[I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina's new book, "The Feasts". Thanks to the generosity of Image Books, you can register for a chance to win a free copy for yourself! Check for details at the conclusion of the review, and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour as well.]
In their new book The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and well-known Catholic author Mike Aquilina examine not only the major and minor feasts of the Church, but the history and theological significance of these significant days throughout the Church year. Many Christians may never have stopped to think much about why we have these commemorations, when we pause to remember particular persons, events, or truths. With great clarity, the authors explain the language of feast days, and how they draw us back to honoring and reflecting upon our relationship with God. Feasts are an opportunity, above all, for expressing our gratitude.
In the early chapters of “The Feasts”, the authors take the time to provide a concise, helpful background on how and why these occasions came to be. Jesus Himself, after all, celebrated feasts such as Passover and Yom Kippur, which are still marked today by the Jewish people. In turn the early Christian community, as it began to emerge into a full-fledged faith, adopted its own annual religious events. Within the first five hundred years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, there were already hundreds of feasts, some celebrated locally such as in the memorial of a particular saint, and others commemorated throughout the Universal Church.
Probably everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, even for many non-Christians, is the Solemnity of Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ. Today that meaning is often lost in the glitz and glitter of commercialism, when the point of why people give each other gifts at Christmas often seems to be lost. Indeed, as the authors point out later in the book, the Puritans in this country attempted unsuccessfully to wipe Christmas celebrations from the calendar.
Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina do not deny the secular aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated in many parts of the world, since civilization and Christianity are tied together. They acknowledge the hard fact that for many people, Christmas can be an excuse for excessive materialism. Many, including some Christians, would rather just take Christ out of “Christ Mass” altogether.
Yet the authors then remind us of something which we heard at Mass just this past weekend, in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. St. Paul notes that the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form which we celebrate at Christmas, was not a manifestation of an overpowering being. Rather, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” That gift of the Divine Self through birth is, of course, the “reason for the season”, as the expression goes. His servitude is what we ourselves are called to follow, in imitation of Him.
Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina also remind us how very ancient the celebration of Christmas is. Unlike what you may have heard from some quarters, i.e. that Christmas is simply an appropriation of a pagan sun festival, the authors go far back into Church history. They point out for example that as early as the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria was already arguing that the Birth of Jesus should be celebrated on December 25th, based on his survey of what the Church communities he knew of were already doing locally. This means such commemorations were taking place long before the legalization of Christianity, let along its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
For me, the date of December 25th is less of a point of interest than understanding the historical time period of the Incarnation, something which the authors also explore in their chapter on Christmas. Although God exists outside of time, He chose to enter into our timeline. The willingness to self-limit in such a way out of love for us is, in and of itself, something which should give us pause to consider, anytime we take the celebration of Christmas as being merely for children and merchants.
Christ was born into the world of the Roman Empire, the physical remnants of which are still with us, in ruins, archaeological sites, and museums throughout the world. At the same time, many of the ideas and principles which laid the foundations of republics such as ours here in the United States, as well as concepts in science, engineering, literature, and so on that were the building blocks of Western civilization, were being taught, debated, and written about. To look at a Roman column from the 1st century, and reflect on the fact that it stood at the same time Jesus was being born in the little town of Bethlehem, is to become aware of God’s Presence in our own history, not just as some sort of unintelligible entity or divine watchmaker existing independently of it.
Thus Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina refer to Christmas as being the other magnetic pole to the Christian year, with Easter being the other. Salvation history was not something vaguely understood, but rather marked by a most singular event: God humbling Himself into becoming Man. Without the Resurrection at Easter, there is no hope for us, but if there is no Incarnation at Christmas, then there will be no Easter. In coming into the world, we understand Christ not a concept, but as a Person, and one who promised to remain with us, particularly in the Eucharist. Because of this, even when the Christmas season ends, “in a sense it never ends,” as the authors rightly make clear. For “at every Mass we experience the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.”
As human beings, we mark the passage of the hours from day to night, or the year from summer to winter, because we understand the world in this way. “The Feasts” allows us to step back and see the broad spectrum of the days set aside by the Church, and the how and why we have these special occasions. They remind us, when we are so often distracted by the things of this world, of the world beyond this one, the one to come, and of Him who is waiting to embrace us.
For a chance to win a free copy of “The Feasts”, register with your name and email address by following this link. Only one entry per reader, please. Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, September 18th. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 19th.