I Don’t Know When To Take Down My Christmas Decorations

Back in my SPU days I had this great professor, Dr. Spina. Dr. Spina was a liturgy enthusiast (read: snob), as is proper for any Episcopalian, and he used to put us low-church evangelicals to shame with questions such as, “How do you know your church service has begun?”

We’d all just sort of blink at him like morons.

Another one of his questions that seemed designed to stupefy us was simply, “When does the Christmas season begin?”

We were all too intimidated to risk giving the wrong answer to what seemed like an easy question. Dr. Spina would take a dramatic pause, daring us to embarrass ourselves.

Christmas!” he would say, as if it should be obvious. “Christmas begins . . . on Christmas.”


Then he’d start in on his lecture on the water-carriers in the book of Judges, or some such topic.

So, here’s my new dummy question, which I still can’t get a straight answer on.

When does the Christmas season end?

Commercially, obviously, Christmas is over at the end of the day on December 25th, when all the presents have been opened and the wrapping paper is piled like snowdrifts onto the living room floor.

Liturgically speaking, things are a bit harder to pin down.

Traditionally, as the song goes, Christmas has twelve days, starting on Christmas day and extending until Epiphany on January 6th. That’s a nice neat number. The twelve days of Christmas. Some denominations, like Episcopalians and Lutherans, have mostly preserved this number. I quite like the simplicity of that, and for the last few years I’ve been taking my decorations down on Epiphany.

But as it turns out, for Catholics, Epiphany no longer marks the end of the Christmas season.

I recently discovered that the Catholic Church has made several changes to this tradition over the last 100 years, and has made things a little trickier for us. The first was creating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus’ baptism was originally part of the Epiphany celebration. But Epiphany also celebrates the arrival of the Magi and this aspect of the feast had eclipsed Jesus’ baptism in the popular imagination. In order to ensure that the baptism was also commemorated, the Church instituted a new feast day on the Sunday after Epiphany. So now it’s the Baptism of the Lord that marks the end of the Christmas season, which would be sometime between January 7th and 12th.

To make things more complicated, certain dioceses allow Epiphany itself to be moved to the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th, which means (I’ll spare you the liturgical trigonometry) that the Baptism of the Lord could be celebrated as late as January 13th.

So this year, Christmas ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year is on January 10th.

Is that when I should take down my decorations?

Here’s another wrinkle: since the Christmas season commemorates the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, there’s a good case to made that the Christmas season isn’t really over until February 2nd, traditionally called Candlemas, when Catholics celebrate Mary’s ritual purification, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and the first entrance of Jesus into the temple as a baby.

In fact, as tradition has it, if you don’t manage to get your Christmas decorations down on Epiphany Eve (the twelfth night of Christmas), you’re supposed to wait until Candlemas to do so, or it’s bad luck!

So if I miss my chance on Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord, I get another few weeks of Christmas decor before Candlemas arrives on February 2nd.

In another sense, I suppose, we are always working inside the Advent-Christmas cycle and commemorating the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Even outside of Advent through Baptism, there’s the Annunciation on March 25th, where we celebrate Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (nine months before Christmas day), the Feast of the Visitation on May 31st, celebrating Mary visiting Elizabeth while they were both pregnant, and the Birth of St John the Baptist on June 24th, chosen due to the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy six months before Mary’s. All three of these dates are related to December 25th in the liturgical calendar.

So, should I . . . never take down my decorations? Maybe I can leave up all the outside lights all year round without embarrassment, since in a certain sense we are celebrating Jesus’ birth all year long.

I’m joking, of course. Having a Christmas tree up in July would be some kind of liturgical malpractice.

What about you: do you have a traditional “end” to the Christmas season in your home?

Saturday Links 12/26/20

Happy day-after to everyone! Today is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr. It’s a day in which, traditionally, I sit at home and play video games for as long as my wife will allow.

Here are some links for your weekend reading.

Caitlin Flanagan has a very sweet exploration in The Atlantic about the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I didn’t know this, but Charles Schulz had a strong hand in shaping production, and Linus’ famous telling of the gospel story was a non-negotiable for him. Schulz seems to have really understood the world of children and for that reason (not to mention the Vince Guaraldi Trio) the special remains a classic. Flanagan:

Charles Schulz had what Maurice Sendak had: respect for children. He understood the way they think and feel, not the way adults want them to think and feel. He understood that there’s a point in children’s growing up when Christmas doesn’t work its magic as reliably as it once did. Schulz let them explore a taboo subject, Christmastime unhappiness, while still reassuring them that Christmas is a good and fun and wonderful thing.

