Christmas and The Passion
A Meditation by Philip Trower
I start with some lines by the American poet Dunstan Thompson, which by first drawing one’s thoughts through paths remote from Christmas, end, it seems to me, in bringing them to a fuller understanding of it.
A Fragment for Christmas
Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn ---
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among your former foes.
In a sense the poet is following in the path of the early renaissance Italian painters who rarely depicted the Nativity without surrounding it with other scenes from sacred history. Their purpose was not to fill up space, enhance the decorative effect, or even (with exceptions perhaps) provide themselves with excuses for charging higher prices. They lived in an age which was still theologically minded; which understood that the mysteries of our faith cannot be fully understood in isolation. They also, like the icon painters of eastern Christianity, wanted to instruct, as we see in a painting by the Sienese artist Francesco di Giorgio. A large figure of the dead Christ supported by angels dominates the Nativity scene below.
With these thoughts in mind I tell myself that the immediate cause of the Passion is the refusal of the world to accept the truth. Aversion to the truth and the absence of holiness go together. Whenever truth conflicts with the appetites and ambitions of the world, which has its anchor in each of us, the world wants to extinguish it. The Child I am contemplating is Incarnate Truth. ‘For this was I born… to bear witness to the truth.’ This is why the Child will be hunted down and killed.
I move on a few steps.
Though men are to blame for his death, their crime makes it possible for him to fulfil his second mission in a way after his heart. For he was not only born to bear witness to the truth. He is also the Lamb of God, who will restore peace and right order in the relationship between God and men by offering his life in sacrifice.
Here my mind stumbles. Is sin that bad? Couldn’t the relationship have been restored in a less painful way? I realise I do not understand what sin is. I have to take God’s word in this matter rather than the feelings of my tepid heart. I see the problem. I care about being badly treated myself. But it does not trouble me very much that God should have been treated badly. With Our Lord it was different. He cared, one could say passionately. We think of him as dying for us, which he was. But he was dying just as much for love of his Father. He wanted to make reparation in the most costly way.
This carries me back to what made reparation necessary in the first place. To Paradise, our first parents and their rebellion. (Thanks be to God for the knowledge that we are concerned with a concrete place, a living couple, and actual events; not with two evolving monkeys or a myth.)
How is one to describe the rebellion; to form some idea of the way it must have looked to the angels?
Let us take another painter. The 17th century artist Claude Lorraine this time and imagine that He has just completed one of his masterpieces --- a landscape of the Roman campagna with classical figures --- when suddenly the figures come alive and start destroying the picture they are part of. They smear it with grease and rip holes in the canvas. Worse still, they throw mud and abuse at the painter himself. They also cover themselves with dirt.
The first creation having been spoiled, history starts on its painful course from the death of Abel the Just to the death of Zacharias, the son of Barachias “slain between the temple and the altar” and on into the future.
No ascent of man here. The inner significance of history, hidden from the wise in their seminars, is otherwise. Instead of an ascent, a departure, a descent. But hidden within the descent are the seeds of a return leading up to a new start.
Unknown to most of the world, the creator has been at work preparing for the subtle and delicate restoration of his canvas without removing the freedom of those troublesome figures. Eventually, after many centuries of preparation, he will, from one of their number, bring into existence a new human race.
In a stable, which is more like a cave, the New Eve sits with the infant new Adam in her lap, “the first born of many brethren” watched over by the guardian who, because he is his, will also be theirs.
This is why the angels are singing for joy, a joy which, without the fore-going thoughts, I feel I should not be sharing so fully.
However our poem does not stop to describe the scene but goes on to speak about those multiple other births of many brethren, spiritual births yet patterned on the Nativity, which make Christmas in a supernatural sense an ever-continuing fact.
Our poet explains.
“Who on the third day rose and still looks after us……” How? He has given us the Church, already visible in the Holy Family. We have his promise. “I will not leave you orphans.”
“Descend…. born in us,” the poet continues. The Church, a bride and mother, exists ----one could say she only exists --- to make other Christs. Each of us, without losing our distinctiveness, is on the way to becoming such an alter Christus, as his image is slowly formed in us. Here in one sense is the whole meaning of the Christian way of life.
The process, however, unlike the birth of the Firstborn, is mostly long and difficult. “Descend into each wrecked unstable house.” The human soul, lacking sanctifying grace or when given it responding feebly, is pictured as being like one of those tumble-down buildings, half-ruined temple, half lean-to shed we so often see in paintings of the Nativity by early renaissance Italian and Flemish artists.
Then, the birth having taken place, one thinks of how the new heaven-sent life is sustained. The Blessed Sacrament makes each mass a kind of Nativity as well as a Calvary, bringing Christmas in another marvellous fashion into every day.
“Be born in us a Child among you former foes.” When we are fully formed and Christlike, no longer foes, we shall be like children. There is no other way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here is news to astonish a world worried to death about its maturity. Needless to say, it is the virtues not the faults of children which we are to imitate. Childishness is to be put behind us. But then the most extreme forms of childishness --- rapacious greed, rampant self-will, lunatic ambition --- are only found in adults.
It cannot have been by accident that it was on a Christmas morning, after midnight mass, that the great modern apostle of this teaching, Ste Therese of Lisieux, put childishness behind her for the last time and advancing towards God by small steps with childlike confidence but adult courage became a heavenly heroine.
“Come Lord Jesus. Make me your manger. Holy Mother form your Child in me.”
I end with the words our poet in another poem addressed to his guardian angel.
Ah, beatific mirror, see
Something of yourself in me
However dimly small;
And make your image shine
Until that festal day
When what is yours is mine
And we are Christ’s
Is all in all
Version: 9th May 2015