Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas: Beginnings and Ends

Depending on how one celebrates Christmas, December 25th is a beginning or an end.  For the secular culture, the Christmas season ends this Sunday.  The stores will take down their decorations and set up for whatever they believe is the next reason for us to indulge in consumerism.  It's business, it's what they do.  For many of our non-Catholic brethren it also will be the end of the celebration of Christmas.  But for Catholics, Christmas Eve begins the Christmas season. 

The secular world and the Catholic world  prepare for Christmas in different ways which reveal what they believe about what is celebrated.  For the secular world the time before Christmas (which apparently is encroaching Memorial day more and more each year) is a time for setting up the decorations for one's home, buying and wrapping gifts for loved ones,  getting homes ready for guests, singing , going to parties, and watching TV shows.  There is an overly sentimental tone to it all; a warmth that makes the winter months in the northern hemisphere somewhat palatable.  There is much good in this celebration.  We can get carried away to be sure. But the celebration is all external;  something that can be packed and unpacked, bought and wrapped, cooked and cleaned.  It is wholly temporary.  I would imagine it is for these reasons that when the high point hits on Christmas, that it can be packed away for the next year.

For Catholicism, Christmas is prepared for internally and spiritually.  The liturgical season of Advent beckons us to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives.  We look to the twofold coming of Christ; once in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and to that day He will come again.  It is a period of preparation marked by a joyful longing.  It is a time where we Catholics are called to seek forgiveness for our sins, show greater charity and compassion, and to live so as to anticipate the return of Christ.  The Solemnity of Christmas begins a renewed process of celebrating the Incarnation (that the 2nd person of the Trinity became fully human as well as fully divine).  It is a season filled with celebrations, the three key of which are December 25th (Christmas), January 1st ( The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God),  and Epiphany, in which we celebrate the Incarnation being made known.

For humanity, that first Christmas day represented a beginning and an end.  The Incarnation of Christ begins a new era in humanity. The enslavement of humanity to sin could now end.  It is the zenith of a plan that God had formed from ancient times.  When humanity had turned its back on God through sin, God never could bring Himself to write us off.  He would prepare us through a series of covenants, through a law, through a relationship, through a concrete presence with us.  He would purge us of our polytheism and syncretism  so that we could receive the gift of redemption He wished to give us.  All in the Old Testament pointed to the stable in Bethlehem.  It eventually moves from there to Galilee and the Judean countryside, to a cross and resurrection. It continues on through the work of Church.  With the Incarnation, the old order passes and a new one takes its place.

What has this to do with how we celebrate this great mystery?  It is so much more than about when we put trees up and take them down.  Every Advent and Christmas Season is supposed to be an ongoing transformation to greater holiness; it is supposed to bring us into a closer relationship with God.   Without God's plan for our redemption, there is no Christmas.  With God's plan, though, everything changes and is transformed.  The joy of Christmas is not something that can be bought, wrapped in pretty paper, and set under a tree.   No, the gift of Christmas is an unmerited gift initially wrapped in swaddling clothing and later nailed to a tree.  It is this which transforms us in an eternal way. 

The celebration of Christmas isn't to be an isolated moment in time, but ongoing renewal of commitment to God and His will and providence for us.  It is part of a process, not the process itself.

What do I mean by that? If you ask most every pastor, we will grouch about Christmas in some ways.  We will talk about the C and E Catholics (Christmas and Easter) who come in twice a year and unless someone in their family marries or dies, we really don't see them much.  I will be honest, it doesn't irk so much as it saddens me.  I know some will say that 'at least they come then' but it points to a dysfunctional relationship which needs to be attended to and healed.  If we really understand what is in play with the Incarnation, the raw love of God would draw us to need the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Incarnate God.  Nowhere else is God's love so plainly and viscerally made present as in the Eucharist.  Understanding what we celebrate at Christmas...really understanding it, should light a fire in our hearts.

Most pastors know they get so few chances to speak to those whose relationship with God has been a relationship on one's own terms.   Some pastors will take time to chastise those who aren't there all the time.  That's not helpful.  Some pastors will be so timid as to say anything.  Again, not helpful.  It is a fine dance to be sure, but it is why it takes more than the pastor to make a proper celebration.  It takes everyone else as well.

Imagine, if you will, being the kid who rarely comes home.  It might be because of distance.  It might be because of hard feelings.  It might be because of a variety of things.  It is hard to come in if you are the person that is irregular.  The fear of being judged, of being dismissed, and other negative emotions can mistranslate  word and actions.  All of the justifications for not being regularly flood back.  The only remedy is the remedy that Christ Himself prescribes:  mercy.  Granted the person has to be open to it and want to dive in deeper to their faith.

This is what I preach about on a regular basis.  I want all my parishioners every weekend.  Why?  It is not because of money or a numbers game.  It is because their absence is noted like an empty chair at the family table.  It is not an empty chair just seen by us, but by God, who like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son waits for his son's return. The greatest gift we can give is truth, mercy, and an offer that if they are willing to commit to the relationship with God, it will be worth their while.  We might be able to stifle outward grumbles to those who take our normal pew twice a year, but that internal grumble must also go.  To call to conversion necessitates modeling conversion.

We don't celebrate Christmas as an isolated event.  Nor do we just celebrate it as something that ends Christmas day.  No, we carry that divine mystery through the practice of the faith and the embracing of the mission to which the Incarnate God gave us through His gospel mandate.  Let us properly celebrate with joyful hope, drawing others as well, and be a model to the world that Christmas isn't about Santa and gifts...but about the Son of God made flesh and what difference the Incarnation makes in our lives and in the life of this world.

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