.

Many of the homeless men and women in my neighborhood are rejected by their families for issues around sexual morality. This is especially true of the youth. I wish it were not the case, but “Get out of my house…” seems a horribly common thing for religious parents to say to their children. How are we supposed to act, as Christians, in this case? I know there are some who want to use this sort of story as an argument for changing the Church’s teachings. Sed Contra, I see it as a chance to enforce the Church’s teachings on charity, love of family, and mercy. We should make it a mission of the Church to welcome in those who are shunned and even shamed by their families.

One Christmas, after Midnight Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC, I went down to what I used to call “My Parish” in Greenwich Village. If you go into any gay bar you will find men who are angry at the Church. But on Christmas you’ll find something else entirely. In NYC the bars close at 4AM, but by 2AM on Christmas morning you’ll find the real orphans: the men who have no “orphan Christmas party” to go to, who have no other place to be, who are lost. When I walked into Ty’s the only people in there were the Bartender (he had a home to go to, but he was at work…) and a drag queen who was in “boy drag” as the saying goes, sitting all alone. The bartender greeted me warmly, gave me a drink (4 actually) without charging me and left me to chat with the other patron as he went about cleaning up. We were watching Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

It was all chitchat. We sang along to the movie. I shared about Mass and the guy remembered St John the Divine and commented on the beauty there. And he grew wistful talking about fond memories. There’s no religious conversion here, but when I moved away from NYC, I got a going-way card from the man who thanked me for that night of friendship in a bar when it was very dark in his life. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.

Let me point in another direction: as many of our parishes become rest homes for aging members of the over 6os set, who wish to be unchallenged in their cultural hegemony, we should realize the peripheries also contain Techies and other Millenials who are very successful in the world but, for exactly that reason, are disconnected from their families and any social structures. Many of them lack the social sense even needed to recognize the need for religion in their life. But they need God as much as anyone. I mentioned this once to an Parish Council as was greeted by stony silence. These folks need Jesus, too.

Fr Timoner points out that “Christmas is not just a celebration but a mission.” We each have missions, of course, but the Church’s special mission has been outreach – we go beyond. Beyond the boundaries of the Jewish People, she embraced the gentiles. In Roman culture, she embraced the outcasts. She reached out to the Barbarians – the enemies of the Roman State. She embraced other cultures and peoples at every turn.

This is the Church needed today. This is the Church we have, to be honest, even though there are some who try to deny this along the lines fear of the Other in all forms: race, nationalism, populism, and sexual morality. We have forgotten again that the way to bring folks in is not to demand they change as the price of admission, but rather to let them change as a result of being loved. “…[T]he mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery” lives on the edges of our lives: usually just outside of our doors or in the discard pile of our social media.

Can the Church reach out in these directions: on the one hand to the lost, the marginalized, and on the other hand to the folks who seem to reject us as quaint and old fashioned? Again, the interesting point is that from a societal, political point of view, each of these groups is “successful” in some very worldly ways. But how can they find the Gospel unless they hear it first, and how will they hear it unless it is preached?

The Three Christmas Gospels

+JMJ+

There are three masses on Christmas. In fact this has been the case in the West since at least the 7th Century when Pope Gregory mentions it (see below). Each Mass has its own readings and its own prayers. Recently some friends and I, being Church Geeks, were comparing missals and became quite happy to note that these three masses, and their three readings, are transferred fully into the Novus Ordo. The Divine Office for this day (in the Extraordinary Form) is also in a special format, set up to wrap around these three masses.

Matins for Christmas precedes the Midnight Mass. This is a form that Byzantines would recognize: for them the Matins service is always part of the Sunday Morning (or Saturday Evening) rites. This Mass commemorates the Angels’ singing. The Gospel stops at “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” After the midnight Mass, Lauds is prayed. (This is not a separate service in the East where the Laudate Psalms are sung at the end of Matins.) The verses at Lauds ask the Shepherds (as they are coming in from the fields) what has happened. To commemorate the Shepherds at the Manger then, there is a Mass at dawn – when would normally be sung Lauds – and then a Mass after the third hour of the day when the office of Terce has been sung. This Mass, “of the Day”, is the most-ancient of the three. At it the Gospel Reading is not from the Christmas Story. Rather it is the opening passage to St John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In the West the office of Matins often has assigned as a reading the Gospel for the day – especially on Sundays and Major Feasts. Then there is a Patristic commentary or homily on the passage. (This is one of my favourite qualities of the EF office.) This day is no exception – but because there are three Gospels, there are in Matins, three different commentaries:

St Luke 2:1-14 (The Midnight Gospel)

At that time : There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  And so on, and that which followeth.

