Celebrating the Nativity with the Redemptorists
The Crib, the Cross, and the Blessed Sacrament—these constitute the principal subjects of meditation in the Redemptorist (Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer) tradition established under the great Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori. While many Catholics can recall with ease St. Alphonsus’s classic works on the Stations of the Cross and Eucharistic Adoration, along with his meditations on death, few today realize the centrality of the Nativity in Liguori’s spiritual writings. This is no doubt due to the fact that his excellent collection of meditations and prayers, The Incarnation, Birth, and Infancy of Jesus Christ, has fallen into relative obscurity in recent decades. This is a great shame given the singular importance the Saint ascribed to the Nativity of Our Lord. Consider these words.
“Consider that after so many centuries, after so many prayers and sighs, the Messiah, whom the holy patriarchs and prophets were not worthy to see, whom the nations sighed for, ‘the desire of the everlasting hills,’ our Savior, has come; he is already born, and has given himself entirely to us: ‘A child is born to us, and a son is given to us.’
The Son of God has made himself little, in order to make us great.
He has given himself to us, in order that we may give ourselves to him.
He has come to show us his love, in order that we may respond to it by giving him ours.
Let us, therefore, receive him with affection. Let us love him, and have recourse to him in all our necessities.”
Today, many faithful Catholics are accustomed to keeping Our Lord’s Passion firmly in mind throughout the year, particularly on Fridays which were traditionally kept as days of abstinence. So, too, is Christ’s Resurrection never far from sight, both on Sundays throughout the liturgical year and during visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Strange, then, that Christ’s Incarnation often remains relegated to a once-a-year commemoration, one too often overshadowed by rank consumerism, booze-filled office parties, and other social obligations. Considering how poorly many Christians—including Catholics—keep the season of Advent and the celebration of Christmas, it should come as a consolation, indeed a source of joy, that the Redemptorist tradition honors the Birth of Jesus not once, but twelve times a year through a devotion known as the Little Christmas. In this way the Redemptorists and those who follow their spiritual way overcome the coopting of one of the most astonishing events in human history.
Keeping the Little Christmas
Outside of December 25, the Redemptorists historically kept the Little Christmas on the 25th of every month. Though certain practices varied from region to region, Redemptorist priests enjoyed the privilege of saying the Mass of Christmas on this day along with directing their daily meditation toward one of the virtues of the infant Jesus. Additionally, specific decorations, such as setting out a statue of Christ in the manger, were also included as part of the Little Christmas celebration. More than just a change of pace, keeping the Little Christmas was an integral part of the Redemptorist vocation, one bound up with imitating the entire life of Christ, from birth to self-giving death. The Little Christmas devotion also provided the Congregation a monthly opportunity to thank God for the unimaginable gift of sending His Son into the world to save mankind.
Despite the fact that large swathes of the Redemptorist Order gave up their time-honored spiritual practices in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, it is still possible for individual Catholics and their families to keep the Little Christmas devotion alive. For instance, in the nine days preceding the 25th of each month, a small novena might be made honoring Our Lord’s Infancy or particular care might be given to at least recite each day the Joyful Mystery of the Nativity when praying the Rosary. On the 25th, perhaps, as part of family prayers, a reverent Christmas carol might be sung or prayers and hymns from the Christmas liturgical cycle be integrated into the daily prayers. And, if possible, Catholics looking to keep this devotion alive should make a point to visit the Blessed Sacrament on these days and meditate on some aspect of Christ’s early life on earth.
Regardless of what form the Little Christmas devotion takes, it should be taken in both a spirit of thanksgiving for the Coming of the Lord and reparation for the innumerable instances where Catholics fail to give due honor to Jesus on Christmas Day proper. In maintaining this pious practice in their lives, Catholics, in continuity with the Redemptorists of old and other devotees to Liguorian spirituality, will be able to draw closer to our Lord and deepen their understanding of his earthly ministry. It is one thing to reflect on Our Lord’s Passion and the anguish of the Blessed Virgin Marty at seeing her Christ crucified on their own; it is something altogether more impacting to do so with an eye always toward that tender and unspeakable moment when dear Mary reclined in the cave holding in her arms a little child, God Incarnate, the creator and king of the universe.
