Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed as former things grow old.
— Robert Herrick, “Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve”
After the excitement of the Twelve Days of Christmas and theringing in of the New Year have come and gone, Christmas has not quite left us — for all that the stores started putting up red hearts for St. Valentine’s Day sales. We naturally hold on to the joy that the great feast has brought us — both that of the Infant of Bethlehem Who is common Saviour to us all, and to all that memory holds dear of the many times we have celebrated it with friends and loved ones. We are reluctant to take down the Christmas tree, the holly, and the mistletoe. Nor indeed do we have to — at least not until Candlemas. The Church backs up our reluctance, in many places not removing the last bits of greenery and the Nativity Scene until then.
The source of this desire is not hard to find — the depths of late January and early February are often cold and dreary, inviting us to depressing thoughts. The golden past, as represented by our Yuletide festivities, is as inviting as the dark Lenten future is fearful; even the prospect of Mardi-Gras celebrations (in those places fortunate enough to have them) seems a bit like whistling in the graveyard. Add to this the religious and political enormities which cloud the current scene, and it is a bleak midwinter indeed. Who would not want to seek refuge with the Holy Family under the light of the Christmas Tree?
But there are, nevertheless, observances of various sorts in this strange amorphous Time after Epiphany that we can use to prepare ourselves for the liturgical and secular future — and these are themselves a mixture of religious and secular observances. Not only can they tempt us out of our Christmas refuge, each has a lesson that can help strengthen us for whatever the future may hold.
Ironically, it is a tragic anniversary — the murder of Louis XVI by the French revolutionaries on January 21. All across France and in other countries, Masses are offered for the repose of the martyred King. At these there are usually read Louis’ inspiring will and consecration of France to the Sacred Heart, as well as Pius VI’s declaration on the event. At first glance, such an event seems hardly like to raise one’s spirits. But not only do these Requiems and those who attend them remind us of a ruler who was willing to sacrifice everything for God and his people, they recall the Real France. Oldest daughter of the Church; land of the Saints of Provence, of Ss. Denys, Genevieve, Martin, Clotilde, Louis, Joan of Arc, and so many more; realm that claims Mary as its Queen, is consecrated to her Assumption, and was visited by her at the rue de Bac, Lourdes, La Salette, Pellevoisin, Pontmain, and so many other places; and pre-eminently the Kingdom of the Sacred Heart and the National Vow. It was that France which settled Quebec and Louisiana, leaving a vital heritage on this continent. For that France the heroes of the Vendee died, following the example of their beheaded Monarch.
The second may strike us as a bit odd — Burns Night on or around January 25. Scotsmen across the globe indulge in a highly ritualized dinner in memory of their country’s greatest poet. But unlike Louis XVI, Robert Burns was hardly a personal role model — philanderer and drunkard, Freemason and Presbyterian; what could a devout Catholic derive of benefit from Burns? Quite a bit, to be honest. His tragic life was spent in rebellion against the inhuman Calvinism that had blighted his land for over two centuries. If his revolt against its morals was extreme, his rediscovery of his country’s Catholic heroes and celebration of them in verse deserves our credit — as it did that of his friend, the Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Lowland Scotland, who contributed mightily to Burns’ being published. Moreover, Burns heavily affected Sir Walter Scott, whose work went much further to rekindle throughout the British Isles interest in the Catholic past — and so contributed heavily to the Catholic Revival of the 19th century. Burns also celebrated the common joys of life — much looked askance at to-day. So it is that we may happily join in on what has become one of the most pleasant customs of the Scottish year. If nothing else, the Scots Bard has a lot to teach us about keeping our senses of humour and joy alive in difficult times.
Three days later comes the feast of Bl. Charlemagne. To-day confined to the dioceses of Aachen, Osnabrueck, and Mainz, it once ranged as far away as Paris. Many people are surprised that the great Emperor is a Blessed; but as both Dom Gueranger and Fr. Alban Butler point out, he is quite deserving of it. Although the current secularist EU sometimes likes to claim him as a forerunner, Charlemagne was in truth the Father of Western Christendom — to include the Americas and Australasia (it might be argued that Justinian was the father of Eastern Christendom, and Constantine the father of us all)! We should revere his memory as one who lit a flame against the gathering dark and showed that one might pursue holiness alongside successful statecraft and soldiering.