A Homily by St. Gregory the Pope
By God’s mercy we are to say three Masses today.  Hence there is not much time left for preaching on this passage of the Gospel.  Nonetheless the Feast of the Lord’s Birthday constraineth me to speak a few words.  I will begin at once by asking why this numbering for taxation took place at the Lord’s Birth, and why all the world was enrolled?  Was it not to make us mindful that one had now appeared in the flesh who would enroll his elect in the book of life?  And note, on the other hand, how the Prophet saith of the reprobate : Let them be wiped out of the book of the living, and not be written among the righteous.  Note also that the Lord was born in Bethlehem, which same signifieth the House of Bread, and thus was meetly the birthplace of him who hath said : I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  The place, then, where our Lord was born was already called the House of Bread because therein was he to appear who would feed the souls of the the faithful unto life eternal.  Not in his Mother’s house was he born, but away from home.  And this should make us mindful that our mortality, in which he was born, was not the home of him who is begotten of the Father before all worlds.

St Luke 2:15-20 (The Dawn Gospel)
At that time : The shepherds said one to another : Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And so on, and that which followeth.

A Homily by St. Ambrose the Bishop
Behold the beginning of the Church.  Christ is born, and the shepherds keep their watch.  Yea, they keep their watch like as becometh those who would gather together the scattered sheep of the Gentiles (which had hitherto lived like as brute beasts) and lead them into the fold of Christ, that they might need no longer to suffer the ravages of spiritual wolves in the night of this world’s darkness.  How wide awake are those shepherds whom the Good Shepherd stirreth up.  Their flock is the people.  The night is the world.  For these shepherds are the Priests.  And perhaps that Angel, too, is a shepherd to whom in the Apocalypse is said : Be watchful and strengthen.  For God hath ordained to watch over his flock not Bishops only but Angels also.

St John 1:1-14 (The Morning Mass – “of the Day”)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And so on, and that which followeth.

A Homily by St. Augustine the Bishop
Lest ye consider what I have to say as worthless, which is the judgement ye so often pass upon the word of a man, ponder this : The Word was God!  Now perhaps some Arian unbeliever may have the audacity to say the Word of God was made, and is therefore a creature.  How can the Word of God be a creature, since by him all things were made, and he is thus the Creator?  If the Word of God be a creature, then there must be some other Word, not a creature, whereby he was made.  And what Word is that?  If thou sayest that it was by the word of the Word himself that he was made, I answer that God had no Word other than his one only-begotten Son.  But unless thou sayest it was by the Word’s own word that the Word was made, thou art forced to confess that he by whom all creaturely things were made was not himself made at all, but is himself the uncreated Maker of everything that was made.  Wherefore, believe the Gospel.

There is also a longer Patristic passage that is really a heart-stirring joy to read. It pairs well with the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom.

A Homily from St Leo the Pope
Dearly beloved brethren, Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us rejoice. It would be unlawful to be sad to day, for today is Life’s Birthday; the Birthday of that Life, Which, for us dying creatures, taketh away the sting of death, and bringeth the bright promise of the eternal gladness hereafter. It would be unlawful for any man to refuse to partake in our rejoicing. All men have an equal share in the great cause of our joy, for, since our Lord, Who is the destroyer of sin and of death, findeth that all are bound under the condemnation, He is come to make all free. Rejoice, O thou that art holy, thou drawest nearer to thy crown! Rejoice, O thou that art sinful, thy Saviour offereth thee pardon! Rejoice also, O thou Gentile, God calleth thee to life! For the Son of God, when the fulness of the time was come, which had been fixed by the unsearchable counsel of God, took upon Him the nature of man, that He might reconcile that nature to Him Who made it, and so the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which hath been the field of his victory.

