Home for the Holidays
By Alice Camille

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 significance.

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.

Universal Message

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?

God's Justice

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.

Questions for Reflection:
• 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?

Discuss this month's Questions for Reflection
from “God in Our Midst.”

Christmas Traditions
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 Christmas.

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."

For Family Response:

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.

Discuss this month's FAMILY CORNER.

Media Watch
Christmas Movies at Home
By Frank Frost

This 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 them together.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

Discuss Frank Frost's film review
in this month's MEDIA WATCH.

By Judy Ball

St. Thomas Becket (c.1118-1170)

Standing 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

Outrage 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."

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