In previous years, I had not been at the Begijnhof for the arrival of The Three Kings at the crib of the baby Jesus. The sisters were quite excited and spoke a lot about the impending arrival of the three Kings. I frankly had never spent much time thinking about the kings other than to sing the well known Christmas Carol ‘We Three Kings’. Christmas in the US is pretty much over and done with on Dec 26 as unfortunately so much of the celebration revolves around commercialism and sales and then more sales after Christmas. My home community celebrates the 12 days of Christmas and Epiphany. In some countries Epiphany or Three Kings Day is the day when gifts are exchanged. In northern Italy, the Befana arrives with treats and candies for all. In the small town where I spent Three Kings Day last year there was a procession in the streets. I enjoyed and entered into the anticipation of these Kings arriving this year in Brugge. The crèche in the church where we said the Rosary each day had been surrounded by a shepherd and sheep of whom I grew quite fond over the Christmastide days. One day I arrived and the shepherd and his sheep were gone! Presumably back to the hills…..( or maybe storage to await next Christmas’ announcement of the Angels. ) In their places were the three Kings. The Magi had indeed arrived! The Kings surrounded the crib, two on bended knee and one standing tall, each with their special gift outstretched toward the newborn babe, gold for a king, myrrh, embalming ointment for death and frankincense for priestly duties. Outside the raised stable, on the church floor, stood the camel, handsome and regal with a servant boy holding his rein. They too worshipped at the crib. I was enthralled but this year there was only one day to be enthralled; the number of days between Epiphany and the feast of John the Baptist change every year, depending on the liturgical calendar. So, the next day, they were gone. Presumably those Kings have a long journey and needed to return. I’m grateful, though that the Kings did come and discovered the young child; they will never be the same, nor will we because of Christmas.
The New Year was a beautiful time here at the Begijnhof. New Year’s Eve brought a special adoration service in the church shared with a number of guests. Beautiful lilies and white roses adorned the altar, a reminder that in the new year, God makes all things new, with the purity and innocence of a beginning. Thank goodness that mercies are new each returning day and the turning of the year makes me think seriously again about a new beginning in my interior life. The last Mary song is sung and then there is a quiet walk across the courtyard to sleep in peace and stillness. Here at the Beginhof there is no watching the ball drop in Times Square. That is for another time, another life, and has little meaning for monastics in the convent.
New Year’s Day held a beautiful and hopeful Eucharist and a homily about Joseph of whom I dare say no one takes too much notice. Here are three important points borrowed from the homily which I actually understood in Dutch. One – the silence of Joseph- he never speaks in the Bible. Two – the actions of Joseph – although there is no word of response, he does what he is told. For example, he wanders wherever the angel tells him to go, Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Three – the righteousness of Joseph – his life is one of hiddenness, living out his quiet call to raise Jesus. These meditations are good guides and certainly worthy of contemplation for the coming year. Silence before God, wandering to His will and living righteously in quietness and silence. I could well start with these meditations for the coming year.!
Many years ago, when I began again to live alone, a mournful feeling came with my new circumstances that first Christmas…no special person to give me Christmas gifts! That Christmas in faraway Canada, there were a few gifts I wished for, a pair of gloves, a pocket book and one other thing which has since been lost to memory. Along with Christmas crowds, I sauntered the beautifully Christmas decorated mall in Ottawa to shop for others. As I strolled, passing the lighted and decorated store windows, I spied the sort of gloves I wanted, just my style, then just the color pocketbook I would like and whatever the third thing was, also suddenly appeared in a shop window. Finally, the light broke through, God was giving me my Christmas presents; He had not forgotten me and He knew what most appealed to me, my colors and my style! All I needed to do was to buy the presents. I suppose I could have wrapped the gifts and put them under the small table tree I had that year, but I didn’t; it was enough to know God had not forgotten me.
This year, in far off Belgium, is no different. Although I am a sister now, and not shopping in decorated malls for anyone, God has still not forgotten me. I received a beautiful video of the couple I cared for in America with the lady singing ‘I wish you a Merry Christmas’ and her husband’s voice there also, wishing me a blessed New Year. l was touched by the caregiver’s kindness in sending this to me. A friend in America is determined, although she has little money, to always remember me at Christmas with a charming wee gift. We were able to Skype a wonderful surprise Christmas chat when we were both online at the same moment – by accident? I was searching for a comic book and a children’s book about a Christmas story in Flanders. I found the children’s book in the library and the comic book in a store around the corner. These surprises qualify, for me at least, as small miracles and Christmas gifts. But….. perhaps the greatest Christmas gift of all is the Joy, Happiness and Peace in my Heart. Merry Christmas!
