|Georges de la Tour|
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Musée du Louvre
From the Introit of the Mass: Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet, omnipotens sermo tuus, Domine, de caelis a regalibus sedibus venit.
This is the Sunday of contemplation, the Sunday that gives us time to ask: what does all this mean? The Church knew how important it would be to have this Sunday in the Octave of Christmas to contemplate, to think about, to try to make sense of, and all in the peculiar quiet of the Traditional Mass. This introit is an echo of the gospel of the Third Mass of Christmas, the prologue to the gospel of St. John, which gospel contains the soaring essence of Christmas: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth." Quite an announcement. Where does it stand, where does it fit in with the Memento, O Romane of Virgil; where does it fit in, where does it stand with the rediscovery of the glory of the Classical age of the Renaissance with its so- called rediscovery of the individual that leads to the Protestant Reformation, where does it fit in with the self-described Enlightenment brought about by the blood of the French Revolution, where does it fit in with the discovery of calculus by Isaac Newton and Leibnitz with its mind-bending concepts of limits that are in the end finite, where does it fit in with Darwin whose theory of evolution morphed into a secular and physically reductive understanding of man, where does it fit in with a culture where the Chinese are going crazy about celebrating Christmas without any reference to Christianity, where the government frowns upon celebrating Western feasts?
Thank God that the Church has given us this Sunday to contemplate what Christmas means, what that Baby in the crèche means, the Baby that is censed above the tabernacle where the cross usually is. When the Word leaped down, or should we say leapt down, from the royal throne, what changed, how was the world different? We try to show that something changed in this Mass by genuflecting at the words in the Creed: et incarnatus est. And the Word was made flesh. The Novus Ordo asks for a bow at this point, but the great majority of Catholics, priests included, all victims of deritualization, ignore this bow, this gesture, to indicate bodily the mind -blowing assertion that God became man. But in an age where the body has been debased into an objective thing or something to be used to increase one’s self-fulfillment, et Verbum caro factum est can have little meaning.
So what changed? What is all the fuss about Christmas? A lot could be said at this point. But what I want to focus on is time. When God becomes man, when the infinite becomes finite, when the infinite God fits into the finite womb of the Virgin Mary, something happens not only to physical reality—and what happens there is another sermon—but something happens to time itself. For surely when the infinite enters the finite something changes radically. But this change cannot seen on a watch, whether it is a Rolex or a Timex It cannot be seen on the display on an iPhone. But the change is real. This change has a natural counterpart in how older people feel time as something passing more rapidly. A friend of mine in France wrote to me of how time is thickening as he remembers time past, le temps perdus, the joys and sorrows of one’s life that becomes at some point like a thick slice of good bread, a combination of substance and holes.
But what happened at Christmas is not merely this, this natural thickening of time with age because so much has happened. When the Word leapt from his royal throne and took on flesh of the Virgin Mary, time itself changed. There was a time when this was sort of understood, and historical time was demarcated as B.C. and A.D., before Christ and in the year of our Lord. There was some sort of acknowledgement of this radical change that happened two thousand years ago that changed time itself, time now impregnated with the infinite God himself, time that now had a thickness it never had before, a meaning it never had before. Now linear time becomes impossible, et Verbum caro factus est, the dagger that rips open time measured by seconds and minutes and hours, something that no longer may be man’s imagination, something self-referential, but with God becoming man in time, that is no longer real, no longer possible “For lo! the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When, with the ever circling years, Shall come the age of gold; When Peace shall over all the earth, Its ancient splendors fling, And the whole world give back the song, Which now the angels sing.”
Time now is something that partakes of eternity, something that is urgent for every person, for time now is the finite gift of God to man to react to, to make use of, and time for man is finite even if the finite now partakes of the infinite: God of God, Light of Light, lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb. Time now is thick like a slice of ciabatta, --oh, who can abide the day of his coming?--, time is now the dimension that is the stuff of salvation, the door stopper that can only slow down the inexorable closing of the door: lo, he comes with clouds descending, time no longer tick tock tick tock but time impregnated with the breath of God: let it be done to me according to thy word: O speak, O speak, O Virgin, lay aside thy modesty and prudence, give yourself over to the central Orb, make possible the finite within the infinite, break the line, form the sphere! How silently, how silently , the wondrous gift is givn’n, the bell, the bell that dares to presume to warn of the approach of eternity, and yet, and yet, thrice, thrice, they fell down and worshipped him as they entered that new thickness of time that is the thickness of salvation.
And so do not be in a hurry after this Mass, this time impregnated with eternity, do not go on rote time and run out of this church to go somewhere else that may deny the new thickness of time. No. Go to the stable, go to the timely depiction of the irruption of eternity into time that is the manger scene in this church and feast on the thickness of the eternity that is represented in the presepio. And as you do so, glance, glance at the tabernacle and know that there is the center of time, the center of what has changed.
Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;Incense in clouds about his head;All for the Child who stirs not in his sleep.But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep.Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift;See how his eyes awake, lift up your hands, O lift!For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword(Defend with it Thy little Lord!),For incense, smoke of battle red.Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;Gifts for his children terrible and sweet,Touched by such tiny hands andOh such tiny feet.