The sacred earthiness of Christmas

He whom Christianity proclaims as Lord and Savior was not a character in some virtual reality “metaverse” constructed by Mr. Mark Zuckerberg.

Detail from "Nativity" (1732) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo [WikiArt.org]

ROME. A massive, 16-volume Lives of the Saints, first published between 1872 and 1877, informs me that, here in the Eternal City, the feast of Christmas first became a celebration distinct from the ancient feast of the Epiphany in the mid-fourth century — and that St. John Chrysostom, one of the four doctors of the Church who support the cathedra in Bernini’s bronze masterpiece, The Altar of the Chair, in the Vatican Basilica, “used his utmost endeavor” to promote the celebration of Christmas in the Christian East. The author, in his charmingly prolix, Victorian style, then catalogues the relics of the Nativity, here in Rome and elsewhere:

…in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore [is] the cradle of Bethlehem, encrusted with silver and enriched with ornaments given it by Philip III of Spain.

The napkins wherewith the Infant Savior was wrapped, were anciently exhibited in Constantinople, but were transferred to Paris in the 13th century and placed by St. Louis in the Saint Chapelle.

Besides the cradle in which our Lord, it is alleged, was rocked, is the stone manger of the grotto of Bethlehem. One of the stones of this manger is shown in the basilica of St. Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline, in the altar of the crypt of the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Some of the napkins of Christ are also exposed to the adoration of Catholics in the same chapel. The cloak with which St. Joseph covered the crib, to protect the Child from the cold, is in the church of St. Anastasia in Rome. The basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome has also the felicity of possessing the first cuttings of His infant hair.

Judging by 21st-century standards, does any of this make historical sense? Some, probably, but forensic certitude about ancient artifacts isn’t really the point here. For behind such traditional, pious claims, as behind the fourth century visit of the Dowager Empress Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) to the Holy Land — a lengthy and dangerous pilgrimage that brought many of these relics to the West — is a crucial conviction: the conviction that Christianity is neither a pious myth nor a fairy tale.

Christianity begins in a real place, at a specific point in time in which real men and women met an itinerant rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth — and after what they had thought to be the utter catastrophe of his degrading and violent death, met him anew as the Risen Lord Jesus. The lives of those real men and women were so transformed by these encounters that they, in turn, went out and got to work on the task the Risen One gave them: to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

The earthiness of the Christmas story — the manger, the stable, the “swaddling clothes,” the stolid oxen and lowing cows, the bewildered but kindly shepherds, the exotic Magi from the East and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the child’s circumcision — underscores this core Christian conviction: The Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the “Word” through whom “all things were made” (John 1:1, 3), entered history through the cooperation of a Jewish girl and her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit, and was born at a precise moment in time at a precise place. Whether “the first cuttings of His infant hair” really are in Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem may be beyond historical verification; the real point being made in such claims is that the Incarnate Son of God really was at one point in his life among us, an infant who had an infant’s hair and all the other attributes of a weak and defenseless child.

Ditto for what is really being proposed by the “napkins,” the cradle, St. Joseph’s blanket-cloak, and all the rest: He whom Christianity proclaims as Lord and Savior, the One who fully reveals both the truth about God and the truth about our humanity’s dignity and destiny, was not a character in some virtual reality “metaverse” constructed by Mr. Mark Zuckerberg. He was here, on this third planet of the Solar System. And he is still with us: in the Scriptures proclaimed, and above all in the holy bread broken and shared.

As the post-modern world loses its grip on the most fundamental truths (even those inscribed in our chromosomes), the earthiness of Christmas proclaims and celebrates an enfleshed, divine savior, once an infant, who ennobles and transforms all the givens of the human condition.


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About George Weigel 372 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

15 Comments

  1. Saved by a Web.

    Hounded by Herod to destroy and kill,
    males under the age of two.
    Mary, and Joseph, with fear filled;
    not knowing what to do.

    They saw a cave, and for safety;
    there, hid their baby child.
    Cold, and damp, and drafty;
    they laid their baby mild.

    A spider on seeing, their plight;
    wove a web, to cover the cave.
    Herod’s men, then saw the sight;
    the web, the babe did save.

    The tinsel, on our Christmas tree,
    the web; a symbol today;
    that saved the child, for humanity
    let’s give thanks, and pray.

