Memories on the Feast of St. Nicholas

The tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra had long been a popular pilgrimage destination, but when sailors from Bari, Italy stole his relics from the Turkish-occupied town, devotion to St. Nicholas took off in the west.  Given the stories of his generosity and his love for children, it was natural that St. Nicholas should surround himself with the aura and the legends of Father Christmas, a lingering memory of Norse legend.  Within a couple of hundred years, the Feast of St. Nicholas was a landmark in the Advent season, hailing the election of the Boy Bishop (more on this character later) and the exchange of Christmas gifts.

Since my childhood was not spent in the Church, the first time I encountered any celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day was when I visited my soon-to-be wife’s family.  Later, when we lived in Gaming, Austria, we experienced the intensity of medieval devotion to St. Nicholas.  A friend who was a boy in Gaming around that time has posted his vivid memory of Nicholas and the Krampus here–you can see what I mean by “intense”!  Our first daughter was a baby at the time, and we realized that we just had to stay inside.  Krampus was too much.

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This bas relief of bishop Nicholas of Myra is nearly a foot tall.

Once back in the states, we brought new fervor to our celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day, although we haven’t opted to have a demon chase our children with whips.  Instead, we bought a giant cookie mold of the bishop Nicholas from houseonthehill.net; since the cookies need time to age, we make them a couple of weeks ahead of time.  The night of December 5, the kids make gingerbread cookies for their stockings.

In the morning, the stockings are hung by the fire place–the P1010526beautiful, hand-crafted stockings my mother has lovingly made for each child–and in the stockings are cookies, some chocolate coins to remember the story of St. Nicholas’ gifts, and a small gift.  Typically, the stockings buy time for my wife and me to get up slowly and make breakfast at a more leisurely pace.

In the afternoon, we’ll make hot cocoa and eat the giant Nicholas cookies.  I like to give at least one giant cookie away, if I can.  Because I’m into medieval customs these days, our background music will be an album of medieval folks songs for the feast of St. Nicholas.

 

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Jesse Tree 6: Ladder

[From the online Jesse Tree.]

A reading from the book of Genesis (28:11-17):

Jacob came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Jacobs LadderJacob was Abraham’s grandson, but his life did not start smoothly. He fought with his brother, and stole his brother’s blessing by lying to his blind father, and then he ran away because his brother wanted to kill him. One night while he was running away he had an amazing dream. He saw angels going up and down a ladder from heaven to earth, and God appeared and gave him the promises of his grandfather Abraham. Even though Jacob had gotten himself in trouble, God chose him as the one to continue the Advent story. When Jacob woke up he realized that he had slept in a holy place, the place where a ladder reaches from heaven to earth.

Jacob went on to new adventures, but we should stay a Ladder of Divine Ascentwhile and look at that ladder. Wouldn’t you like to have a ladder that you could climb all the way to heaven? One famous person in the Middle Ages said that reading the Bible is a ladder like that. But Advent is also a ladder to heaven: each day of Advent is another rung, and at the top of the ladder we will find Jesus. If you want to climb the ladder of Advent alongside the angels that Jacob saw, then wake up every day waiting for Jesus, prepare for him with little sacrifices and constant prayer—and do your Jesse tree at night!

St. Abraham, pray for us!

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Jesse Tree 4: Noah’s Ark

[From the online Jesse Tree.]

A reading from the book of Genesis (6:5-7):

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.

When Adam and Eve sinned, something went terribly wrong. It was not just that the world was a sadder place for them. It was not just that now they would have to die someday. Something went terribly wrong inside of them, in their hearts, and all their children were born with darkness in their hearts. Remember that the whole world came from God and was supposed to return to God through Adam and Eve and their children. By the time of Noah, the children of Adam and Eve had become so bad that God decided to send a great flood to destroy the whole world.

Noahs ArkGod warned Noah to build an ark. He told Noah to bring two of every animal into the ark so that the animals would not all be destroyed in the flood. So when the rain poured down and the water rose up even over the mountains, Noah’s family and the animals on the ark were safe, and when the water finally went down and dry land appeared, it was a new day for the world. God promised that he would never again send a flood to destroy the whole world.