Click here for more.

Father Aidan Kimel, a Western Orthodox priest, has posted three Christmas poems over the last week by none other than Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, leading lights of the Inklings and (two of them at least) still household names today.

Tolkien’s poem, “Noel,” is here.

Lewis’ poem, “The Turn of the Tide”, here.

Williams’ poem, “Christmas”, here.

In lieu of going to church on Christmas Eve, I tried watching the Vatican’s “midnight” Mass service online, but the internet cut out and I went to bed. What I did get to see was beautiful—but anyway, Rocco Palmo has an English translation of Pope Francis’ homily. A highlight:

 It is true: in our endless desire for possessions, we run after any number of mangers filled with ephemeral things and forget the manger of Bethlehem. That manger, poor in everything yet rich in love, teaches that true nourishment in life comes from letting ourselves be loved by God and loving others in turn. Jesus gives us the example. He, the Word of God, becomes an infant; he does not say a word but offers life.

Cathedrals: Church of the Nativity

Merry Christmas to all of my followers and subscribers! Since it’s Christmas, I’m bringing you a feature on the Church of the Nativity, one of the best-attested of all Christian holy sites. Christian worship has taken place at this location since at least the second century, making it quite likely that this is, in fact, the location of the birth of Jesus.

I had the privilege of visiting the Church of the Nativity as part of a broader tour of the Holy Land back in 2010 (where I also saw the Basilica of the Annunciation).

Since it’s Christmas and we’ve all got things to do today, this post will be brief.

The main entrance to the church (you can see it in the top picture as well) is called the Door of Humility. I remember going through it and having to bow to enter, it’s only 4 or 5 feet tall. You can see how the original entrance was much larger, but later filled in. The idea is that you couldn’t ride in on horseback, and even noblemen and kings would have to pay homage to come inside:

Once you pass through the Door of Humility, you’re in the main part of the basilica. The original floor was installed by order of Constantine himself. Most of it has been covered with flagstones, but they’ve opened up portions of it and you can see the original floor below the current one:

A view of the main part of the basilica:

One unique feature of the sanctuary is the abundance of hanging lamps:

By Bukvoed – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75756818

What’s really special about the Church of the Nativity is that you can go beneath the main altar, into the cave itself, and see the very spot where, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was born. It’s a very small space, but I remember feeling brushed by that sense of the holy. Here was the place where heaven invaded earth:

The star on the floor marks the spot:

The building is unfortunately in desperate need of restoration. A major contributor to the problem is ongoing disunity among different Churches. This building is managed through a tenuous agreement between the Catholic, Greek, and Armenian Churches, but it’s proven difficult to address basic problems like water damage. Though the site is currently a bit rough around the edges, it is of course a must-visit during any trip to the Holy Land.

So there you have it: the place where the first Christmas came to pass.

Merry Christmas everyone!

My Favorite Christmas Podcast

I listened to this great podcast episode from Rob Bell a few years ago, the same year we moved down to California, and it’s so interesting. It’s now something of a classic, one of the RobCast’s most-downloaded. The whole thing is an extended interview with Alexander Shaia, who has done an enormous amount of study on the roots of our Christmas traditions in a grand encounter between Catholic and Celtic spiritualities. It’s a good example of the Church’s gift for encountering and incorporating the true, good, and beautiful, wherever she may find it.

I can’t find the text of it anywhere, but I really recommend the podcast itself as worth a listen. Shaia also (finally) released a book about the subject, which you can find on his website here.

How Our Preconceived Ideas Do Violence to Scripture

There is only one God, brethren, and we learn about him only from sacred Scripture. It is therefore our duty to become acquainted with what Scripture proclaims and to investigate its teachings thoroughly [ . . . ] Sacred Scripture is God’s gift to us and it should be understood in the way that he intends: we should not do violence to it according to our own preconceived ideas.”

Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-235 AD)

I’ve written a little bit about the challenge of reading Scripture. It seems to me that many of us postmoderns follow a similar path in our relationship with the Bible:

  1. Reading the Bible in a simplistic way, unaware of the preconceived ideas we are bringing to the Bible which distort our understanding
  2. Realizing that everyone, in fact, does have preconceived ideas about the meaning of Scripture
  3. Believing that since everyone brings their preconceived ideas to the text, that no objective interpretation is possible
  4. Embracing our preferred ideas and interpreting the Bible in whatever way seems best to us
  5. Using the Bible primarily or exclusively as a way of talking about our preconceived ideas

Very early on, in the quote about from Hippolytus of Rome, writing in the third century, we find a warning against such “preconceived ideas”. We postmoderns would argue that no objective reading is possible—in fact, we would argue that so-called objective readings usually mask some sort of hidden political agenda.

