Thor, St. Boniface, and the Origin of the Christmas Tree

When the average person thinks of a Catholic saint, I’d venture to guess that it’s not a fearless, axe-wielding, hammer-breaking, oak-crushing, converter of heathens that comes to mind. And yet, that’s exactly the kind of guy St. Boniface was.

Born around 680 in England, Boniface entered a Benedictine monastery before being commissioned by the pope to evangelize modern-day Germany, first as a priest, and eventually as a bishop. Under the protection of Charles Martel (better known as the grandfather of Charlemagne), Boniface traveled through all of Germany, restrengthening regions that had already been introduced to Christianity and bringing the light of Christ to those that hadn’t. Boniface, “with his tireless activity, his gift for organization, and his adaptable, friendly, yet firm character,” found a great amount of success in his travels, said Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

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Here Boniface is described (albeit dramatized for story-telling) by Henry Van Dyke in The First Christmas Tree (1897),

What a man he was! Fair and slight, but straight as a spear and strong as an oaken staff. His face was still young; the smooth skin was bronzed by wind and sun. His gray eyes, clean and kind, flashed like fire when he spoke of his adventures, and of the evil deeds of the false priests with whom he contended. (1)

Around the year 723, Boniface was traveling with a small party in the region of Lower Hesse. He knew of a community of heathens near Geismar who, in the middle of winter, would make a human sacrifice (a child, typically) to the thunder-god Thor (yes, THAT Thor) at the base of their sacred oak tree, the “Thunder Oak”. Boniface, in part from advice from a brother bishop, wished to destroy the Thunder Oak to not only save the life of the human sacrifice, but also to show the heathens that he would not be struck down by lightning at the hands of Thor.

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As the story goes, Boniface and his companions, reaching the village on Christmas Eve, arrived at the place of the sacrifice in time enough to interrupt it. With his bishops’ staff (crozier) in hand, Boniface approached the pagan crowd, who had surrounded the base of the Thunder Oak, saying to his group, “Here is the Thunder Oak, and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god, Thor.”

With a small child laid out for the sacrifice, the executioner raised his hammer high. But on the downswing, Boniface extended his crozier to block the blow, miraculously breaking the great stone hammer and saving the child’s life.

Afterward, Boniface is said to have proclaimed to the people:

Hearken, sons of the forest! No blood shall flow this night save that which pity has drawn from a mother’s breast. For this is the birth-night of the Christ, the son of the Almighty, the Savior of mankind. Fairer is He than Baldur the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than Freya the Good. Since He has come sacrifice is ended. The dark, Thor, on whom you have vainly called, is dead. Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. And now on this Christ-night you shall begin to live. This blood-tree shall darken your land no more. In the name of the Lord, I will destroy it. (2)

Boniface picked up an axe nearby and, as legend has it, took one mighty swing at the oak when a great gust of wind arose through the forest and felled the tree, roots and all. It lie on the forest floor, broken in four pieces. Though afterwards Boniface had a chapel built from the wood, our story takes us to what stood immediately beyond the ruins of the mighty tree.

The “Apostle of Germany” continued to preach to the astounded Germanic peoples, who were in disbelief that this slayer of Thor’s Thunder Oak had not been struck down by their god. Boniface looked beyond where the oak lay, pointing to a small, unassuming fir tree, saying:

This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness. (3)

And so, the Germans began a new tradition that night, one that stretches to the present day. By bringing a fir into their homes, decorating it with candles and ornaments, and celebrating the birth of a Savior, the Apostle of Germany and his flock gave us what we now know as the Christmas tree.

UPDATED: December 30, 2014, 8:51 a.m. PDT

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Sources
(1) – Van Dyke, Henry, The First Christmas Tree, SCRIBNER TREASURY–22 CLASSIC TALES 183-202 (1953)
(2) – Fr. William P. Saunders “The Christmas Tree”, Straight Answers article in the Arlington Catholic Herald, available at http://www.holyspiritinteractive.net/columns/williamsaunders/straightanswers/68.asp
(3) – Ibid.

