Christmas and Epiphany

Author: Sigrid Undset


Sigrid Undset

From our Lord's Birthday until Epiphany the Church keeps Christmas. The five joyful mysteries of the rosary, the antiphons and the prayers in the offices for Christmas, are the central point of our worship. Near the altar where He Himself lives clothed in the white garb of the Host, and where His mark, the crucifix, is placed over the tabernacle, there is now a crib—a little picture of the stable where the Word who became Flesh first opened His infant eyes. And round the little figure of the Christ Child stands the likeness of the first things and the first people who met His glance when He by whom all things were made came to His own in the form of a servant.

The crib is not meant only to be a picture of a room where a Jewish carpenter and a young woman sought shelter for the night-a night nineteen hundred odd years ago. For so little did the world take account of what came to pass that night so long ago, in the outhouse of the caravanserai at Bethlehem, that no one definitely knows the year in which it happened or at what time of the year; and indeed during the first centuries after Christ's birth opinion is so divided that there is scarcely a month that has not been suggested as the actual Christmas month.

Elegit eam Deus et pruelegit eam, "God hath chosen her and fore chosen her," it says in the Office. In God is all eternity, and from eternity was Mary destined to bear under her heart Him—quem terra, pontus, sidera colunt, adorant, praedicant —"whom earth and sea and sky honour, worship and preach."

O gloriosa Domina excelsa supra sidera qui te creavit provide lactasti sacro ubere.

"Oh, glorious lady, exalted over the stars, thou hast tended and nourished from thy holy breast Him who created thee."

The angels bring tidings of the Child's birth to some shepherds who are out on the hills outside the village: a star rises up and beckons some astrologers from a land far away in the East to set out on a long journey. But the rest of the world—all those Mediterranean countries which Roman law and Roman peace had knit together into a single empire, where the people bowed under the yoke of Rome, proud to be her citizens or embittered by her oppression—the world which some hundreds of years later was to date its history from His birth, slept quietly through the night of this great happening. And St. Luke troubles himself so little with descriptions of places that, except by tradition, we know really nothing about the room where Mary brought forth her Son-only that it was outside the inn and that it was a stable. We hear that the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to see what it was that the Lord had signified to them. But it does not tell us that they brought any gifts to the little family. When in representations of the crib we make the shepherds bring their presents to the Child Jesus it is perhaps something that we have imagined, for St. Matthew says most particularly that it was the Wise Men from the East who brought gifts. Or perhaps we are thinking of ourselves-that this is what we should have done if we had been the shepherds....

Yes, in that way—whispers the chilly, cautious person of the present day—in that way we also can join you in the stable. If the little Boy in the crib is a symbol of the longing in each one of us for something beyond the bounds of sense, of our presentiments of immortality, then we also can remain with the shepherds in the stable. We can worship Mary's child, we moderns, as a symbol or as a type, as the great Teacher, a genius, a superman. But as God in Man? "Genuisti eum qui te fecit?" Mary, could you have brought forth Him who created you? Can you expect us to believe this sort of thing in the twentieth century?

Is it not a truth, which modern children cannot avoid, that human beings are blood-cousins of the apes, and that our earth is only a small. holding in the world of space? Can we be so pretentious as to believe that He by whom all was made should have become our brother in the arms of this poor young girl? How is it possible that the omnipotence which, through an immeasurable span of time, has planted a myriad of suns, should be one with the delicate, tiny infant in the arms of the maid from Nazareth, sheltered by her hair and shawl as they droop from her bending head? We know, of course, that it was anthropomorphism when the old people spoke of the heavens as the work of God's hands and of wisdom issuing from the mouth of the Most High, the firstborn of all created: "I alone have encompassed the circuit of Heaven and have penetrated into the bottom of the deep, and have walked in the waves of the sea." . . .

But is it possible that the anthropomorphism of any other era has been quite so coarse or so vulgar as our own-when we transfer to our vision of God our own stupid wretched respect for anything that is purely colossal in dimension, for records in magnitude and for enormous unwieldy numbers? As our knowledge of nature has widened our picture of the time and space which God encompasses we lose, more and more, our ability to believe that the strength of the Almighty to permeate all things is indeed all-powerful. And involuntarily we picture God as a sort of cosmic landlord: it is impossible for Him to interest Himself in and to love each individual life which crawls on this remote speck of earth amidst the dancing of the myriad stars. Or we look on Him as a sort of Director General for the great combine of the United Solar Systems. He cannot know personally each little functionary who works on a small planet rotating around a sun of quite insignificant size....

