Christmas: A Feast for Eyes of Faith

This year, I had something of a Norma Desmond moment. Remember in Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis (William Holden) recognizes the aging star? He thoughtlessly jabbers, “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”

The star, played by Gloria Swanson, responds, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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My Norma Desmond moment came at a funeral luncheon, which had been moved from our parish hall to the upstairs of the old Knights of Columbus hall, now a banquet venue. There, at the end of the room, was the same raised dais upon which my thespian career began. It looked so small! I wondered how those magnificent casts of old ever found space to tread its timbers. My mind retreated half a century, before the Knights had grown too old to climb into their second story dance hall for their annual Christmas Nativity Pageant. It was produced by the legendary team of Joe and Helen Hickel. Helen played the piano, and Joe was the director. Joe had a sport coat, plaid, the only man in town who did, certainly the only Knight. Helen wore a necklace of turquoise. If that’s not Hollywood, what is? Every year, Joe and Helen marshalled three thespian transactions: casting, rehearsal and performance.

I dreamed of playing Joseph. I’d stand in the line, trying to look chaste and wise and available. But I was never cast as the saint. And how I longed to play one of the three kings. My brother Harold was twice cast as a wise man. He got to wear a crown of gold wrapping paper and a dressing gown, borrowed from Bill Witcraft, our neighbor. He had oil money. Harold entered, porting a treasure chest, as the rest of us sang about tar in the Orient. I never understood what tar had to do with Christmas. It must be very precious in the Orient.

I was always cast as one of the numberless, nameless shepherds. I might have played an angel, wearing a taffeta gown trimmed in tinsel, but in my hometown of Ellinwood, heaven had a glass floor. No male angels. Shepherds got a stick and a towel to wrap around their head. It would take a Norma Desmond to look glamorous with a towel around one’s head. Heaven knows I tried.

I longed for my breakout moment. One year, we briefly discussed adding a little drummer boy. Saint Pat’s, in Great Bend, did that. But that was the county seat, where lots of men wore plaid sport coats and women sported turquoise jewelry. The big city might take liberties with the script, but at St. Joe’s, in Ellinwood, we stuck to good old Matthew and Luke. No “pa rum pum pum pum” for us.

Still, when we were all assembled on that stage—however it may have shrunk over the years—there came a mystical moment when the assembled cast, along with the audience, broke into Silent Night. The Baby Jesus, his mother Mary and Joseph, were surrounded by kings, angels and humble shepherds. It was a feast for eyes of faith.

Love longs to look, to gaze upon the beloved. As the old English song put it, “Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge with mine.” To love another is to delight in gazing upon the other. That’s the mystery that we celebrate at Christmas.

The Son comes among us that we may gaze upon God. In the words of the preface, which we pray at Christmas, “For on the feast of this awe-filled mystery, though invisible in his own divine nature, he has appeared visibly in ours; and begotten before all ages, he has begun to exist in time.”

The gaze is a fundamental act of the Catholic faith, essential to it throughout the year. We don’t simply proclaim a gospel in which God became visible. We celebrate a liturgy in which God is made seeable in sacrament, in which we gaze upon God. In the English words of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Latin hymn.

Down in adoration falling,

Lo! the sacred Host we hail,

Lo! O’er ancient forms departing

Newer rites of grace prevail;

Faith for all defects supplying,

Where the feeble senses fail.

The Christmas crèche is the ingenious gift of the great Catholic poet, Saint Francis of Assisi. Reformers might rail against sacred images, but, at Christmas, the world turns Catholic, for a spell, as little children are brought forward so that they might gaze upon the Christ child. They peer amidst candles, bells and incense, against all of which the reformers ranted.

Love wants to look. It desires to gaze upon the beloved. Indeed, when we talk of our future possession of God in heaven, we speak of the beatific vision, the gaze, whose intensity and depth can never be exhausted.

