|Something worth talking about: Sacra Conversatione (Paolo Veronese, 1528-1588)|
Parishes do their very best on Christmas. As no doubt Garrison Keillor would relate about Lutherans and Catholics in Lake Wobegone, we compete over the excellence of our flowers, sermons, music, candles, altar linens, hospitality… and all the other trappings of parish life and liturgy that keep folks coming back. It would be easy to forget that all of these things are signs of a greater and more important reality. Ironically, and perhaps paradoxically, they are signs directing us to a baby, God’s co-eternal Son, Jesus.
As St. Augustine relates in On the Teacher, without signs, without words, we cannot know the thing itself. We can’t identify or even think about something without using words and names, however the name is not the thing itself. So also with our Masses on Christmas Day: without our polished words, our beautiful singing, and even our lovingly decorated churches, the world would perhaps never know about the Christmas Child, Jesus. We are, however, only midwives, messengers, and teachers; we can only point to Jesus.
Liturgy is a sign of the presence of God among us. Through the Word of God, through the Priest, through the assembly of the people of God, and most particularly through the Blessed Sacrament, we can see God present (Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, #7). With the exception of the Blessed Sacrament and the Word, however, these things are just signs; thankfully neither the priest nor the assembly is God. Salvation and liberation come when, like the prophet Isaiah, one recognizes “surely God is my salvation” (12:2). It is only after this is known, that one can understand Theresa of Avila’s well-known saying “Christ has no body now but yours.” All of our service to our neighbor is a free gift to God, not a replacement for him or his divine work among us; and after all of our striving and effort, there is but one Savior, and it is the divine baby we celebrate.
What is the purpose of words and songs about Jesus, then? Again as St. Augustine relates, “if we do not know [what the words signify], then we cannot call to mind [what the words signify], though perhaps we may be prompted to ask” (On the Teacher, chapter XI). Put simply, those who know Jesus sing and speak about him that they might call him to mind, and hopefully those who hear the words and songs and do not know the meaning will be prompted to ask. Even after having received faith through baptism, the process of seeking understanding is ongoing this side of heaven. To use Augustine's words, "credo, ut intelligam" or "I believe, that I might understand."
So we might ask ourselves: is there enough mystery and beauty in our praises that someone not “in the know” would be eager to inquire? Sometimes we hear things in Church that we believe, but do not yet understand. Do our sermons demonstrate faith seeking understanding, or is the truth expediently confined to human reason, so as to demonstrate human power and authority? Lastly, do our postures and demeanor demonstrate humility and wonder before the vast truth that lies before us, the holy Christ Child who disarms all human power in an instant? If we don’t know, we should ask someone who does!