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Twelve Glances of Christmas: A meditation on the Incarnation

Gazes and gifts to enhance the sounds of our times

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During these pandemic days, I have had space to listen closely to the sounds of the times. And they are diverse. Shouts, threats, chants, promises, gasps, Zoomed choruses of classics and cries for justice. They all are like music, meant to charge our imaginations and to arouse our indignance.

I hear in each, moreover, something deeply religious.

Through all of these sounds rings clear the voice of human longing, a longing for something to quell the fear. The fear of our common mortality, the fear of the darkness of this seemingly endless night, the fear we have of the other, and of ourselves.

It is a deep longing. It is a longing for peace. A peace that the world can never give. A peace that can only be a gift from someone greater than ourselves. It is a peace foreshadowed in the song of the Christmas angels, whose heavenly voices to the shepherds usher in a new age for humanity at the birth of Christ: et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!

It is a longing which is a yearning for God.

And so, in this present space of sounds, I write these words to you, dear reader, wherever you may find yourselves. as a meditation on longing.

The piano masterpiece that inspired this Christmas meditation, however, is French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus (“Twenty Gazes or Contemplations on the Infant Jesus”). It is an incredible suite of solo piano tone-poems (nearly two hours to perform) on the mystery of Christ, the Incarnate One. It was composed in 1944. These 20 pieces demand a virtuosity of piano performance, and, I believe, also a depth of faith on the part of the performer. They are a set of mystical contemplations, offering tone-sound meditations on the infinite comprehensibility of the mystery of the Incarnation.

So, taking Messiaen’s image of the gaze in sound, I meditate on the mystery of Christmas with gazes of words. And, rather than 20, I offer only 12. The other eight, perhaps, you will finish in the depths of your own heart.

In the sublime sounds of Messiaen’s glances and the familiar abundance of the 12 Days of Christmas, here are 12 glances of Christmas, gazes and gifts to enhance the sounds of our times.

A Glance of the Word Made Flesh

At the heart of the Catholic faith is the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word of God became flesh, born of the Virgin Mary.

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So central is this doctrine, that for centuries, even to the present, theologians and preachers have been sorting out ways to speak about it … lest we fall into heresy.

What we do profess is that without God loving the world so much, and without the wedding of divinity with humanity in the son of Mary, there would be no redemption or resurrection.

The doctrine of the Incarnation points to the overwhelming good news that the material “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” to quote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This doctrine points to the promise that all humanity and all creation is caught up in the glory of the divine, in a kind of divinization. The deacon or the priest says such words when a drop of water is placed in the chalice, during the Eucharistic celebration: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

The doctrine of the Incarnation is the cornerstone of the entire Catholic sacramental reality. Christ is the great sacrament that enlivens bread and wine and water and oil and fire and human relations to become transparent in our immanence to the transcendence of God.

A Glance of the Holy Spirit

We are indebted to the Holy Spirit for the gift of the Incarnation. The child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gave Mary the urgent desire to yield to the promise of the prophets.

By gazing on the Spirit we can deeply appreciate the wonder of transformation, for when the Spirit moves, everything is changed — bread, wine, time, space and all creation.

We are reclaiming our gaze on the Holy Spirit around the altar of God. In the Eucharistic prayers that have been part of our liturgies now for more than 50 years, we invoke the Holy Spirit over bread and wine, “that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Incarnation renewed in the memorial of the marvelous works of God among us.

But if that is not enough, we have recovered from the ancient tradition a second invocation of the Spirit upon us, the assembled people of the covenant, baptized in water and promise, that our lives may become holy and God is holy — that is, that we, too, may become the living Christ in a communion, one body, one spirit in Christ.

An Easter Glance in Winter

There is a classic book from the Orthodox tradition that has impacted my understanding of Christmas for many years. It is entitled “The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season” by Father Thomas J. Hopko (1939-2015).

In this wonderful series of meditations on Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, Hopko sets his glance on the ancient memory that all the feasts of the Church celebrate the richness of the Paschal Mystery: the incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension of Christ and the giving over to the Church of the Pentecost Spirit, even unto the glory of God the Father.

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The Significance of the Number 12

Father Richard Fragomeni chose 12 glances or gazes because, at this season, it is a symbolic number, finding its roots in ancient numerology of wholeness, coming from religious and cultural sources around the globe.

