Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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"Too modest" -- Elinor Dashwood

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Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010
Now burn, new born to the world,
Double-natured name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled,
Mid-numbered He in three of the thunder throne!

-- Gerald Manley Hopkins SJ

Friday, December 24, 2010
Christmas anguish

Hello - it's Christmas Eve, and I'm back.

More Catholic bloggers than just myself (I know from Twitter) have picked up on the idea of "the terror of Christmas" (variously phrased).

Of course, Christmas is (along with Easter) the most festive part of the Christian calendar, and in the northern hemisphere its festive spirit has drawn from secular, even pagan, markings of the need to bring joy and light into the darkest time of year. Festivity: family reunions, mostly happy; kids, same; lights; presents; Snoopy winning the decoration contest even while Linus reminds us of the real meaning of Christmas. All true.

So why then do so many of us, especially as we grow older, experience unique anxiety, even grief, at Christmas? If we have lost family, the answer is obvious. But if we haven't -- God be blessed -- we worry about whether we're "putting on" a good enough Christmas for them; or, if we're guests, about whether we're pulling our weight, treading on toes, etc. If we have good memories of Christmases Past, it concerns us that Christmas Present (in the Dickensian, not the commercial, sense) may fall far short of them -- and you know, maybe it will.

So is there something wrong with us?

Let's start with St. Joseph -- about whom, incidentally, a Catholic politician in England, formerly leader of that nation's Conservative Party (but never given by it a chance to fight a general election) recently wrote a moving article in the Daily Mail. For Joseph, the "first Christmas" was a huge Fail. Pushed around by distant bureaucrats who left him powerless to protect his young family against the cruel obligation to transport his near-term-pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem to do Roman paperwork, he couldn't even find lodging there, in those pre-Super8, pre-online-reservations day. He found -- a stable, a filthy corner where animals were stored.

He couldn't have known how later eras would beautify the Manger Scene in religious art. For him, this must have felt like abject failure, if he was capable of such a pride-based sentiment. No wonder that a few days later, when the Magi arrive, we find the Holy Family no longer in that manger but (according to Matthew) in a "house." By then the census crowds would have abated, more rooms would have opened up, and Joseph certainly wasn't going to keep his family in that stable posing for Christmas cards.

But the testimonies to Christmas anguish go on. There's the medieval lyric "Als I Lay on Yoolis Night," about the Virgin and Child in conversation, she re-telling to Him the story of the Annunciation. The framing device for this narrative -- already a story-within-a-story -- is a meta-meta-narrative about a dreamer who dreams the scene of the Virgin-Child conversation, while "alone in my longing." Who is he, and, more to the point, why is he alone, and on Yule night, of all times? We never find out. (Click here for the definitive recording.)

Dickens wrote the most famous post-Biblical Christmas story of all time, and it's full of ghosts. If it's no longer exactly scary, that's with familiarity. There are other Christmas ghost stories too, and not all by Dickens. Even Washington Irving's delightful if twee chapters about spending Christmas at the ancestral seat of a time-defying squire in Yorkshire makes frequent references to spirits and fairies.

And (as one of Twitter friends pointed out), Charlie Brown, who at any time of year is never far from awareness of his anxieties, at Christmas time discovers he has "pantophobia" -- fear of everything!

Now, Charlie Brown's pantophobia disappears as a plot element almost as soon as it appears, so the focus can shift to the search for the tree, Linus's Luke 2 recitation (in memoriam, Christopher Shea, voice of Linus, 1958-2010), then back to the tree for the rebirth symbolism it can bear. But I can tell you this: after my father died on December 18 (a week before Christmas) in 2007, I came to know what pantophobia might be. I would choose one end of the couch to sit on -- and become afraid of the other. And so on and on. One gets better, but -- and this, not personal sharing, is my point -- Christmas tends naturally to bring it out, along with the joy that it also brings out.

A carol sings about "the hopes and fears of all the years" being met tonight in Bethlehem. The reference is primarily the hopes and fears of the Jews of ancient times (and not only ancient, imo), but everyone's hopes and fears are met there, because the whole world was waiting, knowingly or not, for the overturning of all earthly expectations epitomized by the Power That Made The World being born as one of us in the humblest circumstances human insouciance could have imposed.

The hopes and fears were, first of all, those that Judah and Israel enjoyed and endured during the Messianic preparation. Then they are those that the Holy Father talked about on his BBC4 talk earlier today. And finally they are our hopes that something of our best (usually long past) Christmases can be recaptured, our fears (probably well-founded) that they cannot be, and our hopes (a manifestation of Hope as cardinal virtue) that those best Christmases -- so much "better," in every material sense, than His own "first" Christmas! -- were stand-ins, down payments, signs, premonitions, epiphanies, supernatural-to-natural break-in, of the Divine family gathering and banquet to which we are all invited, where there will be no family "baggage," missed flights, overeating, underdrinking, departures, or heartbreaks, "for the former things are past away."

For now -- for want of this -- we are in temporary anguish, which with grace and a little effort we can temper with love. Merry Christmas!

I'll end with my traditional Christmas Eve poem, an oldie from some Olde Englishe guy called Cartwright, which I found used as an epigraph to the Christmas Eve chapter in the Washington Irving "Christmas at Bracebridge Hall" narratives that I referred to earlier. (Note, btw, "Cartwright"'s Catholic recidivism. When did he write? 1680s or so? Age of crypto-Catholic Charles II? Openly Catholic James II? That's the era of most of the "old" poetry Irving quotes in these "essays.")

Saint Francis and Saint Benedight
Bless this house from wicket wight;
From the night-mare and the goblin,
That is hight good fellow Robin;
Keep it from all evil spirits,
Fairies, weazles, rats, and ferrets:

From curfew-time
To the next prime.