The Darkness of Christmas

Scientists tell us that we crossed a line last night. At approximately 6:03 PM Eastern Standard Time, the Northern Hemisphere entered that astronomical moment known as the Winter Solstice. For the next six months, the days will gradually be getting longer, and the nights, shorter.

It just so happens that this annual nadir of daylight falls a few days before the most orgiastic public celebration of darkness on the present Western calendar. Unlike Thanksgiving, where one simply eats and drinks to excess, we not only engage in the same gastrological excesses at Christmas, but combine them with an excess of consumption of all kinds. In doing so, we allow the twinkling tree lights and flashing advertisements to deceive us into thinking that we are living surrounded by light, rather than in darkness.

Now, I enjoy gift-giving, good things to eat and drink, and parties just as much as any sensible man. Yet when we celebrate Christmas without a thought to what it means to be a Christian, then I must tell you, though you may not wish to hear it, that we are celebrating darkness. We might as well open the encyclopedia and adopt whatever pagan religious festival we come across, as an excuse for eating too much and going into debt through excessive shopping.

Christmas, you see, is actually about the existence of darkness, and how more often than not, we choose to embrace it. Indeed, we have come to love darkness so much, that God Himself had to intervene in our world in a physical way, to show us just how selfish and willful we had become. Sadly, in looking at the world in which we live, we seem intent on falling even further into that dark embrace.

The placing of the Birth of Christ at the time of year in which it occurred means more than it might, at first, appear. If December 25th is as good a candidate as any for the date of Christmas – and there are many valid reasons for accepting this ancient tradition, which I shall not address here – then we might consider what that day is generally like where He was born. The weather forecast for Bethlehem on Christmas Eve this year is 44 degrees Fahrenheit for the low (about 6 degrees Centigrade.) Whether in the 1st century or the 21st, that is not exactly balmy.

Yet whatever the actual forecast may have been, without question the Nativity occurred on one of the darkest nights of the year, thanks to the tilting of Earth on her axis. It’s interesting to consider the fact that God did not choose to enter the world in the warmth and light of summer. Instead, His Birth took place in poverty and humility, probably in the cold, but certainly surrounded by darkness.

We all know that the only way to get rid of darkness is by shining a light on it. This is what we mark at Christmastide when, as Christ says, “I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in Me might not remain in darkness.” (St. John 12:46) Jesus Himself recognizes that His Birth, Ministry, Passion, Death, and Resurrection are all geared toward getting us out of that darkness, but none of it can begin until He comes into the world at Christmas. Once He does, the darkness begins to dissipate.

As we go about doing all of those things we *have* to do for Christmas, we forget the darkness which made Christmas necessary at our peril. It is only through His light which broke through the physical darkness that night in Bethlehem, amidst winter chill and shabby poverty, that we can see how far into darkness we have really fallen. Let us try, this Christmas, to make a bit more time for reflecting on that fact. For the darkness will only go away, when we allow Him to cast it out by His light.

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by Caravaggio (1609) Museo Regionale, Messina, Sicily

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Caravaggio (1609)
Museo Regionale, Messina, Sicily

Thursday Night in DC: A Classical Christmas Concert

During the Advent and Christmas season, there are usually a surfeit of Christmas concerts for those who love music.  Unfortunately, many of them take place on weekends.  This makes it impossible to attend more than one or two, due to the overlapping of these events.

Fortunately for those of you in the DC area, tomorrow night – Thursday – you have the chance to attend a Christmas concert that does not take away from your already-booked weekend schedule before Christmas arrives next week, and to do so with a truly international talent.

Soprano Alina Kozinska will be celebrating the season in song, poetry, carols, and Sacred Scripture, along with Pianist Patricia McKewen Amato, Actress Renata Plecha, and a cast of soloists/musicians. The program includes works by Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, and others.

The concert will take place at 7pm at St. Stephen Martyr Church in Foggy Bottom.  St. Stephen’s is located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW, a short walk from the Foggy Bottom Metro station. There is usually plenty of street parking around the neighborhood, or in one of the garages nearby.

Ms. Kozinska teaches voice at The Peabody, and sang for Pope St. John Paul II at the Papal Mass in Camden Yards when he visited Baltimore (I was there and remember her well.) Therefore this promises to be quite the evening. And for those of you who have never visited my parish of St. Stephen’s, which seems so nondescript from the outside, don’t take my word for it: ask someone who has attended Mass or a concert there. They will tell you that the acoustics of the church are absolutely superb for performances such as this.