But this seems a bit out of step with the tradition. Making biblical interpretation exclusively a power project (whether on behalf of the powerful or on behalf of the oppressed) causes us to use the Bible as a tool, rather than, as Hippolytus would have it, receive it as a gift. A gift can surprise us, challenge us, and delight us; a tool is something we use for whatever we please.

But say we did want to, in the words of Hippolytus, understand Scripture in the way God intends. How would we know when some “preconceived idea” is distorting our understanding?

Hippolytus tells us correctly: preconceived ideas always do violence to the text.

And what does such violence look like—how do we recognize it?

I think that’s pretty easy to recognize: when an interpreter starts pitting one part of the Bible against another, he’s started doing violence. “Preconceived ideas” require us to center certain verses and interpret them in a way that casts other verses into outer darkness. Luther, for example, brought his preconceived idea of “by faith alone” to the Bible, so he centered Galatians and parts of Romans. His misunderstanding of those verses required him to then cast out the book of James entirely, because James speaks directly against Luther’s cherished sola fidei. So Luther trashed James as “an epistle of straw” and relegated it to the appendix of his translation of the Bible into German.

That’s a very recognizable move in biblical interpretation: center the verses that support your preconceived ideas, relegate the ones which go against it to, at best, a secondary status.

By contrast, when we receive the entire Bible as a gift and attempt to understand it as God’s revelation, we search for interpretations which hold together in harmony the various texts within scripture. For example, the Catholic response to Luther was to note how Paul and James both used terms like “faith” and “works” very differently, so that while there may be an apparent conflict between them there’s actually a deeper harmony underneath, once each writer is understood in the correct way. So Paul and James both have their place in the Bible, and neither needs to be denigrated or cast aside.

Where have you seen this same phenomenon—doing violence to the scriptures in support of one’s preconceived ideas—in contemporary biblical interpretation?

What if Jesus Was Born in Your Garage?

It was an odd thought that came to me last night. A stable or a cave are difficult for modern people to imagine without making the scene grossly sentimental. Centuries of nativity scenes have inoculated us, in a way, against picturing the nativity properly. We see the stable, the manger, and the animals; we smell cinnamon, rosemary, and sugar cookies.

I don’t think that’s quite right.

Our garage—I should say, my in-laws’ garage—is dark and dank. On rainy nights a little puddle of water seeps in under the garage door. I take the trash out there twice a week. Some days I rummage through the back shelves looking for a particular extension cord. Other than that, I don’t really spend any time there, because it’s not a pleasant place to spend my time. The whole thing stinks of cat piss and motor oil.

Which made me realize: a garage is a twenty-first century stable.

What if you were taking the trash out one night and there, nestled under the workbench or behind the lawnmower, you discovered a homeless couple? And what if the woman was in labor?

What do you suppose you’d do?

Me, I’d probably call the cops. Or maybe social services. I’d feel so good about myself, calling social services and having a social worker show up in a van to take them off my property. Hate to do it, but there’s just no room at this inn for travelers. Plus, a homeless woman giving birth on my property is a huge legal problem. If anything happened, I could be held liable!

This Advent, Not Everything Is Lost

My mom went out of her way when we were kids to make Advent a contemplative season. I remember this little Advent alphabet book that we read together every night in December. It had a little meditation for each letter of the alphabet from December 1st through 24th. A is for Advent, B is for Bethlehem, and so on, all the way to X-Y-Z, which got lumped together on Christmas Eve. We often went to the Grotto, a little Catholic retreat center in Portland, for an evening to see the lights and the petting zoo and listen to sacred music sung in choir.

Looking back now, I can appreciate my mom’s good Catholic instincts: the contemplative dimension of Advent is a crucial one. Advent is about expectancy, hope, and preparation. We have to “get ready” for Christmas on the outside by making sure presents are wrapped and cookies are made, and also on the inside by preparing our hearts to behold the Christ-child. The externals are more or less compulsory; the internals require deliberate cultivation. There’s an odd juxtaposition of external busy-ness and internal quiet-ness available to us in Advent. Finding the right balance is the season’s perennial challenge.

In a plague year like this one, so many of the outside parts of Advent and Christmas have been rightly suspended, for this year only.

