Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Down with the holly, ivy; all... not quite!

This article doesn't have the intent of being judgemental, but rather to be a source of inspiration and accuracy to those Christians who want to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in its fullness. For many January and the days following New Year's Eve or even Christmass for that matter are a time during which to remove decorations as quickly as possible. It is sometimes the case that one already sees people taking their trees down on December 26th or January 1st. But people also seem to start decorating by Thanksgiving in America or by mid-November here in Europe. How wrong is all of this? The answer is very much.

Christmass is surrounded by two important seasons: Advent and Epiphany. During Advent, liturgical colors in churches turn to blue or deep purple, symbolising this season of expectation in the shades of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who brought the Son of God to this very world. Adventus means coming in Latin, and as one prepares for this Advent of the Lord, this is also the right time to put Christmass decorations up. Preferably, on the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks before Christmass. In particular towns or cities around Europe it has been the case to put them up on local saints' feast days prior to Christmass, for example the Immaculate Conception on December 8th in Rome and St. Ambrose on December 7th in Milan. However, the 1st Sunday of Advent remains the best choice. Of course, the nativity scene should not have the child Jesus until sunset on December 24th.

Christmastide begins on the evening of the eve of December 24th, according to the ancient Jewish practice of changing the day at sunset which entered the Christian tradition of vespers/eves serving to the same purpose. Christians celebrate the Incarnation of that Son of God who will bring peace into the whole world, the Emmanuel born of the Virgin Mary. On the eve of December 24th we place the child Jesus in our cribs, check my nativity scene in the picture below. For the famous Twelve Days of Christmass, also known as Christmass Season, we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, from December 25th to the eve of December 5th, culminating in the feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi and the spreading of the news of Christ's birth to the whole world. Removing your Christmass decorations during these holy days is an absolute sin!

The feast of the Epiphany, once known as Little Christmass, is the feast that celebrates the revelation of God's incarnate form in Christ Jesus, with the arrival of the Three Kings bringing their gifts of gold, myrrh and incense. In some countries in Europe, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, gifts are also given on this day. We place the Three Kings in our nativity scenes on this day, here to stay for the whole season of Epiphany, check again the picture above. You wouldn't think that creches were made to stay only for a few hours after the Magi had arrived! With Epiphany, very much part of the Christmass celebration, hence why it's a "sin" to remove the decorations at home before this day, it begins the third liturgical season dedicated to the spreading of the good news of Christmass and of the revelation of God's salvific mission into the world. This season of Epiphany lasts for a month, during which we celebrate important feasts such as the Baptism of the Lord, and it culminates on Candlemass, established by Pope Liberius in the 4th century to celebrate the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ Jesus to the Temple. Candlemass has traditionally been associated with the very end of Christmass, every Sunday of Epiphany we celebrate the Christmass and Candlemass is the 40th day. On Candlemass, we celebrate the ancient Jewish rituals following the birth of a child, the purification of a woman, the Virgin, 40 days after having given birth, and the ceremony of redemption of the firstborn, welcomed at Jerusalem's Temple by the whole community. Historically, this was considered to be the last day of the Christmass cycle. We remember Jesus, in the words of Nunc Dimittis, becoming a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel. The following day, from the Middle Ages through the Victorian Age, up until the early 20th century it was also the day when Christmass decorations could finally be removed. On this day candles are brought to church and blessed for the rest of the year, symbolising the same ritual occurred in Jerusalem. On Candlemass' eve, candles are positioned by the window, to share Christ's light with the whole world and to banish the demons of darkness away. Christ is our light and this is the last message of Christmass. Therefore, if you want to keep a Christian Christmass, fear not and keep your trees, decorations and nativity scenes until Candlemass! After all why not cheering up a bit with some Christmass spirit during this bare month of January? A Renaissance English poem, Ceremony upon Candlemass Eve, by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) goes:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmass hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Baptism of Christ.

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. After the Incarnation and the Epiphany, and before Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ to the Temple, this is the major milestone in the Gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, but spiritually speaking it is much more, regarding our economy of salvation, it is the way God gave mankind to be partakers of his body, the mean of his grace, the way to be part of the assembly of the faithful known as the Church. The event is mentioned clearly in the four gospels, not only that, but even secular historians regard the Baptism and the Crucifixion as the starting point for the study of the historical Jesus. In the accounts of Matthew, Luke, Mark, a voice thunders from heaven You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. In Matthew, John the Baptist says I have need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus convinces him to baptise him. In Luke, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on Christ, this is stressed even more in John, in which the other disciples are baptised. A location of the site of the Baptism is given, in Bethabara, beyond Jordan. Today thought to be on the eastern bank of the river Jordan, near Jericho. During my latest trip to Israel, in November, I was blessed to make the sign of the cross with those waters Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Originally in the early Church, Baptism was celebrated on the same day of Christmas and the Epiphany, whereas it is now the tradition of the Church to celebrate it on the Sunday following the Epiphany, when the Epiphany occurs on a Sunday, it might be celebrated on the following Monday. In the Baptism of Christ the Trinity appears in its full glory; God thundering from the heavens, the Spirit descending on Christ, the light of the nations - the sacrament through which our sin is washed away with the waters of the Jordan and through which he made us partakers of his body and blood, through which we became whole in him and we in him. Saint Irenaeus said He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men.

In Christian art, the Baptism of the Lord, has its own iconography, developed as early as the 4th century with the moving example from the catacombs of San Callisto in Rome. Christ, standing, is being baptised with water from the river Jordan, the Baptist pours it gently on his head. The scene developed substantially in Medieval art, and by the 15th century, there is a full iconography with the whole Trinity. God the Father, usually shown as a pair of hands, seems to launch the dove of the Spirit spreading its wings over, Christ, gently immersed in the clear waters and ready to spread that message to the whole earth, angels appear singing, playing instruments and giving praise to the first step of Christ's revelation towards Calvary. The Renaissance was a prolific time for this theme, perhaps the most notable examples, and my favourites too, are that of Piero della Francesca and Verrocchio/ Leonardo. The first, set in a bucolic scenery of Gothic echoes has in fact a very precise geometrical scheme, based on symmetry, Piero della Francesca's colours are extremely and yet gently cool. Although the Baptist is just pouring water on Christ's head, the scene gives a sense of great calm, above them appears the Spirit, ready to validate the action in the name of the Father, instead of him though is a tree, diving the scene from top to bottom, in the background are a multitude of people being baptised in eastern Renaissance clothing, an Italian looking Jerusalem is in the background. Three beautiful angels distantly but reverently take part in the scene, they invite the spectator to take part in it. The second work, begun by Andrea di Verrocchio, one of the great masters of Renaissance in Florence, was finished by Leonardo da Vinci nonetheless. Iconographically, the work is very similar, the Baptist, this time standing taller than Christ, pours water on his head with a tiny shell, the hands of the Father seem to free the dove of the Spirit above, ready to bless the unfolding event below with its golden rays of grace. Two much more youthful angels seem to discuss the scene, and we are almost drawn to try and hear what they are saying! This work departs considerably from Piero's sense of symmetry, here the two masters show Florentine extravaganza at its best; the Baptist and Christ seem to be bouncing in that very Quattrocento pose, almost as if their weight is entirely held by those elegantly curved legs - Christ's feet just appear under the water in an incredible illusion, the fruit of great talent. In the background is a splendid Florentine scenery, with hills, lakes, and even in this case with echoes of the Gothic world. Renaissance masters reinvented classical aesthetics and made Christian art and its heavenly message anew through it. Christ speaks to us, come and be baptised in my name. Happy Feast.