Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

A priest writes:

01/02/2012 Comments (5)

A blessed Christmas to you.

I’m in the process of producing a mediation on the Nativity and have a point I want to make that needs some kind of verification.  I have long been convinced that the reason why we usually eat an abundance of sweets at Christmas time is because it signifies that the grace of Christ sweetens our life.  That the grace of Christ sweetens our life is obvious.  But that being the reason why we eat sweets at Christmas is not so evident to me.

Have you ever heard of this and do you know if this is true?

I’ve never heard this, but I don’t see why you can’t connect the two.  With customs such as sweets at Christmas, what you almost invariably find is that the custom arises first and only afterward does the Christian imagination go to work on it to discover connections between the custom and the Tradition.  It’s not like a bishop or theologian decrees, “There shall be sweets at Christmas in order to illustrate this theological point about the grace of Christ.”  Rather, the custom happens and people naturally intuit the connection (which is a very real one since God is the Creator of all, including sweets).  Every Father of the Church who loved allegorical readings of Scripture would be in your court.  And, in fact, some of the Fathers do connect honey (the sweetest thing known to the biblical mind) with Christ.  From my book Making Senses out of Scripture (Chapter 7 - The Allegorical Sense of Scripture):

In similar ways, other great Christians throughout history have mined the Bible for other insightful allegorical connections. Take honey for instance.  The Torah repeatedly describes the Promised Land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (see Exodus 3:17, Leviticus 20:24, Numbers 13:27, Deuteronomy 27:3, among many other instances). Honey is the yummiest, most scrumptious thing in the entire biblical lexicon.  Not surprisingly then, it becomes one of the central biblical images for exquisite luxury, delight, and bounty—a sweetness that can only point to the even greater sweetness of its Creator. It is, therefore, an entirely natural thing for the Psalmist to write: “The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold… Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9-10). To Israelite families, this was more than metaphor. When parents taught a child to read, they would have him recite the law of Moses. As he finished, they would give junior a spoonful of honey. This rite of passage sealed in the child, in both body and memory, the exquisite sweetness of God’s word.

Thus, not a New Testament writer, but Hippolytus of Rome (in the third century) sees in the scriptural use of honey a figure, “meaning divine doctrine, which restores the spiritual knowledge of the soul.”  And Clement of Alexandria (also in the third century) builds on this insight, identifying honey not just with doctrine, but with the Divine Teacher himself. Honey, wrote Clement, “seems to have been spoken of the Word, who is honey. Prophecy often extols him above honey and the honeycomb.”  Then, going back to Scripture in light of this train of thought we notice something: the manna in the desert (which, as we have already seen, is an image of Eucharist) was compared to “wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). And so we find an image in Scripture which reflects reality: The Eucharist both sustains and delights us.

Filed under mailbag

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
  • Get the RSS feed
Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.