How does a Catholic family celebrate Christmas—the feast of glad tidings to men of good will—when the world is preoccupied with terror and war? The way it always does.
While this Dec. 25 cannot escape the shadow of Sept. 11—especially for those thousands of families touched most directly by the attacks—the fact is that Christmas is always celebrated in times of turmoil, which is to say in this vale of tears. The wrenching difference this year is the clarity with which we know that the world is still marked by painful wounds that are not yet healed.
From the first Christmas, darkened by the specter of the murderous King Herod, to this year, when anthrax in the mail dominates the news rather than stories about toys in stockings, Christians always return to the blessed routine of Christmas celebrations as an act of hope in a world that gives abundant reasons for despair.
Father Jonathan Robinson, the priest-philosopher from the Toronto Oratory, has written that “getting on with the business of living” is where the Lord is to be found, even in times in unspeakable tragedy—for example, in the days following the first Good Friday.
“It was doing one of these natural routine human things—the final preparation of a body for burial—which led the women to the discovery of the empty tomb, and the news of the Resurrection,” Robinson writes. “It was having something to do, and the implacable sort of courage to go and do what had to be done, that led the women to the Lord. The disciples, who had forsaken him and fled at the time of the arrest, were laying low. They were having a committee meeting behind closed doors—for fear of the Jews, as St. John honestly explains.”
Christmas 2001, like that first Easter morning, is not a time for more meetings about how to cope with fear: fear of planes, fear of the mail, fear of travel, fear of foreigners. It is a time to implacably go about the business of celebrating Christmas as it must be done; and in that blessed routine, the Lord will be found.
It will take great courage—imagine the pain of those young widows who will have to prepare for Christmas alone, without having had the chance to prepare their own missing husbands for burial. It will be a terrible test of faith.
The Beatified Married Couple
Beatifying the first married couple on Oct. 21, Pope John Paul II, noted that they lived “in Rome in the first half of the 20th century, a century in which faith in Christ was subject to a difficult trial.”
“And in these difficult years, the married couple of Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi kept lit the lamp of faith and passed it on to their four children,” the Holy Father said.
How did they do so? By responding to the special circumstances of the two wars which they lived through—Maria was heavily involved in the work of the Red Cross—and by holding fast to their blessed routine, too. In a remarkable letter from one of their spiritual advisors, written at the height of World War I on March 12, 1917, the Quattrocchis are encouraged simply to maintain their spiritual “rule of life,” at the heart of which was daily Mass.
And so they did.
Their response to the terror of war was to live as best they could their sacred routine of daily Mass, Scripture, meditation, the rosary and to make this, as much as whatever other tasks they had to do, their “war effort.”
Another outstanding Catholic couple—whose cause for beatification is already open—lived through the early months of World War II and also combined the extraordinary with the ordinary. Georges Vanier was the Canadian ambassador to France when the war broke out in September 1939.
His wife, Pauline, and children were evacuated from Paris to the countryside, where they spent the next eight months, including the bleak Christmas of 1939.
Despite the unpleasant conditions, the Vanier family responded to the unusual circumstances as needed, but also insisted on maintaining their usual spiritual life and celebrations. When 50 or so dependents of suspected communists were dumped into abandoned buildings in their village of exile, Madame Vanier set about providing material relief and sought out better housing.
Her daughter organized classes while her three sons built shelters.
So they responded to the emergency with generosity, but did not forget their supernatural perspective—Madame Vanier and her mother taught the communist children catechism lessons and then had them all baptized. The Vanier family knew that the gravity of war made it more important, not less, to maintain the blessed routine in which the Lord is to be found.
First Christmas Massacre
Five miles west of Jerusalem, in the town of Ain Karim, longstanding Christian tradition has located the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.
In the church that now marks the site, there is a striking painting which portrays St. Elizabeth carrying the infant John away into hiding, for fear of the massacre of the innocents ordered by King Herod. We do not know exactly where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived, but if they did indeed live close to Jerusalem—i.e., not far from Bethlehem—it is certain that they would have trembled with fear at the news that the king had ordered the murder of all the boys under two years of age.
For the elderly parents of the baby John, having so long waited for the gift of a child, the terror would have been all the more awful. All the hopes expressed in Zechariah's hymn of joy (Luke 1:67-79) must have echoed in their memory with mocking cruelty, as the wailing of grieving mothers reached their ears.
It is even possible to imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth did not even know about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem when the massacre of the innocents began—the Gospels do not say. So it may be that their experience of that first Christmas was one principally of terror. But there would still have been the rumors of hope—for they would have remembered that the unborn Lord had already come to their home (Luke 1:39-45).
The Feast of the Holy Innocents, which follows hard after Christmas on Dec. 28, reminds Catholics that terror and fear are part of the Christmas tale. This year, the innocent victims of terror and war will undoubtedly occupy the prayers of Catholics on that day.
But there should also be hope, for the Lord will have come again on Christmas Day. He will have come again in all the traditions that welcome him to a Catholic home—the setting up of the Christmas crib, with the youngest child having the privilege of putting the Baby Jesus in the manger upon return from Midnight Mass; the remembering of the poor during the excursions to the mall for Christmas shopping; the festive dinner in which the happiness of the Holy Family is reflected in Christian families across the generations.
The world—this vale of tears—always provides reasons to be disillusioned, distraught, to give in to despair. Sept. 11 brought that home with brutal force. But exactly fifteen weeks later, Dec. 25 will invite a renewal of faith and a rebirth of hope, for that world has been redeemed. It is part of our annual routine. It needs to be celebrated.