Letters to Peregrinus #39 - On Holy Days

The Magi Journeying[1] by James Tissot, 1836-1902, from his Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ series painted between 1886-1894
Dear Peregrinus (5:30 PM; 11th Night):

Happy 11th day of Christmastide to you (January 4th), and may divine blessings be upon the Adventure (almost completely hidden from us) that will be the year 2019.

Tomorrow evening is “Twelfth Night”[2], which is the conclusion of the “twelve days” of Christmas (of Christmastide[3]), and which reminds us that the wise men from the East will soon be showing up in front of a particular stable in Bethlehem to greet a particular Child and his particular parents.

Matthew 2 (KJV) And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.[4]

You said that you would give me account of what you did during the holy days, and by what or by whom in particular you recognized that God’s hand was upon you. I patiently anticipate[5] your letter!

But in the meantime, I thought that I would write to you a thought that is active in me right now concerning “holidays”. I am not sure why such thoughts as these come into my awareness, and remain there. But when such thoughts “stick” in this way, I have trained myself to assume that the Spirit is communicating something to me through them. And so, I diligently attend to them, sometimes by letting them “work” in me, allowing them to explore me, if you will, and sometimes I actively explore the thoughts with both my intellect and my affects (the thoughts and then noticing the impact that those thoughts have on my feelings … and wondering about that).

Cussed[6] am I again this year in my refusal to speak of “the holidays.” Why? Because the way people are using that phrase is wrong. We pusillanimous[7] Christians have allowed another of our “holy” words to be stolen from our Christian mouths, and gutted of its sacred significance. “Holidays”, now, can express nothing of the reality it describes.

That is, we have become complicit in letting the word holiday drift towards, so as to become identified with, the word vacation.

I say, let the word vacation mean what it means; that is, empty Time, whose root is in the Latin verb vacare meaning “to be empty; to be void of.”[8] Having empty Time in our over-deployed lives is a genuine relief. However, I have noticed that people fill their empty time (their vacations) with pursuits and activities that leave them noticing their emptiness. “I can’t wait to get back to normal!”, I regularly hear people say. (In contrast, when people have experiences of holiness,[9] the last thing that it occurs to them to exclaim is, “I can’t wait to get back to normal!”) Perhaps there is too much of “empty” in what we call our normal lives, with the result that when we “vacate” them on vacation we notice even more the emptiness.

Do you understand, Peregrinus? I feel the significance of exploring this distinction: “holy days” and “vacations” are very different things.

Holy days, of which “holiday” is a contraction, are not vacation. They are about the bursting in of realness into our lives, lives that can become so thoroughly emptied out by our insatiable materialistic compulsions – “enough is never enough.” Holy days are about us experiencing the breaking into history, of our personal histories, of Something real, about Someone real who comes, filling us up, restoring our hope, and faith, and love – 16 From His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”[10]

We need completely to re-think what holidays are for, and about what God, through the traditions of the Church, is giving us in them. What if we did not go on vacation during the holy days, but instead “observed” the holy days, allowing them to fill us, reminding us what the genuine fullness is?

What if we took our vacations not during holy days?

Holidays mean full Time, or as the Bible likes to say, sacred events that happen “in the fullness of Time.”

Such days set aside on the Christian calendar give to each of us in ways specific to our current state of life, an experience of fullness, of richness, and of “thickness” of significance. We need such fullness-Time not only to awaken and bless us, but also, perhaps especially in our contemporary culture, to get us to notice, by contrast, how “thinly” we are living, settling for what fails to satisfy.

All you who are thirsty,
    come to the water!
You who have no money,
    come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy grain without money,
    wine and milk without cost!
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
    your wages for what does not satisfy?
Only listen to me, and you shall eat well,
    you shall delight in rich fare.
Pay attention and come to me;
    listen, that you may have life.[11]

We might say that during the holy days, God is fully at work, especially at work, in the ancient stories and symbols operating, inviting, testing, evoking, and awakening us. We need such days. They are the days of the year when most especially we should not be practicing “emptiness”, or going “on vacation”.

Psalm 42:

As a deer yearns for streams of water,
so I yearn for You, O God.

