IN OUR MIDST
for the Holidays
Currier and Ives always gives me the creeps. It's not that I don't have my sentimental
streak. I save the wire caps from champagne bottles and old Christmas cards,
like everyone else. And my heart quivers at the sight of Rudolph being spurned
by the other reindeer every year.
But I find myself in resistance mode each year about this time,
when the Currier-and-Ives-style holiday season seems jammed down my throat.
Sleigh scenes and chubby Santas aside, not every Christmas season has been a
memory of roaring fires, hot chocolate and close-knit family.
Some Christmases in my memory were three-alarm disasters that
still wake me up in a cold sweat upon recall. I can't be the only person who
has this problem.
Part of the usual trouble with the holidays is that it's homecoming
season, which is also at times paradoxically the good part. Traveling can be
a bear, but it's not only navigating airports and highways in bad weather that
bugs me. It's what I might have to navigate when I get to my destination that's
the real worry.
My family is fairly well behaved, as families go. There are no
serial killers or serious deviants among us, and much of the time we can be
counted on to be normal about festive gatherings and their religious and cultural
But we do have our prodigal members, those who have gone certifiably
astray by the usual markers and whose presence or absence at every holiday is
an issue. I don't know which I mind more: the years when a disruptive arrival
leads to shouting, tears and headaches, or the times when a quiet boycott makes
us retell the sorry old stories about what went wrong and why someone is no
longer welcome. I anticipate the scenes of conflict with dread, but the unspoken
ache of missing part of ourselves can be much worse.
The fact that this story is not at all unusual is probably why
Jesus included a prodigal parable in his repertoire. A son turns out to be a
disappointment to his father and a source of shame to his brother. (Raise your
hands if you can relate!) The son who does everything wrong disappears for years.
The son who plays it by the book remains at home and works in the family business.
Then one day, guess who shows up looking for a welcome? And guess what the anxious
parent and furious stay-at-home sibling do next?
The point of this parable—variously called the parable of the
prodigal son or the story of the forgiving father—is aimed at neither the son
who was lost nor the father who finds it in his heart to embrace him again.
It's the third party in this tale, the obedient brother, who ends up on the
receiving end of the moral lesson. Jesus, remember, is addressing the Pharisees,
who tend to be self-righteous about how obedient they are, like the older brother
in the story. The parable affirms that sinners will sin and that God, who is
absolute mercy, will forgive. That much is not in question.
But how do average Christians react to this news? Does knowledge
of the mercy of God comfort or offend us?
Most of us are not notorious villains but law-abiding people
with a few peccadilloes thrown in for the sake of personal charm. Our wrongdoing
is minor and run-of-the mill, the kind of thing easily swept under the carpet
of our consciousness. And because we basically toe the line, we would greatly
appreciate it if others did too. If they don't, we would prefer that they pay
some kind of fine in terms of consequences. But what if God lets them off scot-free?
Where's the justice in that?
Divine compassion often offends our sense of justice. After all,
people shouldn't be able to do anything they want, at the cost of the rest of
us! That's certainly true—but God's mercy doesn't imply that they can. Sin is
still a bad idea, and it leads to all kinds of heartache. But God chooses to
respond to the wayward child with open arms, and not a door slammed in the face.
If we're part of this family, we'd better make room for that notion.
Alice Camille writes a monthly series, Exploring the
Sunday Readings, as well as the Testaments
feature in U.S. Catholic magazine, which was awarded
Best Column by the Catholic Press Association. She is the author
of Invitation to Catholicism: Beliefs & Teachings &
Practices and The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow
and Glory (both by ACTA Publications).
Next: In 2004, Every Day Catholic will explore
the theme of Catholic identity.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt
that someone has gotten away with something? How did
you feel? What did you do?
In what way can you make your family, school, workplace
or the world more peaceful this Christmas?
this month's Questions for Reflection
from God in Our Midst.
By Judith Dunlap
I love the traditions and rituals that surround Christmas. Every family has them—a
certain way to trim the tree, a specific order for unwrapping presents, a special
Christmas Eve dinner followed by midnight Mass. Traditions and rituals are an
important part of everyday family life, but they are never so evident as at
Experts tell us that rituals and traditions do four things for
a family. They are adhesive; they help us form a bond. They are euphoric; they
make us feel good about ourselves. They are disciplinary; they have a sense
of order that makes us feel comfortable. They are vitalizing; they give families
life. In short, they help families become stronger and closer.
Children love rituals and they learn traditions at an early age.
Last Christmas it was our four-year-old granddaughter who reminded us, "The
youngest opens her gifts first." That's what rituals are about: a certain order
or way of doing things year after year. Where we sit, what we say, who does
what when, and sometimes even what we eat. Often traditions just happen by themselves,
but sometimes they take a little deliberate planning. This Christmas take time
to appreciate your own family rituals and consider adding one or two new ones
to the mix.
It is sometimes the old traditions that can ease tensions during
holiday homecomings. Our oldest son made that clear when he came home for the
holidays a few years ago. At the end of the meal when a mildly heated discussion
broke out, he commented loudly enough for all to hear, "Ah, now I feel I'm home....Every
Dunlap dinner begins with prayer and ends with an argument about who's going
to do the dishes."
