Recently I had dinner with my former Army commander and her family. Her daughter, a young girl at our last meeting, is now a journalist working for a major American newspaper. We came to the subject of language and, particularly, of grammar. My former boss and I lamented the lack of care with which people presently speak and write. She is a fan of the correctly used semicolon, and I, sentences free of split infinitives. (I could never achieve the style of William F. Buckley or the vocabulary of George Will, but I am drawn to their carefully crafted sentences.) The young journalist responded that this style of language is passé. She, on the other hand, is more tolerant of expressions (“Me and her went to the store” or “Who did you vote for?”) as acceptable “colloquialisms.” I don’t fully agree with her position, but her desire to speak the language of real people using current idiom is admirable. Indeed, it has inspired many famous religious works. Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible (1534), rendered the word of God in a manner that was accessible to ordinary German speakers. While my knowledge of the language is next-to-nothing, those who know can detect the distinct personalities of Jesus, St. Paul, and other New Testament as they speak to a new generation. According to one historian (Pelikan), Luther’s Bible was responsible for the emergence of modern German.
The same sensibility is obvious in Catholic art and letters as well. Our artwork for Christmas 2021 is the amazingly beautiful Nativity by Michelangelo Caravaggio, painted in the 1660s for the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo by a lay Franciscan community. Certain aspects of the painting leap off the canvas to the viewer. Unlike, say, a medieval painting, the setting is much more realistic than “supernatural.” The bodies are fleshy and strong, and even the angel appears more like a flying man with wings than a disembodied spirit. Instead of creating a scene from ancient Bethlehem, the artist transports the Holy Family to 17th-century Palermo, complete with the appropriate hairstyles and clothes. A youthful, blond Joseph with muscular legs turns to welcome St. Francis of Assisi and an old shepherd, while the deacon St. Lawrence looks on from the other side. A clearly exhausted Mary looks intently at her newborn, who returns her gaze as if there were no one else in the world. The painting speaks to Caravaggio’s time, when ordinary Catholics were becoming weary of the religious and political divisions brought on by the Reformation and its aftermath. It also speaks to our time because, sad to say, the painting was stolen from the Oratory in 1969, never to be recovered.
At Christmas Mass during the day, Catholics hear the famous prologue of St. John’s Gospel. It gives no details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but it articulates a central dogma of Christianity, the Incarnation. The inaccessible God, infinitely beyond our reach, has made himself knowable—and known—to us. Which is to say: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” St. Mary’s parish is living witness that the Word has taken flesh for our generation: in the sacraments, Scripture and Tradition, the care and teaching of God’s children, and in you. Merry Christmas, dear people of St. Mary’s!