4 Literally Awesome Facts About Our Lady of Guadalupe

“Am I not here, I, who am your mother?  Are you not under my shadow and protection?  Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, the crossing of my arms?  Am I not the source of all your joy?  What more do you need?  Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.” – The Virgin Mary, to St. Juan Diego at Tepeyac Hill

The great Bill Engvall once lamented that we use the word “awesome” way too casually. He said, “Webster’s dictionary defines awesome as “anything that leaves you in awe and wonder.” Like winning the lottery … twice. That would be awesome. Getting a phone call from the IRS saying you’ve been audited and they owe you $50,000. That would be awesome.”

Know what else would be awesome?

Seeing an apparition of Mary, then having her grow roses in the middle of winter to prove it to the archbishop, then converting 9 million Aztecs within seven years.

That would be….wait…that was awesome.

On December 12 of each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, marking the day when, in 1531, the Blessed Mother appeared in Mexico to a 57-year old peasant named Juan Diego. According to the earliest reliable account of the story, Juan Diego was walking near what is now Mexico City (Tepeyac Hill) when he came upon an apparition of a “Maiden” who he soon came to recognize as the Virgin Mary. In trying to convince the archbishop of what he had seen, Juan Diego eventually was asked for a sign to prove what he had seen.

Upon returning to Mary and sharing this with her, Juan Diego was instructed to climb to the top of the hill to gather flowers to bring back to the bishop. Reaching the crest of the hill, Juan Diego found Castilian roses, which were neither in season nor native to the region. The Blessed Mother arranged the flowers herself in Juan’s tilma (a burlap-type cloak) and instructed him to open the cloak only upon return to the bishop.

When Juan Diego arrived back at the bishop’s residence and opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor and left on the surface of the tilma was the image that’s come to be known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe”.

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What happened next is history. The image became the wellspring of a conversion movement the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since. The fact that the Virgin Mother not only spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, but appeared to be wearing the dress of an Aztec princess sparked millions of conversions to the Catholic faith in just under seven years. The shrine that was subsequently built on the spot, where the original tilma can still be seen, remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the world.

But this post isn’t about the whole apparition story so much as it is about the tilma, Juan Diego’s cloak, on which the image of the Blessed Mother was imprinted. In the centuries following the event, some amazing and unexplainable qualities have been discovered about it.

Here’s four (literally) awesome facts about the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe:

1. It has qualities that are humanly impossible to replicate.

Made primarily of cactus fibers, a tilma was typically of very poor quality and had a rough surface, making it difficult enough to wear, much less to paint a lasting image on it. Nevertheless, the image remains, and scientists who have studied the image insist there was no technique used beforehand to treat the surface. The surface bearing the image is reportedly like silk to the touch, while the unused portion of the tilma remains coarse.

What’s more, experts in infrared photography, studying the tilma in the late 1970s, determined that there were no brush strokes (none!), as if the image was slapped onto the surface all at once, and it was discovered by Dr. Phillip Callahan, a biophysicist at the University of Florida, that the difference of appearance with its texturing and coloration of Our Lady’s skin up close compared to a small distance away is impossible to recreate:

Such a technique would be an impossible accomplishment in human hands. It often occurs in nature, however, in the coloring of bird feathers and butterfly scales, and on the elytra of brightly colored beetles … By slowly backing away from the painting, to a distance where the pigment and surface sculpturing blend together, the overwhelming beauty of the olive-colored Madonna emerges as if by magic.

This, along with an iridescent quality of slightly changing colors depending on the angle at which a person looks and the fact that the coloration in the image was determined to have no animal or mineral elements (synthetic colorings didn’t exist in 1531), provide a lot of seemingly unanswerable questions.

That’s awesome.