The “12 Days of Christmas” is not only marking this festive time from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, it is also the title of a well-known carol that has been used to celebrate the abundance of gifts that mark this season. “My true love gave to me … ” If one were to add up all the gifts that would be given in this carol, it would be 364 — nearly the fullness of a year.

Twelve has always been a number to point to the joy of abundance and cosmic wholeness. Starting with the 12 signs of the zodiac in ancient cultures, to the 12 months of the year, to the 12 tribes of Israel, the Twelve Apostles and the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit, not even to mention the 12 tones of the scale, used so hauntingly by Olivier Messiaen, the inspiration behind this meditation.

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So he begins with the image of Christmas as the celebration of this Paschal Mystery, thus the title of the book, “The Winter Pascha.” (It should be noted that this image of Christmas only works in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas is in the summer. This will offer a quite different glance of the festival.)

The revelation of the fullness of the Incarnation — that is, the Pascha of Christ — is made manifest in the Incarnate life of Christ in the Church. This is why traditionally, baptisms, while celebrated primarily at the spring Pascha of Holy Saturday are also celebrated at Christmastime — at Epiphany.

A Glance through the Eyes of Martyrs

It is often repeated: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Christian faith.” In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis gives voice to this again, as brothers and sisters, all, we proclaim Christ with our lives. At Christmas, we are given a trifold glance of martyrdom.

With Stephen, John and the Innocents of Bethlehem celebrated on the first three days of Christmas, we gaze at the richness of martyrdom. The meaning of the word martyr is familiar to many. It means one who gives testimony. Usually, this is a testimony to something significant and of vital importance. As Christians, we look at these three days as a lesson on how we can all be witnesses to Christ.

Stoning of St. Stephen
The neo-Baroque fresco of the “Stoning of St. Stephen,” by Luigi Tagliaferri (1841-1927), in the Church of St. Stephen in Menaggio, Italy. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Stephen shows us that Christian witness to the Gospel is offered by shedding blood. Martyrs proffer their lives, willingly, in demonstration of the importance of the paschal promise.

John, on the other hand, dies of natural causes, we believe, living out his many years on Patmos. He is a white martyr. By his faithful life, he shows forth the presence of the Word made flesh.

And, the Innocents of Bethlehem are martyrs who, even without awareness or volition, offer their lives as a witness to the promise of God. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we glorify the Lord.

In blood, in life, and the subtle unknowing, the witness of martyrs is the seed of Christmas glory.

Gratitude’s Glance

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Gratitude and gift are siblings. They grow up together. Without one, the other is empty sentiment or simple commodity.

Gratitude is the open heart that can receive. It is the receptivity to what is offered and a clear path to being overwhelmed by what is given.

Gift is a superabundance of life, offered without thought of reciprocation or need of return.

At Christmas, the divine Giver offers humanity the possibility of being flooded by love. Not of our deserving, but by the very nature of God to excessive giving.

The gift is the Incarnate Christ, the Word made flesh. The gift is a promise that humanity can be taken into a new dimension of space and time, and be brought, by love, into a vastness of love.

Author David N. Power, professor emeritus at The Catholic University of America, says it this way in “Sacramental Abundance: An economy of gift”: “Rather, God is praised for taking what has already been given in creative love to transform it even more lovingly. There is no suggestion of reciprocation in this exchange of the human and the divine, for all comes from God’s bounty. It is an exchange in which God receives nothing and the world appears as pure gift, existing only in the breath of the divine exchange.”

May we be humble enough to know our nothingness, humble enough to receive this Christmas gift with gratitude.

The Glance of Generosity

Jesus says, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” (Mt 10:8). What a fitting look at generosity. We are generous because God has been generous to us, first.

If we gaze at the origin of the word “generosity,” it has a curious origin. It resonates with the generosity of a woman giving birth to a child. The overwhelming self-giving associated with a mother offering life.

Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, generosity is the willingness to receive from the Spirit the overwhelming promise of God and then being willing to let it overtake us. And then, when it is ready, to let it go to others.

In this reception of the gift we are given, our lives become fecundated with a divine spark. This spark can inflame our hearts so greatly, that we in turn become the gift of God offered to others. In this divine flow we give ourselves to others in service and justice, because we have become the gift we have received.

Christmas is a celebration of generosity. In the flow of gift at this holy time, we receive another gift: a glimpse of the generous flow of love that is the Trinity — that is, an eternal interchange of love that gives birth to Christ, birth to the cosmos, birth to hope beyond the stars.

