The ancients called the birth of Christ, “Love’s noon in Nature’s night.” In the early centuries of the Church, the birth of Christ was remembered throughout the whole month of January with celebratory feasting. Only in February, with view to Lent approaching, were the festal gatherings disbanded. “Throughout January, holly and ivy decked the halls, wassail was quaffed and carols rang out in the praise of the successive mysteries of the infant God.”
“In the Middle Ages, the life-long devotion of St Bernard of Clarivaux to the Christmas mystery began one Christmas Eve when, as a sleepy little boy, he was given a vision of ‘the infant Word…being born of the Virgin His Mother, fairer in form than all the sons of men’. One Christmas Day, four centuries later, St John of the Cross, while at ease with his brethren at recreation, took the image of the Holy Infant from the Crib and danced round the room, singing all the while: ‘My sweet and tender Jesus/If thy dear love can slay/it is today’…Francis [of Assisi] could not even utter the name ‘Bethlehem’ without stammering with emotion, ‘like the bleating of a sheep’. Three years before his death…he obtained the Pope’s permission for the making of a replica of the Manger, in order to arouse devotion to the Child Jesus and His birth. ‘He has a crib made ready, hay brought in, and an ox and an ass led to their places. The friars are summoned, the people arrive, the forest resounds with voices, and the venerable night is rendered solemn and radiant by a multitude of bright lights and by resonant and harmonious hymns of praise. The man of God stands before the crib, filled with devotion, bathed in tears and overflowing with joy. Solemn Mass is celebrated over the crib, with Francis, the levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preaches to the people standing about concerning the birth of the Pauper King, whom, when he wished to name Him, he called, out of tender love, the ‘Babe of Bethlehem’.”
Unfortunately through the passing centuries the birth of Christ has figured so prominently in both Christian and secular celebration that what was breathtaking to saints of old has become the familiar and quaint story revisited each winter in church pageants. We must rediscover that which has slain the hearts of men with love and caused them to dance in bygone generations, when wonder at the nativity waxed strong in the hearts of the faithful.
NOTE: Quotes are taken from John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p 30, 35-36