By C. C Martindale, S.J.
" r4 IIRISTMAS " has come to be Nftoso profoundly coloured, for us, by its Crib, and its providing of presents especially for children, that it is hard to realize that it did not start by being that sort of feast at all. We do not wish it ever to be different, amongst 'us northerners, from what it has become : but it may be interesting to catch some notion of how our very early Christian ancestors felt towards it.
Like all " Christmas " articles, this one has to be written well ahead of time : so I have no books of reference.
I must be vague when I would like to be precise—not that there is much about this Feast's history which enables one to be precise : and for all I know my material may already be well out of date, [I don't think it is.]
The two overwhelmingly greatest Christian feasts were, at first, Easter and Pentecost; and it is with a certain anxiety that we notice that Easter Is felt all too often as the end of Lent, and that the dogma, and the very idea, of the Resurrection do not play as fine a part as they should in modern devotion. Pentecost, and the whole Dogma of the Holy Spirit, have, in too many Catholic lives, almost ceased to play an active role. We have but to compare our habits and ways of thinking with St. Paul's epistles and the book of the Acts, and with medieval hymns, to see that this is so, But we must not be drawn aside to that, Oddly enough, we find our attention drawn, first, to two dates— January 6 and December 25. I have never yet found an adequate explanation of why January 6 began first, I think, in Egypt; then in the East generally— to be regarded as especially solemn. It was held as commemorating Our Lord's " Manifestation "; His official exhibition to the world as "God's Son." I am tempted to think that this alluded fleet to His Baptism, and, going further, to surmise that this was due to heretics, who imagined that God as it were " invested " Him then with His divine nature, and forthwith revealed Him to the world as Messias. (Even so, I am not sure why January 6 was settled on for the Commemoration.) After a while, the general idea of " Manifestation " drew to itself other instances of " manifestation "—in particular the incident at Cana, the changing of water into wine, His first miracle; and the Visit of the Pagans which we now call the Epiphany, a Greek word meaning, in fact, display, exhibition, manifestation.
Afterwards other such " makings seen " were alluded to in connection with this—for example, the Raising of Lazarus, and the Nativity.
So far as our evidence goes, if I remember right, all this came into written records about the year 300400. which implies that it began in fact not a little before that.
Now in the West (that is, the Latin half of the world), the date December 25 came to be associated with the Birth of Our Lord. (We have to say firmly that it is not known on what day or even in what part of the year Christ was born). But why? That date was, in popular devotion, connected with the Birthday of the Sun, because it is the " winter solstice."
Days thereafter become longer. You must forgive me for saying, in a mere line, that as Roman (pagan) religion improved in one sense and degenerated in another, it began to fuse as many heathen gods together as it could, and indeed moved towards a sort of MonoTheism—belief in One Only God—as well as it could; and it found the Sun to be the best available symbol of this Unity of God, origin of all life.
This is why emperors had for a long hair, the high cheek bones, the notorious Swyre " notch " at the eyebrows.
" Your name is Swyre? " he was forced to cry aloud.
" Father Juan in religion," the monk said, then his face lightened and he said in fair English, " It was Swyre once, though we transformed it to Saurez. We have been here such a very
long time. . . But I think I understand you; your name is Swyre
we are of a family—cousins, eh?"
" I'm of the branch that robbed and dispossessed yours," Anthony said. " Do you know the story? "
Father Saurez knew a little of it. Centuries of making a new life, first under that protector of so many English families, Philip II, then in service to their adopted land and to religion, had half obliterated what to Anthony was still so harsh and ugly. Father Saurez could even smile with kindly tolerance as Anthony told the story of Raoul's treachery.
" Yet, in spite of him, you have brought our name back to the Faith," he smiled. " How completely, yet mysteriously, the Good God rounds his designs. Here are we, both the last of our lines, and just as I, of the Catholic branch, seem about to be wiped out, you restore our name to the Faith."
" Wiped out—what do you mean? " Anthony cried, staring into the obviously healthy face of the priest. " You aren't ill . . . "
" Have you been so little in Spain that you know nothing of the attacks on us, the .church burnings, the killing?"
Anthony frowned. He had heard of these things, but like many, even Catholics, he considered them merely as newspaper headings, scarcely real.
" You mean, you fear the same thing? But surely even this Republican Government must protect a great house like yours? "
" The Government, even if it were willing, dare not go against the mob spirit it has raised and, anyhow, in a very little time there will be no Government. Any day now there will be what they will call a ' Rebellion of the Workers.' It is being prepared all over Spain for some day in July or August. It is a stroke to being in Communism. We all know it is coming—and it will be the end of this house. We have, through our work, an authority over the people here, and that must be destroyed . . . so we will be destroyed."
" But if you know, you can escape?"
"No. Already we are marked and watched. The attempt of any one of us to get away would mean his death, time allowed themselves to be represented (like Constantine, the first "Christian " Emperor) under sunsymbols.
Hence among pagans generally it became popular to regard December 25 as " Natalis Solis Invicti "—" The Birthday of the Lin-Vanquished Sun," Hence in proportion as the Empire became Christianised, Christians had no objection to celebrating the Birth of Him whom they knew as " Sun of Righteousness " on the day hitherto sacred to the physical " re-birth " of the sun, and to the homage of Him whom they had felt to be the source of all unity and vitality throughout the civilised world. The transition was not instantaneous.
A Pope (St. Leo, I think) had to regret that Christians, entering St. Peter's basilica for the Mass of Christmas Day, still turned on the very steps, to salute the rising dawn.
Thenceforward, all one can say is that the East stuck to its date of January 6, concentrating increasingly on the " Epiphany " to the Magi (though not dropping out Cana nor the Baptism), and accepting from the West the date of December 25, and commemorating the Nativity then; while the West continued its commemoration of the Birth on December 25, while admitting the date January 6 as suitable for a commemoration of (primarily) the Magi.
What in any case we ought to rid our minds of is the notion of the Magi's visit having occurred almost at once after the Birth, The Flight into Egypt occurred immediately after the former. But meanwhile the Holy Family had not only moved into a house, but the Presentation in the Temple-40 days after the Birth—had occurred. And Herod caused all the children of Bethlehem district up to two years old to be killed. The Magi may have arrived well up to a year later than Our Lord's Birth, or later. Because the Feasts of Christmas and Epiphany occur close together, it does not follow that the events they commemorate did.
Now two points. Is not this playing up to the antiquated idea that Christians borrowed the ideas and facts of their stories from the pagans? Certainly not. There is no beginning of a reason for supposing that Christians took their belief in the Incarnation, the Birth of Christ from a Virgin Mother, of His actual birth at Bethlehem, from any pagan source imaginable. Did they at least decorate that belief with pagan " ornaments "? I cannot think Of any, Much later Christian art no doubt did.
It is now " classic " to introduce an ox and an ass into our Cribs, though we do so because we know that He was born in a stable. We sing about the " winter snow." That is because we keep the Feast of the Nativity in December. You see now why we do so. And anyway, rain more likely than snow was to be expected in Palestine at that season.
Do I want these " decorations " to be discarded? By no means. We are in no danger, please God, of mixing up merely artistic preferences with historical fact or Catholic dogma, It is certain that none of us (outside, .aybe, Spain) could tolerate crucifixes that really looked like what Our Lord must have looked like on His Cross. Do any of our most "devotional " Madonnas look like a, Jewish girl? No. Yet Our Lady was a Jewish girl.
But might not this method destroy devotion? I sincerely hope not. My own " devotion " (poor enough at the best of times, I fear) is always vastly increased by knowing facts : "0 Christ, if I could only see—Thy feet on stormy Galilee "—that is one extreme: if only I could see what it really looked like! But also, watch " Christ walking on the waters — Not of Genasareth, but Thames.. .." the heavenly ladder really pitched between " Heaven and Charing Cross." That is the other. I would that we might have that double grace—able to help us in our temptations (how many, suffering from them, do we not meet!), that "I can't believe that it really happened like that then " ; and again, " If only I could believe it haeuens like that now! "
even the precipitation of the attack on our house. No, there is no escape." " But—but you can await this attack, death even—calmly? "
" Not so calmly, perhaps," Father Saurez smiled, " for we are not Saints, but we try to abide by the will of God. If it has to be, we are ready. . . . Our chief anxiety, actually, is that we have precious relics, valuable and important papers that we would like to get away to safety. Lodged in one of our houses in France or England, they would be of inestimable worth to the order and the Faith. It is terrible to think they will be profaned, burned, destroyed. . . . "
And it was as he listened that it suddenly seemed to Anthony that here was the reason for the vision of the mirror— he, the heir of the informer, could right the wrong Raoul Swyre had done. This strange meeting of the last of the two branches the repetition of the vision in the picture of Our Lady, seemed to insist on it. He said quickly: " I can help there." He thrust his hand into his pocket, brought out his passport. " You are my double. Look at this photo, in my passport—it might be you. You speak English, too. You can pass as an Englishman, and, as an Englishman, you will not only be unsuspected but safe. You can travel that way to England with your papers and relics . . . travel as me. That, surely, is why I was sent here. That is the way out, not only for you but the last of the Swyres, . ."
Fathei Saurez was so taken aback by Anthony's impetuosity that he tried to raise obstacles. But Anthony, abruptly possessed by a burning intuition, pressed his point so strongly that the monk took him to his Abbot, Even when that old, sagacious and saintly man seemed to accept Anthony's suggestion—and ardour—as the inspiration of Heaven, Father Saurez still objected: " It means that he may suffer, and I escape—" he began.
" To carry on the Faith," Anthony (Continued on Page 15,1