Tag Archives: Christmas

Ronald Knox’s “A Letter About Christmas”

Ronald Knox c 1928

The famed English priest Monsignor Ronald A. Knox wrote a letter about Christmas published in The Tablet in 1937 (this is a British publication). For our purposes here, it is good to consider the theological points the Knox makes about the feast we are living in these days.

Dear When I saw you yesterday, you told me that you did not see any reason why you should have your house turned upside down just because it was Christmas. I have been thinking of your remark ever since, and the more I think of it, the less sense I can find in it. What is Christmas, from start to finish, but things being turned upside down?

The winter solstice, after all—I don’t seem to be able to find a calendar, but I know it happens about now—is just the reversing of a process. The days, instead of getting shorter and shorter till we fall into a perpetual night (and what else does our civilization deserve?) begin to lengthen out again; the hour-glass tips up, as it were, and our credits begin to balance our debits. The heathen obviously noticed that, and decided to hold their Saturnalia about then; was it on the fifteenth? Anyhow, not badly out. The Saturnalia, because Saturn was the god of the golden age, before the nasty, jerry-balt, mass-produced Jove-civilization began: so they liked to think that if the year could turn back in its tracks, there was no reason why history should not do the same; why should not history have its solstices? In that wistful desire for topsy-turvydom, they allowed their slaves to have a holiday, and say exactly what they liked to their masters. I wonder how you would like that? How you would take it if the housemaid started to draw the line at your daughter having followers? Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo—Virgil caught the spirit of the solstice idea, and wrote his Messianic eclogue. I am not going to bother about what he meant by it; but you can hardly deny that he made some good shots.

Don’t start arguing about whether Christmas happened. What we are talking about is a mood, and the world remembers the mood, even when it has become doubtful about the story; it would like Christmas to have happened, whether it really happened or not. The Maid-Mother—we could not have invented anything more gracious than that part of the story, even if it had been necessary for us to invent. Jam, edit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna; how is the golden age to return to us, except by some upheaval of nature, the appearance of some uncaused Cause to reverse the pounding of the monotonous wheels which hurry us relentlessly in the same direction? What better answer to Caesar Augustus’ population-bill, than the Child who had to be enrolled, for all there was no father that could be named for him?

That message, reasonably enough, has gone to the head of Christendom ever since ; and we find no better way of doing honour to Christmas than by turning things upside down. Everything went wrong from the first; all the best places going to the wrong people, as it were ; the ox and the ass nearest to the cradle, and the shepherds getting in ahead of the Kings; the Kings having to ask their way, and asking it of the people who never found it; the inn having no room, so that it was left for a stable to contain Him whom the worlds could not contain—all the arrogant topsy-turvydom, in fact, of the Christmas Crib. How it puzzled the Wise Men when they set out to make a calculation in astrology, to discover what child the strange star was going to influence, and found, at the end of their search that it was the Child who influenced the star.

All the modern paraphernalia of Christmas, presents, trees, crackers, turkey, yule-logs, waits and the rest of it, has become over-conventionalized, I grant you, and much overlaid with affectation, big-business, and the cult of the Tudor tea-room. But Christmas retains, under all its trappings, its essential note of unexpectedness. Just when you are expecting burglars to prowl about other people’s houses in disguise and take things away, you instead, the householder, are expected to disguise yourself and prowl about your own house, putting things there. Instead of waking up to find ladders in her stockings, your small daughter wakes up to find that the stocking itself has become a ladder, for Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Just when the boughs should be at their barest, one tree manages to reverse the whole process, miraturque novas frondes et non sua poma, burgeons into leaves of flame and fruits of glittering glass. The pudding which has meant so much more trouble than all the puddings of the year comes to table full of careless oversights, thimbles and sixpences which the most myopic of cooks could hardly have left there by mistake. Everywhere and in all ages head-dress has been the sign of human dignity ; can still be a matter of national importance, or why must Kemal be at pains to replace the fez by the bowler hat?—but not at Christmas; at Christmas it is expected of the solemnest uncle that he should dress up like a fool, and the angels are too discreet to smile at it. You should even admit in the abstract (though it is not so easy to take the right line when you actually come in contact with them) the propriety of those elaborate practical jokes which the shops sell, booby-traps that squirt water at you unexpectedly or black your face when you are not looking ; they all keep up the atmosphere of unexpectedness. Of course your house has got to be turned upside-down if it is to be a fitting symbol of the world turned upside down; and nothing less will do at Christmas.

