The Day After

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Today is of course the Feast of Stephen, our annual recollection of “the day after,” focused upon the first martyr of the Church. It is the second day in the Octave of Christmas, or in the twelve to the Epiphany. Our comprehension of the Nativity of Our Lord requires sight from many angles.

It can never be a full comprehension, for us, but it can at least be rounded. Birth implies death, and Christmas leads directly to Easter. In a narrow worldly sense, the birth of Jesus will lead to the death of Stephen. It is not, in that narrow sense, “all good.”

An extraordinary note by Monsignor Charles Pope, on “the meaning of Christmas,” appeared in the electronic backwaters of the National Catholic Register last Sunday. In the face of all seasonal sentimentality, Fr Pope reminds us of the account of the Nativity, in Revelations chapter 12, and not on any Hallmark card.

The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer, c.1604
The Stoning of Stephen by Adam Elsheimer, c.1604

We all know the first verse: the splendid image of Our Lady, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”

By the paths of modernity, the subsequent verses have been all but erased from mind. For instance: “The dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered; that when she should be delivered he might devour her son.”

In general, we take our apocalypses glibber at the present day. As Genesis at the beginning, so in this book at the end of our Bible, we are reading what is elevated above all “natural” human experience. It is an account of events in our world, from an extra-worldly perspective. The imagery is thus not confined to what is “worldly,” or as it were, plausible.

To readers in former generations, before the substitution of science fiction for Holy Writ, this was intrinsic to the plot. There is War in Heaven. And we, in our lives, are on the front line of that War. It is a line that runs through every human heart.

We most certainly have free will; but we are in a place where we cannot be neutrals. To put this plainly: Satan has made his stand, and we are with him or against him.

The lukewarm – those who consider themselves “innocent bystanders” – will be spat out even by Satan. Give him his due, as did Dante, and more notoriously, Milton. For the spineless and evasive he has only contempt. Yet from God, a Love that they will never requite. In an earthly sense, the neutral are only incidental roadkill; statistics.

Our celebration of Christmas at the present day, so far as it can even be called a celebration, is bloodless like this. The circumstances even of the crèche are lost on us, from our bleating sentimentality. It was cold there.

In Msgr. Pope’s analogy, it is the D-Day landing. This scene of utter sweetness also communicates the utterly vulnerable. Angelic forces, and they alone, stand in protection of this little group, which must excite demonic ravening.

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by William Blake, c.1804
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by William Blake, c.1804

On the soil of this Earth, at Bethlehem, as it were and was, the Christ has landed. As, in the analogy, a few feet had once landed, on the soil of France: and soon word was spreading through all the camps of Europe under Nazi guard.

This analogy has some meaning to me, through the first-hand accounts of my parents’ generation. Blazing headlines, perhaps, in England and America, but in Europe the news passed in whispers: “They have landed in France.” The meaning of this phrase being, “Our liberation is at hand!”

But that was just one earthly war, which many preceded, and many are to come; just one confused battle in the course of a history that can never be confined to time or place.

Compare this larger war: this War in Heaven; and the consequences of it, which infinitely exceed the outcome of any earthly battle. We are not up against some Hitler or Stalin, who will die in due course, but an immortal fiend and unquenchable Dragon; against “that old serpent” Satan, “who seduceth the whole world.”

Victory by arms is not available to us; nor by any other means our enterprise can supply. There is no route forward along which he won’t be met: for the truth, in this world, is that we are surrounded. Nor can we “negotiate” with a force that has us surrounded, and was committed from the beginning to our annihilation.

With God, and alone with God, all things are possible. Without God, we are statistics: roadkill, merely.

It was on Patmos, we gather, that the Apostle John, the one survivor of apostolic martyrdom grown to an old age, was shown the vision of Christmas from this quite otherworldly “point of view.” And note that no Santa Claus is vouchsafed to him. Fixate, for one moment, on the image of that dragon, poised to devour the Holy Child. This is not jingle bells.

Normandy, June 1944 by Robert Capa
Normandy, June 1944 by Robert Capa

And the stones, landing upon the flesh of Saint Stephen, are not chocolates. They are the direct consequence, on this Earth, of the birth of Our Savior.

While of course, Christmas is a glorious celebration, the Glory cannot be fully appreciated when it is reduced to turkey and toys.

Perhaps only those who have looked into the jaws of death, can begin to appreciate what deliverance is about; or how Death itself might be personified. Though perhaps it is possible, by divine grace, to form a sound imagination of the thing. We fear death, yet that is only the doorway.

Merry, indeed, is the notion that our deliverance is at hand; that the defeat of Death itself could ever have been accomplished. Happy, and blessed, must be that occasion, in no small way. Triumphant, necessarily, is that call: even in the cry of Stephen, whose Victory is at hand.

“And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: Now is come salvation.”

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David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

  • Tom Williams

    “With God, and alone with God, all things are possible. Without God, we are statistics: roadkill, merely.”

