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The Christmas Cycle The Dilemma

How Christians Should Celebrate Christmas

Maybe it's your favorite season; maybe it's one you dread. Either way, Christmas is coming. The preliminaries took place over Thanksgiving weekend, and now we're in the homestretch. Now we'll hear the homilies about consumerism, practically drowned out by the roar of advertising. Some will hear the calm among us suggesting that we slow down, if we haven't run over them yet! Those more religiously minded will try to observe some semblance of Advent, at least for a week or two.

There was a time when many Catholic families simply felt prohibited from getting into the Christmas spirit until Advent was over. Does anyone remember when it was considered wrong to decorate the tree before Christmas Eve? Those customs could scarcely survive in a Church which opened itself up to the modern world. Yet many Catholics have the uneasy sense that we've lost something important.

It's time to renegotiate. Easy enough to say, "Let's put Christ back into Christmas," but that's not really the problem. Practicing Christians haven't forgotten the reason for the season. We've just forgotten how to celebrate it fully. We need to combine a healthy acceptance of the holiday celebration of American culture with the ancient Christian cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany.

The Christmas Cycle

Before the negotiations begin, however, we need to accept the wisdom of the Church's understanding of Christmas. Preparation comes first, then comes celebration extending a few weeks after Christmas Day. The Christmas cycle begins with the First Sunday of Advent and ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, soon after Epiphany Sunday. The cycle picks us up in ordinary time and drops us off there again in the new year, hopefully with a renewed sense of the presence of Christ in our world and in our lives.

The focal point of the Christmas cycle is obvious: God becoming one of us in Jesus, the Incarnation. All three phases of the cycle--Advent, Christmas and Epiphany--hinge on and celebrate that point. These celebrations help us to name the ways the "little story" (our lives) is caught up in the "big story" of Christ. And these feasts tie our lives to Christians throughout history. The tradition of the Church, the living gospel, is the real-life experience of Christians like you and like me, and those before us.

During Advent we emphasize the joy that some would compare to the months before a child is born: longing, excitement, wonder, joy, even exhilaration of life that is in our midst right now, yet also a hope and yearning for what is to come, and a carefulness to get things into order.

During Christmas season we celebrate the wonder of the Incarnation. How wondrously we are made that the Word of God would become one of us! God shows us how to live fully: by pouring out our lives for others. That is what the days of Christmas are all about.

Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrate Christ becoming manifest--that is, present--to all peoples. On Epiphany we focus on the wise men symbolizing the many races for whom Christ was born. The Baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his public ministry. God's "Christmas gift" of the Incarnation is a gift for everyone!

The Dilemma

Short of moving to a monastery, how can we possibly expect to tune in to the fullness of the Christmas cycle? It would defeat our purpose to ignore the spirit of celebration wherever and whenever it surfaces. When people around us have Christmas parties before Christmas, it seems only right to join them! We are joyful people after all and the entire cycle ought to be marked by joy. And it would be foolhardy to avoid the holiday sales.

One answer lies in having a kind of dual celebration: joining in the spirit of our surrounding culture, yet paying as much attention as possible to the themes of Christianity from the beginning of Advent until the end of Christmas season, well into January.

For most families, that will mean doing a little bit here and a little bit there. Being aware of the entire cycle is a good starting point, though. Then, as time permits or inspiration moves you, find ways to celebrate.

How to do it? There are a number of books and pamphlets which provide practical ideas. You can find these in bookstores with good religion sections or through religious-goods catalogs, even on the Internet.

Home customs like the Advent wreath, Christmas creche and Christmas decorations are the obvious starting point. Reading aloud the Scripture for the day, maybe even before or after dinner, is simple and effective. You can take note of which readings to use during the week from the missalette at Sunday Mass, from parish calendars, by calling any parish or purchasing a missal or liturgical calendar from a Catholic bookstore. Scripture readings will immerse you in the themes of the season before and after Christmas Day.

Practices like examining one's conscience at the end of each day or praying with the help of a rosary, meditation book or quiet spot can bring balance to your life during a busy season.

Many are anxious to get all the Christmas stuff put away immediately after New Year's. Stores begin advertising Valentine's Day products. If you can't bear to leave your house decorated through the end of Christmas season (January 12 in 1997), a compromise might be to leave a few prominent decorations in place.

There is no one season for charity; it's a yearlong demand of our faith. But responding to the needs of those who feel isolated during the holidays is responding to the call of Christ among us. That's what the Christmas cycle is about, from Advent to Epiphany.--J.B.F.

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