When our Lord entered the field of battle against the devil, He did so with a great and wonderful fairness. Being Himself the Almighty, He laid aside His uncreated Majesty to fight with our cruel enemy in our weak flesh. He brought against him the very shape, the very nature of our mortality, yet without sin. His birth however was not a birth like other births for no other is born pure, nay, not the little child whose life endureth but a day on the earth. To His birth alone the throes of human passion had not contributed, in His alone no consequence of sin had had part. For His Mother was chosen a Virgin of the kingly lineage of David, and when she was to grow heavy with the sacred Child, her soul had already conceived Him before her body. She knew the counsel of God announced to her by the Angel, lest the unwonted events should alarm her. The future Mother of God knew what was to be wrought in her by the Holy Ghost, and that her modesty was absolutely safe.

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Ghost: Who, for His great love wherewith He loved us, hath had mercy on us and, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, that in Him we might be a new creature, and a new workmanship. Let us then put off the old man with his deeds; and, having obtained a share in the Sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh. Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature, and fall not again by corrupt conversation into the beggarly elements above which thou art lifted. Remember Whose Body it is Whereof thou art made a member, and Who is its Head. Remember that it is He That hath delivered thee from the power of darkness and hath translated thee into God’s light, and God’s kingdom.

Agnósce, o Christiáne, dignitátem tuam: et divínæ consors factus natúræ…
Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature…

Glory to God in the Highest!
Christ is Born!

A Child’s Christmas in Wurtsboro

IT BEGINS when, prompted by the Wurtsboro Village council and “borrowing” a truck from his employer, the electric company, my grandfather puts up the village lights. Driving slowly through town in a cherry picker, Grandpa puts up the aged white candles, the green wreaths, the red lighted garlands. Snow has fallen. Trees have been placed on stands in living rooms and decorated. Houses have been lighted. I take a trip into the evergreen forest in Wilsey Valley to bring back a huge bag of greenery. Lights and boughs spiral around my parents’ house and drape off the stairs.

In mad anticipation my mother cooks, my grandmother cooks, my great grandmother cooks. Aunt Linda cooks. Aunt Marie cooks. Aunt Karen cooks. Families visit from hither and yon, and friends make more attempts to be friendlier than normal.

Timmy, the paper boy, spends longer in his daily stops. During his last monthly trip to punch our card and get things taken care of, he actually comes inside for a sip of hot cocoa and maybe yes, thank you, some cookies. In a few days he’ll find a box of them along with a ten dollar bill and maybe some gloves in the paper box as he drops off our copy of the Times-Herald record. At the post office Mom spends far too much time chatting with Mr Olcott, the postmaster, and a trip to Jerry Gaubard’s tiny Grocery Store can begin to take hours. The Greenwalds have decorated their drug store. The band stand in the village park is filled with pine and lights. The Canal Towne Emporium positively reeks – well out into the street – with scented candles, potpourri and cinnamon. The Old Valley, filled even in the feria times with Black Forest coo-coo clocks, covered steins and hand-carved picture frames is now decked out in Germanic Yuletide finery: nutcrackers and candle-lighted pyramids. Uncle Jimmy has tiny wreaths on the tables in the dinner.

The Emma C Chase Elementary School has their Christmas pageant: a chorus and a few holiday songs, maybe a poetry reading, then one hora danced to tzena-tzena as we explain the Festival of Lights. The Monticello Central Middle School has its Christmas Concert: a two part choir and a band. The Monticello Central High School has its Christmas Concert: a four part choir, a stage band and an orchestra plus a show-stopping all-out choral and orchestral finale. And now School has closed for Christmas Break. After weeks of build-up the day arrives.

Late in the day on Christmas Eve the menfolk vanish off to the firehouse. The women vanish off to the Methodist Church. The kids, hyper-excited, over-extended, exhausted, try to get a nap in: maybe if I sleep now, Santa will come now. But there is to be no such luck for no one is allowed to nap for too long on Christmas Eve.

At 6:30 PM everyone is off – in layers of coats and scarves and hats and gloves – to the firehouse for the village carol sing. The fire trucks have been moved outside, and we all stand around inside the Garage, the largest enclosed space in the village. We are a village of 900 souls gathered around an upright piano that is tuned once a year for this very event. Even in such a small town this is the only time when some of us will see each other. Old friends, not having seen each other since last Christmas Eve, greet each other with warm hugs. Children return from college and stand happily with their parents. Older children return with their own spouses, their own children. Forming huge continents floating in the sea of fellow villagers, they stand with their parents and grandparents, as now my own father stands with his wife and kids, next to his father and mother, his grandparents and six generations total – my sister having her own grandchildren now. My grandmother and my Aunt Marie, wife of the Fire Chief, serve doughnuts and coffee. My great grandmother smiles as her husband, the former chief, is greeted with honour by all.