2. People say it’s just a painting, yet the tilma has outlived them all, in time and in quality.

One of the first things skeptics say about the image is that it somehow has to be a forgery or a fraud, but every time an attempt has been made to replicate the image, the original never seems to fade, while its duplicates have deteriorated over a short time. Miguel Cabrera, an artist in the mid-18th Century who produced three of the best known copies (one for the archbishop, one for the Pope, one for himself for later copies) once wrote about the difficulty of recreating the image even on the best surfaces:

I believe that the most talented and careful painter, if he sets himself to copy this Sacred Image on a canvas of this poor quality, without using sizing, and attempting to imitate the four media employed, would at last after great and wearisome travail, admit that he had not succeeded. And this can be clearly verified in the numerous copies that have been made with the benefit of varnish, on the most carefully prepared canvases, and using only one medium, oil, which offers the greatest facility;

Dr. Adolfo Orozco, a researcher and physicist at the National University of Mexico, spoke in 2009 about the remarkable preservation of the tilma compared to its numerous copies. One copy created in 1789 was painted on a similar surface with the best techniques available at the time, then encased in glass and stored next to the tilma. It looked beautiful when painted, but not eight years passed before the hot & humid climate of Mexico caused the copy to be discarded due to faded colors and fraying, broken threads.

However, Dr. Orozco said, no scientific explanation is possible for the fact that, “the original Tilma was exposed for approximately 116 years without any kind of protection, receiving all the infrared and ultraviolet radiation from the tens of thousands of candles near it and exposed to the humid and salty air around the temple.”

That’s awesome.

3. The tilma has shown characteristics startlingly like a living human body.

This is where it gets real crazy. In 1979, when Dr. Callahan was analyzing the tilma using infrared technology, he apparently also discovered that the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (36.6-37 deg. Celsius), the same as that of a living person.

When Dr. Carlos Fernandez de Castillo, a Mexican gynecologist, examined the tilma, he first noticed a four-petaled flower over what was Mary’s womb. The flower, to the Aztecs, was called the Nahui Ollin and was the symbol of the sun, as well as a symbol of plenitude. Upon further examination, Dr. Castillo concluded that the dimensions of Our Lady’s body in the image were that of an expectant mother due quite soon (Dec. 9, the day of the unveiling, is barely two weeks from Christmas…).

Finally, one of the most common attributions and reported discoveries lie with the Virgin’s eyes in the image. When Dr. Jose Alte Tonsmann, a Peruvian ophthalmologist, conducted a study, one of his tests involved examining the eyes at 2,500 times magnification. With the images of her magnified eyes, the scientist was reportedly able to identify as many as 13 individuals in both eyes at different proportions, just as the human eye would reflect an image. It appeared to be a snapshot of the very moment Juan Diego unfurled his tilma before the archbishop.

That’s awesome.

4. It appears to be virtually indestructible.

Two distinct events have happened involving the tilma over the centuries, one occurring in 1785 and the other in 1921.

In 1785, a worker was cleaning the glass encasement of the image when he accidentally spilled 50% nitric acid solvent onto a large portion of the image itself. The image and the rest of the tilma, which should have been eaten away almost instantly by the spill, reportedly self-restored over the ensuing 30 days, and remains unscathed to this day aside from small stains on the parts not bearing the image.

In 1921, an anti-clerical activist hid a bomb containing 29 sticks of dynamite in a pot of roses and placed it before the image inside the Basilica at Guadalupe. When the bomb exploded, most everything from the marble altar rail & floor just feet away from the blast, to windows 150 meters away were broken…yet the image and the glass surrounding it remained untouched. The only damage that occurred in close proximity to the tilma was a hefty brass crucifix, which was twisted and bent back by the blast.

crucifix

That’s awesome.

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#AskaCatholic: Are Non-Catholics Allowed to Receive the Eucharist?

NOTE: This column is hosted by and has been updated from it’s original at Spokane Faith & Values. It has graciously been given permission for reposting at MtnCatholic.com.

Q. I attended a retreat at a Benedictine monastery and they allowed non-catholics to celebrate the Eucharist. I thought that was forbidden. What are your thoughts?

catholicA. While anyone, Catholic or not, is permitted and encouraged to attend Mass as often as they like, non-Catholic Christians are not permitted to receive the Eucharist under nearly every circumstance, and non-Christians are not permitted to receive at all.