And if you still complain, remember that the Church, whose dignity is (if you will excuse my mentioning it) much more important than yours, turns things upside down herself in a determined effort to do something about Christmas. Or rather, she has preserved one solitary anachronism in her calendar, to make us all feel properly uncomfortable, not knowing whether we are standing on our heads or our heels—I mean the Midnight Mass. For there is a gracious influence about night as a time of prayer—darkness, and light in darkness, and the day’s memories still warm, not yet severed from us by any interval of sleep. All that is what you cannot get at Mass; for Mass goes with another set of impressions, the cleanness and coldness of early morning, or the prosaic glare of the full sunlight. But on this one day in the year, for a treat, the Church will allow us to have it both ways, to combine the comfortable, almost guilty magic of darkness with the presence of the daily miracle. Supreme instance of topsy-turvydom, to go to a twelve o’clock Mass at twelve midnight!

All this probably won’t impress you; but it will teach you to be more careful what you say. I don’t think it does much good wishing a person like you a happy or a merry Christmas ; but I am doing it, if only to annoy you.

Yours always,


The Tablet, p. 6
December 25 1937

Hope springs from a stable of Bethlehem

Francis kisses baby JesusTo you, dear brothers and sisters, gathered from throughout the world in this Square, and to all those from different countries who join us through the communications media, I offer my cordial best wishes for a merry Christmas!

On this day illumined by the Gospel hope which springs from the humble stable of Bethlehem, I invoke the Christmas gift of joy and peace upon all: upon children and the elderly, upon young people and families, the poor and the marginalized. May Jesus, who was born for us, console all those afflicted by illness and suffering; may he sustain those who devote themselves to serving our brothers and sisters who are most in need. Happy Christmas to all!

Pope Francis’ English message for Christmas 2013

Blessed Christmas

nativity JBackerSaint Leo the Great teaches, “Today, dearly beloved, our Savior is born: let us rejoice! Surely there is no place for mourning on the birthday of true Life itself, who has swallowed up mortality with all its fear, and brought us the joyful promise of life everlasting. No one is excluded from taking part in our jubilation. All have the same cause for gladness, for as our blessed Lord, slayer of sin and death, found none free from guilt, so has he come to set us all alike at liberty.

Let the saint exult, since he is soon to receive recompense; let the sinner give praise, since he is welcomed to forgiveness; let the unbeliever take courage, since he is called unto life. For in the fullness of time ordained by the inscrutable mystery of the divine decree, the Son of God clothed himself with the nature of that human race which he was to reconcile to its Maker. Thus would he vanquish the devil, the author of death, through that very nature which had once yielded him the victory.”

Pope’s Christmas greetings to Roman Curia

color armsThe Holy Father meets with the Roman Curia typically on the Third Saturday of Advent in the Clementine Hall. In the past the papal address was longer and had a slightly different tone and content. Francis’ talk this year is spiritual with with a tone of fraternal correction aiming at a more substantive pastoral ministry for the of the person, and that of others. What the pope said to the curia is applicable to all. It ought to be attended to by all of us.

The Lord has enabled us to journey through Advent, and all too quickly we have come to these final days before Christmas.  They are days marked by a unique spiritual climate made up of emotions, memories and signs, both liturgical and otherwise, such as the creche…  It is in this climate that this traditional meeting takes place with you, the Superiors and Officials of the Roman Curia, who cooperate daily in the service of the Church.  I greet all of you with affection.  Allow me to extend a special greeting to Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who recently began his service as Secretary of State, and who needs our prayers!

While our hearts are full of gratitude to God, who so loved us that he gave us his only-begotten Son, it is also good to make room for gratitude to one another.  In this, my first Christmas as the Bishop of Rome, I also feel the need to offer sincere thanks to all of you as a community of service, and to each of you individually.  I thank you for the work which you do each day: for the care, diligence and creativity which you display; and for your effort I know it is not always easy – to work together in the office, both to listen to and challenge one another, and to bring out the best in all your different personalities and gifts, in a spirit of mutual respect.

