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From Christmas to Calvary by Fr. George W. Rutler


December 25, 2016
by Fr. George W. Rutler


In the days before computer screens, when parchments and wax tablets were costly, the writing on them could be scraped off and replaced with new script. That which replaced the old was a “palimpsest,” and sometimes bits of the old text could still be seen under the new. The Church’s feasts are something of a palimpsest, for under Pentecost, whose Holy Spirit explains God’s actions, is Easter which is God’s greatest action. Then scratch Easter, and you get Christmas, which gives birth to the action.

Since we have not yet been raised from the dead, Christmas is easier to grasp than Easter. It is hard to explain a shroud, cast aside by a grown man once dead, but everyone knows what a baby in a diaper is. Yet, without the Easter palimpsest, Christmas could be nothing more than a touching reminder of the innocent peace of any nursery.

The Holy Family sheltered in a cave not merely because they were denied room at an inn. They sought the cave for the same reason that all of us are restless in this world, with all its pleasures that cease to please after a while: our home is not here, and the warmth of a fireside and the comfort of friends are hints of an eternal home. The disappointments and pain and solitude we sometimes feel are a kind of holy homesickness, longing for the place the Holy Child left for a while to be with us.

In 1943, Bing Crosby recorded a song that ended:

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams.
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

That meant a lot, and not only to soldiers fighting across the seas. Everyone is engaged in a struggle with the Prince of Lies, who pretends that there is no eternal homeland beyond this crumbling world. He wants us to erase Pentecost, the palimpsest of Easter, and Easter the palimpsest of Christmas. He wants to leave only a scribble that says that the Babe of Bethlehem, and all babies, are a coincidence of biological cells, products of a happenstance between sperm and egg.

The contradiction of that lie was explained in a letter written toward the end of the second century by an unknown man writing to someone called Diognetus. He was describing Christianity to curious Greeks and Romans: “The time came then for God to make known his kindness and power (how immeasurable is God’s generosity and love!). He did not show hatred for us or reject us or take vengeance; instead, he was patient with us, bore with us, and in compassion took our sins upon himself; he gave his own Son as the price of our redemption, the holy one to redeem the wicked, the sinless one to redeem sinners, the just one to redeem the unjust, the incorruptible one to redeem the corruptible, the immortal one to redeem mortals.”

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