Not cheap or profane, but a vulgar grace

Of the books in his lesser-known Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra is arguably the best. Taking place almost exclusively on the planet Venus, the character of Ransom explores not just a world untouched by sin but the struggle with sin itself. One of the passages I find most affecting has him reflecting on the proper meaning and end of appetites. I’ve included the passage in its entirety at the end of this post, but its final sentence has always stayed with me: “But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.”1

Profaning something special is what Ransom is rejecting here, and we are invited to do the same. But it doesn’t take a trip to another planet to see how often we make vulgar (ie, ‘common’)2 what ought to be held apart for a special moment or purpose – it is a habit that is so engrained in us that we are often blind to how regularly and unwittingly we do just that. When our eyes are opened to see others or ourselves making vulgar something that ought not to be common, we react with disgust and repulsion.

In contrast is the idea of the Holy making Itself common – a reality we will celebrate in the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. While our initial reaction may still be rejection, the disgust and repulsion comes from within. Despite the generous nature of the gift, we recoil at the collision of holiness with our brokenness: ‘I’m not worthy of such an extraordinary gift!’

Presumption and despair

One of the more eyebrow-raising lines of Jesus is found in Mark 3:28-29 : “Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” Christians and non-Christians alike ask, quite reasonably!, what this unforgivable sin might be, this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. How can it be that there is any sin that can not be forgiven by the Lord?

The best explanation I have heard rests on the Lord’s great respect for our free will. Though God has the power to impose Himself on us, He will not do so – and that includes forgiveness. If we refuse to ask for his help – whether out of presumption (‘I don’t need His help’, ‘I can claim His gifts without even asking Him’) or despair (‘He’ll never help me, so I won’t bother asking’) – He will honor that refusal. This blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable because we make ourselves unforgiveable by refusing forgiveness.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Church insists on individual confession, rather than the oft-abused general absolution (which is only to be used in immediate danger of death). The Lord gives generously and graciously, but never in a way that would cheapen our relationship with Him. An apology made without specifics, ownership, or expression of sorrow is no apology at all! On the other end, a statement of forgiveness is means nothing if it is simply a dismissal as unimportant the offenses it addresses. Confession allows us – as best as we can – to make a sincere apology, while opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s forgiveness.

Humble Divinity

The recent publication of the Dicastary for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration Fiducia Supplicans has given members of the Church reason to revisit the meaning and end of blessings. In giving authority to the Apostles – passed on through the generations to clerics today – Christ has given extraordinary power & responsibility: to call and have God answer. When we call, He shows up! What was once unique to the Last Supper has become the weekly or even daily experience of Catholics throughout the world.

That there is fear that this declaration could be used to provide cheap grace or result in the graces of blessings being profaned is not entirely unreasonable. And sadly, we have no shortage of examples – especially recently – of clerics and laity all-to-willing to cheapen or profane God’s blessings, using them as they see fit rather than as the Lord and His Church intends.

This danger has not stopped the Lord from entrusting Himself to us. At the words of the priest at Mass, Jesus comes to us with the fragility of bread and wine – a crumb, a single drop contains Christ entire, whole to all that taste. And at the conclusion of Mass, the priest blesses all present – worthy or not – and the Lord responds.

Despite His greatness – or better said, because of His greatness – God humbles Himself such that we may direct Him. What a terrible and awesome gift! We who carry it ought to hold ourselves and be held accountable for how we use it – and so we will surely will, at the end of all things.

Needy humanity

The point of all of this – the point of the declaration, I dare to assert – is that this gift ought to be used to the point of commonality – because God Himself (and not us) has willed it so! Of course we ought to reject profaning blessings by using them in unholy ways or over unholy things. Of course we ought to recoil from cheapening blessings by using them insincerely, carelessly, or spuriously. But we should – we must – put this gift to good and regular use. To reject or recoil from using this gift, especially on behalf of those who most need it most – us sinners! – would be to frustrate the proper meaning and end of blessings: to sanctify us and make us holy.

In our need – and often, hubris – there will be those who will presume to receive God’s blessing without any intention or desire to enter into a relationship with Him, or allow for Him to effect change in their lives. There will be others who feel so hopeless that they won’t dare to approach Him at all. It is the work and role of Christians everywhere to help others freely approach God and worthily receive Him – this is what is at the heart of the great commission. This, too, is part of the point of this.

With regards to the declaration Fiducia Supplicans, there is a key line that punctuates how these blessings might be made common but not cheaply or profanely:

In such cases [the blessing of irregular/same-sex couples], a blessing may be imparted that not only has an ascending value but also involves the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Fiducia Supplicans, 31

Responding worthily

Those who recognize their destitution and need for help, who don’t legitimize themselves but beg for all that is good, true, and valid in their lives & relationships to be enriched, healed and elevated – would that ALL of us would so approach blessings from the Lord and His Church! This is no blessing of sin, but rather a blessing against the sin that binds – and surely an occasion to be celebrated.

