I would like to wish all my readers a happy Christmas.
For some, Christmas is the prefiguration of that day sometime in the future when our divided humanity will be recapitulated and incorporated into the divinity of Christ the Incarnate Word. For others, it will be a time of drunken feasting and conflicts with families. For others it will be a sad and lonely time at home or banished to the streets of our cities where no one cares.
As I intimated a few days ago, I find Christmas a little sad in comparison with the bright lights and glitter of our supermarkets. It represents a small light in the midst of a great darkness, the Ungrund of Jakob Böhme, the primaeval chaos and disorder, from which comes our illumination and quiet joy in the silence. Some of my best Christmas feasts were spent at seminary or serving the little parish near Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme where I was in 1995 until 1996 and my decision to return to France. It is essential to hear the quiet voice of the Christmas message in the midst of the hubbub of noise, bright lights and people having a good time.
If you understand French, I recommend this salutary Christmas story from Alphonse Daudet, the famous author from Provence who wrote Lettres de mon Moulin. I lived in Marseilles briefly from 1993 until the summer of 1994. It is another France, another culture near the Italian border. Les Trois Messes Basses is a story of intemperance and temptation, of another era. A priest is tempted by the Devil to get through the three Masses of Christmas as quickly as possible to enjoy the festivities. As he tucks in to his meal, he chokes of a piece of meat, dies and has a hundred years of Purgatory to endure. The story is profoundly human and full of the charm of Provence.
Happy Christmas, Father. I like reading what you have to say, and the interesting comments made by other people.
Today is St Stephen’s day: it is my onomastico! He is known as the first martyr. Another saint, Paul, helped kill him (before having his own spectacular conversion).
I have always felt a strong affinity with Stephen, and with the name. It was a common name for babies in the 1950s, and at times I felt it a bit too common. But it doesn’t worry me now. I was given a holy card picture of him at my baptism and have the tattered paper image still.
He was perhaps the equivalent of many young men who go off to join radical movements and become zealots: think how many young Mormons, JWs, jihadists, seminarians – missionaries of all stripes – do the same.
Lately, I have been reflecting on the people who went off to join the Branch Davidians at Mt Carmel, and who perished in the fire; on the people who joined the Rev. Jim Jones’ socialist movement People’s Temple and brought about so much good and – racial and otherwise – integration and support for the homeless and poor and marginalised before their destiny got caught up so tragically with his drug-induced paranoia in the horror of Jonestown. All people inspired to do good and change themselves – a metanoia impulse
I think St Stephen can be a symbol for youthful zealotry and idealism (i.e. irrespective for ultimate good or evil). Such people’s lives seem to be invariably short, ‘cut off in their prime’. In this sense, he is a tragic saint. But he is not too far removed from many other saints: John the Baptist – the radical ascete/Essene; Paul himself – the convert more intense than the apostles; Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell etc – filled with a desire to ‘reclaim’ England; Charles de Foucauld; the worker priests; and so on. Wherever you see young people going off for “la grande aventure”, you see young Stephens (or Stephanies!)
So I remember this enthusiasm and the cost it may entail:
cum autem esset plenus Spiritu sancto, intendens in caelum, vidit gloriam Dei, et Jesum stantem a dextris Dei……et lapidabant Stephanum invocantem et dicentem: Domine Jesu, suscipe spiritum meum.
That our spirits might be lifted up in the new year!
Joyeuse fête, Etienne!
merci bien, mon père!
Thank you, and a Happy Christmas to you on this its Third Day and Feast of St. John!
And thank you for the film, hitherto unknown to me!
Here is a delightful English translation of the story read by one of my favourite audiobook readers, the late Andy Minter (many years a Churchwarden):
[audio src="https://ia902703.us.archive.org/12/items/christmas_short_works_2008_0812/english_three_christmas_masses_daudet_ajm.mp3" /]
I note that equally free audiobooks of the French original and another English translation read by other volunteers can also be found at LibriVox.org – together with other of his works (by searching for Daudet).