But something was still wrong inside the hearts of men. Darkness was still on the earth, and it would grow again.

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New Advent CD from Wyoming Catholic College

Last year I had the honor of reporting that my poem “David’s Town,” set to music by Peter Kwasniewski, was performed by an ensemble in Scotland.  This year I am happy to announce that “David’s Town” has been included on Wyoming Catholic College’s new Advent CD.  It is a special song, because it is the only hymn to my knowledge that devotes one stanza to each of the “three comings” celebrated in Advent:  the first coming in humility, the second coming in mystery, and the third coming in glory.

The new CD is beautifully done, recorded by a special student ensemble led by Kwasniewski.  You can find lyrics, information, and a way to purchase the CD here.  Take a look!  We’re doing an important work at WCC, and every CD purchase helps us keep the lights on both literally and figuratively.

Meanwhile, to give you a sense for the quality both of the performance and the recording, here is the “David’s Town” track:

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Jesse Tree 3: The Tree of Knowledge

[From the online Jesse Tree.]

A reading from the book of Genesis (3:1-8):

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

When God made our first parents, he put them in the Garden of Eden, where they had everything they could want. The Garden provided food, warmth, and safety, and they could eat from the Tree of Life and never die. But the best thing about the Garden was that God lived their with our first parents. They could talk with him and walk with him there, the way you meet your best friend.

TreeofKnowledgeTo stay in the Garden, our first parents had really to be best friends with God. They had to trust that he knew what was right and wrong, good and bad, safe and harmful. But Satan told them a lie, the biggest lie there is: he told them that God did not really love them, and told them that God wanted to keep the best things away from them so he could have the best things all for himself. First Eve and then Adam believed the lie, stopped trusting God, and claimed the power to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong.  They preferred the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over being friends with God.

When God came to visit them after that, Adam and Eve didn’t walk and talk with him. In fact, they hid from him. They were afraid of him! Right away, God saw that they could not live in the Garden anymore. He banished them, sent them away. The world became a sad place for Adam and Eve, a place where they would have to work hard to get their food, a place where they knew they would have to die someday, and a place where God seemed far away—not because he was far from them but because they were far from him.

Ever since that day, all boys and girls have been born into a world where people are hungry and where people have to die. Everyone has been born into Adam’s sin, and for thousands of years little boys and girls were born away from God’s friendship—away from the Garden of Eden.  But the story of Advent is about how God came to find his lost people.

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Jesse Tree 1: Alpha and Omega

[From the online Jesse Tree.]

A reading from the book of Genesis (1:1-5):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Advent is the time every year when we tell a story. It is a long story, about many different people and many different times. It is a beautiful story, sometimes sad and sometimes happy. It is also a story with the happiest ending you can imagine, because it is the story of how Jesus came to save us.

Our story begins at the very beginning of the whole world. The very first book of the Bible says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) God made the light and the darkness; God made the sky and the sea; God made the dry land and all the plants; God made the sun and the moon and the stars; God made all the birds and all the animals. Everything we see around us came from God, because God is the beginning of all things.

Then the Bible says: “On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) This doesn’t mean that God was tired and needed to rest. No, it means that God wants the whole world and everything in it to rest in him at the end of time. Just as everything begins in God, so too everything ends in God.

Alpha_and_OmegaThis is what our Advent story is about: how everything that came from God will go back to God in the end.

Our ornament today is the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In the very last book of the Bible, God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 21:6) This ornament reminds us that God made everything and that everything was made for God.

[If Advent begins on or after November 28, proceed directly to the next ornament now.]

Prayer

O Lord, we beg you, come before us with your inspiration and accompany us with your help, that our every prayer and work may always begin with you and through you be completed. Amen.

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Introducing the Jesse Tree

Nothing says “Advent” for me like the Jesse Tree.  For years now, I have talked through the story of salvation every December with my children using ornaments on an old cloth tree.  But what is the Jesse Tree, exactly?  Here’s how I have explained it to my kids (with a few bigger words because you’re not a kid):

JesseTreeQ. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree.