The Dutch Reformed Pastor, the Rev Wing, invokes. Sally or Michael plays the piano and the familiar carols roll out of books that have not been reprinted since the 1970s – and are collected every year for re-use. They were donated by the local bank and they open, too easily, to a centerfold containing A Visit from St Nicholas. The community singing is interrupted twice by soloists: Aunt Betty sings O Holy Night. Nelson Hall sings, White Christmas. There is an irony in a scion of the only black family in town singing White Christmas. But no one seemed to notice – or at least talk about it.

The Methodist pastor, the Rev. Pinto, blesses. Then, spurred on by Uncle John, the Fire Chief, we begin to sing Jingle Bells. We sing loud and lustily – the younger children blasting it out. There is a sound from outside: the tocsin of bells and the claxon of horns and finally the scream of the sirens sliding up the doppler scale as a fire truck comes down the street from beyond the red light at the corner. We sing louder now as the garage doors roll up in joyous welcome and the kids stream out – herded to safety by parents and uniformed firemen. Santa Claus has come to us on our own candy apple red and white truck. When the kids draw near Santa usually greets them all by name – for he is their own uncle, or their neighbor or even my Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Tommy, seated on the side of the truck handing out small boxes of hard candies and cookies.

After a brief trip home to remove some layers and to add finer clothing, all depart again to their houses of worship. Aunt Marie and Mrs Semonite have decorated the Methodist Church. They have polished and dusted until, even in the pre-candle darkness, the wood shines and the brass cross seems to reflect the lights beyond. Pastor Pinto is in rare form this Christmas eve, as his three rural congregations come together in this one building to sing and pray. There is the Nativity Play, kids wearing too many towels and the latest baby born playing the starring role. And then candles are handed out and lit. The quiet, expectant darkness seems to take a musical quality. We sing now in awed reverence, Silent Night. And we walk into the cold to discover that it has begun to snow.

In the busy evening, somehow, Mom and Grandma have conspired to get some after-church coffee and snacks ready. The family rests a bit for a chat, gathered in Grandma’s den around the woodstove. Kids get sleepy. Adults get conspiratorial. WALL radio, 1340AM begins to broadcast reports every quarter of an hour about where Santa’s Sleigh has been spotted. WPIX begins its annual telecast of The Yule Log, the first ever virtual fireplace.

Children pass out. Parents hide them in cars, asleep next to presents that were also hidden with the neighbours or in some relative’s garage. For the child it is only a short ride through the dream-filled snowy night until Christmas Morning. For the parents it may be a longer passage, a bit of a delay next to the tree assembling a bike or a stereo. For the older children it may be a bit of a pain, programming a new betamax for Mom or stumbling around in the dark wishing to be, again, a child who believed in Santa.

And then this Christmas day dawns – the snow has stopped during the night, but there, on the porch, and on the greenery wrapped around the pillars, there is just enough snow to look beautiful. The lights, ablaze even in the quiet sunlight of Christmas Morning, seem to shine out. The family gathers in the living room for presents. And then moves into the kitchen for a snack.

Turkey is stuffed, potatoes are peeled, yams are candied. In other houses of sundry relatives, slaw is made, salads are tossed, pies are baked. Sausage and cheese balls are laid out, on platters with beef stick and hot mustard. Olives are toothpicked and cheese is sliced near crackers. Candied fruit is dipped and the chocolates are powdered. Nuts are laid out in wooden baskets with pliers and picks. Wines and beers, sodas and sweet tea, mulled cider and hot cocoa cover the table. Guests arrived and the prepared foods are merged and arranged into a Christmas Feast. Grace is said, eggnog is whipped and chilled, turkey sliced, bellies stuffed, children served on card tables and 65 plates – the good china and then some – are all laid to rest in the dishwasher as 6 generations and sundry partake of the holiday table.

After dinner, children play Show and Tell with their holiday loot as Grandpa and I retire to the den and the roaring fire. We lock the doors behind us for a heart-to-heart over too much eggnog in the growing heat. Children pound on the door and we laugh. Mom comes and forces us to liberate ourselves for socialising. Aunt Sally and Uncle Ray depart, Grandma and Grandpa too, and so with relative after relative until only Mom is left in the too-hot kitchen, and Dad patrolling the darkened house for cups and plates. Or else lighting a fire in the barrel outside, a massive offering of wrapping paper and ribbons and shredded tissue and boxes.