My whole being thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and see
the presence of God?[12]

 Consider, in this regard, how very unlike “vacation” was that Christmas Eve and Day for Scrooge. For him it was not three Wise Men from the East who came to visit him, but three Spirits wise in the instruction that they imparted. They made Christmas holy for Ebenezer, catalyzing the effects in him that one expects when holiness has possessed a soul.

Charles Dickens describes Scrooge’s transformation at the conclusion of A Christmas Carol: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (published December, 1843)[13]:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.[14]

I dare anyone, old friend, to try to convince Ebenezer Scrooge that his Christmas was “empty time” – a going on vacation! The last thing that old buzzard needed was a vacation. His “normal” life had already filled him up with enough of “void” and “emptiness”. Satis superque![15]

His Christmas that year, because of all that the three Spirits had taught him – and which he learned! (so much and so richly), became for him, and for always, a holy day, the very essence of holiday. Dickens concludes concerning the redeemed old skin-flint[16], Ebenezer:

 “… and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.[17]

This year, Peregrinus (but also last year), I have ceased to use the expression, “Happy holidays!” (and all its cognate forms) – a transparent subterfuge[18] to get around using the proper salutation: “Merry Christmas!” I have used instead the expression: “May you have good holy days.” This expression has all the advantage of, on the one hand, supplying an apt[19] expression for all those who have crowded in to demand a place for their special days (not least are the dreadful and insatiable lords of materialism)[20] during these holy days of the Jews and of the Christians. And, on the other hand, it brings forward the essential priority of our attention during these days to holiness, forcing people, if you will, to consider what holiness might mean to them ... and to God who is, and who makes holy!

Our Christian holy days mark the fullness of Time, recalling moments in history – in our history – when Something happened because Someone came. For us Christians at Christmas, it is God Himself in the divine Son, our Emmanuel – “God with us” – who came … and Who comes. And to Him, after the Twelfth Night had passed, the wise men came. And wise and unwise alike still do.

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.[21]

I love that last line – “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” Brilliant.

 And now my old and brilliant companion of my thoughts, and believer in my heart’s hopes, I wish you a holy celebration of the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on Sunday, and a peaceful return to Ordinary Time on Monday, January 14th.[22]

Your grateful friend who has also traveled far his whole life, but not alone,

Rick, SJ


[1] James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 7 15/16 x 11 1/2 in. (20.2 x 29.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.30 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 00.159.30_PS1.jpg). An interesting contemplative insight of Tissot is that each of the three Magi set off alone from their separate towns in the East, but then, by providential purpose, met up on the journey – the moment his painting is meant to capture. “Tissot depicts the Magi at the moment when their retinues meet in the vast, arid landscape of the volcanic hills on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jericho, the Kedron Valley, and Jerusalem.”

[2] Actually, there is disagreement about which is the first of the “twelve days” of Christmas. This is not a doctrinal issue, and so it is not about fighting through disagreements and settling, finally, on which day is the first. Some say that the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day itself, which means that “twelfth night” is the night of January 5th, or the night before the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. But some count the first day of Christmas as December 26th (especially when counting things according to the Jewish understanding that a day ends and a new one begins at sunset), meaning that the “twelfth day … and night” is the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. Counting the first day of Christmas as Christmas Day itself is what is typical.

[3] The expression “Christmas-tide” corresponds to the mini-liturgical “season” of Christmas, in contrast to Christmas, or Christmas day, which obviously means just the day of Christmas, December 25th. The most important meaning, liturgically, of Christmastide is the octave of Christmas – Christmas “day” understood as lasting for eight days (octave). But the more traditional way of understanding Christmastide is as the twelve days of Christmas – the period lasting from Christmas Day up to, and sometimes including, the feast of the Epiphany. After which in liturgical time, we are returned, on the day after the feast of the Epiphany, into “ordinary Time” … which remains the norm until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. [Please refer to Footnote #15 below for further explanation.]

[4] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Mt 2:8–12.

