How Christians Should
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
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!
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
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
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.