When humanity turns what is holy into something profane, it is rightly condemned. But when the Sacred chooses to descend, to mysteriously make Himself small, when He makes Himself a commoner for our sake, our response ought to be one of grateful joy and generous sharing. May we make of this a renewed opportunity to encourage each other to receive fully the blessings of the Lord.

  1. Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. “Not like that” was all he could ever say to such inquiries. As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again; the child-like innocence of fruit, the labours he had undergone, the uncertainty of the future, all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
    – C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (the antepenultimate paragraph of chapter 3) ↩︎
  2. from the Latin vulgaris, volgaris (common, ordinary) or vulgus, volgus (of the common people) ↩︎

Yes, I do believe

Every year, there is a question that sends a shiver down the spines of parents, teachers, priests, and any grown-up who encounters it: ‘is Santa real?’. This simple question seems fraught with danger. Fears of being complicit in the commercialism that has seeped into the Nativity of Christ, of emphasizing a myth over the Word incarnate, of advocating a lie in the midst of a season dedicated to the One who is the source of all truth – all of this, and more, weighs on the adult to whom an innocent child looks up and presents this simple inquiry.

It is by strange coincidence – I daresay providentially so – that the most famous answer to this question comes from Church – not Holy Mother Church, but a man named Francis Pharcellus Church. It is he who is the author of the now famous response published in the New York Sun in 1897, titled simply ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ (I’ve included it in its entirety below). In five brief paragraphs, he answers this question so well that his response has become perhaps the most famous editorial of all time, and deservedly so.

I don’t know if Francis Church was inspired by the Church Herself, but he echoes – consciously or not – the language of the likes of Tolkien in his On Fairy-Stories, Lewis in his dedication to to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and even Thomas Aquinas, who famously reminds us that “Faith has to do with things that are not seen, and hope with things that are not in hand”, reminiscent of the similar words found in the Letter to the Hebrews.

We’re all assuming this is Mrs. Claus, right? (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If the title didn’t give it away, you’ve probably guessed by now how I answer this question – that I, too, do believe in Santa Claus. Oh, my image of him is not the one of popular culture, though the history of how Saint Nicholas came to be associated with a sleigh, reindeer, and chimneys is fascinating all in itself. But that relatively modern (1823) conceit has its roots in an actual living, breathing person – whose story is far richer and more Christ-based than secular society might care to admit.

And so, finally (!), we come to the crux of the matter: Santa Claus is in fact Saint Nicholas (from the Dutch feast of Sinterklass or Sint-Nicolaas, celebrating his name day). In the Roman Catholic tradition, Saint Nicholas has his own liturgical feast day on December 6 (or on December 19 by those who follow the Julian calendar, such as various Orthodox Churches), though the season of Advent trumps him liturgically. Nonetheless, Christians worldwide celebrate his memory with small gifts – traditionally putting out shoes the night before and filling them with tangerines or oranges overnight.

Saint Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák
Saint Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Why? I’m glad you asked! We start with with the basics: Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He famously attended the Council of Nicaea – there is a story about him punching Arius, which though satisfying, was neither encouraged nor condoned. In fact, he was stripped the signs of his office and thrown into jail for the offense. It seems that divine intervention may have played a part in convincing Constantine and his brother bishops to restore him.

But the story of Saint Nicholas that most captures his character centers not around his ardent defense of the faith and its doctrine & dogma, but the charity which it inspired. The most famous story involves saving three children from a terrible fate. There are several versions of the story, but essentially a father of three girls was intending to sell them into prostitution, seeing no alternative that would save them from the poverty that afflicted the family. Saint Nicholas, apparently hearing about this, discreetly gave from his own wealth. Legend has it that he tossed in bags of gold through an open window, with them landing in the shoes that were placed to dry overnight in front of the fire.

From that simple act, not only were girls saved from a life of physical and spiritual impoverishment, but was borne a tradition of gift-giving that continues to this day. This also explains those tangerines or oranges on his feast day, representing the gold balls or coins that he gave away so generously.

I could go on and on (and so I have already!), but the point is this: we Christians have no reason to be afraid to affirm Santa Claus. If you’re struggling to find ways to celebrate the very real man behind it all, I would commend you to the wonderful St. Nicholas Center website. They’ve got a whole section on how to celebrate Saint Nicholas and the Christ to Whom he was devoted. Santa Claus is not a threat to Jesus or faith in Him – far from it! Armed with the truth of who he is, we can celebrate all the more richly the season of the Word incarnate and be inspired to to greater love of God and neighbor.

(also, if you’re looking for a bit of whimsy and fun, NORAD’s Santa Tracker is a delightful tradition, started entirely by happy accident. They have a dedicated website and apps for you & the children in your life to follow Santa Claus. It’s lovely.)

Is There a Santa Claus?

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of THE SUN:

“DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
“Virginia O’Hanlon.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, VIRGINIA, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beautify and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there was no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank GOD! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, VIRGINIA, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

“Is There a Santa Claus?” September 21, 1897. The Sun (New York, NY), Image 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.