“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!!!” The words pierce the air in a classroom, a convent, or an office. Those of us who grew up in snowy regions of America know that ‘The first snowfall ‘ is the best, and a trumpet call to all who will listen. It is always a wonderful surprise when the steady stream of white flakes fall to the earth for the first time each winter, sticking on the grass and bit by bit covering all with a snowy soft blanket. My mother had a picture window put in in our smallish home where I grew up. She adored it and I never tired of looking at the snow out the window and the birds pecking at the feeder. I am sure I was the quintessential 7 year old with her nose pressed against the window pane. So it was here in Brugge. I have waited three years for it to really snow. I had seen the postcards but the sprinklings for the last two years can hardly be described as snow although I have photos to prove that there was at least a dusting BUT this year IT SNOWED!! Three inches came down. The snow, in fact, ground Brugge to a halt; stores closed, buses stopped, traffic snarled. In New England, in America it takes more like three feet to bring the cities to a halt not three inches. However, in a spirit of diplomacy, I did not mention this fact. I rushed to my window, threw open the shutters and snapped photos of the courtyard with the snow coming down. Then I raced downstairs and out to the courtyard and snapped more photos.
I feared the white stuff would instantly disappear, which in fact was quite possible, but it lasted for 2 days. How wonderful!! God had again answered my prayers and gave me snow.
In Dutch, Holy Innocents is the day of the ‘un-guilty children’. I mused on this thought; ‘un-guilty’ that is a different perspective than Holy Innocents in English. These children killed, slaughtered by Herod were truly not guilty, at least of any serious sin except original sin which is far too deep a theological thought for me.
When I managed to find my place in my chant office book which has been a bit of a feat in these weeks after Christmas with all the saints days one after another, I was touched by the Antiphons for these tiny martyrs who suffered because of human sin, the pride and fear of Herod specifically. “In Rama, mothers weeping for their children because they are no more.” Pope Francis in his Christmas message to the world, talked of the children today who suffer in the war-torn areas of the world; some are tiny soldiers for one or another side in a war of which they have no idea. Look into their faces and see Jesus he bids us!
On the Begijnhof altar have been flowers, Amaryllis I think, all tightly closed, but today at Mass Holy Innocents Day, the blossoms were all abloom, a mass of red flowers mingled with the red poinsettia still on the altar foreshadowing the crimson blood of the cross and most certainly, the martyrdom of these children, un-guilty blood shed by Jesus and the innocent. I was dumbstruck….. why did every bloom on this day of all days choose to spring forth? A little miracle reminds me God has not forgotten his Innocents.
Last year, Christmas found me in Italy where I wrote about the Persepe, the nativity procession in the streets of the old city and the shop windows each with a Crèche of the Holy Family. Then, of course, there was Befana day (Three Kings) when Befana, an old lady with shawl and broomstick arrives with presents and candies.
This year finds me again at home in Brugge. Brugge, though not so religious in its celebration is still very Christmas in spirit. Every, and I do mean every, store window from the butcher shop to the clothing store from the souvenir to the shoe shops, all have windows decorated with lights, trees, balls, teddy bears, reindeer, some windows are fashionable and a la mode and some quaint and old fashioned. All windows draw the casual passers-by to their shops. There is a Christmas market in the main square with a decorated skating rink with skaters whirling around, similar to Rockefeller Center in New York. Another smaller square has a market filled with little houses with evergreen Christmas trees in between, specially for selling gifts as disparate as cotton candy, homemade bedroom slippers and furs.
It is a spectacular walk or stroll on every Brugge street; at this time of year, you hear mostly English on the street, whether Canadian or American and British I am not all so certain, but English for sure. Brugge is a town that makes its livelihood from tourists and Christmas is no different. I loved my stroll back from the library where I had gone in search of a Flemish Christmas story. I listened to Christmas carols piped into the streets (in English!) and dodged the other strollers laden with packages in wonderful brightly colored bags whether chocolates, special breads or simply new gloves or sweaters. My walk was perfect to put me in the Christmas spirit with a smile on my face, but the real joy is to return to my Begijnhof to settle into the real meaning of Christmas.
The O Antiphons sung in Gregorian chant in Latin, the traditional voice of the church are the various names given to God eg. O Clavis David, Key of David. These O Antiphons are sung each day from Dec 17-24th at Vespers before and after the Magnificat announcing and anticipating the coming of the Savior of mankind at Christmas. I had never heard of these Gregorian chants even being brought up in a devout home, as a child. Now I wait for them expectantly. At my home convent, when our young community was learning Gregorian, there was an O Antiphon party on Dec 17th each year. Apparently, this celebration of having something special to eat and drink at the time of the O Antiphons is quite traditional from early centuries. With the increasing size of our community, a party became a bit unwieldy so now only the cantor, singer of the beginning of the O Antiphons, has a few friends to celebrate at their home or convent or friary but the tradition continues.
Here at the Begijnhof, one sister intones the O Antiphon and another leaves the altar and tolls the bell high in the church tower during the singing of the Magnificat. The whole surrounding community hears the expectant cry that God again is coming to earth. World take notice! The tolling of the bells is beautiful, haunting and emotionally stirring as I sing with the remaining sisters the O Antiphon and the Magnificat. Yesterday in Brugge, was a Warmethon; 10,000 people I am told were registered for a ‘run’, ‘walk’ or ‘saunter’ for their favorite charity. The runners ran past on the cobblestones right outside the Begijnhof church. The runners heard the bells! Would that all hearing would again take notice. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that all who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting Life” – the Good News of a Savior for all mankind. Blessed Christmas to you!