The Eucharist, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what Catholics celebrate at each Mass as the real Body and Blood of Jesus under the “accidents” of bread and wine. In the same way Jesus presented, before the 12 Apostles, the bread and wine transformed into his body and blood at the Last Supper, a priest speaks the same words and offers a re-presentation (not representation) of Jesus’ sacrifice on the night before he died.

People who have been received into the Catholic Church and been given their First Communion come forward at each Mass and receive the Eucharist, responding “amen” after having received it. This one-word assent, as it turns out, holds a lot of weight, spiritually speaking, and tells a lot about the reason non-Catholics are asked not to partake in the Eucharist.

A common misconception among non-Catholics (and many Catholics) is that not allowing non-Catholics to receive is showing a lack of hospitality. However, the truth is, in fact, the opposite — asking non-Catholics to refrain from taking the Eucharist is instead the true hospitable act, because each time a person receives the Eucharist, they, by their very action in receiving, are assenting to all the Catholic Church teaches, most especially that Christ is really and truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist. When we say “amen,” or “I believe,” that’s what we are saying yes to. We’re giving verbal assent to our physical “yes” in receiving.

For proof that the Eucharist is more than just hospitality, we turn to St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup.For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment, but since we are judged by [the] Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor. 11: 27-32; emphasis added)

Here’s an imperfect but useful college football analogy: When a high school quarterback gets recruited to play college ball, the coach says, “Come and play”. He gets there and is redshirted for a year, sits at second string on the depth chart for another year, then finally starts in his junior year. The coach wasn’t lying to him about the offer to “Come and play”, and those two years of preparation weren’t absent of relationship and “spiritual” growth. In order to be properly disposed to start at quarterback for the team, the kid needed proper preparation–he needed a journey in order to get there.

The reality of the present state of Christianity is that it sits in a profound state of division, with many thousands of differing belief systems and many beliefs within them that are different and in stark disagreement with that which the Catholic Church proclaims to be true. This is the primary reason for reserving the Eucharist to Catholics (and, in very specific circumstances, non-Catholic Christians).  When it  comes to the Eucharist, Catholics and non-Catholics alike owe it to themselves to discern their readiness, ensuring proper preparation for receiving the sacrament, before choosing to “Take and eat”(Matthew 26:26). For some, that could mean simply going to Confession, while for others it may mean something far greater.”

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The church teaches that even Catholics, prior to receiving the Eucharist, must discern the state of their soul, asking them to refrain if their soul is in a state of grave sin. Understanding the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life,” as the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, is to understand that the Eucharist is something to be striven towards rather than something to be handed out as a sign of welcoming.

Witnessing to the Eucharist by treating it as the most serious aspect of Christian faith is, in my experience, becoming exceedingly foreign to our American sensibilities. John Paul II, in his 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharista spoke profoundly on this very point:

“At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation. This has led here and there to ecumenical initiatives which, albeit well-intentioned, indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith. How can we not express profound grief at all this? The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.” (10; emphasis added)

To answer the question more fully, the Eucharist is reserved for Catholics, but only those who have “discerned the body” and prepared their soul to receive the fruit of Christ’s great sacrifice. It should never be considered an act of hospitality to extend the Eucharist to non-Catholics, because it was never intended to be treated as such. The receiving of the Eucharist by faithful Catholics was intended to be (by Jesus), and continues to exist as the ultimate sign of faith in all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches.

In light of that, it’s disappointing that the retreat masters at the Benedictine monastery, the nuns and/or priests entrusted with being faithful witnesses of the fullness of Catholic teaching, misled non-Catholic retreatants into believing that an invitation to receive the Eucharist was a sign of hospitality. They should have known better, and by not “discerning the body,” as St. Paul wrote, they disregarded the Gift Christ gave to the world and disregarded the spiritual well being of any non-Catholics they encouraged to come forward to receive it.

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