Thursday, December 31, 2009
It is still only the sixth day of Christmas, and not yet the New Year's. Time enough to reflect and imbibe the true spirit of this season.

Previously published on 19/12/2007 at

As I light the third candle of my Advent wreath, I cannot but smile and turn my mind to the jovial wassailing that so fittingly accompanies the somber processions of the great Event.

Only God could produce such a paradox. Think of pointed holly leaves--so green that they are garish--with brazen red berries sprouting forth against the barren frost of starving winter! As a child, I believed the legend that the scarlet drops of a shepherdess’s pricked fingers on such leaves were turned to berries at the touch of the Christ Child’s Hand. Perhaps that event did not occur, but then the legend may reveal the plan for holly in God's mind. In that case, legend would have again proved truer than history.

Joel Cohen of the musical choir, the Boston Camerata, has remarked, ‘The monastic ideal of otherworldly contemplation cannot be understood without the raucous tumult of the Feast of Fools.’ G. K. Chesterton observes that orthodoxy is the marriage of ‘furious opposites, whilst keeping them furious.’ In the Catholic Church, we feast and we fast, and both are to be done joyfully.

One of the most interesting (by which I mean frustrating) revisions of history, is that tale of the joyous paganism replaced by gloomy Christianity, usually embodied by the Catholic Church with her grey-faced priests. Yea, the religion then derided as that of ‘children, women, and slaves’ is termed oppressive by the newly enlightened, who claim that the Church squashed the carefree happiness permitted by the old gods.

To answer them, I ask them to actually read the pagans. Read the fatalistic Iliad, where man can never triumph against the will of the gods, those self-indulgent beings who ultimately prefer each other to the mortals begging their protection. Read the Odyssey, where a great man can only go home on the understanding that he must again leave it to spread the cult of the god that has harried him. Next read Virgil. If you don’t care to finish with Aeneas’s sword thrust into a man who merely acted as a pawn of the gods, then read of the Irish hero Cuchulain pitifully roping himself to a tree, hoping he shall die standing, as he must perish from an evil queen’s treachery. The self-same Maeve, whose plots had cost him the life of his dearest friend.
Whatever Imbolc, Saturnalia, Yule, Dies Sol Invictus, and the Winter Solstice truly were, they were neither jolly nor childlike. A Bacchanalia was a feast for adults. It was an escape from ugly reality in a moment of respite. It was not a celebration of the Ultimate of What Is.

For Christians, Christmas is the truth. All mortal flesh is to keep silence and reflect on it, and then it is to burst forth with song. With merriment so wild it would annoy the ears of sophisticated pagans! It is not a holiday for slaves, but a reminder that we are to be slaves no more. It is no laudanum for aged, adult spirits. A Child is enthroned before us.

As for the pagan traditions appropriated by the Church, She has a right to them. The evergreen tree belongs to the people who believe in Resurrection, who trust in it so much that without it, ‘our faith is in vain.’ The Celtic Brigid was but a shadowy forerunner of the Mary of the Gael. When images of Zeus resemble the icons of our Lord, it is not because Christian artists imitated pagan ones. It is because the pagan’s soul was impressed with the far off image of Christ. For the serene, beautiful countenance, with the flowing beard and loving eyes shown in some of the stone carvings of Zeus, do not represent him for the lecherous, devious, shameless being he was, if his worshippers are to be trusted. No, the artist had to be thinking of Someone else.

When St. Paul claimed the altar of the unknown god in Greece for Christ, he was not playing the part of a spin doctor, but declaring the truth. God had given the Jews, as His Chosen People, the most explicit signs that would announce the Messiah, but He did not abandon the Gentiles. Compare the prophecies of Isaiah and the Sybil, (medieval tradition has often placed the two side by side at Christmastide):

Kee yeled yoolad lanoo - For unto us a child is born, unto us
bayn nitan lanoo - a son is given, and the government shall
vat'hi hamisrah alshichmo - be upon his shoulder: and His name shall
va y'kra sh'mo peleh - be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
yoetz el gibor avi ad - the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father,
sarhshalom - the Prince of Peace.

Iudicii signum: - This is the sign of judgement:
terrus sudore madescet. - the earth shall grow wet with dew.
E caelo rex adveniet - From heavens shall come the king
per saecula futurus, - who shall reign forever,
scilicet in carne presens - present in the flesh to judge the world.
ut iudicet orbem.
Iudicii signum... - This is the sign...
Et coram his comino - And here before the Lord
reges sistentur ad unum; - all kings shall be made to stand;
decidet e caelo - a river of fire and sulphur
ignis et sulfuris amnis - shall fall from heaven.
Iudicii signum... - This is the sign...
(Translated by Lawrence Rosenwald)

Gloom and fatalism is dispelled, even though sorrow remains. Even as Christ was born, it was to die. The purple and the rose candles stand round the advent wreath, while gay, sharp holly joins them. Sackcloth for the Penance, and silk for the coming Mass.

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Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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