In a particular way, I want to express my gratitude to those now concluding their service and approaching retirement.  As priests and bishops, we know full well that we never really retire, but we do leave the office, and rightly so, not least to devote ourselves a little more fully to prayer and the care of souls, starting with our own!  So a very special and heartfelt “thank you” goes to those of you who have worked here for so many years with immense dedication, hidden from the eyes of the world.  This is something truly admirable.  I have such high regard for these “Monsignori” who are cut from the same mould as the curiales of olden times, exemplary persons…  We need them today, too!  People who work with competence, precision and self-sacrifice in the fulfilment of their daily duties.  Here I would like to mention some of them by name, as a way of expressing my esteem and my gratitude, but we know that, in any list, the first names people notice are the ones that are missing!    Besides, I would also risk overlooking someone and thus committing an injustice and a lack of charity.  But I want to say to these brothers of ours that they offer a very important witness in the Church’s journey through history.

They are also an example, and their example and their witness make me think of two hallmarks of the curial official, and even more of curial superiors, which I would like to emphasize: professionalism and service.

Professionalism, by which I mean competence, study, keeping abreast of things…  This is a basic requisite for working in the Curia.  Naturally, professionalism is something which develops, and is in part acquired; but I think that, precisely for it to develop and to be acquired, there has to be a good foundation from the outset.

The second hallmark is service: service to the Pope and to the bishops, to the universal Church and to the particular Churches.  In the Roman Curia, one learns – in a special way, “one breathes in” – this twofold aspect of the Church, this interplay of the universal and the particular.  I think that this is one of the finest experiences of those who live and work in Rome: “to sense” the Church in this way.  When professionalism is lacking, there is a slow drift downwards towards mediocrity.  Dossiers become full of trite and lifeless information, and incapable of opening up lofty perspectives.  Then too, when the attitude is no longer one of service to the particular Churches and their bishops, the structure of the Curia turns into a ponderous, bureaucratic customshouse, constantly inspecting and questioning, hindering the working of the Holy Spirit and the growth of God’s people.

To these two qualities of professionalism and service, I would also like to add a third, which is holiness of life.  We know very well that, in the hierarchy of values, this is the most important.  Indeed, it is basic for the quality of our work, our service.  Here I would like to say that in the Roman Curia there have been, and still are, saints.  I have said this publicly on more than one occasion, as a way of thanking the Lord.  Holiness means a life immersed in the Spirit, a heart open to God, constant prayer, deep humility and fraternal charity in our relationships with our fellow workers.  It also means apostleship, discreet and faithful pastoral service, zealously carried out in direct contact with God’s people.  For priests, this is indispensable.

Holiness, in the Curia, also means conscientious objection.  Yes, conscientious objection to gossip!  We rightfully insist on the importance of conscientious objection, but perhaps we too need to exercise it as a means of defending ourselves from an unwritten law of our surroundings, which unfortunately is that of gossip.  So let us all be conscientious objectors; and mind you, I am not simply preaching!  For gossip is harmful to people, harmful to our work and our surroundings.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us feel close to one another on this final stretch of the road to Bethlehem.  We would do well to meditate on Saint Joseph, who was so silent yet so necessary at the side of Our Lady.  Let us think about him and his loving concern for his Spouse and for the Baby Jesus.  This can tell us a lot about our own service to the Church!   So let us experience this Christmas in spiritual closeness to Saint Joseph.  This will benefit all of us!

I thank you most heartily for your work and especially for your prayers.  Truly I feel “borne aloft” by your prayers and I ask you to continue to support me in this way.  I too remember you before the Lord, and I impart my blessing as I offer my best wishes for a Christmas filled with light and peace for each of you and for all your dear ones.  Happy Christmas!

Epiphany, brightest and best of the sons of the morning

Epiphany Giotto2.jpg
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness, and lend us Thine aid!
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid!
Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining,
Low lies His head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore Him, in slumber reclining, —
Maker, and Monarch and Savior of All.
Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
Gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would His favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness, and lend us Thine aid!
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid!
Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
Anglican Bishop of Calcutta
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About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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