Phone calls are made. My cousins Faith and Roger, our friends Steven, Marc and Jody, Michael and Michelle arrive and converge in the dining room again for some late night desserts – coffee and plum pudding or mincemeat pie – and a long night of gaming and reliving high school, of smoking and staving off the winter chill with fond memories made and shared.

Merry Christmas, we whisper in the darkness, saying our goodbyes softly so as not to wake my parents. Merry Christmas and much love.


In our small town of Wurtsboro, NY, the rituals of Christmas rarely changed when I was growing up, only the participants. Only in such a place could a writer compile a perfect Christmas Memory. In parts of this story I’m 11, in other parts 25 or 53… but the pattern was always the same. A lot of these folks have passed now; the old Firehouse, too. But the dance is always there in my mind, and I’m standing in the Firehouse waiting for Santa on the truck. I always hated the hard candy in the boxes tho…

Come. Buy and Eat.

JMJ

The Readings for the Baptism  of Our Lord:

Omnes sitientes, venite ad aquas, et qui non habetis argentum, properate, emite, et comedite: venite, emite absque argento et absque ulla commutatione vinum et lac. Quare appenditis argentum non in panibus, et laborem vestrum non in saturitate? 

All you that thirst, come to the waters: and you that have no money make haste, buy, and eat: come ye, buy wine and milk without money, and without any price. Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which doth not satisfy you? 

Isaiah says “come and buy” but he adds “buy without money”. Then he adds, “that which is without price.”  Why do we spend money on useless things?

I made a decision moving into the new apartment not to have internet other than my phone here: my phone only works in one corner of the kitchen. It sits there with the wifi tether and it’s easy to get my work done on the computer as needed.

There’s no extra money for this feature (above my phone bill) and it is all kinds of weak. I’d not be able to stream a movie this way, or download anything larger than that graphic above. Everything is as slow as DSL, which, essentially, this is (internet data over phone service with the phone as a modem). Apart from my job, the internet is a huge distraction for me. Mind you: it is my job to be on the internet. It’s been so since Dec of 2010, and for much – but not all – of the previous 12 years as well. Welcome to life in the 21st Century. I am part of the distraction industry. (You’re reading this now, right?)

And we get you to pay for it. Since many of us now use cable for the internet, let’s talk about having 200 plus channels and nothing on. Yet we pay for that too.

Extra clothes. Cabinets filled with extra food (just, you know, cuz it was on sale). Guns, bullets, fur coats, vegan burger mixes, extra folding chairs, 30 black tshirts, 8 pairs of converse in various colors…

Does any of this satisfy? Well, in the short term, yes.

Do we have any savings? (Some of us do.) OK why? And those of us who don’t what do we do with the money we’re not saving? Spend so as not to feel alone, generally speaking.

Come, if you’re thirsty. Come if you’re hungry. Come to the waters. Milk and honey. Bread without cost. Wine of infinite value.

It is said in the Baptism of our Lord, that he descended into the waters and took off his Robe of Glory and clothed himself in our human nature of sins which he nailed to the cross. But the robe of glory he left in the water for us to pick up, each one of us, in our baptism. In his Baptism he restored all of the water to it’s original purity, the water of Life. So it is taught, that in the seasonal blessings of water that take place in the Byzantine Rite Church of the East and West, all the waters of creation are restored to Edenic quality. If you go to Byzantine Parishes this week (on the Gregorian calendar) or on the weekend of the 20th (for those places on the Julian calendar) you’ll see everyone drinking Holy Water, blessed by the priest on this feast.  In the liturgical West we get our houses blessed with Holy Water also done on the feast. We bring the Baptism of our Lord into our homes. The Robe of Glory comes with us where ever we go.

This is something truly worth buying – that can never be bought. All of God’s gifts are given to us freely, even though in receiving them we are changed. 

And what should we do with all the money we have left?

The Fathers say all of our surplus, all of our surfeit, all of our extra, and – God help us – all of our waste is stolen from the poor.

The clothes you do not wear, the shoes you cannot wear, the food you are not eating… this all belongs to the poor.

But preacher man! You say. I have my family to feed and I don’t need to go to the store every day… and all that’s well and good for a culture that didn’t bathe all the time, but I need fresh clothes to go to work!