In the museums and monastic libraries of Europe there is volume after volume of illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. If ever artists have worked to give their best and most beautiful without a thought of winning glory or credit for themselves it is certainly these anonymous painters whose identity is only occasionally discovered, and whose reward went to the whole brotherhood. This is indeed art for art's sake, pure, clean passion for beauty-inspired by the mind's constant occupation with the loveliness of God, who has created us in His image so that we also can realise the joy of creation. Year in and year out the craftsman sat and painted borders with flowers shining like jewels, with playful birds and clinging vines on the smooth, yellowish-white parchment. The frames, which the capital letters required, he filled out with a polished gold ground and with delightful small pictures, the faces of saints, not so big as wood-anemones, drawn with lines as fine as the veins in the anemone petals. Not for a moment would the artist contemplate that anyone else except himself should suspect what an amount of care and love he had put into his work, but each little flower was painted in order that it should be perfect in itself, without thought whether anyone was ever going to study it carefully. Perhaps this maker of pictures can help us, not to understand, but to get a glimmering of God's great love for His creation, which caused Him to come to His own as a little child in a crib and to die upon the cross to save each soul He had created in His image-to perfect one tiny little forget-me-not in the eternal manuscript of the universe.

"Genuit puerpera Regem, cui nomen aetemum, et gaudia matris habens cum virginitatis honore, nec primam similem visa est, nec habere sequentem."

"She was in labour and brought forth the King whose name is eternal; she had the happiness of a mother together with the honour of virginity; she was seen to have no equal either before or since."

But it is exactly this which is contrary to nature—that a woman can be both mother and virgin. (As a matter of fact, it is on this point that our laboratories seem to be threatening our conception of nature with a complete and terrible revolution, for they promise to show us generations of beings whose mothers, although they will not bear the garland of virginity, yet will not know man. ) But at the time when Christendom began, all races, both within and without the borders of the Roman Empire, worshipped a deity of motherhood and a mother of gods and supernaturally begotten gods and demi-gods. And the people of the Middle Ages, as all enlightened people know, fall into two groups; a smaller group of men and women of the Church who did not take much notice of the improbable or unnatural stories which the other group, all the other people, accepted in every detail without thinking.

It is not, however, quite accurate to say that these stories of the birth of gods without an earthly father shadow forth a virgin mother, in the Christian sense. They suppose a god in a human home or in an animal's lair, or they imagine some other material contact-lightning, gold rain falling over the maiden, or she eats a magic fruit or swallows a pine-needle.

But whatever legend or adventure the people of those days believed and related, it leaves no trace in Our Lady's own little book of hours—the lay-folk's book of hours which the Middle Ages produced and which we pray every day. Not for a moment have these legends either there or in the priest's breviary been incorporated in the story of Our Lady's mysterious preferment; Mother and Daughter, God's Mother and God's Daughter, she stands alone.

"Genuisti qui te fecit: Thou hast borne Him who created Thee."

"Sancta et immaculata virginitas, quibus te Zaudibus efferam nescio; quia quem caeli capere non poterant, tuo gremio contulisti: Holy and Immaculate virginity—I know not with what words of praise I can exalt Thee. For Him whom the Heavens could not contain, thou hast nursed in thy lap."

"O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia primam similem visa est nec habere sequentem: O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? (For she was seen to have no equal either before or since.)"

"Filiae 1erusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc, quod cernitis: Daughters of Jerusalem, why look ye so wonderingly upon me? The mystery which you see is of the Godhead."

Oh! Mary, lift up the Child. Lift Him up that we may gaze upon Him! . . .

Mary indeed was unstained by inherited sin—but that does not mean that here on earth she was omniscient or could see into the future. I wonder what she thought of the message of the angel to the Child she bore: "The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David His father: and He shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end." When Joseph came and they had to travel to Bethlehem, to David's town, the time was drawing near when the Child was to see the light. We do not know; perhaps Mary had thought that everything would happen very differently-but the Son of the Most High was to be born in an outhouse. She wrapped Him up and laid Him in the manger and watched over His sleep, and when He was awake she warmed Him and fed Him at her breast.

Some shepherds came and wished to see the Child, and they told of visions of angels and angels' words.

And Mary hides all these things in her heart and meditates on them.

Forty days later she and Joseph take the Child and go up to Jerusalem to fulfil the law of Moses, and to present the firstborn of a young mother to the Lord and buy him free from the temple service.

As they enter the Temple bearing the infant and two young doves, the offering of the poor, they are met by an old man. He comes over to them, this old stranger, and wants to hold the Child that Mary carries. And when Simeon has Jesus in his arms he praises God and breaks into words: "Now Thou cost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word, in peace,"—Nunc Dimittis, we read in Compline, the evening prayer in the Book of Hours. If we realise the mystery of Christmas well enough, we should say the same for ourselves every evening.

And Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph—a peculiar blessing, for he says that this Child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many, and he speaks of a sword which shall pierce the heart of the mother, the young heart which hides within itself so many wonderful words and has meditated on so many mysteries.