[5] The Oxford English Dictionary at the entry “to anticipate” – “To seize or to take possession of beforehand.” Obviously, I have no ability to “seize” a letter from Peregrinus before he has written it. But a later meaning of this verb is “to look forward to, to look for (an uncertain event) as certain.” Hiddenly expressed in the verb, then, is a kind of pressuring of Peregrinus to write to me, such that “to anticipate” really means “to expect” that Peregrinus deliver on what he promised. How subtly we humans pressure people! And because we do, we lose our ability to cleanse our image of God, assuming that God is into the “pressuring” of us humans. God does not “pressure” human beings to do something. God rather, if one pays particular attention to St. Augustine, persuades … by making that which is God’s intention to appear as beautiful, as something that attracts our will.

[6] Pronounced “CUSS-id”. The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “cussed” – describing a person “obstinate or stubborn, especially to the point of causing annoyance or frustration; a cantankerous or contrary person.”

[7] A 15th century adjective “pusillanimous”, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as: Of a person: “lacking in courage or strength of purpose; faint-hearted.”

[8] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “vacation” – “Freedom, release, or rest from some occupation, business, or activity.” Or, “a time of rest or leisure”. The word derives from the first conjugation Latin verb vaco -are meaning “to be empty; to be void of; without; not to contain.”

[9] It is instructive that in our times we must describe to people what “experiences of holiness” are. I have seen honest uncertainty in the faces and expressions of people about what such experiences are. One way of getting at this is to consider what Paul describes in Galatians 5:22-25, concerning the “fruits” of the Spirit: “22 In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ [Jesus] have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.”

[10] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jn 1:16.

[11] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Is 55:1–3.

[12] Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 3187-3190). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

[13] Charles Dickens wrote this charming, one-line Preface to his famous story: “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D. December 1843.” (Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (Penguin Classics) (p. 29). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)

[14] Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (Penguin Classics) (pp. 116-118). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[15] A Latin tag that I was taught as a Jesuit Novice (age 19 years) by a very dear, and very elderly, Jesuit by the name of Cornelius “Connie” Valentine Mullen, SJ. It is an exclamation that translates as: “Enough! And more than enough!”

[16] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun and adjective “skinflint” – “A person who would ‘skin a flint’ to save or gain a thing, esp. money; a mean or avaricious person; a miser.”

[17] Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (Penguin Classics) (p. 117). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[18] The Oxford English Dictionary at “subterfuge” – “A device or stratagem used to escape the force of an argument, to avoid blame, or to justify one's conduct; a deceptive or evasive statement, action, etc. Also: evasive or devious behaviour; deception.”

[19] That is, in our troubled times, people have lost all contact with the significance of their identity as persons. As a result, they go (desperately) seeking their identities in kinds of persons. Language then becomes an endless searching for “non-offensive” ways of speaking. By speaking of the “holy days” rather than “the holidays” we compel attention to those special days set aside to remember, and to acknowledge, that God has entered Time and our histories and has left His imprint of holiness there.

[20] I recall how John places first thing in his Gospel the Cleansing of the Temple incident, considering it an initiatory action, and programmatic statement, of Jesus at the beginning of His public life. He reacted with revulsion to the way the holy things – and at the holiest place in the Jewish world: the Temple – had been hijacked by commerce – by buying and selling and with special attention to the money. John 2: 15 He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, 16 and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

[21] William Butler Yeats, “The Magi” in the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (1989). It first appeared in Poetry Magazine in May 1914.

[22] In case you wondered, the current Catholic liturgical calendar has messed with the Twelve Days for the sake of making it happen that the major feast days occur on successive Sundays, rather than mid-week when, sadly, American Catholics find themselves too discomfited to force themselves to come to Mass on the actual holy days. The Church caved on this and transferred the feasts to the Sundays … when the faithful know that they are expected to come to Church. Thus, the current liturgical calendar is arranged this way: Christmas Day, then the next Sunday is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; then the next Sunday is the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, and finally the next Sunday is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (which this year occurs on Sunday, January 13th). For the first time this year, I have noticed on the Catholic liturgical calendar that there is listed Christmas I – from Christmas Day up to the night before Epiphany; and Christmas II – from the solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord through the Baptism of the Lord. Thus “Christmastide” is now divided into two parts.

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