From The Liturgical Year
There’s a popular folk tale about three blind men who walk around an elephant to determine what kind of beast this animal might be. One takes hold of the elephant’s tail and says, “This creature is very like a rope.” The second happens to take hold of its tusk and says, “This creature is very like a spear.” And the third, patting the wide, hard side of the animal, says, “This creature is surely a wall.” Obviously, if any one of them had all three insights at once, these men would have understood a great deal more about elephants than any one of them could possibly know alone.
Liturgical spirituality is a bit like that as well. Each season has a great consuming centerpiece on which we concentrate — Christmas Day or the Resurrection — but it is being willing to walk thoughtfully through all the other parts of each particular cycle that gives us the fuller, truer picture of exactly what the feast itself is all about.
The Christmas season, or Christmastide, is not about one feast day. It is a series of feasts that embed us in a kind of refracted glory, the underpinnings, the other pieces of the mosaic that complete the feast itself.
The feasts of a season create a heightened awareness in us of what the season’s major feast is about. They help us to understand the feast from multiple perspectives and various layers of meaning. Together they create a mosaic that fleshes out for us the fullest meaning of the feast. They give us a way of looking at our own world differently because through them we come to see Jesus differently. They provide the hope because of which we can move in the dark parts of the spiritual life with both confidence and conviction.
Christmas — the light that shone upon a manger — was also, the ancients knew, the light that led them on beyond it as well. If God is truly with us, has been manifested among us, companions us as we go, knows our pains and our hopes, then life is not a dark forest from which there is no exit. It is a darkness, however dark, that is always overcome by light.
But how would they know that? How do we know that? We know that because surrounding the feast of Christmas are the feasts that open up to us the real nature of this child whom, with the shepherds, we have come to realize lives with us, in us, as much today as yesterday. These minor feasts of Christmastide give us a great deal more than a manger. They give us, as adults, models to live by if we, too, are to be steeped in Jesus and full of new life.
The Feast of the Holy Family
The Feast of the Holy Family depicts Jesus in a home where he grows in wisdom, age, and grace. (Luke 2:52) It is a model of what we want for the children of our time. It is a model of the kind of love and care that encourages children to grow up to be on their own but guides them as they do.
This feast causes us to pause and look at our own families, both the ones we grew up in and the ones we’re now developing ourselves. It raises questions in us about the harmony of the home we’re in now — and what part we play in both its peace and its disturbance. We are brought to wonder what wisdom, maturity, and virtue the children of our time are able to see in us that will transfer itself to them. We must ask ourselves if we are learning from one another, caring for one another; becoming more spiritual together as we go. And if not, why not? And what do we intend to do about it, as Jesus did, for the sake of the rest of the world?
The Octave of Christmas: The Feast of Mary, the Mother of God
Very few feasts have an octave, an eight-day commemoration of the feast, meant to give even more significance to the dignity and importance of the major celebration itself. Like incense, an octave is the sweet memory, eight days later; of what has gone before. It is the aura of a feast, so important, so impacting, that the power of its presence in the human soul lingers far after the feast itself. If nothing else, it is an octave that says to the deepest part of us, Don’t overlook what you have just seen. Think again. Think about it always.
In that same way, this feast adds another layer to Christmas. The Octave of Christmas, January 1, while we are still very much aware of the birth of Jesus, confronts us with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. But this feast is not the church’s answer to the annual Mother’s Day so common in the secular world; this feast is a statement about both Mary and Jesus. She is human, we know, and therefore so is he. This Jesus is no Greek god, no being from another planet, no fairy-tale divine. This child, born of Mary, is us. The Solemnity of Mary is a cataclysmic theology of both the compassion of God for human limitation and the potential of the human spirit to grow into the divine.
The second great feast of the Christmas season that amplifies our awareness of the person of Jesus is the Western church’s separate celebration of the ancient Eastern feast of the Epiphany. While the Eastern church concentrates on the baptism of Jesus as the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity, the Western church continues to maintain the story of the Magi. These foreign kings, themselves altered by strange manifestations of the stars in the heavens, like the shepherds, find their way to the child and, the scriptures say, “to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2) The world recognizes the heavenly in this tiny child. And the child recognizes the people of God in them. This is not a Christian child only; this child belongs to the world.
The Baptism of Jesus
On the Sunday after Epiphany, the Christmas season ends in the West with its own celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan. As the Eastern church points out, it is at this moment that we see for the first time the union of God the Creator, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we see something else as well. We see Jesus accepting baptism by John, a sign that Jesus accepts humanity. His own and ours, in all of its struggles, all of its limitations, all of its burdens, and all its focus on the ultimate, on the divine.
The feast days of Christmastide make the full meaning of Christmas clear. There can be no doubt about it: this child is human, yes, but he is of heavenly as well as earthly origin. In this child’s light we all walk safely through the unknown. We are all here with the Magi, full of gifts to give in his behalf. What’s more, with the opening of the heavens on the bank of the Jordan, we all have our first vision of life beyond life.
Christmas is larger than a baby in a manger. Christmas is the coming of a whole new world. More than that, it is what makes that world possible.