Sailing to Byzantium
Beyond keeping the Little Christmas, those wishing to honor Our Lord’s Nativity with the Redemptorist tradition should use that devotion as a firm foundation for Advent. One way of doing this is to join the Congregation’s Western traditions with their Eastern ones as well. For over a century, the Redemptorists have played an important role in the life of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which draws its liturgy, spirituality, and theology from the Byzantine or Greek tradition. Unlike Latin Catholics, Greek Catholics historically kept the Advent season as a period of fasting beginning on November 15, the day after the feast of St. Phillip. This is why, prior to adopting the Latin term Advent, Christians following the Byzantine Rite refer to this period of the liturgical year as St. Phillip’s Fast.
Although some may find the practice of fasting for 40 days prior to Christmas to be too arduous, especially in light of the social events many are expected to tend to starting with Thanksgiving, Catholics can still take Advent as a time to offer up particular pleasures as a way of staying out-of-step with a holy day season dominated by material interests. While certain conventions may dictate the necessity of attending various holiday parties even before Christmas Day, Catholics can make a pledge to refrain from alcohol before December 25 or, at the very least, designate a particular day each week to fast. The point of such practices is not to make the Advent season miserable but to properly prepare for the Nativity.
For example, in the days leading up to Christmas, the Byzantine Rite appoints special odes and troparia (short liturgical hymns) anticipating the Nativity to be chanted at Compline. On Christmas Eve, the small hours (Prime, Terce, Sext, and None) are replaced with what are known as Royal Hours, a service of seasonally appropriate Psalms and Scriptural readings. Later in the morning, an anticipatory Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated with extensive prophetic readings drawn from the Old Testament that point toward the Incarnation. Finally, a special All-Night Vigil, comprised of a lengthier night service called Great Compline along with the Matins of Christmas, is held to usher in the Birth of Jesus. A similar structure of services is only found two other times in the Byzantine liturgical year, during the lead-up to Theophany (Epiphany) and Pascha (Easter).
It shouldn’t be difficult to see why the Redemptorist Order, with its traditional focus on the Crib, should have meshed so well with the Byzantine Rite despite the Congregation’s Latin origins. Instead of building a pointless wall between East and West, the Redemptorists came to embrace a larger vision of the Church and her spiritual treasures. This is why it is wholly appropriate for those desiring to keep the Advent and Christmas cycles with the Redemptorists to make an extra effort to ramp-up their prayer lives during these times and forego worldly distractions in order to spend more time with the Infant King.
Returning to Redemptorist Roots
The point of turning toward the Redemptorist tradition in order to give greater honor to the Nativity of Christ is not for laymen to take on the full rigors of religious life but to make their devotion to Our Lord more three-dimensional. As any close study reveals, the Congregation’s great fathers and saints lived highly austere lives with near-singular dedication to imitating Jesus. Moreover, Redemptorists wedded their strict religious practices with a powerful missionary spirit. Promoting devotion to the Crib was not merely a tool of personal sanctity; it was one of the means by which the Congregation brought lost souls back onto the long and narrow pathway to Heaven. By instilling a true love for Jesus’ earthly life, including His infancy, in the hearts and minds of the faithful, the Redemptorists brought them closer to enjoying eternal life with the Risen Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In a world lost to liberalism, relativism, indifferentism, and godless capitalism, Catholics must endeavor to maintain the great spiritual traditions of the Church. The Redemptorist tradition, with its beautiful dedication to the whole life of Christ, furnishes the faithful of today with numerous opportunities to draw closer to Him. Whether one chooses to keep the Little Christmas, amplify their Advent devotions, or both, calling to mind Christ’s Birth should deepen their love for Jesus which, in turn, will strengthen their resolve to amend their lives, do penance, and avoid the occasions of sin.
In closing, it is fitting to quote a hymn composed by St. Alphonsus entitled “To the Infant Jesus in the Crib.” May it serve as a gateway to the larger tradition of Redemptorist spirituality and a starting point for giving greater honor and praise to the Incarnation of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Oh, how I love Thee, Lord of Heaven above!
Too well hast Thou deserved to gain my love;
Sweet Jesus, I would die for love of Thee,
For Thou didst not disdain to die for me.
I leave Thee, faithless world,—farewell! depart!
This lovely Babe has loved and won my heart.
I love Thee, loving God, Who from above
Didst come on earth, a Babe, to gain my love.
Thou tremblest, darling Child, and yet I see
Thy heart is all on fire with love for me:
Love makes Thee thus a Child, my Savior dear;
Love only brought Thee down to suffer here;
Love conquered Thee, Great God, love tied Thy hands,
A captive here for me, in swathing-bands;
And love, strong love, awaits Thy latest breath,
To make Thee die for me a cruel death.”