The Five Idols of Christmas

ChristmasScene

A beautiful Christmas scene. (Source)

Five Golden Rings

Christmas is a time of great joy. At the heart of it all is the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Yet often, we let lesser things get in the way of the worship we owe to Him in this privileged season of grace. I don’t believe it would be too much to call these distractions “idols.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Idolatry etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” Many of us unknowingly allow a number of idols into our lives during the holiday season. All of them are good things in themselves, but taken out of proportion, they distort our sense of the feast’s true message as well as our connection with the Living God. I’d like to examine five of these idols, “five golden rings” that often form the chain of our seasonal bondage.

Material Goods

Of all the idols, this one is perhaps the most readily apparent. It seems like each year, we hear new complaints of the commercialization of Christmasonly to watch the process get worse with every passing holiday. Advent washes upon us as a season of cluttered ads rather than prayerful penance. Sacred carols have been reduced to shopping mall muzak. Charlie Brown’s 1965 complaint rings just as true today as it did in the years of the Johnson Administration. For many, Christmas seems to be a time to show off their wealth to the neighbors, to cook and consume lavish amounts of food, or to receive a whole panoply of toys and giftsand little else.

After all, isn’t this what most children look forward to each Christmas? Santa isn’t popular because he’s a jolly old man who likes milk, cookies, and Coca-Cola. He brings gifts! Of course kids love Christmas. The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is extremely hard to break, even for those well advanced in age. Nor does the culture help. After all, Christmas is a nearly half-trillion dollar industry. There’s no reason to think that commercialism in all its forms will go away any time soon.

Happiness

Beneath the idol of material goodswhether that means gifts, food, or all the decorations that beautify our houseshides another idol. Perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere, at other times and places.

I was blessed enough to go to Disney World a few times as a child. When I later went back as a teenager, though, I noticed something. A kind of frantic, urgent energy pervaded the place. Everyone smiles a bit too widely. Everyone rushes from one amusement to another. And here and there, a tantrum erupts like a tiny pool of scalding water. Why? Because everyone who comes to Disney comes to have a good timeor else. If you don’t enjoy yourself, then something is wrong with you. You must have fun.

The regime of forced fun becomes universal at Christmas time. How many of us come away from the holidays in a state of utter exhaustion? How often have we stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, we’re trying too hard? The Christmas narrative is blissful. But we have substituted the quietly abiding “comfort and joy” of Christ for the plastic and fleeting pleasures of our own culture.

Our fruitless pursuit of happiness is one of the reasons that holiday depression is so rampant. The endless pageants and parades and parties, not to mention all of the work that goes into them, can be such a drain that it leaves us with little energy left for the spiritual life of the holiday. And that’s just when our plans succeed! We’re even more distraught and distracted when things don’t work out as we hoped. How greatly we differ from Mary and Joseph, who dealt with the disappointment of being turned away at the inn with a calm trust in Providence.

Traditions

One thing that bolsters the idol of forced happiness is the idol of tradition. Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Christmas is about the way traditions bring us together. But too often, those traditions can become unbalanced and rigid. Surely we all have one or two thoughts like this upon occasion. If the tree is not up and decorated by a certain day, all is lost! If we don’t make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, all is lost! If we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf this year, all is lost! And so on. Instead of a time of refreshment, Christmas becomes a daunting list of tasks and chores. Our freedom and ease vanish.

As Catholics, we need to remember that the only really necessary thing is Mass. That is the still point at the base of our lives and holiday. Taking a step back and detaching from our seasonal traditions can be a salutary reminder that we are not in control. God is. And if our traditions don’t serve His glory, then we should rework them and reclaim our freedom. Chances are, we’ll be saner (and happier) if we do so.

Family

Perhaps the easiest idol to miss is the one that often generates all the others: family. Surely, we may think, there can be nothing wrong with putting our families at the center of the holiday? Isn’t being with family one of the greatest and purest joys known to man? And isn’t the meaning of Christmas bound up with God entering into a human family?

