Name is what people call a person – or a place or a thing. It can be a common name like table or cat, or it can be something specific like Felix or St. Ignatius. It’s the way a person is known, more than just what their mother called them when she wanted them to come in for dinner or how their friends, acquaintances and business associates refer to them in person or in reference. A person respected in the community was said to have a good name while someone who was a criminal or even just a local scoundrel could give a whole family a bad name. Names have meaning; Michael comes from the Hebrew word that means “One like God,” while Sarah means “Lady” or “Princess.” Jesus, the name we all know from the gospels, is actually the Anglicized form of a Greek rendition of an Aramaic name, Yeshua, which actually is a contraction of Yehoshu’a, the name we know as Joshua and which actually means “Yahweh is salvation.” Philippians 2:9-11 tells us, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Now THAT is a name.
Nativity is a word that means the occasion of one’s birth. Christians use it in particular to refer to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem there is a church known as the Church of the Nativity, a basilica with origins back to the 330s when Helena, mother of Constantine, toured the Holy Land to identify sacred sites associated with Christianity. Since at least a century before that, the place where the current Church of the Nativity stands has been revered as the very spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Helena and Constantine’s church burned although parts of it remained, and the Emperor Justinian rebuilt and expanded the building in 6th century. It is the oldest Christian church in continual use, and is surrounded as well as shared by monasteries of Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks. Most of all, it is a visible reminder of an event that happened over 2000 years ago but which is celebrated and re-enacted during December of every year. The nativity is the culmination of Advent’s promise, the incarnation of our Lord on earth.
How do you describe night? It’s a period of time where the sun is not visible above the horizon; it is dark outside and is usually cooler than it was during the day. Quite often things slow down, people are a little less frazzled and a little more willing to sit and talk. Things that happen at night often seem more significant or more mysterious or somehow different than the same things that happen in daylight; babies are born, people die, crimes happen, criminals get caught. Stories told at night around a campfire or a chiminea seem more thrilling, scarier and more entertaining than stories told in a brightly-lit room. Night is a good time to unwind, to mediate, to sit and think about important things, sacred things. Isn’t it sort of amazing that two of the greatest liturgies of the church take place at night: the Great Vigil of Easter and what we have come to call Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It is the Christmas Eve service that marks the end of Advent because tradition has it that Jesus was born at night. On that night, the stars seem to shine brighter and feel closer, sounds are sharper and clearer, and it feels like the veil between heaven and earth is as thin as gossamer. The Great Vigil of Easter is a wonderful service with great and deep meaning, but Christmas Eve, well that’s a different thing. It’s very special in its own way.
What Messiah is to singers and A Christmas Carol is to actors, The Nutcracker is to dancers. The story begins with a Christmas party at the home of Clara’s family. As a gift, she is given a magnificent nutcracker, but naughty boys snatch it away and being to play catch with it, breaking it in the process. As the others go up to bed, Clara stays and holds the broken nutcracker and falls asleep with it in her arms next to the Christmas tree. She has fantastic dreams full of mouse armies, dancing flowers, exotic dancers from around the world, a handsome prince and a Sugar Plum Fairy. At the end Clara awakens still under the tree and with the Nutcracker Prince in her arms. It’s the kind of drama that seems meant for children but which adults as well see as an annual event. How many young girls have dreamed of dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy and who have started their hoped-for careers as Clara? It isn’t only Clara who has dreams. The music is among the most recognized in the world. It may be a Christmas tradition, but it can be an Advent treat – a lesson in what a bit of kindness can do.
Advent nights bring dancing and singing as the days until the celebration of the nativity count down.