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How did St Josemaria celebrate Christmas?

Tags: Joy, Faith, Spiritual childhood, Piety, family, Christmas, Christmas carol, Josemaria Escriva
The quotation is point no. 345 of <i>The Forge</i>
The quotation is point no. 345 of The Forge
A Christmas Crib

Image: Paulina Mönckeberg
Image: Paulina Mönckeberg
When Josemaria was a boy, his family set up a crib every Christmas. It was always the same one, but renewed each year, with mountains made of cork or cardboard, and the simple little crib figures that the children placed around the stable at Bethlehem. At night parents and children all went to Midnight Mass in the cathedral. The family would also sing together the traditional Christmas carols, some sounding excited and jubilant, and others in a gentle lullaby style, all of them expressing the joy of mankind at the coming of God into the world as a newborn baby.

St Josemaria especially remembered one that said, “Mother, at the door there’s a little child”. In the chorus, the Child Jesus repeats “I have come down to earth to suffer”. This Christmas carol stayed with St Josemaria from the cradle to the grave. He said once, “When I was about three, my mother would rock me in her arms and sing me that song, and I’d go happily off to sleep.” In his final years, when he heard this carol being sung at Christmas, it always moved him to plunge into prayer.

There is a point in The Way that may be an echo of these childhood memories. St Josemaria wrote, “Christmas devotion. – I don’t smile when I see you making cardboard mountains around the crib and placing simple clay figures near the manger. You have never seemed more a man to me than now, when you seem to be a child” (The Way, no. 557).

The Christ Child
For St Josemaria, Christmas was an especially lovable time, when he always did his best to imitate the warm-heartedness of the stable at Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph were totally centered on the Christ Child. Once, on Christmas Eve, a Spanish student called Jose Luis Illanes, a very talented and energetic type, was in bed with a high temperature. Father Josemaria felt very sorry that Jose Luis couldn’t join in with all the celebrations with the rest of the house, and he asked the others to prepare “a little Christmas tree just like the big one, with lots of ornaments and chocolate decorations. One of my sons is sick. And I’ve got a tiny little Baby Jesus figure that he can have in his room. It breaks my heart to think he has to spend these special family days in bed with a fever!”

During Christmas St Josemaria expressed his love for the Christ Child with specific little deeds. In her book The Man of Villa Tevere, Pilar Urbano tells how, on Christmas Day 1969, “he was shown a painted terracotta figure of Baby Jesus made by Palmira Laguens, a sculptor and a daughter of his in Opus Dei.” He came to the crib, “looked at the Baby, smiled, picked it up, and lifted it high in the air as if playing with a real child. He made a fuss of it and kissed it, saying tender loving words, and not caring who was watching. ‘Beauty! My darling! My Baby! I’m going to keep him!’”

“Alvaro, I have decided to make a present of this Baby Jesus to the Roman College of the Holy Cross. It can be the ‘first stone’ of their new building.”
“Alvaro, I have decided to make a present of this Baby Jesus to the Roman College of the Holy Cross. It can be the ‘first stone’ of their new building.”
This devotion went back a long way. Years before, when he was chaplain of St Elizabeth’s Foundation in Madrid, the sisters in the convent lent him a little figure of Baby Jesus, and today it is still known as “Father Josemaria’s Baby Jesus”. Mother Carmen of Saint Joseph, who was the sister sacristan at the time, “remembers that when the Baby Jesus was in the sacristy of the church during the Christmas season, she would often see how Father Josemaría would talk to it, sing to it and rock it, as if it was a real baby.”

Blessed Alvaro del Portillo told another story relating to this same little figure, showing the detachment that St Josemaria always strove to practise. In 1959 St Josemaria “asked for a copy to be made, slightly bigger than the original, of the Baby Jesus figure belonging to the Augustinian Recollect Sisters at St Elizabeth’s Foundation in Madrid, where he had been chaplain in 1931 and rector in 1934. This figure was linked to many personal events concerning his interior life, including extraordinary favors and graces. Three days before Christmas 1959, the Founder of Opus Dei went into the architects’ studio in Villa Tevere. He was tired and sat down, totally immersed in God. The next person to come in was Manuel Caballero, who had made the clay model of the Baby Jesus which was used to make the final figure of wood. He was now bringing the finished figure, wrapped up in a packet. He sat down next to Father Josemaria and began, slowly and deliberately, to open the packet. The moment St Josemaria saw that it was the Baby Jesus, he took it in his arms, hugged it to his breast, and soon afterwards left the room, visibly moved. A little later, he said to me, ‘Alvaro, I have decided to make a present of this Baby Jesus to the Roman College of the Holy Cross. It can be the “first stone” of their new building.’ No sooner had the Father realised how much that beloved little figure moved him, than he rejected any kind of attachment to it. He didn’t even grant himself that perfectly legitimate reward.”

