Facing the Light of Life: Chapters 11-12 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By IanWalden

After a couple of chapters squarely focused on Advent, Chittister here returns to her habit of interspersing thematic musings between her considerations of specific feasts. All three of us are finding that these tend to apply to the nature of discipleship and spiritual practices in general, rather than the liturgical year in particular. So I’m going to take this as licence to focus on chapter 12, on Christmas – using chapter 11’s comments on ‘Joy: The Essence of It All’ as postscript and illustration.

Reading Chittister joyfully requires practice and patience, and chapter 12 is a great example! After five pages of what seem like irrelevant filler on the origins, dating and history of the feasts (East and West) of Christmas, she hits us with three pages crammed full of helpful observations, with some memorable one-liners thrown in for good measure.

Hers is a nicely ecumenical stance, emphasising what the West has to gain from the Eastern Church, and suggesting we see their feasts as one single celebration of Christmas/Epiphany, between them portraying four aspects of Jesus, Divinity in our Midst. He is baptismally-declared Son of God Almighty. He is Hope and Lord of the Nations, to whom eastern magi (and one day the whole human race) pay their homage. He is Lord of creation, transposing mere water into rich, intoxicating wine. And oh, yes – He is also manger-baby, thoroughly one of us in all our poverty…

This, then, is our first major feast of the year: “the clear manifestation of the One we follow.” It forces us “to recognize who it is that we, like the people of Jesus’ own time, will, in everything we do in life this year, either accept or reject.” It’s a shocking reminder that the God we have longed for in Advent is rarely the God we wanted; far less tame, far more apt to embrace humiliation, far harder to explain or answer, far sadder to hide from.

And yet this, like all the liturgical year, is (Chittister insists) really about joy. Good News of Great Joy, even. It brings us “face-to-face with life stripped down and effulgent at the same time, simple and radiant at once. Here in the Child is promise and meaning, purpose and potential.”

And these very things – “something to do, something to love and something to hope for” are the essence of joy, both human and divine. “At the very outset of the liturgical year, the church presents a model of them all: a Child who lives only to do the will of God, who opens His arms to love the entire world, who lives in hope of the coming of the reign of God by giving His life to bring it. At the very outset of the year, we are given the model of how to be happy.”

Here are a couple of questions to get the conversation started:

If Christmas is so multi-faceted, so awe-filled, so complicated, a “very adult feast,” should we even try to convey some/all of that to children? How? What do they take in, beyond the fun of lighting candles, dressing up, and swinging toy sheep round by the tail? Maybe that’s enough? What does it look like for a child to confront this Light, this Joy, for themselves?

Where have you seen Christ living out His joyful life recently? Especially from within his saints (even yourself) – what did it look like? What impact did it have on you as witness of it?


  1. Thank you for this apt summary, Ian – and for propelling us beyond it with challenging questions. As I stated in my previous post, “Christmas Is Not a Children’s Story,” (https://thinkingworship.com/2012/01/03/christmas-is-not-a-childrens-story/) I, too, have been struggling with the way in which we seem to limit Christmas to the level of children. As Chittister states: “Christmas is not meant to leave us with nothing more than a child’s perception of what it means to see a baby in a manger scene” (p. 88). But, then, how do we share this critical part of the Christian story with children? Because we should!

    Actually – I think this is a far broader problem. When we teach children in the church we all too often make the richness of the biblical text into nothing more than a moralistic story. We need to push harder – to stretch beyond the “easy” story to tell and get at the heart of each text. There is a reason why the teaching of children used to fall to the most competent theologians. It is no small thing to take the complexity of the biblical narrative and teach it to a child – but I believe it is possible. Personally, I could use some additional ideas re: the how here.


  2. Brave man… was my immediate thought… To think of this holiday as an adult holiday is almost heresy. ‘Christmas is for children” is a fact of our society… Why isn’t there even a song that has that for its title?

    Ah but you are right… much of the depth of that story is beyond a child’s understanding.

    However Christmas was a “teachable moment” as we would say in the trade. So with my primary students I would explore the history , the legends, the symbols and the traditions of Christmas. At the start of December very few children in my classes knew anything of why we had Christmas. They only knew about presents and trees and songs in stores. By the end of December they knew far more but I am not sure how deep their understanding was . This subject did not lend itself to testing.

    However selfishly I so appreciated the children’s wonder and openness to Christmas and to their creative responses. One example… During an indoor recess a boy took pencil in hand and began to draw. This surprised me because he did not enjoy Art classes… he was a math/ science “kind of guy”. Glancing over his shoulder I noticed that he was drawing the “manger scene”. I quietly said to him, “Great drawing.” He smiled. That night the drawing was on my desk. I sat down in the silence after a busy day and studied it. He had done a great job of drawing what he had heard for the first time. But having a science kind of mind he had also labeled each of the people in his picture. There was Meri and Joespheush, and Geezus and…
    ( spelling English words is beyond most small children’s understanding as well). Then my eyes moved to the top of the stable. There was a weary looking creature with bedraggled wings perched on the barn.. .obviously just landed after a long journey. This angelic creature too was labeled… the only name spelled correctly… BOB !!!! Yes BOB !!!

    How often when I have been in a tough time and a person has phoned or written or offered to… just at the right time; I have thought of that picture and of how God still sends His angels in dark nights, And indeed they are just plain ordinary Bobs, Bettys, Bonnies and Bens. But the message they bring is the same as that night… Fear not… I have not forgotten you.


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