Therein lies a curious thing, a turning, a twist: we’ve found a way to justify even our hoarding of wealth.

We have to lay it all aside in the water, though: or we’ll never get to grab on to the robe of glory. Best to entrust our goods into the hands of the poor who will treasure them.

God has a use for your money that is not what you intended. 

The things that are actually important are free. What else will you buy today?

Venite Adoremus

JMJ

The Readings for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of Our Lord:

Prout potestis legentes intelligere prudentiam meam in mysterio Christi: Gentes esse cohæredes, et concorporales, et comparticipes promissionis ejus in Christo Jesu per Evangelium.

As you reading, may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ: That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and copartners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel.

This is the real Christmas Joy and let us celebrate it today, the Epiphany, which is the Crown of Christmas. In twelve days all of the Mystery of the Gospel is Revealed – and I don’t mean the song, thank you.

Bishop Barron, in his Catholicism, starts this story with “God’s answer to human dysfunction was forming a people after his own heart.” God called Abraham out of the family of Man to be the Patriarch of that people, and of the seed of this man was born the people of Israel. God gave them the Law and the Prophets, and the Kingship. God gave them his own Temple, the place where God lived on earth, and called that people out from among the nations – time and again. And then from that people, God himself was born to us. But that was not the goal, per se. God was tearing down all the divisions, all the ways we keep ourselves apart. God started by tearing down the division between himself and us, then between his people and the rest of us. God is uniting all peoples into one in himself, in Christ.

This is why Epiphany is so important: the Magi represent the peoples of the Gentiles as they were known in the world at that time (traditionally, Caucasian, Asian, and African, hence three kings, although the Bible doesn’t say how many there were) coming to God’s people, the People of Israel, to honor their king and own him as King of the World. Epiphany is the Crown of Christmas. God is not just born for the Jews, but for all of us.

To us, today, this sounds odd. There are no real differences, to us, we even imagine we can ignore science in this regard and pretend our chromosomes don’t exist. What is this idea of a division between peoples? But this idea of no division is something our Modern Secular state actually inherits from the Church, which was intended to be the Mother of All Peoples. God is unifying all into himself. It was she who taught it to tribe upon tribe of gentiles, coming from beyond the Pale to join the Israel of God. We are no longer Saxon and Celt, but one in Christ. We are no longer Vandal and Roman, but one in Christ. We are no longer Barbarian and Greek, but one in Christ. We are no longer Slav and Byzantine, but one in Christ. We are no longer Black and White, but one in Christ. We are no longer K’iche and Spaniards, but one in Christ. 

Still, we all have our reasons for staying apart, do we not? We, each of us, have our petty sins and our most treasured vices that we would hide alone, cutting us off from our neighbours and thereby holding us further from God at every moment until we are all alone in the shadows. How are we to be united if we insist on holding on to the very things that tore us apart in the first place?

Epiphany, the Crown of Christmas, is the feast of the undoing of our Divisions. We have only one King. But how is this to be lived out? St Paul is full of ideas and we’ll read them over and over in Ordinary Times of the Church Year. Today, though, we hear the proclamation that all the peoples of the Earth, Jews and Gentiles, all races and nations, all have now only one King. Born in an animal feeding trough, in a town named after the staff of life, he is the real food come down from heaven and given to us all. 
Come let us adore him!

Questions Not for Cowans.

JMJ

The Readings for the 8th Day before the Ides of January:

Si testimonium hominum accipimus, testimonium Dei majus est
If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater.

St John is writing to believers and not to the unbelieving. This argument that follows is of no import to those Outside the Church of St John. That’s important to understand. Much of John’s text (in the Gospel, in the Epistles, in the Apocalypse) is entirely meaningless to those outside of the Faith. This is as it should be. This is why John’s texts are so important after Christmas and Easter: they are for the initiated only; those who have decided to accept the teaching of the Church and are ready to go further up and further in.

We are, though initiated, all of us sinners, still. There are times when St John will sound to us as he does to the cowans, to use the technical term, the uninitiated, the Gentiles. But this one verse should call us back.

We accept the testimony of men, so God is greater.

It’s evident is it not? Even if we are pretending today (as we must all do, from time to time) just to get by as Catholics: you fake it til you make it. Even in that mode, it must be self-evident, if we believe in a “God” that his testimony must be greater than the testimony of men, right? We’re not talking about a “higher power” or anything like that.  We’re talking about the Creator of the Universe, visible and invisible, even if we have trouble today, believing in him, if he exists, his testimony must surely be greater than that of any man, right?

