Some Helpful Thoughts on Spiritual Progress BY REV. EDWARD F. GARESCHE, SJ.
THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
IT is difficult to picture, in mere cold words, the spirit of Christmas. Many a one of novelists and essayists and poets has made the attempt right gallantly and striven hard to conjure up with warm, bright phrases and holly-woven sentences and paragraphs full of cheer the authentic spirit of that glorious time. Yet in all these efforts there is something flat and stale and unprofitable. They cannot convey, even these shrewd artificers in words, all the glow of cheer, the warmth of love, the blaze of kindliness and good feeling that light the Christmas air and make eyes sparkle and cheeks grow ruddy on Christmas morning.
Of all these seasons of the year this is, by common vote, the dearest and the cheeriest. A certain infantile delight, a delicious childishness, a rejuvenescence of old hearts and weary minds possesses the world at Christmas. All the outward harmless folly and mirth and merriment are but the expression of this inward glow that catches the heart of the world. Men and women forget their years and lay off the load of care with which they have burdened themselves during all the other months, to grow glad in December, feeling the approaching warmth of the childlike feast. The selfish grow light-hearted in these rare moments when they think and plan entirely for others. The cold of heart are kindled despite themselves with a sympathy and tenderness they feel at no other season.
The sight of a man laden with bundles of various shapes and sizes tied with red ribbon and edged with holly, hurrying along and smiling to himself on a winter's evening, evokes a feeling quite irresistible and shared by all humanity. No one can quite withstand the influence of Christmas. It works insensibly upon one by means of the smiling faces of children, the worried joy in the looks of fathers and mothers, the delighted frolics of Christmas decorations, even in the staid store windows, the shouts of boys, the ringing of bells. Above all, it appeals to one through the churches, blazing with light and heavy with smells of cedar and holly and winter flowers, and crowded with throngs of worshippers who cluster about the crib and look with shining eyes upon the Babe and the Mother, the Wise Men, the shepherds and the sheep.
It casts its spell on young and old, this most merry and warm of seasons, astonishingly glowing at the very heart of rimy midwinter. How the children are impressed by it ! It is especially the feast of children. See how they cluster around the crib, their bright young eyes round with wonder, and look at the little Child and all the group that surrounds Him, pointing with chubby fingers and whispering with eager voices who each one may be, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, the shepherds and the kings. Here they drink in without words the lesson of God's love, seeing Him become a little baby for their sake and thinking how cold He must be on the wintry straw for which for their love He has left the warmth and light of His Father's house in heaven. The wonder of the time, its warm delight and brooding joy enter their hearts through their eyes and then come back to glow on their cheeks and shine in their Christmas smiles.
What a season of unforgettable joy and delight is Christmas to children! To Catholic children who see Jesus in the crib of Bethlehem and receive Him into their hearts at the Mass of Christmas morning it is a time that moulds their very lives and leaves an inextinguishable fire in their hearts and an undying imprint on their souls, so that to their life's last end they never will forget the spiritual and bodily glow of Christmas morning.
The old folk, too, grow young again at heart on Christmas. Memories of past Christmases struggle with the Christmas of today to make their cheeks tingle and their eyes grow bright on the merry morning. The little ones' glee, the laugh of the children and the flicker of the Christmas candle light in their mind the fires of past Christmases. They grow young again perforce, and make merry with the zest of youth. Christmas is for them the feast not only of the Christ Child, but of their own past childhoods, when they gathered about the crib and looked, as these little ones look to-day, with staring eyes and shining faces, to see where the little Infant lay in the manger upon the straw.
But all this outward joy and merry-making is in truth not yet the heart and soul of Christmas. Many a poet has thought so, and many a writer of tales has made it his only aim to put into words the outward cheer and stir and glow of the holiday season. The very steam of rich plum puddings curls and glows in spicy fragrance through the ripple of their verse or the lilt of their prose. Holly and mistletoe and the crackle and spurting of yuletide logs and the drip of roasting beef and the hiss of savoury chines are sweet in their prose and their song. The circle of crowing youngsters about the Christmas tree and the ring of smiling elders around the fire are painted to the life. One may read their glowing pages and drink warm and spicy draughts of the mirth and merriment of the Christmas season. Yet, for all that, these masters of sugary speech have not contrived to mingle in their fine confections the real and inner savor of the spirit of Christmas.
For Christmas is the feast of heavenly love. All the warm rejoicing, all the contented cheer, the boards groaning with generous food, the trees hung with lights and gifts and dainties, the wreaths of holly and of fir, sprigs of mistletoe and Christmas candles— all these are but the outward expression, the traditional symbols handed down from merry Christmases long ago, of a world's rejoicing in the Incarnation, of the jubilation of a Christian people over the birth of their leader, their Saviour and their King.
It is this joy at the great gift of God that gives the sense to Christmas gifts. Men spread their own gifts with wholesale generosity among their fellows in memory and in imitation of that celestial and most jubilant gift whereby God gives His own Son, true God of true God, Light of Light, begotten not made, one of essence with His Father in all eternity, to be our Companion and our Food, our Victim and our Reward. All the feasting and the cheer of Christmas are but the eager effort of human nature to show forth in bodily delight the dignity and honour of those human bodies whereof the eternal Son of God has deigned this day to choose one and to come forth clad in our own very flesh, having taken a human nature, a body and a soul like our own in all things, sin only excepted, in the most pure womb of the ever Blessed Virgin Mary. Besides, it is of our nature, since we are compounded of flesh and spirit, to express our spiritual joy in terms of corporal feasting. The body must share with the soul in a partnership of delight. The meats and viands, the presents and good cheer, the lights and wreaths, the songs and melodies of Christmas are but the outward symbols of an inner joy that craves expression.
Then, too, at no other feast of all the year does bodily cheer and the feasting of the flesh so well accord with the mystery of the season as at Christmas time. Then the Word, having become our flesh, comes to dwell amongst us, a man as we, eating our food, sharing our drink, living our life of the body and the soul, like unto us in all things save only for our sins. On Christmas we feast with Christ, sitting at His table of the bounteous earth which He has spread with viands and which He comes to share with us, lending a supernal glory and a heavenly cheer to our earthly merriment. We too have given Him to eat who feeds all flesh. We have welcomed him to our table who makes the fruitful fields and the teeming waters and air minister our food. We have sat with Him at the banquet who has formed our flesh and keeps it, and have welcomed Him in the flesh whom the far ages vaguely dreamed of with longing and whom the prophets yearned for, worshipping Him as their God whom we know also as our Companion, our Saviour and our soul's dear Food. What wonder, then, that we feast and make merry with all our hearts, carried away by innocent joy and Christmas cheer, at the thought of God's great love and in memory of His all-including gift to us?
But we must keep ever vividly in memory, we Christians who rejoice, even corporally, in the feast of the God's infinite love, that Christmas is not alone the feast of God's love for man, but also of man's love for God. Christ has not only come to dwell with us, clad in our flesh, but He has also lifted up our flesh by the unction of His Spirit so that we may feast with him in soul, become sharers of the banquet table of God as He is sharer of the tables of men. Therefore through all our merriment must run the golden strand of heavenly love. Our Christmas feasting must be lit through with unearthly charity. For that spiritual feasting to which He bids us is as much above the feast of the body as heaven is higher than earth. While, therefore, the bodily cheer and earthly merriment of Christmas are a good and proper setting for the feast, the spiritual side of this singular day of rejoicing is incomparably more important. Christmas is Christ's Mass by the true and ancient meaning of the word. Christ's Mass, whereat the memory of Christ's threefold birth is sung, first from all eternity in the bosom of His Father, then on that rare day in time when he lay in the bosom of His Mother Mary, and last on every day until the world's last end, when He is born again in the bosoms of His faithful followers. Therefore he who has not heard Christ's Mass and caught its spiritual joy on Christmas morning has missed the spirit of the feast, and his Christmas joy and feasting is a hollow thing and a mockery.
With Christ's Mass should come Christ's communion, the mingling of our soul with the spirit of the Babe of Bethlehem, the feeding of our hungry spirits upon His sacred flesh. Who that is worthy of the name of Christian will not receive Christ's saving body and blood with deep devotion on Christmas morning*? It is the burning desire of the Word made flesh to come into our hearts. For this He has left the warmth of heaven for the cold air of earth. We must warm Him again in our hearts on Christmas morning. And through the entire day each Christian home should keep in all its ways the spiritual meaning of the feast. There should be a crib of Bethlehem, lovingly made and lit and placed where the children can come and look upon it and where their elders may tell them and remind themselves of the true inward meaning of Christmas. There should be gifts and bounty to the poor as well as presents to one's own, and some needy family should be warmed and fed on Christmas day, in memory of the charity of Christ, before one's own little group gathers about the Christmas board. A gift to the missions in those far lands where the sad pagan peoples know not even the name of Him who was born on this day should also go forth among our other Christmas gifts. In a word, all that can serve to link our Christmas festival with a memory and a love of Christ should be done with reverence on this great feast of His love for man and man's love for Him. If we bear all these things in mind, then Christmas shall be indeed for us a true Christ's Mass, a feast of heavenly love. We, in a way that the world without the Church can never understand, shall have captured the true spirit and soul of Christmas. For this is par excellence the feast of heavenly love, and all its great rejoicing but points to that inner mystery. He who loves Christ well and is well loved by Christ shall alone taste the full joy and glowing cheer of Christmas.