A Cause for True Celebration

Encountering Christ at Mass and at Home This Christmas

Jared Staudt

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.
Christina Rosetti

Within the bleakness of winter, as the poet Christina Rosetti expressed it, Christmas brings needed warmth and cheer. In the darkest time of year, Christ brings his light, the very reason why we celebrate his birthday at the winter solstice (formerly Dec. 25), the turning point of the year when daylight increases. And yet, the world still seems hard as iron and full of spiritual bleakness. If we accept the reign of the newborn king, meeting him in the humility of the stable, then we can truly rejoice! We know that since God became one of us, life does indeed have meaning and all things shall be well.

Christmas is the greatest celebration of the year, even within our secular society. Like the Star of Bethlehem, it gives us light in the darkness, which is why we illuminate our houses both inside and out. As we all know, however, the secularism of our culture has rubbed off on the way we celebrate. Christmas is a time of cheer, decorations, presents, food, music, and family, although many people experience these joys without even knowing why. Christmas is the biggest party of the year, because it marks the turning point of all history: God himself came into the world he made to remake it again from within.

Our festivity will be even more meaningful if we reconnect these practices to Jesus as expressions of his birthday. Christmas means Christ’s Mass and the celebration of Jesus’ birth takes place first and foremost in church. There we not only remember the birth of the Son of God, but actually enter into this great mystery and share in its spiritual power. Our salvation stems from the Incarnation — the Word of God taking on human flesh — and this truth should lead us to rejoice! We wish each other a “merry” Christmas because this celebration should make us happy. The cheer of the Christmas season extends the celebration of Mass into the rest of life. Mass is the most important part of the celebration, but Christmas is such a big deal that we have to continue the feast at home.

The celebration in our homes begins as we decorate them and welcome the baby Jesus within a family manger scene. After midnight Mass, it’s traditional to place Jesus in the manger at home and sing carols to greet him. The entire house is prepared for his coming with green decorations related to the new life he brings, such as the Christmas tree as a sign that he has given us a new life. Smaller red decorations represent the way he brought this new life by shedding his blood. Even at Christmas, we remember how the child would save us — by offering up the human life he accepted. Apples on the tree represent the sin of our first parents and the angel and star on top the manifestation of his birth to the shepherds and the nations.

Gentile da Fabriano’s beautiful painting, Adoration of the Magi, painted in Florence in 1423

Just like the wisemen, the manger scene in the home gives children an opportunity to kneel before baby Jesus. The scene makes the spiritual reality of Christmas more accessible to children and draws them in, being able to picture the figures and animals, as we see above in Gentile da Fabriano’s beautiful painting, Adoration of the Magi, painted in Florence in 1423.

Just like for anyone’s birthday party, families celebrate in the home by feasting: having a bigger dinner, singing, and giving presents. Why do we celebrate birthdays at all? We affirm the goodness of the life and the love we have for the particular person. With Jesus’ birth, it is not only his particular birth we celebrate but also our own rebirth. The Christmas meal expresses this joy, showing the importance of the day by eating special food and gathering extended family together. This gathering demonstrates that as a family we honor the day, think it is worth celebrating, and are doing something out of the ordinary to show its importance. The meal itself is a communal act of thanksgiving and act of love for God and one another.

Usually we give gifts to honor the person who is born, but, for Christmas, Jesus wants us to receive gifts to show that his birth is a gift to us. By giving gifts, we imitate the Magi who brought Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh to represent his divine priesthood and kingship. Santa Claus found his way into the feast because St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, has a Dec. 6 feast day. Americans in New York saw the Dutch celebrating the feast and connected it to Christmas two and a half weeks later (while Clement Moore’s Night Before Christmas embellished his identity with fantastical elements). Catholics can reintroduce St. Nick’s true identity, especially by emphasizing the saint’s love for children and how he gave gifts to three young girls to save them from servitude. We can also help our children to give Jesus himself a present by offering him prayers and sacrifices in the manger (by putting straw in it to represent each act) and, in imitation of St. Nicholas, by offering Christmas gifts to the poor. Jesus told us, “when you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The Twelfth Night, Jan Steen, painted in 1662

Christmas Day begins the celebration, but Catholics continue celebrating for much longer, unlike the radio stations that turn off the music the next day. Advent gives us weeks to prepare for the feast and calls us to increased prayer and penance as spiritual preparation to be able to celebrate more fully when the time comes. Christmas has 12 days of feasting, as we know from the famous carol and also from many beautiful paintings that portray the tradition of throwing the biggest Christmas party on the Twelfth Night (Jan. 5), such as the one above from Jan Steen, painted in 1662.

We can see carolers in the doorway to the left, bringing the star of Bethlehem for Epiphany that follows the twelfth day of Christmas. Children play a game with the candles, while a child takes the honorary role of king of fools for the feast (with a real fool making jokes to the left of the table). Twelfth Night, which can be resurrected in Catholic life as the culmination of Christmas, was a time for dancing, masquerades, turning things upside down for a night, and toasting the New Year.

Even with the coming of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, the tradition of singing Christmas carols continues until the Presentation (Candlemas) on Feb. 2. Songs are essential for expressing Christmas cheer and preserve the spirit of Merrie Olde England more than anything else. In fact, our carols give us a direct link to past celebrations. The text of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” was written by the poet Prudentius in the 4th century; “O Come All Ye Faithful” reaches back to the 13th century; “Good Christian Men Rejoice” to the 14th, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” comes down to us from the 15th. St. Augustine remarked, “only the lover sings,” and our beloved carols give us the words and melodies to express our love to baby Jesus. Even with many secular elements moving into Christmas, carols continue to point everyone to the true reason for the celebration.

Eating, singing, presents, time with family, remembering the poor, singing — all of these things express the celebration of the coming of the Savior into the world and our own lives. At Mass we give praise to God and meet the baby Jesus directly, whose living reality comes to us in the Eucharist. From that encounter, God enlivens the rest of the festivity and fun. When we know the real cause of joy we want to share it with others. We send Christmas cards, which become acts of evangelization as we share the good news of God made man, and we invite our friends into our homes to celebrate with us. When we encounter the newborn Christ anew each year, we have to celebrate! God has become man — the source of joy and our hope. Come, let us worship our king and, then, let us celebrate.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.