So, why – when it comes to Matters of Sex, of Maternity, of politics, and of morality, why in these and other cases are we all too willing to reach out to a man’s testimony that makes us feel better?

And we will even do that in our most “I’m Faithful to the Church’s teaching” phases.

So I’m wondering why. Half wondering, mind you, as I’m tempted to go off on either a judgement drive or else my own despair-driven sinfest. But when we hear someone whose teaching we like, because it comforts us in our sin, doesn’t ever give you pause, how much of God’s testimony you had to ignore to get there?

If you’ve found the one Catholic or Orthodox priest in your diocese who will support you in your sexual choices, why did you go looking for him? Because he says that God says something you like. Does it strike you as odd that the rest of the Church’s tradition (and people) should disagree with that priest? If you’re willing to listen to that one priest, why are you so certain all the others (in space and time) are wrong?

Why do we put the testimony of men before the testimony of God?


Nemo Vos Seducat

JMJ

The Readings for the Day before the Nones of January,
Memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton:

Filioli, nemo vos seducat. Qui facit justitiam, justus est, sicut et ille justus est. 

Little children, let no man deceive you. He that doth justice is just, even as he is just.

You know, Martin Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James because of that passage “Faith without works is dead”. He called it, rather famously, an Epistle of Straw. I’m beginning to think St John had a lot more straw in him than Luther noticed. 

The KJV will render this “he that doeth righteousness is righteous even as he (Jesus) is righteous”.  As in the Latin, and the English, so in the Greek. It’s the one who is doing these things that is this thing. We show our faith in Christ by acting like Christ. We do not sin: not because it “gets us into heaven” but rather because acting like Christ heals us, makes us whole, saves us.

Furthermore, nemo vos seducat: let no one deceive you. The Apostles only pull out that line (or cognates like “Be ye not deceived” etc) when there’s something huge on the line. And when someone had been trying to do that very deception. In this case again, as noted yesterday, we had people saying sex was not important for it was the flesh and not the spirit that was thereby polluted.

But in the Gospel the soul and the body are one: they will be reunited on the last day either for eternal life, or for hell. Be not deceived: what we do in the body bears fruit in the soul and what the soul does bears fruit in the body. 

Let no one deceive you – no one including Amy Grant:

I have decided,I’m gonna live like a believer,Turn my back on the deceiver,I’m gonna live what I believe.
I have decided,Being good is just a fable,I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.
There’s a wealth of things that I profess,I said that I believed,But deep inside I never changed;I guess I’d been deceived.
‘Cause a voice inside kept telling me,That I’d change by and by,But the Spirit made it clear to me,That kind of life’s a lie.
I have decided,I’m gonna live like a believer,Turn my back on the deciver,I’m gonna live what I believe.
I have decided,Being good is just a fable,I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.
So forget the game of being good,And your self-righteous pain.‘Cause the only good inside your heartIs the good that Jesus brings.
And when the world begins to see you change,Don’t expect them to applaud.Just keep your eyes on Him and tell yourself,I’ve become the work of God.
I have decided,I’m gonna live like a believer,Turn my back on the deceiver,I’m gonna live what I believe.

Cuz being Good is just a fable… we can take that to mean “I’m not going to get into heaven by being good.” 100% true without Jesus. Or – as it seems to me – we can read it as, “My being good has nothing to do with getting into heaven, I’m just going to leave that to God.” And that’s a lie from Satan.


We spend all our days fighting what we know to be the truth. Or, we can just give in. We can admit that “going it my own way” is not at all the right way to go. We can admit that where the Church Makes Me Feel Uncomfortable is where I and not the Church must change or we can imagine this has nothing to do with “being good” and everything to do with good feelings.

But St John, the “Mystic” or the “Theologian” or the “Divine”, the Apostle whom Jesus loved, the one that has visions and talks about love all the time, says we have to be doing righteousness. We must be doing the right things. We have to do it. We have to not go looking for another Christ (an Antichrist) but rather the one we have. The one we have calls us to “be perfect as our Father is perfect”, to “Go your way and sin no more”. Being Christian does not give us a free pass out of hell, nor does it give us a free pass out of being Godly. Instead it demands the latter and threatens the former: and more for us than for those who have never heard the Gospel. 

