Saturday, Dec. 25, 2010
The Nativity of the Lord
The snow is gently falling on Saint Meinrad Archabbey this Christmas Eve. Word is we could get anywhere from 1 to 3 inches by morning. Looking around the monastery and church, I think all the decorations look as good as they ever have on this, my fifth Christmas here. Everything is reserved, but elegant. A few wreaths, lights, poinsettias, and a crèche. Perhaps tomorrow I will take a photograph or two to post here.
It has been a busy evening. Vespers at 5 p.m. Anticipated Vigils at 7 p.m. Midnight Mass (this year at 10 p.m.). I am on bells this week, my last such assignment before making solemn vows precisely one month from Christmas Day.
It has been a somewhat trying week. On Monday I began coming down with a bad bug of some sort—the same sort of nasty stuff that has been going around (someone sneezes around here, and at least half are likely to catch cold)—sore throat, head and chest congestion, coughing, etc. By mid-week, my throat had become so sore that I could barely talk, so I finally gave in and saw the doctor, who put me on antibiotics and other assorted remedies.
Not much you can do about a cold, really. Simply get some rest and let it runs its course. What has made it frustrating for me, however, has been the inability to sing the “O Antiphons” in choir this week. Barely able to speak, I have not been able to participate in chanting the Divine Office per usual, and that always unsettles me. It kills me not to be able to join in the Work of God, as St. Benedict calls it (though perhaps some of my confreres might say it kills them when I am able to join in!).
After Mass Friday morning, I commented to someone that in choir I felt like Zechariah, who was rendered unable to speak until his wife Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. Of course, the last couple days leading up to Christmas, the Gospel readings at Mass have focused on Zechariah, culminating with his liberating and exuberant prophecy Friday morning (Luke 1:67-79). This, of course, is the Benedictus, which we chant every morning toward the end of Lauds: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free …”
It’s tough not to be able to do something you are used to doing, or want to do. This week, I wanted to sing with Zechariah’s opened mouth, but I couldn’t. Once I surrendered to this reality, however, something wonderful happened. I began simply listening to the rest of my confreres singing, letting the notes and verses flutter down around me like falling snowflakes. Have you ever listened to snow falling? It’s not a sound that shouts out, but rather one that instills a profound sense of inner peace. Yet it’s amazing how deafening a couple inches of silently falling snow can be—it seems to block out all other sound.
I was reminded of a similar experience I had this past summer while in Europe, when I had to surrender to the fact that I could not sing with all the rest (in German, French, or Italian), and simply listen to how beautiful it all was—God’s spoken Word sung back to Him in praise—in any and all languages. This is a gift, I realized, and sometimes when you receive a gift all you can do is simply accept it and be grateful for it. Period.
As nice as it may all be, what we celebrate at Christmas is not about the snow, the wreaths, the lights, the poinsettias, or even the crèche centered on a tiny infant. It is not about being able to sing out. It is about the most extraordinary gift ever given: A Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.
We are a people in need of being saved, and God’s love for us is so great that He became man to suffer with and redeem us and bring us all to everlasting life. As our Fr. Eugene pointed out in his introductory comments Friday morning, Zechariah’s Benedictus does not prophesy a cute kid in a manger, but a fierce and victorious Messiah who turns the status quo upside down. “That frightens us,” he said. “We’d rather focus on the baby in the manger, but that’s not what the season is about.”
The season is about our salvation, born of God’s immeasurable love for us—a love so fierce as to die for us, and so victorious as to conquer death once and for all. This is not child’s play, but God’s zeal to impart grace and save all.
And that is certainly something to shout about, though perhaps as silently as a snowflake.
The grace that gently falls on us in the form of an infant speaks louder and more powerfully than any word spoken before or since. This grace invites a response, but not necessarily (or even usually) spoken. Interestingly, the word “infant” is derived from the Old French form “enfant,” which in turn is from the Latin “infāns”—or, “unable to speak.” The Word made flesh, the very breath of God, silently fills us with His power and glory, and if we truly receive this gift it will keep on giving through each one of us—truly making the mystery of the Incarnation a living and present reality.
With this being the case, whether we can sing or not, we join the angels and saints in praising God, saying:
Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax
homínibus bonae voluntátis!