Dear People of God:
Happy Easter! American culture has almost completely secularized the celebration of Christmas. Our commercialized society takes us from “Turkey Day” (Thanksgiving) to “the Holidays” with little or no serious attention given to the birth of the Messiah! As a result we easily overlook the very close connection between Christmas and Easter which, for many, has been reduced to brightly-colored boiled eggs, chocolate bunnies, and yellow marshmallow chicks! This should not be true for Catholic families. It is a very good thing that some families display a Christmas crèche in their homes. But we must remind ourselves that the birth of Jesus is past history. There is no baby Jesus lying in a manger today. We rejoice in the birth 2,000 years ago precisely because it was followed by a prophetic life and a redemptive death and resurrection. Indeed, the Paschal Mystery of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the origin of many of our most popular “Christmas” symbols.
The Christmas tree itself originated in ancient Germany as the “tree of Life,” which became the tree of the “life-giving cross.” Holly was adopted by Christians of England as a Christmas symbol because its thorns and red berries are a reminder of the suffering of Christ. Similarly, the ever popular tropical red poinsettia became the Christmas flower in Mexico because the green leaves symbolized Christ’s youth and the red bloom, the blood of His untimely death. The red and white peppermint candy cane probably has its origins in the crosier or pastoral staff of St. Nicholas. He was the 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, whose appearance and name have unfortunately been transformed into the secular, fictitious “Santa Claus.” This “jolly old elf” has been eagerly embraced by Catholic families, while the Christian saint has been largely ignored. The white of the candy cane represents the lifeless flesh of Christ and the red is His blood shed for us. The wreath, an ancient Roman and Greek symbol of victory in the amphitheater, came to be used at Christmastime in Italy as a symbol of Christ’s victory over death at Easter. All of these connections between Easter and Christmas are right before our eyes. However, most of us are probably unaware of them.
The Christmas Scriptures are also filled with suggestions of Easter. During this season, every Catholic family should prayerfully meditate on the two completely different infancy narratives at the beginning of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. (St. Mark, the first Gospel to be written, and St. John, the last, do not contain accounts of the nativity.) Keep in mind that the infancy stories were probably written last, as a kind of summary introduction of the meaning of Christ’s life and redemptive work. Thus, in Luke, the infant Jesus is placed in a manger, a feed box. Why? Manger is the French word “to eat.” This child is destined to become our spiritual food in the Eucharist. The infant’s body is wrapped in “swaddling clothes” and laid in a manger just as the body of the crucified Christ is wrapped in “burial clothes”— a shroud — and laid in the tomb. The wood of the manger reminds us that Christ the King reigns from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross.
The Magi from the East in Matthew (notice, not “the three kings”) came seeking the newborn “king of the Jews.” Above the cross, Pilate wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the Magi suggest that He is God’s Holy One deserving of our worship (incense) and the royal King of our hearts deserving of our homage (gold), a Divine King who was destined to die for us. Myrrh was used to anoint the dead.
Most pilgrims to Bethlehem are surprised to see that the sight venerated as the birthplace of Jesus is, in fact, a cave and not the wooden “stable” depicted in crèche or manger scenes first created by Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Saint Francis combined the distinct infancy stories of St. Luke (shepherds, angels, and manger) and St. Matthew (Magi, star, three gifts) in his “Christmas crib.” One reason Saint Francis did this was to remind Christians of the profound connection between the wood of the cross to the wood of the manger. All of these connections between Christmas images and the suffering of Jesus teach us that if you want to understand this birth you must understand this death. Without Easter, Christmas is meaningless!
As Catholics, our tradition urges us not to rush through Advent. We are discouraged from announcing our “Merry Christmas” in mid December, for that is still our time of waiting. Our first “Merry Christmas” is really uttered at the Mass on Christmas Eve, the Christ-Mass. Yet in the days after December 25th it is fitting for people of faith to continue saying “Merry Christmas” for days and days. This is why we speak of the twelve days of Christmas leading to Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.
During this season, you will often hear the somewhat amusing song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on the radio. (“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”) Are you aware of the very serious and deeply catechetical meaning of the song? Many scholars believe that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was composed by Roman Catholics in England to teach the faith to their children when they were forbidden to practice their religion (1558-1829) after King Henry VIII separated the Catholic Church in England from the authority of the Bishop of Rome and Successor of St. Peter. Here are the meanings of the symbolic gifts presented and multiplied on the twelve days from Christmas Day until the Epiphany. (1) The “partridge in a pear tree” is Christ, who gathers all people under His wings. (2) The “two turtledoves” are the sacrifices that St. Mary and St. Joseph offered in the temple in thanksgiving when Jesus was born. (3) The “three French hens” symbolize the gifts of the Magi as well as the Three Persons of the Trinity. (4) The “four calling birds” represent the four Evangelists. (5) The “five golden rings” stand for the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah. (6) The “six geese” betoken the six days of Divine Creation and our six days of work before we rest on the Lord’s Day. (7) The “seven swans” represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven sacraments. (8) The “eight maids” remind us of the eight beatitudes. (9) The “nine ladies” evoke the nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). (10) The “ten lords” proclaim the Ten Commandments. (11) The “eleven pipers” call to mind the eleven apostles who remained faithful to Christ. (12) The “twelve drummers” announce the twelve articles of the Apostles Creed. These twelve gifts provided an excellent memory device for children. As they sang the song, they were simultaneously learning, loving, and living their faith.
It is a sad commentary indeed that this song is so popular today, even among Catholics. However, the true meaning of the lyrics has been all but forgotten. Yet, the lyrics make no sense at all without knowing their origin. I invite you to save this reflection, read it to your children on Christmas Day and throughout the Christmas season. Share it with others. It will remind them of the true Christian meaning of the gifts given to us by our own “True Love” who is God.
My prayer for you and all who are dear to you on Christmas Day and every day is that you will come to a deeper understanding of Christmas. The birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth on which we meditate at Christmas derives all of its meaning and power from the salvation history that followed. The unique meaning of the birth of the Messiah can only be grasped by contemplating the life-giving, sin-shattering life, death, and resurrection that came after that first Christmas. A blessed and happy Easter to all!
Be at Peace,
The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville