Liturgical Year
Part 4 Christmas

Chapter y42 Christmas

Preliminary Questions


Ten Finger History


The Franciscan School and the Incarnation

The Mass:  A Guided Tour -- Site One:  Christmas

Date of Christmas


To Think About

Preliminary Questions

Which is your favorite feast, Easter or Christmas? How is Christmas different for you now that you are an adult from your recollections of Christmas when you were a child?  Do you enjoy all the gift giving, card sending, tree decorating, etc of Christmas or does it just seem like "a too busy" time?

"What is the star you are following now?" Chittister, The Liturgical Year, p 62.

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Code of Canon Law. Book IV, Part III, Title II: Sacred Times (cc 1244-1253). CLSA Commentary, pp 853-855.

Murray Bodo. Francis: The Journey and the Dream. "Christmas at Greccio" p 95.

Adrian Nocent. The Liturgical Year. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1977. Vol. 1 Advent, Christmas, Epiphany.


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1. Apostolic [0-399]

2. Patristic [400-799]

3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

4. Medieval [1200-1299]

5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

6. Reformation [1500-1699]

7. After Trent [1700-1899]

8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

9.  Vatican II [1960-1975]

10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]



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Incarnational Theology: God became a real human being; Incarnational religion; a regard for this earth and its real people and real problems; (real bread and real wine).

Docetism:  the belief that Jesus appeared to be a human being like us, but was really God.

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The Franciscan School and the Incarnation

The Incarnation Intended before All Time

Without a doubt, the most profound and perfect self-revelation of God took place in the Incarnation.  God, the divine artist, conceived of the best way in which the fullness of divine glory could be shared.  Like a diligent artist who envisions a gorgeous landscape and who then begins to execute the design [plan = mysterion = mystery = sacrament] by creating the background that will support the whole of the work, so too, before the beginning of time, Scotus contends, God freely planned the Incarnation.  Simply stated, according to Scotus, the reason for the Incarnation in the first place was God's free and eternal decision to have, outside God's own self, someone who could love God perfectly.  Through the humanity of Jesus, God expressed the absolutely free divine desire to communicate divine love in a contingent and finite world.

And so it was that the world was created through the Word (Jn 1:1-18).  Humans were created having the capacity to respond freely to divine initiative and capable of entering into a personal relationship with God and with one another.  As Scotus sees it, humans were not only created in the image and likeness of God, (imago Dei) they were also created in the image of the incarnate Son (imago Christi).  Just as Bonaventure taught, Scotus also sees Christ as the pattern after which all creation is fashioned.  Like the Seraphic Doctor [Bonaventure], the Subtle Doctor [Scotus] holds that progress in the spiritual life is a process of christification as well as deification; the more Christ-like one becomes, the more God-like one is.  Indeed, human union with God is mediated through the Incarnation. 

Scotus joins a long line of Franciscan scholars in maintaining that the Word would have become incarnate even if Adam had not sinned.  Adam's sin was not the sine qua non (the absolute and only cause) for the Incarnation.  In Scotus's view, the Incarnation was not necessitated by the human choice to sin, for that would be effectivelyyou subjected God (who is absolutely free) to permission of sin.  Also, if the Incarnation had been the result of sin, humans would have reason, contrary to charity, to rejoice at the sinfulness of others." 

Rather, the Incarnation represents the manifestation of God's eternal glory and God's intent to raise human nature to the highest point of glory by uniting it with the divine nature.  Understood in this way, the Incarnation is a paradigm for divine-human mutuality. 

Mutuality between God and humanity was foreseen from eternity, begun in the Incarnation and is to be fully realized in the future when Christ will be "all in all."  The summit of creation is the communion of all persons with one another and with God ... Christ is the very person in whom the human and divine achieve mutuality. 

Christ embodies the divine message that human actions are pleasing to God, human persons are pleasing to God and humans are loved by God.  The fact that, according to Scotus, God's freedom and liberality inspired the Incarnation provides a positive enhancement of human nature that is not possible in a sin-centric understanding of the doctrine.  God, in Scotus's view, is a creative artist who selected human nature as the "material" most fitting to receive the highest glory of subsisting in the person of the Word.  This divine message provides the basis for Scotus's understanding of divine acceptatio and the order of merit.  (Dawn M. Nothwehr, O.S.F., The Franciscan View of the Human Person: Some Central Elements.  The Franciscan Heritage Series, Volume Three.  Franciscan Institute, 2005.  Pp 53-54)

Christ:  The Blueprint of Creation

Scotus maintains that God became human in Jesus out of love (rather than because of human sin) because God wanted to express God's self in a creature who would be a masterpiece and who would love God perfectly in return.  This is Scotus's doctrine of the primacy of Christ.  Christ is the first in God's intention to love.  Creation is not an independent act of divine love that was, incidentally, followed up by divine self-revelation in the covenant.  Rather, the divine desire to become incarnate was part of the overall plan in the order of intention. 

Scotus places the Incarnation within the context of creation and not within the context of human sin.  Christ, therefore, is the masterpiece of love, the "summum opus Dei."  The idea that all of creation is made for Christ means that for Christ to come about there had to be a creation,and, in this creation, there had to be beings capable of understand and freely responding to divine initiative.  Creation was only a prelude to a much fuller manifestation of divine goodness, namely, the Incarnation.

Whereas Thomas Aquinas emphasized the material and formal causes in creation, Scotus emphasized the final cause as determining the work of the Artist.  Everything in creation is related to finality expressed in Christ, and this final goal is impressed on everything in between.  Christ is the meaning and model of creation and every creature made in the image of Christ.  Because creation is centered on Incarnation, every leaf, cloud, fruit, animal and person is an outward expression of the Word of God in love.  When Jesus comes as the Incarnation of God, there is a "perfect fit" because everything has been made to resemble Jesus Christ.  This means that sun, moon, trees, animals, stories, all have life only in Christ, through Christ and with Christ, for Christ is the word through whom all things are made (cf Jn 1:1).   (Ilia Delio, O.S.F.  A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World.  The Franciscan Heritage Series, Volume 2.  Franciscan Institute. 2003 p 54)

If we believe that God is three-in-one, what does it mean to be "made in God's image"?  If we recognize that the social nature of God is foundational to our own quest for happiness, what structures can we create so as to anticipate this celestial economy of exchange in via?  If we are to practice what we believe, how can we recommit ourselves to the creation of loving ecclesial relationships, to the treasuring of the revelation of God's relational being in all of creation.  Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 8. 

A "substance" may be defined as "a thing in itself."  A "person" may be defined as "one toward another."  Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 20

In Bonaventure's theology God is perfect, infinite, eternal, and absolute goodness.  Since the good is by nature self-diffusive, God by nature must diffuse Godself in a perfect, infinite, eternal, and absolute way.  Just as Thomas held that God's essence is existence itself, Bonaventure holds that God's essence is goodness itself.  Therefore, God's essential goodness is the wellspring for the Second Person who is Son, Word, and Image.  "Father" is a relational term, which indicates that one person comes forth from another.  The Father begets the Son because God is love, and interpersonal relationship is necessary for the perfection of God.  God generates the Logos because God must express the divine ideas, and the Word is the fullest expression of Godself.  God produces the Image because the image reflects all that the Father infinitely is, and returns the Father's love as only an infinite person can.  This reciprocated love is the Holy Spirit acting as the gift and the bond between them.  Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg.32

For since the Father brings forth the Son, and through the Son, and together with the Son brings forth the Holy Spirit, God the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit is the principle of everything created; for if he did not produce them eternally, he could not produce anything in time; and therefore he is rightly called the "Font of Life."...  Therefore it follows that eternal life consists in this alone, that the rational spirit , which emanates from the most blessed trinity and is a likeness of the Trinity, should return after the manner of a certain intelligible circle through its memory, intelligence, and will to the most blessed Trinity by God-conforming glory. Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 38

He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first born of creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invincible...all things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:15-17).Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 41.

Circumincession corresponds to the Greek word perichoresis which originated with John of Damascus.  Perichoresis refers to the mutual indwelling of the Trinitarian Persons, as revealed by Christ's words, "I am in the Father and the Father is in me"  The persons of the Trinity abide in each other eternally.  (Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 56.)

Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.  This is not some quaint, biblical cliche; this is at the heart of our theological anthropology.  We image God in our capacity to know and to love.  We reflect the tri-Personal God most clearly in generous and self-transcending relationships. Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 59.

The Bonaventurian understanding of the Trinity is of incalculable worth as a model for human interpersonal relations, because it offers us values that are indispensable to authentic human community; equality and non-subordination, reciprocity, interdependence, inclusivity, generosity, mutual self-donation, and dynamic productivity.  Such a view of human community has implications for how our institutions and sharing of goods reflect our core belief in the Trinity.  Trinitarian Perspectives, Maria Calisi, pg. 60. 

Christ:  the Alpha and Omega

This vision of the Primacy of Christ is a very rich starting point for developing a sacramental theology.  For example, Congar:  "Referring to the theology of the Book of Revelation, Congar speaks of Christ as the principle or the Alpha of everything, as well as the end or the Omega, as well. But Christ is also the way from the beginning to the end and will remain that as long as the Alpha is not completely transformed into the Omega.

"Referring to 1 Corinthians 15:28: 'When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all', Congar points out the essential importance of the faithful entering knowingly and willingly into the mystery of Christ, being 'subjected to him'. As long as our transformation by the grace of Christ's resurrection is incomplete, this plenitude or fullness of Christ will not yet be achieved.

"This movement from Christ as Alpha to Christ as Omega is a very powerful image. The first is Christ's unique divine initiative in the incarnation, and the second is the plenitude of the Body of Christ incorporating the lives and sacrifices of all his members. Congar explains that Christ can be the Alpha of the new creation without us, but he cannot be its Omega without our contributing to its plenitude.

"The church celebrates in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, Jesus's passing over to his Father. 'The role of the sacraments is to reproduce in a particular mode of being [as sign] . . . what Jesus did for us in the days of his flesh. This allows the root to bear its fruits -- to make the Christ Alpha produce within us over time the reality of life in such a way as to form the Christ Omega.' Consequently the participation of the faithful in the church's sacramental life cannot be that of observers or of mere recipients. We are baptised into a common priesthood that makes us participants in the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. Christ's priesthood exists in the members of his body to stimulate their participation in his own sacrifice, bringing about the willing sacrifice of human persons united to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. 'In this way the faithful accomplish and fill up the sacrifice of Jesus, their Alpha (their source).'  [From the introduction to Congar's Ecclesiastical Subtext: Intransigent Conservatism by Paul Philibert, OP]

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The Mass:  A Guided Tour -- Site One:  Christmas

[The following is the first chapter of my book The Mass:  A Guided Tour, published by Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, OH.  This is copyrighted material and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the publisher.]

We begin our pilgrimage through the Eucharist with a visit to the four mysteries which are the key to a catholic understanding the Eucharist: Christmas, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Our first pilgrimage site is Christmas -- the celebration of the mystery of the incarnation. (When you have a Franciscan tour guide you'll find that everything starts with Christmas! St. Francis' love of Jesus in his humanity -- crib to cross -- has influenced the theological vision of those who have followed Francis' rule and way of life from the thirteenth century to the present day.)

Our visit to Christmas doesn't take us to a nativity scene such as Francis depicted in the cave at Greccio in 1220. On our visit we want to look at the meaning and reality that lies behind the pictures of Bethlehem you might see on a Christmas card. At this first pilgrimage site, we want to look carefully at what the incarnation means in order to see the place of Jesus Christ in the total plan of creation and to understand how this vision sheds light on the Eucharist.

I think that the best way to see this "integrated vision" of Christmas and the Eucharist is to start at the beginning -- the very beginning.

When you think about creation -- the universe and everything in it -- how do you imagine it all getting started? What was the first thing that "was"? Dinosaurs? The Big Bang? Adam and Eve. The snake? Scientists, astronomers, and geologists all work to discover how the universe started. They are dealing with historical facts and scientific theories -- "top of the iceberg" material. Here, let's look "under the iceberg."

As we were packing our bags for this tip I mentioned that I might invite you to put on your "theological wetsuit" and stick your head in the water to take a look at the bottom of your "Eucharist Iceberg" -- those unarticulated attitudes and memories and feelings that shape the largest part of our understanding of the Eucharist -- the "subconscious" part.

One way to "see" this invisible "under the surface part" of ourselves is through story telling and imagination. Try to forget about "facts" and "religion" and "dogmas" and all those top of the iceberg things for a few minutes, and let's go under the surface of the waters and engage in story telling and imagining.

Imagine that it's the morning of the day before time existed -- before God created anything. Before there even was a day or a morning. Nothing exists but the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- eternally living and loving in endless bliss and perfect peace.

Now picture God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- sitting around the breakfast table having their morning coffee. They would be reading the newspaper, but there is no news since nothing has happened yet. In fact, no "things" exist -- so "no-thing" can happen. And in this imaginary scenario, one of the Divine Person says to the others:

"This living in endless bliss is really quite the thing, isn't it."

"It sure is," said the Father.

"It's about the best thing I can imagine," added the Spirit.

"Well, you can't beat bliss; but on the other hand, it's boring."

"Really boring!" said the Son.

"Well then, let's do something," said the Father.

"Do something? What shall we do?"

"Let's create."

"What's that"

"It means 'make something out of nothing.'"

"Can we do that?"

"Sure, we're God. We can do anything."

"All right then, let's make something. What shall we make?"

How do you think they answered that question? The way you imagine the answer to that question will influence not only the way you think about the Eucharist, but the way you view the universe and everything in it.

The first thing in the mind of God was Jesus Christ.

I can already hear the sound of icebergs crashing into each other under the surface of the water. To speak of the "primacy of Christ" will evoke stirring in the subconscious and perhaps even in the unconscious. Our visit to "Christmas" might involve some "rearranging" of how you imagine Jesus (we will discuss this at greater length at Site 4 of this pilgrimage), Adam and Eve, and especially, the snake! As your guide, all I can do here is to ask you to put on your "theological wetsuit" and take a look under the surface of your "Eucharist iceberg" as we examine this idea in more detail.

God didn't have to create anything. God created freely, out of love. Love is the very nature of God. "God is love." ( I John 4:8 NRSV) God "planned" from day one to share the love, harmony, communication, and unity of God's own inner Trinitarian life with the persons and things that God would create. (After all, isn't that what love does? It wants to propagate itself.) And where is Love most visible? In Jesus Christ. Jesus is the sacrament, the visible sign of this God who is Love. The eternally begotten Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, taking flesh and becoming fully human, the mystery of the Incarnation is what we celebrate each year at Christmas. God, from the very beginning, was thinking of Christmas!

Now, remember that we are "imagining." We are "story telling." We all know (top of the iceberg) that God isn't three people talking to themselves; and God doesn't need to eat breakfast to start the day right; or read the newspaper to know what's going on in the world. And we all believe (top of the iceberg) that the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, was "eternally begotten of the Father, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father" as we pray at Mass each Sunday in the Nicene Creed. Those are the facts. But ask yourself what "subconscious attitudes" and "presuppositions" support and color those facts for you?

Our human language grows out of our human experiences. Whenever we use human language to describe what God does, the words often "crack" and "splinter" under the weight of this divine meaning. For example, we all know that the eternal, all-knowing God doesn't need to "plan" things -- but "plan" is the word that the authors of the New Testament (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) use to describe the unfolding of this "decision of God" regarding Jesus Christ "through whom all things were made." (Nicene Creed)

Usually when we set out to make something, we have a "plan" in mind. For example, if you want to build a house and you start to measure the plot, dig the foundation, and pour the footings, and someone asks you, "What are you doing?" you wouldn't say, "Well, I don't know yet; I'm just pouring concrete and we'll see what happens." No, from the very beginning you have a blueprint -- a plan. Your mind's eye is already on the finished project. "I'm building a house."

Analogously, when we speak of God's plan for creation, his "mind's eye" is already on the finished project, Jesus Christ, "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (Revelation 22:13 NRSV) Creation begins with Jesus and, in the end, will come to fulfillment in him. This is God's plan.

When the inspired authors of the New Testament describe this amazing plan, they used the word "mysterion" (they were writing in Greek, the lingua franca of the time.) In your bible (English translation) "mysterion" is often translated "mystery". For example, Paul tells the Church at Colossae: "I want [your] hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that [you] may have ... the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself." (Colossians 2:2 NRSV)

In contemporary speech, the word "mystery" is frequently used for "something we cannot understand." ("How she can have all that money and still be so unhappy is a mystery to me!") But in the New Testament, "mystery" refers to this wonderful, beyond our comprehension, mysterious plan that God had before creation began to take flesh in Jesus and to draw all of creation into a unity and a harmony so spectacular and breath-taking that the very idea of it all is too wonderful for us -- something beyond our understanding. I hope that you are thinking something like this: God Plan Mystery Jesus

About the fourth century, as Greek is replaced by Latin as the language of the Roman Church, mysterion becomes sacramentum, sacrament in English. And as Jesus is the mystery, so Jesus is the sacrament -- the visible sign of the invisible God. "Philip said to [Jesus], 'Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.' Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.'" (John 14:8-9 NRSV) Think: God Plan Mystery Sacrament Jesus

God's wonderful plan for creation is revealed to us little by little in the history of God's people. And, when the time was right, the plan "became visible" in the mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas is the celebration of the revelation of God's plan for the world. "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." (Hebrews 1:1-2 NRSV)

At Mass on Christmas we pray: "In the wonder of the incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so [we] are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see." (Mass of Christmas, Preface 3) Jesus is "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being." (Hebrews 1:3a NRSV). In Jesus, we get a glimpse of who God is.

The invisible God whom no eye has seen, was seen in the humanity of Jesus. God, whose wonder and love are beyond our imagination, wished to become visible and close to us. This is the very basic, root meaning of sacrament: making the invisible visible.

Side Trip: A Visit to "Sacrament"

The concept of "sacrament" is so central of our understanding of the Eucharist, I suggest we take a little "side trip" to visit "sacrament."

When I spoke of the "iceberg metaphor" I said that the part of the iceberg floating above the surface corresponds to our conscious understanding of the Eucharist and the invisible part of the iceberg that lies hidden under the surface corresponds to our subconscious feelings, memories, and attitudes that we carry with us.

Take a look at your "sacrament iceberg." It is easy enough to look up the word sacrament in the dictionary or in the index to the Catechism and find a definition we can all understand -- top of the iceberg information. But what "meanings" are carried by the word "sacrament" in that "unseen" space under the iceberg?

This "subconscious" part of my sacrament iceberg has changed over the years. Perhaps I can describe this change by using two metaphors: the metaphor of the "seven shoe boxes" and the metaphor of "ripples emanating from a stone dropped into a pond."

Shoe Box Metaphor

In my bedroom closet I have several pairs of shoes, each pair neatly put away in its shoe box. I have a pair of black dress shoes that I wear for Mass. I have a new pair of sneakers I wear to the gym. I have old shoes I wear when working in the yard. I have a pair of sandals (Franciscans have to have sandals). And there are some comfortable slippers for lounging around the house. When I am not wearing them, I put them away in their box in the closet.

They all have a few things in common: for example, they are all the same size, they come in pairs, and each pair has a right shoe and a left shoe. But, other than that, they have nothing to do with one another. They are five distinct pairs of shoes, each pair in its own shoe box.

I used to think about the sacraments like that. The seven sacraments were, for the most part, seven separate things. They had a few things in common (they were outward signs, they were instituted by Christ, and they gave grace.) But beyond that, they were seven different things. I memorized the answer to the question in the Baltimore Catechism " how many sacraments are there?" "There are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony." (Baltimore Catechism 305) (The current Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the same list with sightly different names: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. (#1113) Eucharist is number three in a list of seven -- seven sacraments, each in its own box. I got one out when I wanted to teach it, or administer it, or write about it; and then I put it back in its box. They were all sacraments, but in the "under the iceberg" part of my experience, they had little or no relation to one another.

Ripples in the Pond Metaphor

Today when I look under my "sacrament iceberg" is see a different configuration. It is like the ripples from a stone dropped into a pond.

Have you ever dropped a stone into a pond on a quiet evening and watched as the ripples go out in ever larger concentric circles until they reached the bank? That is how I think of "sacraments" today. Everything starts with God. God has a plan. This mysterious plan is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the sacrament of God. Think of the ripples in the pond: God Plan Mystery Sacrament Jesus

An artist is always "embodied" in his or her work of art. For example, we can look at a painting and say "that's a Picasso" or "that's a Monet." We hear a piece of music and say "that's Mozart."

Similarly, God -- the Divine Artist -- is "embodied" in the beautiful universe we see around us. God's inner Trinitarian life and love "spill over" into creation and from the beauty and diversity of the things around us we can glimpse something of how beautiful and wonderful the invisible God must be.

But nowhere is the Divine Artist, the invisible God , more "visible" than in Jesus. Of all God's "works of art," God's masterpiece is Jesus! Jesus is "the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being." (Hebrews 1:3 NRSV) As sacraments are visible signs of the invisible God, there can be no more perfect sacrament than Jesus himself.

Jesus "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him." (Colossians 1:15-16 NRSV)

The Gospels describe how God's love was "made visible" in the life of Jesus. The Eucharist celebrates this mystery. In one of the Eucharistic Prayers we proclaim: "You sent Jesus Christ your Son among us / as redeemer and Lord. / He was moved with compassion / for the poor and the powerless, / for the sick and the sinner; / he made himself neighbor to the oppressed. / By his words and actions he proclaimed to the world / that you care for us / as a father cares for his children." (Mass for Various Needs, IV)

While the love that is the inner Trinitarian life of God is revealed in everything that Jesus said and did, nowhere is this love so clearly expressed as in his passion, death and resurrection -- the Paschal Mystery-- which we celebrate in a special way on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday [which, by the way, are the next three sites of our pilgrimage].

Pope John Paul II wrote that these three days -- The Paschal Triduum -- are the Church's "foundation and wellspring" and these three days are "gathered up, foreshadowed and 'concentrated' forever in the gift of the Eucharist." (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 61 ) Jesus has left us the Eucharist as the embodiment of the Paschal Mystery -- the embodiment of his life and mission. As Pope Leo the Great said: "What was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into sacraments." (Homily 74 on the Ascension) As Jesus is the sacrament of God, indeed God's masterpiece, and as Jesus' Paschal Mystery is embodied in the Eucharist, the Eucharist is the first and greatest sacrament, indeed, the "Sacrament of sacraments" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1211). St. Thomas Aquinas said, "in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation." (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 83, a. 4c. quoted in Ecclesia De Eucharistia, 61)

Think again of the metaphor of the stone dropped into the pond: God Plan Mystery Sacrament Jesus Incarnation Christmas Holy Thursday Good Friday Easter Sunday Paschal Mystery Eucharist.

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said: "'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit."' (John 10:21-22 NRSV) This Holy Spirit -- the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of right judgment and courage, of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of wonder and awe which the prophet Isaiah said would be the hallmark of the Messiah -- permeated and sealed the life and love of Jesus of Nazareth. It is this same Spirit which Christ breaths upon us and makes us his Body.

Each time we gather for the Eucharist we ask God to send the Holy Spirit to transform our bread and wine into that sacrament which is the sign of the reconciliation, communion, and love, which is Christ himself. And then we ask the Father to send that same Holy Spirit upon us -- we who eat and drink -- so that we might be taken up into Christ's sacrifice. "Lord, look upon this sacrifice which you have given your church; and by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise." (Eucharistic Prayer IV) The Eucharist joins us to Christ and to one another. The Eucharist gathers us into the Body of Christ. The Eucharist "makes the Church." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1396)

And consequently the Church itself is a sacrament, "a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race." (Constitution on the Church, 1) And that sacrament which is the Church is never more visible than when we are celebrating the Eucharist. The Eucharist "is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church." (Constitution on the Liturgy, 2)

Think again of the metaphor of the stone dropped into the pond: God Plan Mystery Sacrament Jesus Incarnation Christmas Holy Thursday Good Friday Easter Sunday Paschal Mystery Eucharist Body of Christ Church Us!

And through the Eucharist we are taken up into this notion of "sacrament"! We are to be living signs of the Love of Christ. Sacraments are not only something we receive, but something we are!

The loving God who created us, wants to be present to us, to be with us. Lovers want to be together. God knows how hard it is for us to love someone we cannot see or touch. And so in God's mysterious plan, the invisible God took flesh, came among us, and became truly human. Central to the mystery of Christmas is the realization that God comes to us and we come to God in the flesh, through our bodies, in the midst of the created world.

Creation is the visible the story of God's plan, God's dreams. As Vatican II says: "God ... sent his Son, the World made flesh, anointed by the Holy Spirit, to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart; ... his humanity united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation. Therefore in Christ the perfect achievement of our reconciliation came forth and the fullness of divine worship was given to us." (Constitution on the Liturgy, #5)

All creation is reconciled and brought together in the Jesus. The incarnation celebrates the goodness of all creation. Material things are good. Our human bodies, our very flesh and bones are good. God took flesh and dwelt among us, and in this mystery of taking on human flesh proclaimed that the things of this earth are not obstacles to God but are intended to be windows to the divine. The magnificence of creation enables us to see something of the wonder, the complexity, the super-abundance of God. Creation gives us a glimpse of the divine artist.

This theme "Creation is good" is key to understanding "sacrament." Christianity is a sacramental religion; it prays with bathing and eating, singing and embracing. Sacraments celebrate the goodness, the grace-filled essence, of creation: water and fire, oil and salt, ashes and palm branches, bread and wine. Creation draws us into the very life of the Creator. As the book of the Prophet Daniel prays:

"Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord ...

Sun and moon, bless the Lord ...

Fire and heat, bless the Lord ...

Ice and snow, bless the Lord ...

Seas and rivers, bless the Lord ...

You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord ...

All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord." (see: Daniel NAB)

Think: God Plan Mystery Sacrament Jesus Incarnation Christmas Holy Thursday Good Friday Easter Sunday Paschal Mystery Eucharist Body of Christ Church all women and men all created things!

Perhaps I can clarify this by the use of another metaphor.

I have friends who returned from a visit to Russia with a set of those Russian nesting dolls (matryoshka). I always enjoyed watching the amazement on the faces of their grandchildren as they open the largest doll to find another slightly smaller doll inside, and another inside that, and so on until all nine are displayed on the table. Let me use these matryoshka dolls as a metaphor to explain what we want to "see" on this visit to our first pilgrimage site, "Christmas."

Picture a set of Russian nesting dolls, but for the sake of this metaphor, picture the dolls as being transparent so that you can see through the outer one to the next and the next and the next -- clear to the smallest doll in the center. Let that center image represent the inner life and love of the Trinity. This love "moves" God to create. God's plan -- God's mystery -- is revealed little by little until it becomes visible in Jesus at the Incarnation. Jesus is the "sacrament" of the invisible God. Imagine "Jesus" as the next in the series of dolls. Now imagine the Eucharist and not only the consecrated host but also your own mystery and the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ. See in the mystery of Christ the beauty of creation which was created "through him and with him" and see God's mysterious plan for the world.

Picture those transparent matryoshka dolls -- and from the beauty of creation which surrounds you, look "through" that beauty into the very heart of the mystery, the Trinitarian love of God's very self. Creation Sacrament Church Body of Christ Eucharist Paschal Victory Incarnation Jesus Mystery Plan Trinity Love. All of this is really present in the Eucharist.

Saint Francis of Assisi, perhaps more than any of us, had the ability to see the "imprint of God's very being" in all of creation. Seeing every created thing transparent to God inspired him to sing:

Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,

especially Sir Brother Sun,

Who is the day and through whom You give us light.

And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;

and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,

in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,

and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,

through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,

who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

(Francis of Assisi, "Canticle of the Creatures", Early Documents, Vol I, pp 113-114.)

Shifting Under the Iceberg

Before we leave our this first stop on our Pilgrimage through the Eucharist, take one last look under your iceberg and see which metaphor is more operative in your understanding of "sacrament" -- the shoe boxes or the ripples in the pond. Do you think of sacraments as seven distinct things or has your "sacramental vision" become more integrated and unified? I don't know about you, but during the past forty years the "under the surface" part of my sacraments iceberg has been "re-configured."

I think I can see the metaphor of the "ripples in the pond" reflected in the structure of The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (the first document of The Second Vatican Council). Chapter 1 speaks of "The Mystery of Christ." Chapter 2 is entitled "The Most Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist." After speaking of Christ and the Eucharist, the document then treats in Chapter 3 "The Other Sacraments and the Sacramentals" and the ripples continue out from the Eucharist. "The Liturgy of the Hours" (Chapter 4) carries the Eucharist throughout the day and "The Liturgical Year" (Chapter 5) continues the Eucharist through the seasons of the year. Chapter 6 "Sacred Music" and Chapter 7 "Sacred Art and Furnishings" continue the ripples to the edge of the pond until everything -- all of creation -- can be seen as a visible sign of the Divine Artist's handiwork. Just a stone dropped into a pond causes ripples to extend outward in all directions, so the paschal mystery of Christ celebrated in the Eucharist has a ripple effect through all of creation.

This unified vision, this transparency of creation, Jesus, and the Eucharist enable us to see into the very heart of Trinitarian Love. This is what we want to "see" on this first stop on our Eucharistic pilgrimage, Christmas.

If you wish, rest a bit with this vision; then let's move on together to our second pilgrimage site, Holy Thursday.

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Date of Christmas

Biblical Archaeology Review has published on-line an article dealing with the major theories of setting the date for ChristmasThere is an interesting discussion of the problems with the claim of Christmas replacing a pagan antecedent, including when that claim was first made.  There is also a good description of the academically better accepted explanation of the date of Christmas being determined by the date calculated [however incorrectly] for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Andrew McGowan, an associate professor of early Christian history at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts has an article on the origins of the Christmas festival.

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The three kings

The blessing of the rooms:  20+C+M+B+17

CMB =  Casper Melchior Balthazar -- or: Christus Mansionem Benedicat (May Christ bless this house)

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To Think About

The Sacramentary gives a proper Preface to each of the Sundays of Lent (Cycle A). In the same literary genre, compose prefaces for the Masses of Christmas and Epiphany. Compare yours with those in the Sacramentary.

In colleges and universities in the United States, the students often go home for Christmas vacation towards the end of the Advent season. Christmas Masses are celebrated before the students leave for vacation. Comment on this practice and give a pastoral solution to the problem.

"The seasons of the natural year happen by themselves; the seasons of the Church Year must be caused to happen." In the change of our devotional piety following the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many of the things which caused a liturgical season to happen have been lost. State several ways (family customs, devotional practices, etc.) which can cause Advent to "happen" in the contemporary parish.

State the differences in the celebration of Epiphany in the East and West.

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 11/20/15 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at