These are all natural notions. But the truth is, we often have a disordered affection for our families. This disorder is frequently expressed in counter-intuitive manifestations. The holiday is poisoned by all the evident ways our own families don’t live up to our (possibly quite unrealistic) standards. So many of us use Christmas to penalize those in our families who are different from us, and who thus shatter our little ideal of what family should be. We make Christmas the occasion of settling scores or sniping about our petty differences. Or, on the other hand, we altogether ignore issues that might be very important. A kind of artificial peace may prevail, even though deep cracks open below the surface. But this is not the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.

Families are always sites of intense friction and drama, as even the most cursory review of Western literature shows (not to mention our satires). Making family the center of Christmas merely injects that propensity for drama into a holy day where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, our ideological insistence on making Christmas all about family has been particularly hard on single people. Those with no family are left out in the proverbial, and sometimes literal, cold. One poisonous fruit of humanizing the divine holiday in this way is the terrible loneliness we have needlessly exacerbated for thousands.

Family is a high good, but not the highest good. When we forget that, we do an injustice to God. And we cannot love our families (or our lonely neighbors) properly if we don’t love God first.

Spiritual Consolations

I suspect that most of us idolize family at some level. It’s become such a dominant cultural value that even non-Christians who celebrate Christmas are susceptible to its malignant influence. But one idol may only occur to those who see Christmas as a time of potential spiritual gain.

Every Christian runs the risk of valuing God only insofar as he grants us His gifts. Sometimes, this takes fairly low forms. The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, is essentially a quasi-Christian materialism that equates the love of God with his financial blessings. They turn God into a sugar daddy. More subtly, some of us act like God’s fair-weather friends. We’re perfectly happy offering Him our heart as long as we feel we’re receiving some kind of spiritual consolation. It’s almost as if we think that God owes us something if we keep praying through the season, and we’re unnerved when nothing comes. No one likes aridity in prayer. That feeling can be even harder, and an even greater temptation, when it comes to us at Christmas time.

As Catholics, we shouldn’t worry if Christmas isn’t a time of tremendous spiritual growth. Just because at Christmas you’re not experiencing profound graces or consolations, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing anything wrong. Even a well-kept Advent may not produce discernible feelings of anticipation or contrition. Too much of a focus on the interior life can distract us from the objective glory of the feast.

God has come down to earth in the Incarnation. He has seen fit to take up human nature for our salvation, transfiguring all by the light of His face. And we who were born so many centuries after Him can nevertheless meet that same Incarnate God at the altar. But none of this depends on us. It doesn’t matter what we feel; the marvelous truth of it all is that God has done this work in an entirely gratuitous way.

That is why Christmas Mass is so important. It grounds our devotions in Christ. And as He did at His first coming, He still sweeps away all of our idols from His new home on the altar.

The Eucharistic Alternative

Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. All of the “idols” I have listed above are good in themselves. It is only our inordinate attachment to them that has twisted them into ugly perversions and distractions from the Incarnate God.

True, our culture has pressed many of these idols onto us, or at least exacerbated them. But we are complicit. We go along with the whole rigmarole. We have made these five golden rings into five golden calves. It follows that in our own small ways as Catholics, we can and should resist.

Instead of focusing on material gain, let us contemplate the poverty of the babe at Bethlehem; instead of mindlessly pursuing happiness at all costs, let us seek a healthy and realistic equilibrium; instead of rigidly clinging to our traditions, let us run in the freedom and flexibility of the Gospel; instead of taking a disordered view of our families, let us love them as creatures of the Most High; and instead of pining for a flood of sensible graces, let us be content to dwell adoringly at the side of the Infant God asleep.

It may all be more easily said than done. But the spiritual life is always a challenge for those who truly seek God. And what aid does Our Lord offer us in the Sacraments! If we avail ourselves of confession and the Eucharist, we will have made a very powerful start. Only then, to paraphrase Dickens, may we honor Christmas in our hearts, and keep it all the year.

