THE RENUNCIATION OF CHRISTMAS
In ‘Not the Whole Truth’, the first volume of the late Cardinal Heenan’s autobiography, there is a revealing story of how, immediately after his First Mass, when he wanted to make his Thanksgiving, he was dragged out of Church to greet the guests; and how one social duty after another then claimed him until, hours later, he was able to have the colloquy with God for which he yearned : and how, when he spoke of his anguish at this delay to his mother, she was unsympathetic, and pointed out that he had thereby learned an important lesson very early in his priesthood – that (to use Bishop Sheen’s phrase) ‘the priest is not his own’, and that having to put aside the private gratification of his desire to give thanks to God for the duties of his priesthood was to be the pattern of his life from then on.
I also remember an Israeli mother saying once that every Israeli mother knows the date of her son’s eighteenth birthday from the moment of his birth; because that is the date on which he will start his military service.
Now; you may wonder what these two disparate thoughts have to do with Christmas, and S. Stephen; and the answer is that they came unprompted into my mind this evening when I was reading the chapter on the Incarnation in von Balthasar’s book ‘The Threefold Garland’ as part of a Christmas meditation.
In it, he says ‘In the act of being born there already begins the act of dying; and just a people flee from death, so do mothers cling to their children so that they will not go away from them and draw closer to death. In all truth, already at the birth the mother has been expropriated; she can accompany the fleeing child a piece down the road for as long as the child needs her, but this must happen already in renunciation. Something similar holds for all our works, especially for those that are most spiritual, most personal, most un-selfserving and therefore most fruitful. Once they have been realized they no longer belong to us; they have been handed over to God’s providence for him to administer them.’
I think it will be immediately apparent why reading this brought those two thoughts to my mind; and it was in thinking about them that I began to get an insight into tomorrow’s ‘Feast of Stephen’.
At Easter, nothing interrupts our concentration on the ultimate joy of the Resurrection : for a whole octave, no other liturgical observance occurs – any that do, and that cannot simply be ignored for this year, are transferred to the first free day after Low Sunday, so important is it that nothing distracts us from our celebration – and yet at Christmas, no sooner have we celebrated our Lord’s birth than we start celebrating Saints; and whilst they are, no doubt, very worthy men and women, surely (we say) they aren’t important enough to divert our attention from the wonder of the Incarnation ?
Well, what came into my mind was the thought that perhaps that’s why they’re there; after all, there’s no suggestion in Scripture (as far as I know) that S. Stephen was martyred on the day after Christmas; no suggestion that S. John the Evangelist has any special connection with 27th December.
In fact, as far as I can see, only one Saint is ignored because of Christmas; dear S. Anastasia, who (except in the Extraordinary Form Mass of the Dawn) never gets any sort of celebration at all, because her Feast Day is 25th December !
Is the whole point of this plethora of Feasts straight after Christmas, I wondered, perhaps that, as von Balthasar says, even whilst a mother accompanies her child on his road, she does so ‘already in renunciation’ ? In other words, rather like young Fr Heenan, it is never too soon for us to start to understand that our Lord’s life is one of ultimate renunciation; an abandonment of every part of His life to the will of His heavenly Father; and that our renunciation of the prolongation of our celebration of His Birth is a small token of our willingness to share in that renunciation ?
We too, like the Jewish mother, already know today, as we rejoice in the wonder of the Incarnation, that the Son will be taken from us; indeed, unlike the Jewish mother, we don’t just fear that the Son may die – we know He will : and although we know, too, that in His death we shall have life to the fullest extent, in heaven, it cannot be too soon for us to understand that ‘in our beginning is our ending’, and that we must hand everything straight back to God, Who gives it to us, so that He can do with it as He wills – and that this includes the Saviour Who has, this day, been born for us, and in Whom we rejoice.