Saturday, December 26, 2009


You might think I am referring to Leo XIII, who was pope at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, along with a scholar who is an expert in Thomas Merton, the American Cistercian monk and spiritual writer. Almost… Actually, I mean Pope St. Leo I (in the 5th century), and J.R.R. Tolkien, the Merton [College, Oxford] Professor of English Language and Literature. Together, they offer a great insight into the meaning of the celebration of Christmas.

The brilliance of Pope Benedict XVI notwithstanding, Pope Leo the Great was the greatest theologian ever to sit in the Chair of Peter. He made a decisive intervention in a controversy about the nature of Jesus Christ as truly, fully human and truly, fully divine—a controversy that was ripping the Church apart in the 400s. And in the Breviary’s “Office of Readings” for Christmas morning, we read an excerpt from a sermon he preached on the feast of the Nativity. I quote a small portion of it here:

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.
No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he receives the offer of forgiveness. Let the [unbeliever] take courage as he is summoned to life.

The success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has overshadowed the scholarship that marked Tolkien’s life as a professor at Oxford (and sometime friend and drinking/discussing friend of C.S. Lewis). But in his important essay “On Fairy-Stories” (to which I referred on Christmas in one of my homilies), he invents the word ‘eucatastrophe,’ intended to mark the turning point for joy that allows fairy-stories to have a happy ending. Becoming theological at the end of the essay, he writes:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story… But this story has entered History and the primary world… The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy…. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true… But this story is supreme; and it is true.
The [Gospel story] has not abrogated the legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

We move quickly this year from Christmas, through Holy Family, to Mary Mother of God and the World Day of Prayer for Peace, to Epiphany: all within 2 weeks. As we make this liturgical rush (which is almost paralleled by the rush of shopping we felt in the weeks leading up to Christmas), it will be good for us to remember the Joy that is being offered to us. With heart and hand, let’s take hold and never let it go.


  1. Really enjoyed the quote of St. Pope Leo I...will use it in my next year's Christmas letter!

    To add a sad note to the joy Christmas brings us, we have lost a theological giant in Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx...may he be with the Lord.

  2. Schillebeeckx was one of the giants, without a doubt. His influence is indeliby marked on "Sacrosanctum Concilium."
    Tolkien was also a giant in a different way... responsible in large part for CS Lewis' (re-)conversion to Christianity (and deeply disappointed when CSL didn't become a Catholic).