Like Peter, God does not ask us what we want to be called, or how we want to identify: God tells us who we are. He who is our Maker knows the way things work.

We are not like those who do not have the Gospel, or who have a partial Gospel: we have been given Sacramental Grace, the teachings of the Church, the Liturgy, the Tradition, the Holy Scriptures, the Saints, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and the bodily and spiritual presence of God himself in the Holy Communion. We have been given Jerome, Giotto, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Mozart, Vivaldi, Byrd, Taverner. We have been given the Blessed Mother, herself. To whom much is given, of that same much will be expected.

We are about being good (and failing at it) we are about being holy (and failing at it): the harder we push, the less we will fail – and that by God’s grace. 

Non Solum Fides.

JMJ

The Readings for the 3rd Day before the Nones of January:

Et omnis qui habet hanc spem in eo, sanctificat se, sicut et ille sanctus est.

And every one that hath this hope in him, sanctifieth himself, as he also is holy.

On Sunday, Fr Joseph Illo preached an excellent sermon during which he said, “I am saved by faith, but I have a part to play: I have to get out of the way, to let God save me.” We are saved by faith. But we have a part to play in our salvation happening.

John says, everyone in this movement makes himself holy as he (Jesus) is holy. If you think this is only a matter of saying the right thing, you’re quite wrong. 

John was dealing with a class of heretics who (among other things) said that sex didn’t matter because the body was unimportant. All that was needed was for the soul to get right with God. To this John replies that we must be holy as Jesus is holy, using a Greek word translated as holy that also specifically puts forward the implication of ritual, sexual purity. How many times have you heard that Jesus freed us from concerns about sex and purity? Quite the reverse. 

We are saved by faith. But we have a part to play in our salvation happening. In the context not of just today’s reading, but of the whole passage (as we saw yesterday) John names those who disdain this purity “Antichrist”. I’ve heard some strong words leveled at Jack Spong, Nancy Pelosi, The Jesus Seminar, and My Favorite Martin, but Antichrist is a new one for me. We don’t like to judge folks… Jesus promised that job to the Apostles though: like John. 

I’ve spent a lot of time working to keep God from saving me: and I’ve used modern misconceptions of sex to to do it most, but also some drugs and rock and roll. It’s not enough to recognize we’re under the judgement of God. We have to actively come out of Babylon, to stop doing what we were doing. Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” but he will not rudely rip them from our hands. The tighter we hold on the more he says, “let me help with that…”

But if we don’t let go, if we don’t get out of the way, Jesus is not going to knock us over and drag us off to salvation.

We have a job to do, work to perform. We have to let God save us. To do that we have to get ourselves out of the way. The music is already playing: all we need do is dance to God’s lead.

Oooo. Scaaaary.

Source
JMJ

The Readings for the 4th Day before the Nones of January:

Hæc scripsi vobis de his, qui seducant vos.
I write you these things about those who would deceive you. 
John, writing in the mid 70s (ish) of the 1st Century is already aware of Antichrist and those who would deceive Christians out of their faith. Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ is the Antichrist.
Now, I don’t mean horror movies or Satan Incarnate. Antichrist means “instead of” or “another” Christ. Yes, “Against” is implied. But it’s more subtle. Whoever denies Jesus is the Messiah is, essentially, setting himself up as that anointed of God instead of Jesus. How is this? The Church says Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners. If I say he is not that, that is not simply another opinion on the matter. I are presuming to judge the man that the Church says is God, incarnate in the flesh, born of a virgin, fulfilling all prophecies, destroying all divisions, ending sin. And I am judging that to be not so. Since the Church is describing the Truth: I’m saying I know better. There is only one person who could know better: the Christ.
This spirit is already in the world.
Yes, it is always prompted by Satan, but it is present even in the most “innocent” of conversations: yes, I’m Catholic, but I believe in the right to abortion. Or you should get a divorce. We’re Catholics, but you can do whatever you want. Vatican II says I can make up my own mind.
Antichrist come into the world.

Let what you heard from the beginning remain in you. 
Those “you” words are plural. So, “What the Church has heard from the Beginning should remain in the Church”. Even if your RCIA instructor tended to the wonky extremes of the liberal or conservative sides, always refer back to what the Church has heard from the beginning. Anything else is not some B-horror-movie monster, but “another Christ”.  And, really: that is the same thing.