Catholic World – Catholic Christmas

ChristmasThe evening of the last day of the church’s advent arrives. She gathers her ministers around her, and, singing hymns of glad expectation, they remain in her temples, even until midnight. Let us listen to the grand harmony!

Divided into two vast bodies, they peal forth the verses of the royal prophet in alternate chorus; and who could tire hearkening? Well does Durendus say, that “the two choirs typify the angels and the spirits of just men, while they cheerfully and mutually excite each other in this holy exercise.” We fancy ourselves among the choirs of heaven, as St. Ignatius once was in spirit, when he learned the method of alternate chanting.

Oh! whose heart does not yearn toward the church in these her days of longing! She has laid away from her all that is dazzling and joyous; yet is she most charming. Anxious love, like a sun, burns over her, altering her color; yet is she all beauty—bright and rich and warm—her aspect teeming with purity and love and inspiration. “I am black, but beautiful.” (Cant. i. 4)

It is midnight. Long since men ceased from their labors. The din of traffic has been hushed for hours. Yet there is a sound through all the world. From every city and town and village, from spire-crowned hill and from holy valley, from numberless sweet nooks and by-ways, it swells forth, the sound of a grand harmony, the voices of myriads chanting. Now the tones speak of longing; now they tremble with expectation; then there is a burst of rapture following the mellow warbling of desire. It is the voice of the church longing for her Beloved! She shall be gratified, for even now there is a knocking at her temple gates. The chant is hushed, and a voice, gentle as the lisping of a child, breathes the sweet entreaty, “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is full of dew and my locks of the drops of the night.” (Cant. v. 2.) Yes, lovely Babe, gladly will the temple-doors open to thee; for many a long and weary mile did thy mother journey with thee beneath her heart!

Winter ruled the earth. Chill blew the breezes, and coldness was over all nature. Shivering had the aged saint and Mary asked for shelter, but the inns were filled, and none in Bethlehem would trouble to receive them. Riches were not theirs, and all saw that the unknown mother’s time was near; hence, fearing they might have to look to the child, they shut her from their dwellings. The only place of refuge her holy spouse could find for his charge was a cheerless stable, hollowed from a rough, cold rock. The ox and the ass were their only earthly companions; hay and straw formed the rude couch upon which the mother brought forth her child at midnight. Jesus! Saviour! she wraps thee scantily in swaddling-clothes, and lays thee shivering in a manger. Well then may the dew and the drops of the night hang heavy upon thy locks!

But, though in Bethlehem these unknown travellers were outcasts, God did not desert them. The glimmerings of adoring angels’ wings fell upon the mother’s eyes to comfort her heart, for there were angels near in numbers. They hovered over and within the hut, making it ring with the most blessed hymn that mortal or angelic ears had ever heard: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good-will.”

Instantly upon this knocking the church rises to open to her Beloved, and now begins her joy. Now she will celebrate his birthday, and her heart leaps high in bidding him welcome. Her torches, her sanctuary lamps, the countless candles on her altars, all are lighted with the speed of love; their shining shows her spouse that she was so full of expectation, so confident of his coming, that she has already cast away her weeds of mourning and desire, and has arrayed her charms in her most precious robes. Evergreens and tapestry are twining and glowing all about her—in her niches, upon her piers, her arcades, her parapets, her cloister-galleries, her massive stalls, her carved and fretted ceilings. Her altars and her sanctuaries have festoons and garlands, and crowns of sweetest design, and veils and hangings of choicest embroidery. She peals her bells and sweeps her fingers over her organ-keys, and tunes her many instruments, to fill her temples with the rapturous canticle of the day, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

But let us circumscribe our views. As we may behold the joy of the universal church in even her smallest division, let us see how, in the good old Catholic times, the simplest villagers celebrated the first day of the Incarnate Eternal!

The few rich men among them have sent stores of flowers and fruits from their conservatories to deck the green branches gathered in the forest. Pious ladies have brought in the various ornaments, which they have been preparing for weeks, as an offering for their new-born Saviour. The happy pastor and many of his spiritual flock have been busy in the church four days, disposing the decorations with untiring ingenuity and taste.

Now it is almost midnight. The skies are clear and studded with twinkling stars. Ice is over all the streams, snow is over all the streets and fields, and weighs down the trees. Stillness is upon the the village, yet not the stillness of slumber. You can see that something is transpiring which takes not place at other midnights; for lights are glimmer through the cottage-windows, and, now and then, cheerful forms are seen passing to and fro. They are all expecting, and they shall not be delayed; for hark! suddenly a merry peal of bells bursts over them; joyously it rings forth—now in soft, sweet cadence, and now in swelling harmony. It pours along the streets and fills the village dwellings. It echoes through the cloudless vault, over the snowy fields and the glassy streams, reaching even the scattered hamlets in the distance. Suddenly and joyously the music bursts upon all:

“Adeste fideles, laeti, triumphantes
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.”
And the cottage-doors are thrown open, and groups of merry children sally forth gladly shouting, “Christmas, Christmas!”

Then the tapers are extinguished, and the villagers all hasten forth with holy eagerness to see their Jesus cradled in the manger; and, as they direct their steps toward the old church, they awaken the midnight echoes with that sweet old carol:

“Now the circling year have given
The joyful season, when from heaven
Life descended to the earth
In the Babe who took his birth
From our sweet Lady!

“Behold him in the manger laid,
Owned by the cattle of the shed,
Who know their God meanest bands
Enswathed by the tender hands
Of our sweet Lady!

“Now he smiles on Joseph blessed;
Now he seeks his mother’s breast;
Now he sobs, and now he cries,
All beneath the guardian eyes
Of our sweet Lady!

“Run, run, ye shepherds, haste and bring
Your simple homage to our King!
Ye heaven-called watchers, taste and see
Our God, meek-seated on the knee
Of our sweet Lady!”
Thus they stream along from every cottage, along every pathway toward the church, men, women, and little children, singing and chatting happily. Far off in the moonlit distance you see small parties hastening over the white plains from their scattered homes to mingle in the festival. How beautifully do they remind us of those happy shepherds who left their flocks near the “Tower of Ader,” and went over to Bethlehem, to see the word that had come to pass!

The bells continue pealing out their music to the midnight, and the church continues filling. Listen to the half-suppressed ejaculation of joyous surprise as each new group enters the holy place and beholds its charming decorations! Over every window’s curve, and hanging down by its sides, is a mighty wreath of evergreens. In front of every hallowed niche lights are burning, and wreaths of foliage hang over it. The pillars are all twined round and round, up to the very ceiling, with ivy, holly, laurel, intermingled with those berries that grow red in winter. But who shall describe the glories of the sanctuary! The arch that rises over it flows with the fullest folds of tapestry, white as snow, save where they are here and there interwrought with flowers of rose-hued silk and thread of gold, and intertwined with holly and laurel, and boughs of the orange-tree with its golden clusters. On the altar-steps are vases filled with evergreens, slender strings of ivy twisting around tall branches and bending gracefully between them down even to the floor. The altar is crowded with lighted candles, and along the intervals of the candlesticks flow festoons of slender branches, leaves, and flowers. A stole of flowers decorates the very crucifix; the tabernacle sparkles in its richest veil.

Oh! in olden times even a village church was grand beyond description; for then men took a pride in their religion. They loved to see God’s Bride in bridal splendor; they loved to see the Queen in regal vesture; they loved to see the Sister of the Church in heaven with something like heavenly glory around her. The rich man gave of his abundance, the poor man gave of his labor, ladies wrought embroidery—all in holy unison strained every nerve to make her temples beautiful.

Now the church has filled with kneeling forms. The rich and the poor, the lady and the servant, the laborers and they for whom they labor, here kneel side by side, they are all equal here, for they are all alike, are God’s own children, the brethren of the Babe of Bethlehem.

The steeple-bells have ceased to peal, for not a single thought must now wander outside. Eyes and ears and heart and soul and every feeling are intent upon the grand occurrences within.