    Great way to put things in their proper prospective with humor.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    A reminder that it is only with the acknowledgement of sin and death – the offspring of Satan himself – that Christmas has any meaning at all. Apart from these, it is just Santa Claus, egg nog and and wrapping paper tossed feverishly all over the room.

    The Grinch who stole Christmas is the denial of sin, death and the battle engaged by the Father of Lies against the One born of the Woman.

  • John Willson

    An awe-ful meditation, David Warren! Stephen was certainly not neutral, and he spoke as a deacon should. His martyrdom, coming when it does in the life of the Church, shows us the cost of Christmas. Thank you. Your words are terrifying in their beauty.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We do, I think, tend to shy away from the Book of Revelations.

    I remember the reaction of a Professor of Divinity at Oxford in the 1950s, a clergyman, on being told that one of his former students was writing a commentary on the Apocalypse.

    “Oh, dear! How very sad. Such a promising young man – and with a young family, too!”

  • Charlie

    Beautifully written by Warren-as is usual.Lots to meditate on here.Christmas blessings to him and all staff

  • bernie

    I want to thank David Warren for his beautiful meditations and writings. David, you are an exceptional writer. The Catholic Thing has become a daily part of my life, giving me dependable key notes to my day and my reflections. It is like a daily Christmas present. Readers and friends of TCT should all want to contribute to its financial success. Thank you, most sincerely.

  • Oscar Pierce

    Thank you for a powerful commentary on the realities of Christmas… valid now and through the ages. Most assuredly, the real war continues with, by individual choice, real participants and casual discards.

  • Rick

    Amen! We are swimming in so much materialism that we’ve lost our ability realize the true meaning of yesterday. That picture of Mass in Normandy says much about the last 71 years and how things have changed. I wonder how many catholics know why the priest has his back the people.

  • gubllod

    An excellent essay by David Warren here. One can see so many of the things he is writing about beginning to take place in the Near East now in ways which have never before happened in world history. Things which Ezekiel wrote about in chapters 38 & 39 seem to be on the verge of fulfillment. Russia has been pulled down into the Near East, a huge change of at least 500 years in their foreign policy. Israel standing alone but unafraid. Zechariah’s prophecy especially in chapter 14 now a real possibility. How could he have known this over 2,500 years ago? Christians in the Near East being attacked and killed. Christians in the USA now under direct threat of persecution. The Church must take a stand for Christ and NOW!

    • kathleen

      Gubllod: I will read these chapters over this Christmas weekend. And, thank you, Mr. Warren for a beautiful reminder of what it’s all about, and where we stand now.

    • mrteachersir

      Russia has been involved in the Near East since the end of the 19th Century. It’s alliances with Syria and Iran hearken back to the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire, when Russian, Britain, and France carved “spheres of influence” in the region, Russia assuming influence in what is now Iran and Syria.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    David Warren’s article reminded me of my feelings as I drove in the dark through three towns early Christmas morning and saw many lighted Christmas displays. Not one had anything to do with the Christ Child, not even an angel. It seemed like a strange world. When I arrived at St Ann’s for the 7 am Mass I was warmed to see the lovely Nativity scene at the outside corner of the church. I felt at home again.

  • veritasetgratia

    I’ve never read anything like what you have penned but ….so true. So many want to be non-committed bystanders in the vain hope that they can live beyond good and evil with their preferences which they insist are neutral – just leave us in peace to enjoy what this world has to offer and that’s enough for us. To embrace this mindset as you have described, is to be committed. Who will be our Generals? Are they all deceased ?

  • Sheila

    WOW! Mr Warren thank you for the reality check. We have been asleep at the wheel in the Church for quite some time. I can remember as a child our family’s devotions and esp. Christmas devotions. They were certainly Christ-centered. The tree waited til Christmas Eve. And we celebrated until the Epithany. But the strong desire for Santa and all the gifts was there. It was always a mixed bag of fun and faith in Christ. Is this the way? As an adult I went thru various stages of participation in both, rejecting Santa “stuff” for a time but never the true Christian meaning of Christmas. The Santa and all other fairy tales are not truth and subtly draw us into commercialism, self-love, selfishness, inability to truly help the poor, glutiny, greed…and on and on. But it is not a game. I can sèe why the world does not want to convert for they’d lose all the stuff they see and want. Many are so distracted they don’t get Christ the Savior of the world. Our young are not being shown how to fully understand the meaning of the Light that came into the world. And the gravity of its purpose. Seriously, am I wrong in this? I’ve been down this road before and most Christians won’t just do Christ. The world is so lacking a desire for the “real deal”. Christmas is the time for truth and full mercy given to others in love in and thru Christ Himself. Santa does not even come close. The kind deeds of St Nicholas that helped so many has turned into the cult of Santa and tons of gifts and food. This does not honor his sainthood. It distracts from the true Good that our Savior worked through him. “What WouldJesus Do – WWJD” in this age? Seriously, please tell me.



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