Over the years, I have written a number of relatively short essays on various Church feasts.
No other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact
affect us with that same peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by
the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to
us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas.
— G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
On the 9th of April, being Good Friday, I, Boswell, breakfasted with Samuel Johnson on tea
and cross-buns, Doctor Level making the tea. He carried me with him to the church of
St. Clement Danes, where he had his seat, and his behavior was, as I had imagined
to myself, solemnly devout. I shall never forget the tremendous earnestness
with which he pronounced the awful petition of the Litany: "In the hour of
my death, and at the day of judgment, good Lord, deliver us."
We went to church both in the morning and in the evening.
In the interval between the two services we did not dine;
but he read in the Greek New Testament.
— James Boswell, The Life of Johnson
You created Heaven and earth, but you did not make them of your own substance.
If you had done so, they would have been equal to your only-begotten Son, and
therefore to yourself, and justice could in no way admit that what was
not of your own substance should be equal to you. But besides
yourself, O God, who are Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity,
there was nothing from which you could
make Heaven and earth.
— St. Augustine, Confessions
And yet we cannot avoid the appalling realization, that at no time have the revolt
from Christ and the supernatural and the idealization of man and his nature been
so noisily proclaimed, so audaciously organized and carried into effect with such
terrible severity and such extensive display of power as in these days in which
we live. The era of the serpent is near. Already its word, "Ye shall be as
gods," may be heard in the streets and lanes. Did Christ die in vain?
. . . Because man is inexhaustible in his wickedness, God must be
inexhaustible in His redemptive love, that He will subdue
such wickedness by the superabundance of His love.
— Karl Adam, The Son of God
These feasts are always an occasion to ask: "What is the point of the celebration?" "Why is it a case, not just of rejoicing, but of knowing the truth that makes real joy possible?" We cannot be joyful without ultimately knowing why we should be joyful, without having something to be joyful about.
In particular, I have written (and include here) many reflections on Christmas, Easter, and the days surrounding them. Also in this text are considerations of Pentecost, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day as well as of the "End Times" that come up in the last Sundays of the Liturgical Year.
I have also included my 2009 essay on Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's novel The Lord of the World, because the book now has been cited any number of times by Pope Francis. It fits in with the Gospel themes for the last days of the Liturgical Year, when we are reminded of the end of our temporal existence.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is the transition to the Nativity cycle, completes the Liturgical Year. I do not talk much here of Advent, Lent, or the various other celebrations of the Lord or of the saints. Although these seasons are important, I want to focus in these pages on more central considerations.
It has always been a pleasure and an inspiration for me to say something each year on Christmas and Easter. These days are never-ending causes of insight into what we are and who God is. For that reason, you need not sit down and read this book from page 1 to its end, although there is nothing wrong in doing so. Each chapter is its own reflection. Come back to the same feast again and again: each time you will find something astonishingly new that you missed before.
These essays are not homilies or sermons, though they can be made into them. Rather, they are each intended to reveal something of the meaning and depth of the occasion that we might otherwise pass over unnoticed.
All Christian feasts have in common their particularity in time and place as well as their transcendent reaching to the truth that God has revealed to us. The second reading of each day in the Breviary, for instance, can come from any time or place in the past two thousand years and still speak to us as we read it.
Likewise, although they speak of universals, sometimes these essays reflect the time in which they were written, so I have included on the first page of each chapter the source and date of its first publication.
The reader will notice that I have my favorite authors and books. No one writes better about Christmas than Chesterton. Anyone who reads the Breviary knows that its readings contain a wealth of information and insight along with their prayerful nature.
In our day, the basic truths of Christianity are not well known. They are often rejected before their point or reasonableness is seen. Rejection of the truths of faith and reason is not always, or even mostly, due to lack of intelligence or diligence. They are rejected because people do not want them to be true, as their truth would affect the way people live. So people blind themselves to their logic and evidence. They formulate theories or ideologies that claim to be the real world, when actually they are subjective projections onto reality that do not correspond to it.
The Liturgical Year is composed of an Advent season, a Christmas season, a Lenten season, an Easter season that ends with Pentecost, and a remaining season of Ordinary Time that constitutes generally the periods from the end of the Christmas season to the beginning of Lent and from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent. Each day of the year has its own special atmosphere and Liturgy, either of the season or the day. Often, we find more than one feast on the same day. Here, I spend much time on Christmas and Easter, because they not only commemorate the principal truths of the Faith but also, as such, offer an enormous opportunity to think about what is handed down to us. Indeed, revelation was given to us, among other reasons, precisely so that we would think more clearly.
As I noted earlier, you will find here several chapters on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Souls' Day, and the End Times. These chapters are not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of the feast in question, but they reveal strikingly different things we can learn about each of them every time we celebrate or encounter them.
Each feast — each separate consideration of a feast — is something "to be wondered about." And we do not "wonder" for wonder's sake, but to find the truth of what we wonder about. Simply to wonder with no hope of finding the truth is bewildering. Aristotle, the man who told us that philosophy begins in wonder, was the same man who answered many of his initial wonderments.
The events and the occasions that feasts commemorate in their own right have the same effect on us. They cause us not only to wonder but to find the truth as a result of our inquiry and longing. The spirit of these reflections on the great feasts is one of awe, but of an awe that is fully aware of the truth that makes us free.
Rev. James V. Schall. S.J. "Introduction." from The Reason for the Seasons: Why Christians Celebrate What and When They Do (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2018)
Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press.
James V. Schall, S.J. 1928-2019, who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018, Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.Copyright © 2018 Sophia Institute Press
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