We usually spend Christmas week with my wife’s side of the family. I cook a big roast on Christmas Eve, seasoned with garlic and rosemary, crispy and browned on the outside and just rare in the center. We go to the little six-pew Presbyterian church that she grew up in, surrounded by cousins also in town for the holidays, and sing “Silent Night” together, with those little paper candle-holders. There’s a big Christmas Eve party at her aunt and uncle’s house in town. Then, on Christmas morning, we make a mess of it unwrapping presents, and then we hang out all day in our pajamas eating sweets and drinking coffee with too much cream.

None of that is happening this year.

We’ll make the best of it, sure; but it’s going to feel weird. Christmas is a heavily traditioned season, and the loss of what is familiar to us is frustrating and disorienting.

Three years ago, I made our family’s first Advent wreath. Our little cabin in exile was ringed by redwoods, so I took a pair of kitchen shears out to the street and brought back redwood clippings. I wrapped them around a little circular candle-holder I had found. I don’t think I could afford proper Advent candles that year, so I just used what I could find around the cabin. It was enough, and it was the beginning of an Advent renewal for my wife and me. I was bringing back the contemplative dimension of Advent which I learned in childhood.

This year, the Advent wreath is up on our home altar, and I could afford to buy candles in the correct colors. Every Sunday night we bring our baby boy, now six months old, to the altar and sing:

Candle, candle, burning bright

Shining in the cold winter night

Candle, candle, burning bright

Fill our hearts with Christmas light

He watches as we light them, one by one, in their proper order. He loves the sudden, intense light that appears with the striking of the match; I love the candles’ reflection in his big blue eyes. Just this week he’s started reaching with his whole body for the flame. We pray together, we watch together, we wait together. Then we blow them out, one by one, in their proper order. He watches with fascination as the smoke carries our prayers to heaven.

This year would be a lot harder without these kinds of moments.

Some of the externals of Advent and Christmas are missing this year. Losing out on connection with loved ones is hard. But not everything is lost. On Christmas Eve I will light this year’s candles for the last time, and let them burn all the way down. I will wake up early on Christmas morning to greet the Christ-child in prayer and adoration. The internal, contemplative element—waiting, hoping, praying—is still there. I’m grateful for what my mother preserved of it when we were kids. I’m grateful for this year, with all its joys and challenges. And when all this is over, I’ll be grateful to return to those externals, with a renewed appreciation for the pleasure and warmth that they alone provide.

We Shall Be Set Free, If You Consent

Last week I thought a lot about Mary, since she was the topic of discussion at RCIA and the word “co-redemptrix” came up a few times. If you were reading along, you’ll know that while that particular term is contested, the central idea—that Mary’s consent was a unique and necessary part of our salvation—is not really debated. Still, I was a bit worried that I was getting too carried away with Marian devotion.

I’m feeling pretty vindicated by St Bernard of Clairvaux this morning. Here he is, writing in the twelfth century, addressing Our Lady directly, imagining himself at the moment just before Mary’s “yes”:

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

There was a moment between Gabriel’s message and Mary’s response when all of heaven waited with bated breath. At that moment, the whole world hung in the balance: only with her free and full consent could the divine plan move forward.

She was an essential part of what God wanted to do!

Saturday Links 12/19/20

Iraqi Christans attend Christians Eve Mass in December 2019 at the Syriac Catholic Church in the town of Qaraqosh in Niniveh province, Iraq  (Photo from Vatican News)

This, by Elizabeth Bruenig (NYT) is an excellent bit of reporting on one of the most recent executions by the federal government. The death penalty is considered impermissible by the Church, and Bruenig, a Catholic convert, brings a sharp moral sensibility to the piece.

It’s nearly impossible to live with a conflict between feeling and belief. You end up feeling the way you believe you should, or believing the way you feel you ought to. I have known for a long time — certainly since the murder of my own sister-in-law in our Texas hometown in 2016 — that I had emotions related to the death penalty that had to be reckoned with.

I began to think I wouldn’t know with certainty what part of me was being honest about capital punishment until I saw it for myself.

It’s a graphic piece—Bruenig travels to Indiana to witness the execution firsthand—but it’s an important contribution to the national debate.

Since I’ve been writing a bit this week about the disputed Marian title of “co-redemptrix”, I thought I’d put up this piece by Robert Fastiggi at Where Peter Is about the issue. A few popes have publicly referred to Mary as co-redemptrix due to her singular contributing role in salvation history, but it seems like the consensus has turned against the title due to the many opportunities for misunderstanding. Pope Francis has neither promoted nor condemned the concept, but he has dismissed the idea of any new Marian dogmas being declared anytime soon:

The most that might be claimed is that he considers petitions for new Marian dogmas to be foolishness, but even this relies on an interpretive inference rather than a direct statement. I believe Pope Francis is merely warning us that an over-preoccupation with new Marian declarations and dogmas can lead to foolishness if we lose sight of Mary’s essential identity as woman, disciple, and mother.

