“Always winter and never Christmas.” That’s how Mr. Tumnus the Faun in C. S. Lewis’s classic “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” describes for Lucy Pevensie the state of Narnia under the reign of Jadis the White Witch.
“Always winter and never Christmas.”
Sometimes I wonder if that’s an apt description of the academic year. Not exactly the “always winter” part. But the “never Christmas” part does capture the unique flow of academic time.
We start leaning toward Christmas around Thanksgiving—for some, around Halloween—and yes, we have our divisional parties, and our music ensembles offer their annual concert in the last week of classes. But for the real thing, we’re all somewhere else, often with phones and computers unplugged. And when we come back to campus, Christmas is in the rearview mirror.
It’s all pretty natural, and for those of us who have spent our entire adult lives in the academy it’s just the normal pattern of life. But when you think about it, it is a little funny, especially for an institution that makes a big deal of telling the world it’s Catholic and Benedictine.
In monastic houses, Benedictine monks and sisters prepare for Christmas and then actually live it. In the universities they founded, we get really close but then turn off the lights, lock the doors, and clear the parking lots.
Curiously the Catholic university is a bit like Narnia under the White Witch—just without Jadis.
Now, some might ask, Why don’t we do what St. Benedict says we ought to do for Christmas?
Well, you know what the Rule of St. Benedict says about Christmas?
Here are your multiple choice options: (A) a lot, (B) a little, (C) nothing.
The answer is C: nothing.
The Rule of St. Benedict doesn’t say a word about Christmas. It mentions the winter season but never Christmas.
It’s not because Benedict was some sort of Scrooge or Grinch. During his time, Christmas barely existed. It was just being invented.
The Christian year wasn’t born full-grown. At first, the Christian calendar was weekly. Sunday worship was the main focus. Then annual observances of Easter and Pentecost evolved and along with them the season of Lent. And we remember what Benedict says about Lent: “The life of the monastic ought to be a continuous Lent.” Too bad he didn’t say, “The life of the monastic ought to be a continuous Christmas”!
But he couldn’t have. Christ Mass, the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus, was just spreading throughout the Roman world. The earliest reference we have to Christmas comes from the middle of the fourth century. And Benedict was born around 480. Christmas was still a new thing and not universally recognized.
So it was virtually impossible for Benedict to reflect on the mystery and magic and beauty of Christmas that we know.
Except, there’s one chapter in the Rule that directly addresses the main message of Christmas: chapter 53. All guests, Benedict says, are to be “welcomed as Christ,” for Christ himself was a stranger. “Proper honor must be shown to all,” Benedict continues, “especially to pilgrims.”
Remember “no room in the inn”?
Remember the poor pilgrims whose only accommodation was the stable?
Remember Christ who was not welcomed as Christ?
Benedict seems to know a lot about Christmas after all—though he didn’t know what Advent was, he didn’t decorate a tree, he didn’t sing any carols, he didn’t go to midnight Mass.
And of course, we can do all those things and still not have Christmas in our hearts.
In the imaginary world of Narnia, it was always winter and never Christmas, until Father Christmas and Aslan the Great Lion began to do something about it.
In the very real world of Benedictine, it’s sometimes winter and, yes, never Christmas.
Except on those days—and they can come in any season—when we welcome the stranger as Christ.
Dr. Peter A. Huff
Director, Center for Benedictine Values