During the weeks before Christmas ask family members to talk about their favorite family traditions. As a group, decide which new ones you might add.
this month's FAMILY CORNER.
Christmas Movies at Home
Christmas several movie classics, each celebrating family in its own way, have
received new releases on DVD. Besides their crisp visual quality, DVDs make
it possible to watch these holiday specials on the family's own schedule and
to enjoy new "back-story" material included on the DVD.
Scrooge is the 1970 retelling of A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley.
This version is a good-natured musical where townspeople break into song, celebrating
the virtues of kindness and generosity and appreciation of family that constitute
the spirit of Christmas. And at movie's end, the townspeople again fill the
streets to celebrate in song the "future" funeral of Scrooge, which morphs into
the joyful conversion of "present-day" Scrooge. Finney and Guinness mug for
the camera a lot, helping to turn this gritty Dickens story into a pleasant
fairy tale worthy of the retelling.
A Christmas Story is a modern tale almost as well-loved as the Dickens
story. Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is Every Boy in 1940s Indiana—a
chubby 9-year-old Charlie Brown sort of nerd. Plagued by school
bullies, Ralphie enjoys a rich fantasy life, centered around
the Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle he craves
for Christmas. His mother, father and teacher, however, all
dismiss the dream with the admonition, "You'll shoot your
eye out." What makes Ralphie so endearing is his na—vet— combined
with an impish urge to misbehave and manipulate. His disillusion
upon receiving his Ovaltine Secret Decoder Ring and his letdown
by a cynical department store Santa are classic moments. A
Christmas Story reminds us of a simpler life before TV.
Parents are not perfect and neither are the kids. But in the
end they achieve a new bond as a family. The 20th anniversary
DVD edition of A Christmas Story comes in a two-disc
set rich with extras.
National Lampoon's A Christmas Vacation is only 10 years
old but already a favorite. Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo play parents in
an upper-middle-class suburb who decide to go all out to arrange the ultimate
idyllic family Christmas, decorating the house with 25,000 lights and inviting
their parents to the Christmas feast. Of course in the National Lampoon Vacations
tradition, Chase can do nothing right, and the arrival of his wife's ne'er-do-well
cousins takes it over the top. But in the end, after pratfalls, traumas and
failed dreams galore, the family pulls together and redeems the Christmas moment.
At the core of all three films is the unabashed appreciation of
family that we long for at Christmas time—and perhaps experience by watching
AND HEROES AMONG US
By Judy Ball
St. Thomas Becket (c.1118-1170)
up for truth and integrity has been dangerous throughout history. And so it
was for Thomas Becket, who was martyred in a church-state dispute with his once-close
friend, King Henry II of England.
Evidence suggests that Thomas foresaw trouble long before the
final bloody scene that has been vividly recalled in print and film. It was
Henry who insisted that Thomas would make a fine archbishop of Canterbury, just
as he had ably served in state positions, including chancellor of England. A
resistant Thomas sensed that the king had other motives with this appointment,
including the desire to extend his power into Church affairs.
Despite some doubts, Thomas agreed and, within days, went from
layman to priest to archbishop. He proved to be a man of prayer and deep devotion
to the poor. He severed any secular positions and focused on Church affairs.
Conflicts with Henry II surfaced when Thomas refused to pay tax on Church lands
and insisted on the right of accused clergy to trial by a church court.
As the chasm between the two men widened, Thomas attempted reconciliation
without success. Sensing danger, he stole away to France and remained in exile
for some years. Only when the archbishop of York defied him by crowning the
heir to Henry II did Thomas return to assert his authority.
His reception at home was mixed: a jubilant welcome in Canterbury,
a stern rebuff by young Henry. When Thomas excommunicated the archbishop of
York and the bishops who had participated in the coronation, the church-state
breach was beyond repair. On December 29, 1170, four knights—eager to please
the king—assassinated Thomas Becket at the high altar of his cathedral. His
feast is December 29.
Kevin "Seamus" Hasson
can have its positive side, spurring change and sparking creativity. That's
what it did for Kevin (better known as Seamus) Hasson two decades ago.
Then a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre
Dame, Mr. Hasson was appalled by "the radical secularism that had taken root
in America." He finished his master's work and entered Notre Dame law school,
graduating in 1985.
After moving to Washington, D.C., and working on religious liberty
issues in private practice and in government, he founded the Becket Fund for
Religious Liberty. Now almost 10 years old, it is devoted to the conviction
that the religious impulse and religious expression are natural to human beings.
Mr. Hasson is proud of the successes his firm has had: 45-0 in
final judgments and settlements. These are no ordinary cases, he told Every
Day Catholic. Rather, they are ones that will establish precedents that
further the cause of religious freedom. They include the right of cities to
erect holiday manger scenes and menorahs, of Muslim police officers to grow
beards, of public school teachers to wear crucifixes and of military chaplains
to preach without censorship by the administration in power.
Mr. Hasson, 46, who lives in suburban Virginia with his wife and
seven children, is heartened by the openness to religious expression evident
these days in Washington and beyond. The notion that "religion is bad for you,
like secondhand smoke" is being challenged, he believes. Meanwhile, he and his
firm are guided by Thomas Becket, "a great hero of religious liberty who gave
his life for the principle that the state may not interfere in the workings
of the Church."