Bishop Javier Echevarria, now the prelate of Opus Dei, lived with St Josemaria for more than twenty years. He recalls some of the little ways St Josemaria related to the Holy Family during Christmastime. “I was always struck by the spontaneous way he treated our Lord. I also saw how ardently and passionately he lived through the Christmas season. When he went into the Oratory he would always kiss the little figure of the new-born Baby Jesus there. Sometimes he would take it gently in his arms, his eyes expressing his gratitude and his hunger to learn from the Christ Child. One day he kissed it and then, looking at it with fatherly tenderness, exclaimed, ‘Little darling!’

Several times at Christmas, when the people setting up the crib had placed St Joseph at a little distance from the figures of the Virgin Mary and the Baby, I saw how St Josemaria picked up the St Joseph figure and moved him closer, saying, ‘Let’s always put St Joseph very near Jesus and Mary, because he always was close to them and still is, and because he has to be our guide in serving God, with the Blessed Virgin’s intercession too, as they both served God themselves.’”

In close union with his sons and daughters
St Josemaria always sought to make Christmas a family celebration with his spiritual children. At Christmas 1937, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, when the few members of Opus Dei were scattered on the battlefronts, he went to visit Francisco Botella and Pedro Casciaro at the front. They celebrated Christmas in the barracks. Botella recalled that “those signs of affection and family life, in the extraordinary situation we were living through, went straight to my heart. They made me feel very happy, and my commitment to God was filled with joy.”
“My son, where is the image of Christ that I look for in your heart?”
“My son, where is the image of Christ that I look for in your heart?”

Later on, when Opus Dei had spread to other countries, St Josemaria was no longer able to celebrate Christmas with all of them together. Then he kept close to them by sending them Christmas cards and messages, such as the one in 1971: “May God and his most holy Mother, our Mother – let us go with confidence to the throne of glory, Mary, that we may obtain mercy – grant us a holy Christmas, and give us the grace of more perceptive and generous commitment every day.”

“My dearest children: may Jesus watch over my daughters and sons for me! As I send you these lines with my fondest Christmas greetings, I love to tell you again, so as to engrave it deeply on your souls, that our Lord is relying heavily on us, on each of us individually, and that we should all feel on our shoulders, with optimism and a genuinely universal spirit, the blessed weight of taking the Work forward as God wishes.”

It was nothing new for him to send Christmas greetings. He had written letters with Christmas greetings ever since he was young. In The Way: Critical-Historical Edition, we find that no. 94, which says “He has become so small – you see: a Child! – so that you can approach him with confidence”, probably stemmed from a letter he wrote just before Christmas 1938, which is still extant. The letter, to Miguel Sotomayor, says: “I’ll ask the Child Jesus – you see: a Child! – to help us leave the ‘old man’ in the snows of this month of December. If we want to, it will come about. A hug and my blessing. Mariano.”

Fr Joaquin Alonso was lucky enough to spend many Christmases with St Josemaria. He recalls: “I can clearly remember Christmas Eve 1954, when we, the students at the Roman College, had just moved into the building called Casa Del Vicolo, at 73, Viale Bruno Buozzi in Rome. Manolo Caballero, an artist from Andalucia, Spain, was living with us. He was very young then, though he died some years ago. He had modelled some figures for the crib we were going to put up in the sitting-room, which was still practically empty, with no furniture. St Josemaria came in and saw the figures and liked them a lot. He said they would come out that very night, with a meditation he would give us right there in the sitting-room. As there were no chairs we were all sitting on the floor for the meditation. There must have been over a hundred of us, all very young. He, St Josemaria, was sitting on a chair. I remember especially, because it really got home to me, a question he asked several times, hammering it in: ‘My son, where is the image of Christ that I look for in your heart?’ Again and again, after touching on different themes: ‘My son, where is the image of Christ that I look for in your heart?’ You could tell it came from the depths of his soul.
He has become so small – you see: a Child! – so that you can approach him with confidence ]

The meditation he gave us at Christmas 1963 was published after being revised by St Josemaria himself, in Christ is Passing By. It’s the one called “Christ triumphs through humility”. There he talks about letting Christ’s light and grace enter deeply into our hearts, which always reminds me of what I was saying about the meditation on Christmas Night in 1954. That was something he loved to pray about at Christmas. Another theme he loved was that of learning to do the will of God the Father like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who work together by their obedience for us to have new life in Christ.”


The ideas in the above article are adapted from: The Man of Villa Tevere, by Pilar Urbano; The Way: Critical-Historical Edition, edited by Pedro Rodriguez; Uncommon Faith: the Early Years of Opus Dei, by John F. Coverdale; Immersed in God, by Cesare Cavalleri; At God’s Pace, by Francois Gondrand; Memoria del Beato Josemaria, by Javier Echevarria; The Founder of Opus Dei, by Andres Vazquez de Prada; and an interview with Fr Joaquin Alonso for this website.