January 30 presents us with four important deaths. Bl. Columba Marmion is well known as the author of a number of spiritual books; less well known is his resolute stance against temporal and religious problems swirling around his abbey of Maredsous during and after World War I. Dom Prosper Gueranger, famed author of The Liturgical Year and the Institutions Liturgiques, in the wreckage following the French Revolution refounded the Benedictine Order in France and revived Gregorian Chant. Fr. Leonard Feeney, MICM, at the height of his career the best-known Catholic writer in the United States, sacrificed said career to defend the much-denied dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. But these illustrious and embattled clerics share the day of their deaths with an Anglican King who nevertheless deserves our notice.
He was Charles I, murdered by Oliver Cromwell’s parliament in 1649. Venerated as a Saint by the Anglicans because of his refusal to agree to the abolition of bishops in the Church of England, the murdered King had presided over an attempted “re-Catholicisation” of sorts of that body — which included negotiations for reunion with several Popes (also a charge against him). He gave his permission for the Pope to offer Archbishop Laud the red hat (an offer Laud refused). Allowing the priests imprisoned in London under his father to minister to their flocks by day, Charles was unable to save them when the Long Parliament martyred them and executed Laud and Charles’ chief advisor. During the course of the ensuing civil wars in his three Kingdoms, Charles vowed to return all lands stolen by Henry VIII and still held by the Crown — including monasteries — to the Church. After the Restoration, his son Charles II converted on his deathbed; the younger son, James II, converted before becoming King, was driven from the throne, and was the forebear of a long line of Catholic claimants to the English, Scots, and Irish thrones. Every year at Trafalgar Square his murder is commemorated; Bossuet proclaimed that Charles’ blood was shed in atonement for Henry VIII’s crime — and the last book Louis XVI read on the night before his own murder was a life of Charles I. The parallels between them are enormous — as are those with Bl. Charles of Austria.
St. Brigid’s day is February 1. The Mary of the Gael, as her devoted clients call her, is co-patroness of Ireland, and founded the great abbey at Kildare. As with Louis XVI for France, she sums up in herself — as does St. Patrick — all that was best about Catholic Ireland. Despite what has befallen the Emerald Isle in the past four decades, and for all that most of her children have forsaken the Faith, there yet remain a sturdy minority who strive to keep alive the flame St. Brigid lit at Kildare and that of St. Patrick set alight on the Hill of Slane. This night is Candlemas Eve, when traditionally the last of the Christmas decorations were taken down. But liturgically, the season has one more day.
Candlemas commemorates the coming of the Holy Family to the Temple in Jerusalem, that — in accordance with custom — the Virgin Mary might be purified after childbirth, and her Infant presented to God. These were rites they did not need but were pleased to perform. Anna and Simeon, both of whom had longed all their lives to see the Messiah, finally achieved their goals — despite the naysaying and disbelief they had undoubtedly encountered. The Candlemas blessing and procession with candles — especially when done in the dark of early morning or night-time — closes the Christmas season for good, while assuring us that the light continues to shine in the darkness.
In this murky time, when Christmas has ended, and Septuagesima has not yet really begun, each of the people we have encountered — Louis XVI, Robert Burns, Bl. Charlemagne, the three heroic clerics, Charles I, St. Brigid, and Ss. Anna and Simeon — have something important to teach us. Above all, it is tenacity — adhering to what we know to be true despite whatever personal suffering it might cause us, secure in the knowledge that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” Armed with that knowledge, both the seasons of Carnival and Lent, with their alternating celebration and penance, will be fruitful for us. As it is with the Church Year, so often it is with our lives: youthful celebration gives way to the privations that afflict us as we age — and which we are tempted to fear. What is true for us as individuals is also true for us as a nation, a civilisation, and a Church. But in the midst of these fears and anxieties never let us forget what all those folk (save, mayhap, Burns) knew — as Easter follows Lent, life shall follow our own deaths and Christ our King shall be victorious over the adversary. Until then, we hold on.