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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: The True Meaning of Christmas

12/17/2021 | Comments


There have been quite a few adaptations of Charles Dickens’ literary classic “A Christmas Carol,” but there is one crucial element found in the original novel that is always omitted from the various film and animated versions. The morning after his confrontation with his past, present, and future, the first place the newly-reformed Scrooge goes is to church. Christmas for Dickens is not simply celebrated with figgie pudding and stuffed goose; it is venerated lest it fall into simply a sentimental, toothless (and truthless) holiday.

As author Michael Barber reminds us in his newly-released book “The Meaning of Christmas: The Birth of Jesus and the Origins of the Season,” “for Dickens, going to church was an essential aspect of Christmas. Just as there is no ‘Christmas’ without Christ, there is also no Christmas without ‘Mass.’ ‘Christmas’ literally means ‘Christ’s Mass.’ For Dickens, Christmas would be incomplete apart from going to church. As we shall see, this is an idea that is deeply rooted in the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus’ birth.” (p.5)

Early in the church’s history, a brilliant teacher, exegete and apologist offered his own wonder at the Incarnation of Jesus:

“But of all the marvelous and splendid things about him, there is one that utterly transcends the limits of human wonder and is beyond the capacity of our weak mortal intelligence to think of or understand, namely, how this mighty power of the divine majesty, the very Word of the Father, and the very Wisdom of God, in which were “created all things visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16), can be believed to have existed within the compass of that man who appeared in Judaea; yes, and how the wisdom of God can have entered into a woman’s womb and been born as a little child and uttered noises like those of crying children.” (Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, trans. G.W. Butterworth, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), p. 135.

Barber, professor of sacred Scripture at The Augustine Institute, expresses the same awe regarding the Nativity of Jesus, and adds, “But according to Origen, we’re in good company, since to utter these things as they should be uttered ‘transcends the capacity even of the holy apostles; nay more, perhaps the explanation of this mystery lies beyond the reach of the whole creation of heavenly beings’! O magnum Mysterium!” (ibid, cited in “The True Meaning of Christmas,” Introduction, xiv).

Barber takes this ancient event and introduces its key elements and characters using the first lines of familiar Christmas carols, starting with an introduction (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”); addressing the ancient Jewish hopes for a messiah (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”); Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah (“Tidings of Comfort and Joy”); Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (“Christ is Born of Mary”); Why a virgin mother? (“Round Yon Virgin”); Joseph and his dilemma (“What Child is This?”); Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (“Away in a Manger”); the shepherds in the field (“Angels We Have Heard On High”); the mysterious Magi (“Star of Wonder”); addressing the questions of the historical Jesus (“Christ Our God to Earth Descendeth”); how December 25 was fixed as the date of Christmas (“The First Nowell”) and of special importance to all, the development of the Christmas celebration (“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”). It’s a lot of material to address, but Barber structures this book quite well.

We realize, when we pause for a moment, that Christmas can be a difficult time. Barber reminds us that our hopes for Christmas are often set impossibly high. The lyrics of Christmas carols haunt us in the midst of a global pandemic and seem to disappoint rather than encourage; in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” we try to remember the “faithful friends who are dear to us/Gather near to us once more.” Many of those friends are still missing in our company; still others have gone on to eternity before us. It’s not surprising that people often feel let down by the end of the holiday season.

Barber’s purpose is not to myth-bust or explain why we should not get our hopes dashed this time. He writes in the introduction, “Christmas can only be disappointing when its true meaning is forgotten. When we understand what Christmas is really about, we can never be let down by it. Christmas involves an invitation to a homecoming that surpasses our deepest longings” (p.4).

Barber devotes several chapters to the theological importance of all the actions and events we read about in the Gospel accounts of Luke and Matthew. His final chapters bring us to the present questions that often arise at Christmas:

• How Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25.

• Why there are “Twelve Days” of Christmas.

• St. Nicholas’ transformation into Santa Claus.

• The symbolism that gave rise to the use of Christmas trees.

This book is theologically sound, well-written, and can provide lessons for catechesis, family discussions and prayer times, stories to children (and adults), and in general provide a thoughtful and thoroughly Catholic sense of the season. The section on messianic prophecies is informative without being overly complex or allegorical. Throughout the text there are helpful tables that compare a nativity image or character with its Old Testament counterpart or predecessor.

Barber invokes a comforting promise from the Old Testament Book of Malachi — that the coming of the Messiah “will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:5-6), which is a hopeful thought for families who are for one reason or another not together. The chapters devoted to Mary are helpful in explaining her virgin birth and relationship to Joseph, with in-depth word study and explanations for the relatives of Joseph’s and Mary’s extended families. We are even given diagrams for first-century Palestinian homes in agrarian settings, such that the Christ child could be lain in a manger, which itself could be part of a home (Chapter 7).

Later, we come to understand the purpose behind the pilgrimage of the Magi. Time after time, Barber provides us with background, precision, and careful explanation to clear up the confusion between the biblical story and the commercial traditions that have crept in over the centuries — well worth the read, to be sure.

The book has been enthusiastically endorsed by fellow Augustine Institute professor Dr. Brant Pitre:

 “For years, I have wished there were a book on Christmas that would answer all the questions I get emails about every year,” Pitre wrote. “In his brilliant and fascinating new book, Michael Barber uses the Bible, Jewish tradition, archaeology, and ancient history to shed fresh light on the true meaning and mystery of Christmas. If you’re looking for a wonderful Christmas gift for your loved ones (or yourself!), then look no further.”

I particularly liked the chapters on the historical Jesus (addressing assertions that Jesus never existed, or that myths attached themselves to the simple story of a remarkable — but altogether human — rabbi); how Roman imperial calendars influenced the date(s) that the Nativity is celebrated in various Christian faiths; and how adaptations in pagan lands (especially England, as they speak to Christmas observances) have influenced our dating and celebrating. Michael Barber has given the church a wonderful resource, an informative guide, and a comforting reassurance that Christ is indeed the heart of Christmas.

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