Presently blue clouds of sweet incense are seen floating toward the sanctuary, and modestly there comes a youth swinging a silver censer; a long procession of little acolytes, clad in snow-white surplices and bearing lighted tapers, follow him slowly; a saintly looking priest, in precious vestments, closes the holy array. His youthful attendants are chosen boys of blameless life and pleading aspect: and, indeed, they look pure and innocent and cherub-like, as they dispose themselves around the holy place, and kneel toward the altar.

Then amid half-suppressed, repentant cries for “mercy on us,” swelling forth from the choir, the psalm is said—the psalm of preparation, of praise, of hope, of humble confidence: the confession is made; prayers for pardon, lights and gracious hearing are repeated. Then the priest ascends “unto the altar of God,” and whispers prayers, speaking rapturously of the “Child that is born to us, the Son that is given to us.” But look at hie countenance as he returns slowly to the middle of the altar; you can see that he is full of some grand event—his soul, his heart, his feelings, all hold jubilee. One more entreaty for mercy repeated again and again with passionate earnestness, and he raises his eyes and his arms as though about to ascend in ecstasy, and, like one inspired, he breaks forth in the angelic hymn, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” It is the signal of jubilee. Suddenly there is a burst of many little bells, shaken by the hands of the surpliced children, ringing out their silver music until the hymn is ended by the priest; the organ’s richest and fullest chords are struck, swelling forth in harmony like that which the rivers made in Paradise when they sang their first hymn of praise to him who set them flowing, and the full choir of trained voices burst forth: “Et in terra pax hominibus.”

Truly you think yourself at Bethlehem. It seems as though the Child were just born—as though you heard the heavenly hosts singing their grand anthem—saw the shepherds wondering and adoring—beheld the Infant lying in the manger, a fair, radiant, smiling little Babe, with an old saint beside it, leaning on his staff, and a comely virgin, in a trance of motherly affection, kissing its bright forehead. So these villagers seem to feel it all. A start of joy runs through the whole assembly, a radiance lights up every feature; friends kiss each other, fathers kiss their children, mothers kiss their little ones; a whisper runs from soul to soul through all the church—”Pax hominibus.”

Then follow collect, the epistle, the gradual, a gospel, all full of the grand event. And then the choir’s jubilee begins again, as the anointed one at the altar intones “Credo in unum Deum.” Who shall tell the stirless reverence of each prostrate form, as all bow yet lower at the words that still the mystery of the night! Softly the organ warbles in its mellowest keys; from the richest voice in all the choir sweetly flow the words “Et Homo factus est.” Every mind reflects, and every heart is melted.

Then comes the offertory; and all present, according to their various means, make their offerings for those “who serve the altar,” and for the poor. While the priest raises in offering the paten with the Post and the chalice with wine, the villagers also, kneeling, make an offering of their homage to their new-born Redeemer; and mothers lift their little ones to heaven in spirit, praying that they may advance “in wisdom and age and grace with God and men,” as did the Child of Mary. Then follows the washing of the heads, with its appropriate prayers; then, the secretas, the preface, the whispered prayers for God’s church, for friends and benefactors, for all the living faithful.

The moment of consecration draws nigh. Books are laid aside, hands are clasped upon the breast, every head is bent. The sweet voices in the choir have been hushed; the organ’s silvery tones, murmuring more and more softly, have at length died away, awe-stricken by the silence that fills God’s house. Yes! silence fills it, for silence now seems a something—a breathless, pulseless, but mighty spirit feeling all this temple, as the cloud of God’s glory once filled the tabernacle. You think you could almost most hear a spirit move, you feel as though you were among the angels when they waited breathless to behold the effect of the sublime utterance, “Let there be light.” Bending low in reverend humility, the priest in a whisper of awe speaks the almighty words, “This is my body,” “This is the chalice of my blood;” the light breathing of that whisper is heard even in the bosom of the Eternal Father, the golden gates of Paradise are thrown open, and God “bows the heavens and comes down.” He is here, this church is now the hut of Bethlehem, this altar is the manger; for the Child is born upon it as really as the Virgin-mother there brought him forth.