    Glory to God! the angels sang,
    in a cave, was born that day,
    Hosanna’s, their voices rang;
    Giving thanks; to God let’s pray.

    My poem of the legend why the Roman soldiers
    went past the cave where Jesus Mary and Joseph
    were hiding, when they saw the web over the
    mouth of the cave they said no one could be
    in that cave because there is a web if there was anyone
    in the cave there could not be a web. Remember the slaughter
    on the innocents by Roman soldiers..
    This is the newest carol for Christmas. I invite my siblings to
    compose music to the poem above. Did yo know that the
    tinsel on the Christmas tree symbolizes that web woven by the
    spider. This would be the newest Carol for Christmas.(2021)

  2. We might read the above alongside an earlier posting citing Pope Francis:
    “The pope added that, while this fusion of ancient and biblical wisdom remains ‘a fertile paradigm,’ a new creative synthesis is also needed with ‘the contemporary humanistic tradition and that of other cultures.’”
    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/11/24/pope-francis-digital-revolution-forces-us-to-rethink-what-it-means-to-be-human/

    The paradigm caricature can be both a window and, as with guru James Martin, a “bridge” too far. Likewise with the ambiguous “pluralism” of religions.

    This must be part of the reason why, while Pope John Paul II gave us the Pontifical Councils noted in the linked Francis article, he at the same time also gave us the moral clarity of Veritatis Splendor–more than a paradigm.
    Question for Pope Francis’ pending super-dicastery on Evangelization: “Quo vadis?”

    • As near as can be determined, Francis would seek to marry the church to the world. Such a union may well produce fruits like Fr. Martin and Pachamama. Resultant offspring may also appear as chimeratic mechanized clones of the person whose brainchild the wedding was. The imagination runs wild but bored and nauseated thinking on it.

  3. Virtual reality reaches the far ends of the world Facebook other electronic venues replacing earthy reality so well contrasted by Weigel. Most especially significant as reality unfolded 2000 years past in a stable night refuge for wayfarers birthplace of our Savior. That starry night when angels sang to shepherds of his birth.
    +Who but his divine majesty had such love to appear swaddled in a cattle manger destined to be food of angels and men.

  4. Dear George Weigel,

    Few New Testament-believing scholars today would write as you do: ” . . informs me that, here in the Eternal City, . .”

    Hebrews 13:14 ” . . here we do not have an enduring city, .”

    Over nearly 2 millennia, many mindlessly repeated disasters in our Catholic community have stemmed from a determined unwillingness to accept that we are all: “strangers and nomads on earth”, who long for the Better City that God has designed and built for us (see Hebrews 11) and that is kept for us until the day of destruction of Rome and all cities, even the earth itself – scientist call that the re-establishment of the full quantum vacuum.

    In a prophetic vision, long before quantum physics, Apostle John saw this universal dissolution occur, making way for the truly Eternal City, with a perfect new heaven and a perfect new earth, that God has prepared for those in Christ who love God.

    From all we know of Rome in history and contemporarily, could there be a stronger contrast? In Philippians 3:18-21, Apostle Paul disparages the life that so many lived (and still continue with), in cities such as Rome.

    By referring to Rome as the Eternal City do we not lead our readers badly astray?

    Ever in the grace & mercy of Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

  5. “As the post-modern world loses its grip on the most fundamental truths (even those inscribed in our chromosomes), the earthiness of Christmas proclaims and celebrates an enfleshed, divine savior, once an infant, who ennobles and transforms all the givens of the human condition”…. In solidarity with a mother and her child

    This heightened emotional true story/encounter relates to an ongoing commitment to love and friendship, that invited me the writer, unknowingly at the time to partake in that love. In that, it facilitated a dying mother of an adopted mentally handicapped child, the means to convey to him, her ongoing love for him, and that of his deceased natural mother. In knowing that he would be bereft of any outside help, she gave him the means to continue alone.

    I saw ‘Grace’

    It was close to Christmas time in the mid-sixties, that while working as a window cleaner on a poor housing estate, on the outskirts of Leeds, England. When I encountered a mother with her child.

