A personal journey
Clarke’s Beach writer discovers true meaning of that first Christmas
Early curiosity tweaked
Back in the 1950s I served as an altar boy at St.Teresa’s Parish in St.John’s. That was in the days when mass was said in Latin.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, became Pater Noster, qui es in Callis, sanctificetur nomen tuom.”
While impossible to understand and requiring blind faith, it later became the foundation of my spiritual quest.
My introduction to the Christmas story was a rather special one. As altar boys we were charged with the responsibility of cutting Christmas trees for the church and for the convent and for the assembly of the Nativity scene (usually positioned to the right side of the main altar).
After trampsing through the nearby forest on our special day off, a few of us, led by a senior who was a high school teacher, sought out, cut and trimmed a number of nicely shaped fir trees, piled them aboard our toboggans, roped them and hauled them about two miles back to the church yard.
We carried the statues and the tall figurines from the Priest’s garage (storage space) into the church vestary. On the weekend before Christmas-week vigils began, the Mercy Sisters from the nearby convent would take over. They cleaned and polished the statues and assembled them in order of their importance with the central focus on the manger holding the small marble statue of the baby Jesus. The following day the men of the parish positioned the trees to form the nativity scene.
It was around that time my curiosity with the timeless Christmas story and all it represents tweaked. I had to know what all this meant to me? What is it about that nativity scene that each December draws so many together, all over the world and in particular in our small isolated parish in a corner of St. John’s? It would take years before I figured it out.
For any young altar boy, midnight mass was a privilege to serve.
The tabernacle would be draped with rich linen and white silk while the priest’s vestments were brightly coloured and joyfully decorated with special touches suitable for the Christmas celebration.
The choir section was filled. Pews packed with well rehearsed singers (including my sisters) bellowed out those timeless hymns and carols. It was as if time stopped and the world stepped
back, all was calm and the search for meaning took on greater significance. “O Holy Nite” was my favourite carol. It still is today.
Christmas meant holidays from school and attending concerts here and there. It meant nicely decorating our homes with lights and the customary Christmas tree. It meant gifts and good food and friends who came to visit and of course Santa Claus.
Christianity is born
Often I wondered why Christ’s birth was so poor and so humble that it took place in a stable in Bethlehem.
Why not a castle suitable for a king? The Son of God was born into the world, not as a prince, but as a pauper. It was there with no fanfare that Christianity was born. In one of most volatile corners of the middle east that to this day is in constant turmoil with threats of war ever present.
For a very long period it seemed I searched and eventually, as if a bright light was switched on in my psyche, the central message and true meaning of that first Christmas began to slowly illuminate my mind.
What I discovered was as a result of reading gifted writers and listening and watching well-educated evangelists. It slowly became clear to me and then it happened.
I was captivated by the in depth thoughts of famed British author and statesman, the late Malcolm Muggeridge. He converted to Catholicism in his latter years after many periods of agnosticism.
For those of you who want to discover or, like me, rediscover the true meaning of that first Christmas, Muggridge deserves a look. Let me share a few paragraphs from his insightful book, “Jesus rediscovered,” published by Collins Fontana Books.
What child is this?
“It was somewhere here, in the neighborhood of the present day Bethlehem, that Christ’s birth took place; on any showing, the most momentous event in the history of our Western civilization.
In the exposition and portrayal of it, literally billions of words, oceans of paint, acres of canvas, mountains of stone and marble, have been expended, not to mention, in recent times, miles of film (and nowadays videotape I suggest).
Is there, then, anything left to say? I ask myself, rather disconsolately, and decide that there is; not because of me, but because of him. The man and his story are inexhaustible, and continue to attract the minds and the imagi- nation of the pious and the unpious, of believers and unbelievers, alike; mine among them.
Christ’s mother, Mary, conceived him out of wedlock, but believed when an inner voice, or angel, told her that her pregnancy was divinely ordained. Joseph, a poor carpenter from Nazareth who married her, likewise understood that the child to be born to her had a special destiny in the world. Every son of every mother is a son of God, but Mary knew that her son was to have a unique relationship with God and a unique role in the lives of men.
She expressed her joy in the knowledge of all the songs of motherhood; the more wonderful because, in her particular case, the circumstances of the birth-to- be were so dubious and so lowly: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.”
The reason for the season
From those early days as an altar boy to today (and I am in my early 70s now) I have relentlessly searched and finally found and experienced what for me is “the essential message” about events that began at that lowly stable in Bethlehem where Christ was born over 2,000 years ago.
For that I am eternally blessed and fortunate.
May you, too, discover the true meaning of that first Christmas.
– Bill Westcott is a resident of Clarke’s Beach