As when of old light was made, there was a music of the spheres, of the sun and moon and all the stars and planets, singing their morning hymn of gratitude, so is the stillness now also broken, so does the choir, warbling in swelling glee, burst forth in grand climax, “Hosanna in excelsis.” And in the mean time priest and people united utter to their new-born Saviour many rich and beautiful prayers for the living, for the faithful departed, for themselves.

The villagers are absorbed in prayer; it seems as though their fervor kept redoubling, as though the flames of holy love burned higher and higher every instant. Well they may, for the moment is approaching in which each heart will be a manger in which Jesus will be laid, each breast a tabernacle in which love itself shall dwell. Already there is a move among them; with modest gait, with clasped hands and downcast eyes, they advance to the sanctuary, the mystic bread is given to them line after line, and, bearing their God with them, they all return in reverence to give thanks, to petition for good things. Serenity is in their eyes and on their features, joy is in their hearts, rapture in their souls, peace among their feelings, and Jesus within their bosoms harmonizing all. O truly happy Christmas! O the bliss that now is theirs, the comfort of this moment! Well may the chanters hymn: “O Jesus, God! Great God! Good Pastor! Sweet Lamb! O Jesus, my Jesus! O Bread! O Manna! O Power! what dost thou not grant to man!”

Then praises and thanks are sung joyously by the priest, and his hand is stretched in blessing from the altar. The Mass is over, and the procession moves from the sanctuary, while the choir chants aloud, “Praise the Lord all ye nations, praise him all ye people. Because his mercy is confirmed upon us, and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.” (Ps. cxvi.)

The chant dies away, and for awhile not a sound is heard through all the sacred building. No one stirs as yet; all remain some time to return thanks, to allow the impression of the festival to sink deep into their souls. At length they rise, and bowing lowly toward the altar, they go forth. At the church-door hands are shaken, kisses given, warm embraces are exchanged, and joy and happiness and all the blessings of the Child’s nativity are wished and wished again.

But follow them home from their midnight celebration. For a long time the village slumbers not; lights glimmer through the cottage-windows, and within groups are kneeling around a little home-made oratory, with a little crib in the middle, and candles around it. This is of greater importance than the gathering around the yule-fire or the decked tree. Moreover, all did not go home when Mass was over. Go back to the church, and behold those silent figures praying in every posture that feeling can suggest. There, before that tabernacle, a mother prays the divine Child for her own babe; a virgin prays for purity like to that of the Virgin-mother; the child of misery seeks consolation from him who was born in a stable; many repeat over and over again the canticle of the angels, and all beg the blessings of him over whom the angels sang it. At length these also are gone; the lights are quenched about the altar, all, save the silver lamp which is never extinguished; all is still as was the stable when the shepherds had adored and gone back to their flocks.

But the festival of our Saviour’s birth is not over yet. “As the day comes round in music and in light;” you again see the villagers wending their way to the church; and a third time, when the sun is in the mid-arch of heaven. Each time is witnessed the same sublime celebration that we beheld at midnight; for three births of Christ are celebrated. His birth from the Father before lime began; his birth from the immaculate Virgin as a wailing babe at Bethlehem; his mystic birth, by faith and by the sacrament of love, in the heart of each humble adorer.

Such was Christmas in the happy olden times. Alas! that a blight should ever have come upon it. Truly they have not done well to despoil that village church of all its charming features. Well may the church exclaim, weeping: “The keepers that go about the city found me; they struck me, and wounded me: the keepers of the walls took my vail from me.” (Cant, v. 7.) Fondly do we trust she will soon again be clothed in splendor. The pope that reigned when England fell away grieved sadly for her fall. In his distress he put away the triple crown; and even now his statue sits uncrowned, with downcast eyes, as though his grief had hardened him to stone. But soon, we trust, he will again lift up his eyes. Soon, we trust, will his successors rejoiced to find the crown replaced, not by mortal, but by angel hands. Shall we not hope and pray that our own dear land, also, will form not the least brilliant jewel in that crown? One day this church will again deck herself with the flowers she once wore, but which rebellious hands toward to pieces, scattering the leaves around her. Then shall we once again celebrate the good old Catholic Christmas times, and celebrate them with the increased joy which is born of the wanderer’s returned. God granted it speedily!