cultural criticism | photography | place & space

This is a valley of ashes...

...a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

A Christmas Story

It’s certainly true that throughout the world, and in its many cultures, people believe and practice many things, but what happens when a people begin to forget some of the history or symbols of what they believe or practice? What happens when some people being to forget to practice what they believe? What happens when some practices evolve into something incoherent and obscure the story? What happens when an effort emerges to deliberately erase the meaning of the story if not the word Christmas itself in favor of the more Culturally, such times are Dark Ages. As an anthropologist I have an interest in these forgettings, and as a believer I have a vested interest. I cannot begin to offer the entire story or its symbolism, but some highlights show that for everything there is a season.

Advent is a liturgical season that is also the beginning of the liturgical year. It starts four Sundays prior to Christmas and ends Christmas Eve. One of the most important questions we should ask ourselves during Advent is not whether we’re ready for Christmas (shopping, decorating, mailing, baking, etc.) but whether we’re ready for Christ. Advent is actually a penitential time and one of the sparity (even fasting) needed to clear the clutter and enter ultimately into reflection. This is a special time to spiritually prepare for Jesus’ coming...his coming in his Incarnation over 2000 years ago; his coming into our lives daily; and his coming back at the end of time. As St John the Baptist teaches us, we must decrease so that Jesus might increase.

However, within Advent there are some days that elicit merriment. December 6th is the memorial of St Nicholas who was the Bishop of Myra, Lycia in modern Turkey. He was known to be generous to the poor; a special protector of the innocent and wronged; and venerated as a wonderworker. He died in about 346. According to legend, upon hearing that a local man had fallen on such hard times that he was planning to sell his daughters into prostitution, Nicholas went by night to the house and threw three bags of gold in through the window which landed in their shoes, saving the girls from an evil life. As a special patron of children among others and associated with gift giving, his story evolved in northern Europe where he flies from rooftop to rooftop on a white horse on St Nicholas Eve dropping chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, as well as other such treats and trinkets, into the shoes placed out by children. This legend and practice then devolved into Santa Claus in North America.

Also of note is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, which is one of a handful of major holy days within the year. Essentially it has nothing directly to do with the Advent-Christmas seasons and so really needn’t be discussed in this context except as a point of disambiguation. The reason why it’s not relevant to Advent-Christmas directly is because it commemorates the conception of St Mary by Sts Anne and Joachim not the conception of Jesus by St Mary, which is the commonly held belief. Another point of confusion is probably due to the many themes of Jesus’ conception at this time, but that is because, scripturally, Advent deals with events from Jesus conception to his birth as well as the many prophetic texts surrounding the advent of the messiah.

Now, the actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, and some place it in the spring to coincide with the likely time of the Roman census and the reason Sts Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem. It is also unknown for certain whether its placement by the early Church in the beginning of winter to coincide with (and co-opt) the pagan Saturnalia was deliberate or not. None of this ultimately matters. The birth happened, and the exact date isn’t all that important. What matters to me is unfortunately how cheapened Christmas has lacking in Christ...culturally.

The evening vigil and Christmas Day are a time to reflect deeply on one of the greatest mysteries of history and of faith...the Incarnation. The eternal, infinite, unknowable, all-powerful...the great I AM took it upon Himself to enter time and space. St John Chrysostom wrote:

It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same...[and]...are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings.

All of this and more have been poured into a vulnerable little baby. God entered into a human family...He entered into the whole human family so that He might bring us back home with Him.

Wisdom. Let us be attentive.

So, this isn’t really the best of times to focus our activities on crass materialism, gluttony, and boozing it up. It's just not right. Anyway, Christmas begins the liturgical season of Christmas, which lasts until Epiphany. This season is the Twelve Days of Christmas recorded in song, and this is the time for rejoicing and merriment.

Now there isn’t a day that goes by on the liturgical calendar that isn’t a feast or memorial of something or other...indeed some days contain up to a dozen possibilities, but this is a Christmas Story so I shan’t bother with the many between the beginning of Advent through Epiphany, but between Christmas Day and Epiphany there are a few that are relevant. December 26th celebrates the Holy Family, and the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th remembers the male children who were murdered by order of King Herod the Great in his attempt to eliminate the rival king...the king as fortold in scripture and mentioned by the Magi on their way to Bethlehem...which was the reason for the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Of course chronologically, this is putting the cart before the horse, but no matter. January 1st commemorated the circumcision of the Lord one week after his birth in accords with the very Law He came to fulfill. This day is of course New Year’s Day now, and it is also the solemnity of Mary Mother of God.

The season of Christmas ends with the Epiphany of the Lord on January 6th and liturgically, ordinary time beings. In most Christian cultures this has been the time to exchange gifts (or alternately on New Year’s Day) not Christmas Day, and this practice is symbolically and historically more consistent as the Epiphany is the commemoration of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem bearing gifts. The meanings of the gifts themselves presented are important as well. Gold is for He who is a king, frankincense is for He who is a priest, and myrrh is for He who is to die.

Culture gives us seasons. It gives us the memories and the symbols, but when a culture is in large part based on a faith...a faith that is revealed directly by the ineffable, the infinite, the A-Ω much of that are we allowed to change on our own to suit our own whim, and what is our responsibility not to forget?