Hope to see many of my DC readers there, and if you spot me, do come over and say hello after the concert!

St. Stephen's at Christmastide

Joy to the World: Scott Hahn and the Substance of Christmas

[I’m honored to be part of the blog tour for Dr. Scott Hahn’s latest offering, “Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does)”, published by Image Books. Be sure to check out the other reviewers’ thoughts as well.]

In the first chapter of Joy to the World, well-known Catholic apologist and scholar Dr. Scott Hahn presents us with a scene of family life which many of us will find familiar. Tired and worn out as a result of being dragged from church to church, Hahn’s daughter has had just about enough for her 12-year-old sense of patience. Yet when she is given the chance to be of service to someone else, in a way which she did not expect, and which involves a precious baby, everything changes. Of course, in the book, this is taking place not in some American suburb, but in Bethlehem; just as the light clicks on for those of us who are familiar with the Nativity story, so too does the light click on for Dr. Hahn as he and his daughter pause in their Holy Land pilgrimage.

With that very effective hook, Dr. Hahn takes the reader on a journey through thousands of years of salvation history. In “Joy to the World” we meet many characters, whether they are ancient Hebrew Patriarch, Judean client-king, or mysterious Persian magus. Here, Hahn successfully manages to balance between penning a popular reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus, and a scholarly work with concepts and references which reveal connections hitherto unknown to those outside of serious Biblical studies.

Take for example a section in the book in which Dr. Hahn points out three possible interpretations as to why St. Joseph, as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel, decided to quietly divorce the Virgin Mary. There is the theory which I suspect many of us probably adhere to, which is that being a just man, he didn’t want to see his young bethrothed stoned to death, and so acted out of pity. Another is that he was so perplexed by the situation given what he knew of Mary, that he didn’t want to be a part of it. And then there is the theory that when St. Joseph realized Whose Child the Virgin Mary would be bearing, he did not consider himself worthy to take on the role of caring for the Messiah.  The reader can decide for himself which theory he believes, but explorations like this fill “Joy to the World” and make it an extremely interesting survey of some of the fascinating areas which scholars delve into in trying to understand the Nativity.

Dr. Hahn similarly takes an entire chapter to lay out the political situation in Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. As one might expect, he explains how King Herod the Great came to the throne, and the horrors that the monarch got up to in order to preserve his place. Yet Hahn also weaves in the threads of prophecy regarding Herod’s lineage, as well as other, false Messiahs that popped up before and after Jesus, and the sense even in Rome at the time that something was about to happen to the ancient world, changing it forever.

By no means is this relatively short book an attempt to completely catalogue all of Biblical scholarship concerning the Birth of Jesus.  Rather, it is a companion for meditation, and a resource for further study, thanks to the selection of endnote materials which give the reader the opportunity to further explore some of the ideas covered by Dr. Hahn in the book.  As such, I can see it making a wonderful gift for someone who is interested in getting deeper into the study of their faith, or even for someone who isn’t quite sure what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the nature and origin of Jesus.

And indeed the idea of “family” is something which Dr. Hahn returns to again and again, not only exploring the dynamics of the relationships between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but also using this model as a way to, by extension, explore the nature of our relationship with God.  As His adopted sons and daughters, we are part of His family as well, if we choose to accept his invitation.

For me the takeaway from this book is something more than simply interesting factoids about the Birth of Jesus, and more in the realm of  “substance”. The familiar persons from the Nativity can often seem to be little more than bits of chalkware plaster that we take out of a box from the cupboard and unwrap from their newspaper shrouds, where they lay hidden for most of the year. They present various poses to us, but at times they can seem to be little more than figures in a pantomime, if we do not consider the risks they took, and the changes they underwent, often in defiance of the conventions of their times, to bear witness to the Gospel.

What Dr. Hahn gives us are not pretty, glossy cardboard cutouts, but real individuals, insofar as we can know what we do about them. The shepherds smell; they are not welcome in their community, thanks to the dirty jobs they have to do. The magi are not simply fortune tellers or astrologers, they are actually feared by the Roman Empire because of the huge societal influence they hold over the people of the Near East. Even the angels are not just ethereal figures with tresses of Breck-girl hair, they are powerful beings who help shape the course of human history as they do God’s Will.

There are many books available for spiritual reading on the subject of the Birth of Christ. Adding this one to your list this Advent and Christmas will bring a renewed sense of the truly astonishing premise of the Incarnation: that God would humble himself to be born as a human being, into an existing human family, at a particular time and place in history. No wonder, then, that ever since that birth, we have reckoned our days from it.