Q. What do you do with a Jesse Tree?
A. Hang ornaments on it telling the story of salvation history.

Q. Why do we hang ornaments to tell the story instead of just telling the story?
A. The Jesse Tree is a mnemonic device; we easily remember a set of pictures arranged on a tree where we might have difficulty remembering a set of words on a page.

Q. Why is it called a Jesse Tree?
A. Because of the messianic prophecy in Is 11:1 about the “stump” of Jesse. Continue reading “Introducing the Jesse Tree”

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St. Martin of Tours and advent of Advent

If you pray the breviary regularly, you get a glimpse into liturgical history. Even today, if almost all the readings and prayers for a saints’ day are particular to the day rather than drawn from the “commons” in the back then it’s a safe bet this saint was a big deal in the Middle Ages.

Pretty much everything in the breviary is special for St. Martin. He was much loved across Christian Europe, and in the decades leading up to the year 600 dioceses all over the west adopted the practice of fasting from St. Martin’s day until Christmas on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in imitation of the forty days before Easter. It was known as “St. Martin’s Lent,” and was later abbreviated to four weeks to become what we know as the Advent Season.

In keeping with the day before a fast, Martinmas was a day of feasting. Farmers slaughtered their meat animals and, incidentally, paid their taxes and tithes; children wandered from door to door begging for alms like trick-or-treaters today; bon fires blazed, goose was consumed, and a good time was had by all.

Even though Martinmas is no longer the liturgical beginning of Advent, it still works for me like a signpost: “Start thinking about Advent and Christmas!” Time to make those Christmas lists, think about Advent resolutions, and make sure you fixed that Advent decoration that broke last year. Here in the Holmes house, it is a doubly special day because our fourth child, Regina, was born on this day ten years ago. Wednesdays are too full for partying, but come Saturday we’ll have a delayed Martinmas celebration with a bon fire, hot dogs, music, entertainment, birthday cake and ice cream, and presents for the queen of the feast.

So read about St. Martin and find out why the people of the Middle Ages loved him so much. If nothing else, walk around today with a festive spring in your step! And remember that he was considered the patron saint of taverns.

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How St. Matthew Actually Read Isaiah 7

Our reading at Mass today is taken from the seventh chapter of Isaiah, that wonderful prophecy about the child Emmanuel, born of a virgin.  It is one of those passages where the traditional interpretation, based on Matthew’s Gospel, conflicts terribly with modern interpretations, leaving one seemingly to choose between tradition and scholarship.  Some years ago, a friend wrote to me during Advent with a heartfelt question about this chapter, and I offered him my own approach to solving the age-old debate.  This year, I have decided to share that reply with you.

***

Your whole family, you say, has been wondering about Isaiah 7:14-15:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

What a joy to hear that your whole family grows anxious over Scripture, when most of the world is anxious over shopping lists, tax deductibles, and gaining weight on holiday goodies!  When most of us hesitate over which Christmas chocolates and cookies and meats to serve, your mind hovers over a more puzzling menu:  what can it mean that Jesus will eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good?

Unfortunately, my answer can be neither short nor simple.  Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most controverted passages in all of Scripture, and I do not know any other scholar who holds exactly my position, but I am happy to share my reflections, and your family can take or leave them.  In essence, I hold that we must depart from the traditional interpretation in order to return to it more forcefully; so I am estranged from traditional interpreters on the one hand and from modern exegetes on the other.  Let me explain. Continue reading “How St. Matthew Actually Read Isaiah 7”

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A Jesse Tree Catechism

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Not the Jesse Tree we use at home!

Like a lot of families, we put up a “Jesse Tree” every Advent as a way of getting the kids focused on something about Christmas other than the P-word.  Ours is a simple thing, a tree drawn on a cloth with some ornaments hand stitched by my wife’s mother years ago.  When I began teaching Salvation History courses for college students, I brought the Jesse Tree in toward the end of the fall semester to tie a few things together.  If you put up a Jesse Tree in your home, or if you’ve ever wondered what the whole thing is about, you might enjoy seeing how I approach it with my students.  It’s the same thing I do at home with the kids:

Q. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree. Continue reading “A Jesse Tree Catechism”

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