IF THERE IS any true moment of grace and conversion of heart, it is Holy Christmas, the day of the Nativity of the Lord, the day from which the years of the world are counted. The familiar atmosphere of the day of Christmas softens the hardest hearts, but above all it is the beauty of the liturgy that is capable of touching them, as happened to the French writer Paul Claudel (1868-1955) on December 25, 1886.
Claudel was an 18-year-old student who had abandoned religious practice and wandered through the streets of Paris, restless and dissatisfied with himself when, on the night of Christmas Eve, he entered into the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, while the choir was singing what he later learned was the Magnificat. He recounts:
I was standing in the middle of the crowd, near the second pillar from the choir entrance on the right, on the sacristy side. In that moment I understood the event that dominates my entire life. In an instant my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with a strength of adhesion so great, with such an uplifting of my entire being, with a conviction so powerful, in a certainty that did not leave place for any sort of doubt, so that, afterwards, no reasoning, no circumstance of my agitated life was able to shake my faith nor touch it. Suddenly I had the piercing feeling of innocence, of the eternal childhood of God: an ineffable revelation!
Seeking to reconstruct the moments which followed this extraordinary instant – as I have often done – I have rediscovered the following elements that, however, form one single flash of lightning, one single weapon used by Divine Providence to finally succeed in opening the heart of his poor desperate son: “How happy are the persons who believe!” But was it true? It was really true! God exists, He is here. He is someone, a personal being like me. He loves me, He calls me. Tears and sobs had sprung up, while my emotion had grown even greater due to the sound of the tender melody of “Adeste, fideles” […].
Paul Claudel understood that evening, in a flash, with invincible evidence, that the life of each one of us opens wide before an inexorable alternative: either the infinite love of God or eternal damnation. He recalls further:
It is true – I confess it with the Roman centurion – that Jesus was the Son of God. It was to me, Paul, who he turned and promised his love. But, at the same time, if I did not follow him, he left me damnation as the only other alternative.
Ah, I did not need to have explained what hell was: I had already done my time there. Those few hours were enough to make me understand that Hell is anywhere there is not Christ. What did I care about the rest of the world, in front of this new and prodigious Being that had been revealed to me?
The life of Paul Claudel became the attempt to remain faithful to the grace of the Christmas of 1886, “the day of Christmas in which every joy was born,” as he wrote in his most famous work, L’Annonce faite à Marie (1912).
The Social Aspect of Holy Christmas
But the feast of Holy Christmas does not only have an individual and family signifiance: it also has, and has had in history, a social significance. The great abbot of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875), in his L’Année Liturgique, recalls for us three moments of Holy Christmas linked to the history of Europe, to its deepest Christian roots.
The first of these moments is the baptism of Clovis, which took place, according to tradition, on December 25, 496.
It was the end of the year 800. It was the day of Christmas. In Rome, in the Basilica of Saint Peter, a majestic man entered, about sixty years old, whose almost gigantic stature expressed the indomitable force of a warrior, while his white hair and his beard revealed an extraordinary sweetness. One could see immediately that he was not just any other man. This man was Charlemagne, King of the Franks, the people of Clovis, called to Rome by the Pope so that he could place his sword at the service of the Cross against the Lombards.
The King of the Franks in the year eight hundred after Christ had already subjugated the Aquitaines and the Lombards; he had crossed the Pyrenees in order to tame the threatening power of the Arabs in Spain; he had put down the insurrection of the Saxons and Bavarians; and he was in full battle against the Avars.
He was not only a warrior: under his influence, the arts and sciences flourished throughout all of Europe. He was greatly loved by his subjects, venerated by his warriors, and in all the lands he conquered he extended the beneficent influence of the Catholic religion.
And now Charlemagne, the heir of Clovis, entered into Saint Peter’s Basilica, on a Christmas night that was cold thanks to the rigors of winter, but warm thanks to the atmosphere of enthusiasm that reigned in the Basilica. The King of the Franks knelt down, lowered his head, adoring God made man and imploring mercy for his sins. He beat his breast and had recourse to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, without realizing that someone was approaching him in silent respect. It was not a simple priest or bishop – it was a pope, a holy pope. The chronicles recount that “at the moment in which the king rose up from prayer, during the Mass, before the altar of the confession of Saint Peter the Apostle, Pope Leo III came up to him and placed a crown on his forehead.”
A new crown, not that of King but of Emperor.
The pope, Saint Leo III, placed the imperial crown on the head of Charlemagne; and the astonished world saw once again a Caesar, an Augustus, no longer a successor of the Caesars and Augusti of pagan Rome, but invested with those glorious titles of Vicar of He whom Scripture defines as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. The Roman people acclaimed him with these words: “to Charles Augustus, crowned by God as great and pacific emperor of the Romans, life and victory,” while the Franks, beating their spears on their swords, raised up the cry, “Christmas, Christmas [ Natale, Natale],” a cry that, ever since the time of Clovis, recalled the entrance of their people into history.
Two days before the coronation, a monk of Saint Saba and a monk of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem had offered to the king of the Franks, as a gift from the Patriarch, “the keys of the Holy Sepulchre and of Calvary and the keys of the city and Mount Zion with a banner.” It was a symbolic homage, a new halo of sanctity placed around the forehead of the king who had extended his protection across the seas, who would protect the Christians of Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.
On that Christmas, in the Cathedral of the Vicar of Christ, there was born the Catholic Empire of the West, the pillar of medieval Christian civilization – just as 800 years earlier, on the very same day, the Baby Jesus was born in a manger.
In founding the Apostolic Roman Catholic Church, Jesus Christ had placed in her, in seminal form, all of the potentialities needed to generate a great civilization.
With the expansion of the Church, with the conversion of the peoples over eight centuries, the seed developed, became a concrete possibility, and finally bloomed in the year 800 in the empire of Charlemagne, blessed and ratified by the hands of a holy successor of Peter. It was the beginning of an era in which, as Leo XIII teaches in his encyclical Immortale Dei, “the priesthood and the empire were linked together by a happy concord and by the friendly exchange of services” and “organized in such a way that the civil society yielded fruits that were superior to every expectation.”
Another pope, John Paul II, on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of the coronation of Charlemagne, recalled: “The great historic figure of the emperor Charlemagne recalls the Christian roots of Europe, carrying all those who study it back to an era that, despite its ever present human limits, was characterized by an imposing cultural flourishing in almost every field of experience. In search of its identity, Europe cannot leave aside an energetic effort to recover the cultural patrimony left by Charlemagne and preserved for more than a millennium.”
Charlemagne was great not only because of his victorious wars from one end of Europe to the other, but above all through his work of juridical, cultural, and artistic restoration, inspired by the principles of the Gospel. At a time of decadence and disorder, he can be considered as the founder of Christian Europe. With the first Christian Emperor, the West for the first time acquired self-awareness and presented itself on the stage of history conscious of its own Christian and Roman unity.
The coronation of Charlemagne was in addition a public and symbolic act of universal importance, destined to express, for more than a millennium, the conception of sovereign Christianity. The font of authority is the representative of God on earth, because – on earth – no authority exists that does not originate from God. In this sense the coronation of Charlemagne may be considered as the Nativity of Christendom.
What was at one time Christendom is today agonizing under the attacks of enemies both external and internal, and we await with trepidation a new day of Nativity, a day of birth and resurrection for our souls and for all of society: the blessed day, announced at Fatima, of the triumph of the Church and the restoration of Christian civilization.