A Sophianic Documentary

Skelligs

The Puffins of Little Skellig, featured in the show. (Source)

Recently, I had the good fortune of watching Ireland’s Wild Coast, a PBS piece. I must recommend it in the highest possible terms. You can watch the trailer here. From PBS’s description:

Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.

The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillnessKestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.

WildGeese

Irish Swans, photo by Colin Stafford-Johnson. (Source)

Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenboroughdistant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.

Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.

At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.

Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.

RedDeer

Red Deer Stag, by Colin Stafford-Johnson. Featured in the film. (Source).

The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:

For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)

That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.

In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.

Kestrel

The Kestrel, shot by Colin Stafford-Johnson. It is impossible to understand how beautiful this bird is without seeing it in motion. (Source).

In Defense of the “Twice-Blessed Asparagus”

AsparagusLiturgy

There’s a punchline here somewhere. Source.

Recently, a minor storm of controversy has erupted over an unusual proceeding at Worcester Cathedral. For those of us blissfully unaware of the agrarian culture of the British Isles, the local Asparagus Festival celebrating the fine crop of the Vale of Evesham just opened to considerable acclaim. While there are, admittedly, a few suspect elements of the Festival, it does seem to be rather harmless on the whole. The kind of thing that would make a nice weekend in the country.

The rustic peace of the celebration was soon shattered. As The Telegraph reports, organizers of the Festival asked the Dean of the Cathedral if they might have a blessing of the asparagus to kick off the harvest season. And so, at evensong on Sunday, the 23rd of April, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen, a block of the stuff was carried in a procession up the chancel alongside two costumèd festival mascots, St. George and Gus the Asparagus Man. While it was indeed St. George’s Day, we can only imagine that this is the first liturgical appearance of the humanoid Asparagacea. As we read in The Telegraph:

Angela Tidmarsh, co-founder of the festival and tourism officer for Wychavon, said the cathedral’s management had been “really enthusiastic” about the idea. “We had the asparagus blessed by the vicar of Bretforton and then we took it to the cathedral, so it’s twice-blessed asparagus,” she said. 

This really did happen in real life.

The reactions have been fairly predictable. Archbishop Cranmer has led the chorus of detractors, writing in an extremely English timbre,

Would the Church of England permit a man dressed up as a baked bean to process behind a Heinz tin of the things, and sanctify the mummery with a facade of thanksgiving? And why only adoration of asparagus? Where’s the sprout liturgy, or equality for mushrooms? Would the Dean really permit a walking fungus to participate in an act of divine worship?

In a note of (understandable) exasperation, he writes, “This is church, for God’s sake. Really, for His sake, can the Church of England not offer something clean and undefiled in the worship of God?”

While I would not normally wish to disagree with His Grace on issues of the liturgy (except, of course, when it comes to the validity of Anglican Orders), I must dissent from his wholesale condemnation of the procession. Yes, the costumes were silly in the extreme. Both St. George and Gus the Asparagus Man should have been excluded from any kind of religious ritual within the Cathedral. Insofar as His Grace and others assail the ceremony on those grounds, I agree.

Nevertheless, on principle, I think the blessing of the asparagusnay, even its double blessing!is a good thing. Along with Rod Dreher, I say, “Still, I am in my heart of hearts an Asparagus-Blesser; here I stand, I can do nothing other.”

There is good Biblical precedent for precisely this kind of rite. In the twenty sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, we read,

And when thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God will give thee to possess, and hast conquered it, and dwellest in it: Thou shalt take the first of all thy fruits, and put them in a basket, and shalt go to the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, that his name may be invocated there: And thou shalt go to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: I profess this day before the Lord thy God, that I am come into the land, for which he swore to our fathers, that he would give it us. And the priest taking the basket at thy hand, shall set it before the altar of the Lord thy God…And therefore now I offer the firstfruits of the land which the Lord hath given me. And thou shalt leave them in the sight of the Lord thy God, adoring the Lord thy God.