The Glance of Joy in Trees

In his poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” a poem not all that well-known, T.S. Eliot concludes the mediation on Christmas festivities with these words:

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas

(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)

The accumulated memories of annual emotion

May be concentrated into a great joy … .

A great joy that Christmas carols celebrate, asking the trees of the forest to exalt, and heaven and nature sing.

During this time of global climate crisis, Christmas trees, decorated with love, become a sacrament of our desire, as Christians, to love our planet, to embrace our resources and to care for nature as we care for ourselves. To honor all creation as the gift of the beneficent Creator.

Eliot calls us to a vision of great joy in the accumulated dedication we are asked to have for the cosmic Christ at Christmas — the glimpse of God in this vast cosmos, beginning with our dwelling place of earth, in a manger bed, illumined by a bright star. This glance of God allows us to stand in the same wonder and joy of children looking at their first Christmas tree. At the wonder and joy of trees, and plants, and birds, and marsupials, and black holes, and insects, and oceans and in the eyes of people we love and who love us. Can you imagine such concentrated joy?

A Glance of Sound

You often hear “the sounds of the season.” And it is true. Starting right after Halloween and moving through Thanksgiving toward Dec. 25, we hear these seasonal sounds.

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Unfortunately, most of this music is not music at all, it’s background, filler notes. Sometimes known as Muzak, this kind of sound is not meant to give a glimpse of anything. It offers only a sound vibration to either give shoppers or runners an incentive to move to its rhythm to buy and spend or cross the finish line. It is mostly background music to distract us from going too deep into the mystery of life and love.

I must admit, however, that I am impressed by the fact that the department stores and coffee shops use a Christmas Muzak. In other words, as background as it may be, we are still hearing the melody of “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.”

I believe that, especially at Christmas, in the deep wintertime, the real glance of sound comes in the stillness of listening calmly with others at home, or alone, to the way that all music, especially the delicate sound of Christmas, can open our hearts. Deep listening gives us a glimpse of the divine song of the angels announcing peace on earth and goodwill to all. If we listened deeply to this kind of music, there would be no more war.

A Glance of a Holy Family

I did not grow up in what is portrayed at Christmas as a holy family. My family was tough. We were raised in upstate New York in an Italian neighborhood. It was a wonderfully human place. All the families there were like ours: We fought and we made up. We screamed at each other and then sang opera arias together. We gave each other the cold shoulder and then the warm hugs.

My impression was that, in all of that, there was a glance into a holiness that was not of plaster statues of Jesus in a manger with Mary and Joseph kneeling in awe.

I remember each year the priest spoke of holy families, and, from my experience listening to him, it did not seem real at all. Looking back at all of it now, we were holy in our own way, each one doing our best to pass on the light of Christmas all year long.

Now we have families of many kinds. The good news is still that in our human quest for love the Child is born. In the variations on what families mean and are, the constant to a holy family is the desire to be whole, together, so we are never alone.

A Glance at Memories in Fruitcake and Kites

In this 1956 short story “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote gives us a look at fruitcake as a glance at the real meaning of sharing and self-giving love. This is a story I read each Christmas and highly recommend it.

As a boy, Capote was close to an older woman, his cousin, who is unnamed. She calls Capote “Buddy.” Each year at Christmas the older cousin and Buddy, having saved their pennies, shop for all the fixings to make fruitcakes to offer as gifts to friends and family, including the President of the United States, FDR. This touching short story describes one particular Christmas when all the fruitcakes were made and there was some whiskey left over. They drank it together, becoming giddy with Christmas spirit.

The part of the story that touches me the most is on that particular Christmas morning the cousin and Buddy exchange gifts they have made for each other. Both made each other wonderful paper kites to fly in the open fields where they lived. Both were deeply touched by the creativity of the other. That same Christmas day finds them flying their kite and eating Christmas oranges together on that cold, clear winter day. Years later, when the older cousin faces dementia and no longer recognizes Buddy, there is the sadness and joy of love and memories that bless and burn.

Capote concludes the story with these words on the lips of Buddy when he hears of his cousin’s death: “And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven.”

In such loving memory we have a glimpse of Christmas in fruitcake and kites.

A Glimpse at Midnight

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Midnight is the switching hour … one day to the next, one year to the next. The ancient Israelites cherished several midnights as moments in which God can be glimpsed: the midnight when Adam and Eve were created; the midnight of the sacrifice of Isaac; the midnight of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; the midnight of the coming of the Messiah.