The whole piece, by a theologian specializing in Marian theology, is here.

Pope Francis has announced his intention to go to Iraq in 2021 which, between the coronavirus and ongoing instability in Iraq, seems both risky and rather exciting. This piece in Vatican News, by Fr. Rif’at Bader, explains Francis’ reasoning. I was struck by the writer’s stunning rebuke of our American war in Iraq:

The second point is that in March 2003, the American war drums were beating for Iraq, which enjoyed international approval, except for Pope John Paul II, who said: “NO TO WAR”! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” In March 2021, Pope Francis will come to try to restore what was destroyed, as a result of not listening to the voice of his predecessor, the saint Pope…

NO TO WAR! Amen.

Cathedrals: Basilica of the Annunciation

Since it’s Advent and we’ve been talking about Mary quite a bit, I thought I’d jump forward a few centuries and share about the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the traditional site of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I had the privilege of seeing this basilica with my own eyes in 2010 as part of a general tour of the Holy Land run by Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian activist organization.

(Fellow nerds will chide me for including a basilica in a series about cathedrals, since they are not technically the same thing, but I’m going to go with a very loose definition of a cathedral as “big, important church building”, so there.)

Nazareth, you’ll remember, is Jesus’ hometown, set into the hills not far from the Sea of Galilee. It’s a beautiful location, very lush and green by Middle Eastern standards, and probably more so in Jesus’ day. I can see why God chose it as the place to grow up. I mean, just look!

There’s a running joke in the town that every little business and shop is on the site of some event in Jesus’ life. “Oh, this is the place where Jesus first had ice cream.” “This is the very spot where Jesus first played soccer.” And so on and so forth. It’s a very funny joke the first fifty times you hear it.

Tradition holds that this site is the location of Mary’s home and the place where she was greeted by the angel Gabriel with the first “Hail Mary, full of grace.” It is thus, possibly, the place where Mary said “yes” to God and became the Mother of God, and also the place where Jesus was conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is the entry point of God into the world of flesh and blood.

The present structure is quite recent, completed in 1969, but there’s been a shrine of some kind here since the fourth century. Different buildings have come and gone over the centuries as the city of Nazareth, like all of the Holy Land, has been taken and re-taken by different forces: Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, and finally, Israelis in 1948. Today, Nazareth is one of the only Palestinian-majority cities in the state of Israel, and it remains an important center of Palestinian Christian life.

Let’s take a look at the front entrance!

The Latin script contains two quotes from Scripture, the upper from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation (“the angel of the Lord appeared to Mary”) and the lower from St. John’s prologue (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”).

Entering here takes you to the lower level of the church, which feels very cave-like. It’s here that you can see the remains of previous buildings as well as the site itself where, it is said, the whole thing happened:

A closer look from the lower level:

I suppose it says something about me that I’d really like to hop over the fencing and walk under the canopy, there where the Word became flesh, where the angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady.

There’s something challenging about places like this—about the entire Holy Land, really—because it reminds us that the Christian claim is that these stories really happened. The Christian story is not a fairy tale, an allegory, or a novel. It’s a claim about the nature and fabric of reality. The doubt sneaks in as you go around visiting different holy sites, and it usually shows up in the question, “Did it really happen here? Sure, I believe it happened, but here?” The particularity is what scandalizes.

But it’s God, not the devil, who’s in the details this time. Maybe it didn’t happen here, but it happened somewhere. There is a here and a when that are the place and time where it came to pass. The particularity is what is necessary for the Christian story to count.

The canopy above the home makes that clear: this is a holy place, a place where heaven and earth came together in the body of a woman.

After lingering awhile to consider all of this, you can take a little stairwell off to the side up to the main part of the basilica. This looks more like the churches we all know:

As you approach the altar you see that they’ve cut a hole in the floor, beneath the dome, through which you can see down to the site below:

Along the walls are images of Mary from around the world:

When you are satisfied with your visit, you leave through an upper door which takes you out to the side of the basilica and into courtyard with more images of Mary from around the world. These are all mosaics:

I wish I had had more appreciation for the significance of the Annunciation and for Our Lady when I visited ten years ago.

If I do ever go to the Holy Land again, I think I would plan a week branching out from here in Nazareth, which is more low-key and well within reach of the Sea of Galilee, and then a week in Jerusalem, much more intense but packed with holy sites and close to nearby Bethlehem, where (spoiler alert) we’ll go together next week.