    We heard the clatter of your ladder amongst our chatter
    Ma said you must be fed, such ice and snow, come warm your hand and toe
    Two years never in arrears, open back door, kitchen never shown before
    Odd snowflake, yes I will take a break
    Kitchen door cold concrete floor
    Now lounge, burst of warmth, rocking chair, a flame sat there
    All was bright but she possessed no sight
    A place was set treated as a special guest
    Best of fare before my chair
    Eighty-four probably was her score
    Sunken eye but never dry
    Closed lid a tear did skid
    Quite repose handkerchief to eye and nose
    Silver groomed hair, full chair
    Paleface, blouse of taste, cameo in place
    Cardigan pale blue botany too
    Apron, tweed skirt wide of girth
    Manicured hand wedding band, hardly shown puffed bone
    Heavy leg inactivity it said, bursting shoe
    Water retention I am sure she knew
    Albert here is my joy ‘I was given a baby boy’
    I have been repaid in full, such a loving son
    Eleven pence to the shilling but he is always willing
    A heart of gold is set in that abode
    Singe of tinge set in time her heart was mine
    It was true he reflects you
    Movement of chair, Albert was there
    Cup of tea helping her see secured to knee
    No need for grace all here is in its place
    I have a tale to tell, it’s for Albert as well
    The Queen’s Hotel? ‘Yes I know it well’
    Albert’s mother worked there as well
    My best friend right to the end
    As chambermaids, we were paid
    Both from school, we did not want to work the loom
    Lots of fun, more like home if the truth be known
    Grace met Albert’s dad when she helped him unpack his bag
    Manchester way he would stay more than a day
    Real good looking she would wait for him coming
    Black curly hair blue-eyed stare
    Good looker front page cover
    Cuff links, spats, mustache, but not brash
    Pigeon chest Albert did attest
    When Albert was on the way, he never came to stay
    Bill was my man, he knew that Grace was in a jam
    He did not want to know, Grace to a boarding house had to go
    Matted hair in despair, no doctor or nurse, but Grace never did curse
    She will not survive the day an old midwife did say
    She called me to her side and begged that with me her baby would reside
    She was my best friend, I promised that her baby I would defend
    She passed away on Albert’s birthday
    I carried Albert straight home
    Bill went mad he said he was not the dad
    I held firm, on this I would not turn
    Albert is not all he should be
    A difficult birth had caused this you see
    But for fifty years we have held true
    Grace, myself and Albert have seen it through
    My time is soon to come, I must leave my adorable son
    I have taught him all he needs to know
    For when to the churchyard I must surely go
    Albert tried to top my tea, but back to work I had to be
    One two or three the years I cannot see
    Christmas time one more time
    A wedding soon to be mine
    Park Square registrations are made there
    As I turn to leave, commotion, high voice of emotion
    ‘Mother said this is what I have to do I must see this through’#

    Face to face I saw ‘Grace’

    As I once again reflect on this incident, I now remember that Albert some time previously had come out of the house, while I was working and asked me if I were a Catholic. And because of this I now assume that he and his mother were also hence the prepared table, which was set before me. This was his mother’s attempt to create solidarity between us. Sadly, today I now know that his mother’s attempt to create solidarity, fell upon my dead ears, as *bereft of any outside help* he had to register his mother’s death alone.
    But all is not lost if you capture the moment that I did not.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Thank you, Georgina, for your caring comment God bless you, Grace, and Albert while not forgetting Alberts beautiful foster mother. May His blessings be with you this Christmas time and always Georgina.
      kevin your brother
      In Christ

      • I certainly shan’t forget her. Your post reminded me of the beautiful story of the adoptive mother of Leslie Lemke. God bless Kevin, enjoy the day.

  6. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like Christmas without any snow yet this season. When will it finally snow in Columbia County, Oregon? Tomorrow morning. Christmas Day! Yes, that is right. We will receive our first snowfall of the season right on Christmas Day. Some might think that to be a chance happening, yet I will never subscribe to that idea.

    Whether it is possible to verify those relics or not, one thing is for certain. We in the West reckon our years based upon the life of one human Personage. That’s no minor detail.

    Well, Merry Christmas to everyone!

  7. Meiron, Our first snowfall arrived late on Christmas night, and over the subsequent days since Christmas has left some four inches on the ground. This was indeed enough Christmas miracle for me. And it truly made for a Merry Christmas! Thank you, and God bless you.

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