When I was young, I didn’t enjoy Christmas time much. Like many kids, receiving gifts, soaking in whatever feelings of nostalgia and comfort, and (and this could probably go without saying) having time off from school, were all things quite welcomed by me. But other things that I assume a lot of people cherish about the Christmas season (e.g., family time, merry-making, etc.), just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I did have a vague or obscure sense of the uniqueness of the Christmas season when I was young, but having a deep realization of the true spirit of Christmas required a lot more interior formation.
The Advent season is a time for disclosure and new spiritual birth. It’s a time during which God reveals Himself in flesh, in substance — to a degree so real and concrete that to escape it would be to escape a holy fate. Advent is a time of prophecy and revelation; new imagination replacing old; and a relative assurance of things to come, whether solemn or happy. There’s joy, fire, love, peace; there’s a looking-back, a looking-in, and a looking-forward. Following the festivities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my wife and daughter (and our little child who’s on the way!), I awoke this morning, the 26th, to a certain realization about Christmas. On this, the Feast Day of St. Stephen, there is a powerful reminder of the Advent season that serves to evince the true spirit of Christmas.
On December 26th, just one day after Christmas, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Stephen, protomartyr and deacon. Traditionally, it’s said that St. Stephen was the first martyr (hence: protomartyr) in the Church and one of the first seven ordained by the Apostles to diaconate (cf. Acts vi-vii). Due to injustices committed against Hellenists in the Christian community in Jerusalem, the Apostles (who were too busy to manage the disputes of the community themselves), selected among them seven men, who were “full of Spirit and of wisdom”, to be ordained as deacons (vi, 1-3). Through the “laying-on of hands” bestowed upon these seven men by the Apostles, the ecclesial order of the diaconate was established (vi, 6). Stephen, a holy and highly influential one among these seven men, was known in Jerusalem for his teachings, which aroused and incited the anger and vitriol of the local Jews. They had him arrested. At the time of his arrest, it’s written that the Sanhedrin saw that St. Stephen’s face was “like the face of angel” (cf. vi, 15). And in a rousing testimony of faith before the Sanhedrin and local Jewish community, St. Stephen presented his apologia (a reasoned defense of the Christian faith per the oracles and cultural history of the Jewish crowd before him) with a cutting persuasive power — so much so that Stephen was to be stoned to death (cf. vii). Just before being put to death, St. Stephen gazed into heaven and, in seeing the glory of God, declared “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (vi, 56). Surely: December 26th is a marvelous feast day for a marvelous saint, martyr and deacon. But our question here is: What on earth does all this have to do with the true spirit of Christmas?
I’ve been in a serious state of growth and development over the past few years. (“Growing pains” is a popular phrase, but it hasn’t lost its bearing for me!). My inner-transformations, my perpetual conversions and my return to the heart of Jesus, has all been a concentrated focus with two words at its center: charity and the poor. These two words have been my focus partly because of the considerable amount of time I’ve spent reading Deacon James Keating’s The Heart of the Diaconate (a great little book) and The Deacon Reader (a book containing numerous different articles by different authors). Both books deal with the subject of the diaconate, which is, to put it deeper into an ecclesial context, a term suggesting what the ministry of the deacon is — that is, diakonia, “service.” A deacon is an ordained clergyman in the ecclesial hierarchy of the Church. At the top of the hierarchy: bishops; in the middle: priests; at the bottom: deacons. As an ordained clergyman, the deacon has the Sacrament of Holy Orders; therefore, they’re impressed with an indelible mark of ordination. For deacons in particular, this mark is an indelible mark of Christ the Servant, who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mk x, 45). The diaconate then is an order or assembly of those called to the service or ministry of the deacon, which is three-fold: Word, Charity and Liturgy. Deacons minister the Word, for they proclaim the Gospel and, with the faculty of preaching, serve as homilists for the edification and growth of their fellow Christians. Deacons also administer Charity, for they’re responsible for carrying out charitable services on behalf of the Church, which includes visiting the lonely and the widowed, feeding the poor, reaching out to those imprisoned, managing the Church’s finances responsibly, and so forth. Lastly, deacons assist the priest liturgically, for they distribute Holy Communion, administer baptism, perform last rites, proclaim the Gospel, and so forth. Deacons are the ordinary ministers of ecclesial functions that Catholic Christians might do in exceptional circumstances. But the difference between the two is in who the deacon is; with their special and indelible mark of ordination, the deacon is a living icon to the Church and the World. The purpose of the deacon — as St. Lawrence, the deacon par excellence, suggests to us — is “obedience unto death” for the sake of the true treasures of the Church: the poor (Philip ii, 8).
Bl. Isaac of Stella defined charity as “the reason why anything should be done or left undone, changed or left unchanged; it is the initial principle and the end to which all things should be directed” (cf. fn.). If this isn’t a sufficient definition of charity, take the Apostle’s words to heart: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal vi, 2). The meaning of “the poor” is appreciated in a similar vein of thought — not as something having a spiritual meaning separate from an economic reality, but rather as something having a spiritual and economic reality, that, while distinct, are in no way separate from each other. This truth indicates that charity, while distinct from the poor, is absolutely inextricable from the poor and thus inextricable from the security of eternal salvation; for, as we read in the Gospel of Matthew concerning the Final Judgment, to greatly lack love for the poor — the “least of these”, the “poorest of the poor” — is to be met-with the fierce and righteous judgment of God (cf. Matt xxv). And so it is charity for the poor, even unto this great holy magnitude, that makes Christmas real; because love for the poor guides what we say, think or do with respect to our vindication before a Holy and Almighty God, it must be that this positive and benevolent guidance, this heart of charity for the poor, of God, reveals to us the true spirit of the Heart of God, which is, namely, Christmas.
What I’ve come to realize is that without a heart beating with charity for the poor, Christmas is less than what it can be, and less than what it should be, too. Imagine Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: notice the merry tidings, the gaiety, the ghost-like scenes and images of holly and wine, cheer and second-chances, family and renewal — all of this is nothing without charity for the poor. Without charity for the poor, the true spirit of Christmas amounts to an exercise of the vain, superficial, consumeristic and gross. Without a charitable spirit full of love for the poor, the doings of Christmas resound like the “clanging cymbal” of a clock tower or a Church steeple (1 Cor xiii, 1). Charity for the poor empowers one with the sacramental grace necessary to enjoy the hallmarks of the Christmas season — merry-making, family time, and much more. May we all be empowered to perform spiritual and corporal works of mercy for the poor. May we all allow individual almsgiving for the poor to be a mighty weapon of the real, holy and true spirit of Christmas. Charity for the poor evangelizes the evangelized. It is an evangelical counsel, after all. And, in fact, charity for the poor might be one of the last things capable of effecting serious change. Let’s hope so.
Pray for us, St. Lawrence!
For further reading:
cf. http://www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/loh/week5saturdayor.htm for quote by Bl. Isaac of Stella in the Liturgy of Hours‘ Office of Readings.
Keating, James (2015). The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ. NY: Paulist Press. Print.
(2006). The Deacon Reader. Keating, James (ed.). NY: Paulist Press. Print.