As a matter of Biblical principle, the good people of the Vale of Evesham ought to be allowed to bring their own first fruits to the Cathedral, the seat of their bishop, and receive the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, similar practices are not unknown in the Church Universal. Byzantine Catholics and Eastern Orthodox bring forth their first-fruits on Transfiguration Day to be blessed. Indeed, Orthodox priests have been caught blessing all manner of strange articles. And within Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer (1928) allows for the following pious sentence to be recited at the beginning of Morning Prayer on occasions of thanksgiving:

Honour the LORD with thy substance, and with the first-fruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine. Prov. iii. 9,10.

It is unclear whether the same can be said of the Ordinariate, which inherited so much of the 1928 Prayer Book’s “patrimony.” Within the Roman Ritual, we find all kinds of blessings – including some for herbs and seeds, though these are tied to specific, Marian days in the Church kalendar. One could write an intriguing sophiological meditation on this liturgical feature – but I digress. I will merely say that, all in all, it makes perfect theological sense to offer the crop to God. The cosmic character of the liturgy, the way it gathers in all the world in the offertory, was an insight suggested by the C of E’s own Dom Gregory Dix and brought to fruition in the work of theologians like, inter alia, Alexander Schmemann, Joseph Ratzinger, and William T. Cavanaugh, though of course it is a much older idea. While this procession did not occur at the offertory of a Mass, its placement during evensong suggests the deeper implications of the Eucharistic liturgy.

There are, as I can tell, only a few concerns worth considering here:

1) Those ridiculous costumed figures in the procession – or even in the Cathedral to begin with. I wouldn’t want either at a liturgical function.

2) The blessing wasn’t tied to any liturgical date, such as the blessing of Roses on the Feast of St. Rita or the blessing of animals on the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot.

3) It’s not clear that the blessing should have taken place at Choral Evensong, within the nave of the Cathedral, during a procession. Most of the similar traditions don’t seem to involve that kind of performative element within the temple.

Point 1 stands. The photo above speaks for itself.

AsparagusVicar

The least Gus the Asparagus Man could have done is make sure he was properly vested in cassock and surplice, which Rev. Gilbert has attempted with only partial success in this shot from “An Easter Carol.” Source.

However, I do think Points 2 and 3 can be open to discretion. Priests bless things all the time when they are asked, and while there are some regulations governing that act (such as those surrounding the imposition of the Brown Scapular), most priests bless freely and willingly. Nor am I convinced it’s a problem that the good folk of Worcestershire wanted to incorporate the Church into their festival. Indeed, they went so far as to have their prize vegetable blessed twice! After all, ought not the Church stand as an institution blessing the communal life of the people, correcting their morals, teaching them the Way of Life, and communicating sanctifying grace to them in the sacraments? While it is certainly an open question as to whether the Church of England does this effectively (or even has the power to do so), the principle remains one that the English have always cherished in their own, peculiar way. There is an earthiness to English communal spirituality. One cannot imagine the same scene happening in Ireland or France or even Spain (though possibly in Italy, as English Christianity since the 19th century has approximated Italian spirituality in various unexpected ways; as Dreher notes, the Church of Siena blesses the horses before the Palio, and within the temple!). I confess, my immediate reaction to the blessing of the asparagus was laughter. The whole thing struck me as, well, so very Chestertonian. G.K. even devoted a 1914 essay to the plant.

Of course, I ought to come clean about one of my own biases. Asparagus is my favorite vegetable. Steamed, grilled, or baked, I find it a surpassing delight. I suppose that the Good Lord, who so lovingly and approvingly gave it to us on the third day of creation, agrees with me. Whether He shares my amusement at the procession of the blessed asparagus is another matter, and one I don’t presume to find out any time soon.

ChestertonFat

G.K. Chesterton: 100% would eat asparagus that has been blessed twice. Source.