Enter midnight Mass. It was always at midnight. The rubrics always called it Mass during the Night … it was at midnight, in the tradition of Israel waiting for the coming of the Messiah … when all history would switch and peace would be born.

And for centuries, we did midnight Mass as something to be anticipated all year long. When “Silent Night” was sung, it was really a silent night.

Then the rule changed. We no longer needed to start Sunday, feast days or Christmas at midnight … we could “anticipate” the feasts in the late afternoon the day before. Christmas now starts in parishes at 3, 4 and sometimes even 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve … and the calls come in: “What time is midnight Mass?” Because, sometimes, it’s at 9 or 10 p.m. Midnight is no longer kept as the sacred time of switching. The kairos of midnight has yielded to the Kronos of everyday life of convenience. (To say nothing of the fact that the Easter Vigil, the mother of all nights, most often starts with the lighting of the Paschal fire long before the sun sets.

With our ancient ancestors in faith, the glimpse comes at the midnight hour. It comes with the rhythm of night and darkness. We stay up all night to practice heaven in our vigils, St. Augustine says, as well as the Book of Wisdom 18:14-15:

“For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything

and the night in its swift course was half spent,

Your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne

leapt into the doomed land.”

Stay up and get a glimpse of light born in the switching hour.

A Glimpse into the Name of God

Names are significant. Knowing a name gives a certain knowledge and intimacy with a person. This is true not only for the ancients, but for us as well.

If we know someone’s name, we can Google them, or find them on Facebook or Linkedin. I always feel safer around a big dog when I know his name. And, if you really get to know someone, you find a name within their name, an endearing name for them, and they for you. A name that reveals a relationship unique and life-changing.

Christmas gives us a glimpse into the new name of God. At Christmas, we get to know God deeply and mystically. In the stillness of the dark night, in the gift of the Spirit, we come close to the Incarnate One and taste in gratitude the generosity of compassion and the Cross. The blood of the great Cross of witness is exalted in the trees of ornaments and light. The name of God is endearing and alluring us in the sounds and memories of the family of creation, the family of the earth, the family of our common humanity.

It is the new name to be written on our foreheads, and, for now, written in our hearts: Christ, Christ, Christ, the Anointed One who has anointed us at this Paschal feast in the wintertime with glimpses of God.

God is praised for taking what has already been given in creative love to transform it even more lovingly. There is no suggestion of reciprocation in this exchange of the human and the divine, for all comes from God’s bounty. It is an exchange in which God receives nothing and the world appears as a pure gift in this exchange of the human and the divine, for all comes from God’s bounty. It is an exchange in which God receives nothing and the world appears as a pure gift, existing only in the breath of the divine exchange.

FATHER RICHARD N. FRAGOMENI, Ph.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, and professor of liturgy and preaching and chair of the Department of Word and Worship at Catholic Theological Union.

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Olivier Messiaen, Giving Sound to the Longings of the Heart

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During this time of quarantine, Father Richard Fragomeni has listened to the sounds of piano music, especially the music of composers that echoes the yearning for God, the longing for peace.

One of these composers is Olivier Messiaen (1908-92). Messiaen was a French artist born near Paris, and he spent his whole life as a composer, performer and ornithologist. This may seem like a strange combination: musician and ornithologist?

The official website of Messiaen’s legacy (oliviermessiaen.org) is headed by the following quote of the Messiaen, which explains the apparent juxtaposition:

“My faith is the grand drama of my life. I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.”

Messiaen’s Catholic faith, deeply rooted in his music, inspired an amazing repertoire of compositions. He gives musical sound to the longings of the heart and the joyful lament of birds.

During World War II, in June 1940, Messiaen was captured by the Nazis and interned in a Polish prisoner of war camp, Stalag 8A, Gorlitz. He returned to Paris in March 1941, with this new depth of human suffering to inspire his musical vocation.

During this COVID time, Father Fragomeni has especially been taken by a composition Messiaen wrote in the concentration camp: Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), a fitting sound for these difficult days.

Father Fragomeni recommends that you sit still and allow the sounds of this quartet to touch the longings of the heart. Be ready to hear sounds that may awaken pain at a profound depth that may be uncomfortable, yet full of the promise of peace. Taken into the abyss with the birds and the pledge of freedom.

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