The Virgin of Nazareth, the first disciple, is the great exemplar of the gaze. In the gospels, she doesn’t speak on this silent night, but we are told that she gazed deeply because she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). The gaze of the lover is a light, revealing a truth about the beloved that no one else can see. Look at medieval and renaissance paintings of the nativity. The Catholic gaze is everywhere; the Christ Child is surrounded by those who long to look.

Gazing is effortless when one is in love, and, should love need strengthening, it is done through the gaze. First we must quiet ourselves. And then, we look again. Love can be rekindled. In our nation, our homes, our hearts. Gaze. See the mystery. Love again. 

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James MacGregor
1 year 4 months ago
RE: "Reformers might rail against sacred images ..." Who is meant here by "reformers"? Are there any of these "dinosaurs" still around - besides Mohammedans? Misguided, uninformed, and bigoted people since the times of the Church Fathers (who preached against them!) have been iconoclasts. Without the article stating who is meant here, one could suppose that the author meant everybody who is not Catholic. Luther and Calvin opposed the senseless destruction of images that were useful for contemplation and instruction. Also, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07620a.htm gives a meaty history of the Catholic Church's stance against iconoclasts.
Patrick Murtha
1 year 4 months ago
And yet, historically it was the Calvinists in Geneva and the Puritans in England that raided churches, destroying statues and paintings. Calvin himself rejected the making of statues or images as representations of God: "But the Lord prohibits every representation of him, whether made by the statuary or by any other artificer, because all similitudes are criminal and insulting to the Divine Majesty." (John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion.) In fact, Calvin also vehemently, within the same work, condemns Pope Gregory's words referring to "church art" as the books of the poor. He rejects the very idea that religious art can be properly "useful for contemplation and instruction." As for Luther, while he was more lax in his approach to religious art than Calvin and Cromwell, he did reject certain religious art, particularly illustrations of God, as "idols." And it was his revolution that destroyed so much beauty in the German churches and created that great catastrophe that is commonly and incorrectly called the reformation.
James MacGregor
1 year 4 months ago
Patrick, Thank you. I'll take a "`C-" or even a "D" for history. But I still wonder if the "dinosaurs" are still among us.
Patrick Murtha
1 year 4 months ago
James, Your reply made me chuckle. I doff my hat to your humility. I have always tended against making generalized historical propositions. While some times such propositions may fit a particular school at a particular time, such statements are generally too narrow and often biased by our general unfamiliarity with true history. Take the various claims we moderns make about the Church persecuting Galileo, or our modern understanding of the inquisitions or the Crusades, or even the ignorance and prejudices of medieval society. Very little of what our modern history books say of these matters are actually true. True, there were, in certain places and in certain times, abuses, as there are today, but the common conceptions of these tend to be erroneous either through ignorant or even biased historians. These historical misunderstandings that we have can be often debunked by looking at actual historical accounts and by the evidence of the things about us, or even by distancing ourselves from our own biases in order to understand how they thought and why they thought the way they thought. But to answer you question, I say that as long as human beings are human beings, as long as our reason is limited by our knowledge and by our ignorance, we will find ourselves arriving at the same errors, as well as the same truths. And indeed even today we do, I read a blog recently by a minister of some protestant denomination--I cannot remember which--who decried the use of religious art. He too cited John Calvin to support his ideas. Because we all are fallible humans, whose reason are marred and whose reasons may be unsound, it must always be our practice to practice Charity and understanding in correction, for as St. Paul says, "Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall."
James Axtell
1 year 4 months ago
Christmas is a great feast, because in great and small ways it summons our memories and senses, and allows us to pass on our traditions. I enjoy reading of others' experiences, like yours. The greatest gift of the Father touches each of us deeply and personally. Thanks, and a Blessed Christmas to you.
Ann Robertson
1 year 4 months ago
Thank-you so much for this deeply thoughtful and helpful reflection. With the also vital message that Christians need not be afraid to laugh. May you be deeply blessed in your 'looking' this Christmas and every day.

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