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# Saturday, December 10, 2005

I was prompted recently to write some thoughts about Christmas and what I think it means as a Catholic living in America.  The reason I think it's important to mention that I'm American is that Christmas has taken on a lot of popular American traditions and has thus lost sight of the essentially Christian and Catholic meaning.  I think it's important to say Catholic because the Catholic tradition is what gave birth to and has developed the essential significance of this holiday.  Some traditional Protestant denominations (like Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopalian) have retained some of these Catholic vestiges, but it seems to me that Catholicism has the most to offer in understanding Christmas, both historically and theologically.  I also mention it because I speak as a convert from evangelical Protestantism, which has retained very little of the Christian significance of this holiday, and it seems to me that it is this evangelical and non-traditional Protestant culture that has most strongly shaped the popular American understanding of Christmas today.
If you asked most Americans today what Christmas is about, they'd likely say family, giving, and (possibly) the birth of Jesus Christ.  The more jaded might say it is all about trees, lights, and shopping.  Growing up, I witnessed a number of "put the Christ back in Christmas" campaigns, all wistfully yearning for a return to an earlier time when Christmas did not involve the other popular aspects (such as gift giving).  And I even know of some who refuse to give gifts in their family because they think it helps them to put more focus on the "real" meaning of Christmas, which of course is, at its most basic level, a celebration of the birth of Jesus.
But there is, at least in the Catholic tradition, much more to Christmas than that, and there are, I think, theologically sound reasons to participate in Christmas as it has developed (including the giving of gifts).  First of all, the Catholic new year starts, as far as the Church calendar is concerned, with Advent.  Advent (an Anglicized form of the Latin adventus, which roughly translates as "coming") starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas; it is a four-week period of prayer and penance during which we are called to prepare for the coming of Christ.  It has a two-fold meaning: first, symbolically, we are preparing for the first coming of Christ at his birth, the Incarnation, which is celebrated at Christ's mass (Christmas); second, really, we are preparing for the second coming of Christ, which all Christians are called to be prepared for. 
This is why Advent is a time of prayer and penance, and in times past, both Catholics and Orthodox celebrated it in a way similar to Lent (another penetential season leading up to Easter).  In fact, I'm told by an Orthodox friend that they still celebrate Advent with fasting, and it is a more solemn season than Lent is for them.  This is why, if you go into a Catholic church during Advent, the altar will be decorated in purple (the color of penance) as well as the priest's vestments; it is also why Advent wreaths use purple candles.  Additionally, on the third Sunday of Advent, the color of the vestments and candles are pink to symbolize a heightened sense that Christ is almost here and to lighten the penetential character a bit in celebration of that anticipation. 
These days most Catholics (in America at least) seem to have forgotten the penetential aspect of this season; I think it is in part due to the popular American sentiment during this time, which is anything but penetential.  It is hard to focus on penance when the culture around you is saturated with the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of "the holidays."  Of course, we should never lose site of the joyous culmination of the season, but Catholics should try to remember that in the midst of all this, we are called to prayerful penance in preparation of Christ's coming.
Advent is one way in which I think the Catholic understanding of Christmas is greatly enriched.  Of course, the pinnacle of Advent comes with Christmas, when we celebrate the Incarnation of God.  There is much in early Christian writings and, especially, in the East about the significance of the Incarnation.  Some have seen it as the single most significant event in human history, even more significant than, or at least as significant as, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.  I don't have time to explore this topic in any depth, but to sum up, there is an ancient saying attributed to St. Athanasius (and/or St. Irenaeus, depending on whom you ask) that speaks to it: "God became man so that we might become God."  On its surface, this seems radical, but the essence is that it is by Christ's taking on humanity in the Incarnation that our likeness to God (our being created in the image of God) becomes complete, and it is only through his becoming human that the sacrifice on the Cross can be the source of saving grace for us. 
There is so much more to explore, theologically speaking, on this point, but I draw it out briefly to highlight that there is an ancient Christian significance that is lost in the popular, superficial acknowledgement that Christmas is about celebrating Jesus' birth.  The Nativity is only important in as much as we consider the grace that became possible through the Incarnation.  I should pause here and comment on a misconception that might occur when speaking of the Incarnation in relation to the Nativity, which is the suggestion that by thus speaking, we are implying that life begins at birth.  Obviously, though, this is not the teaching of the Church (who unequivocally teaches that life begins at conception), so one must be more reticent and simply appreciate that the Nativity provides a tangible way to reflect on the Incarnation, and that is why we meditate on the Incarnation with the Nativity.

Another point to ponder about the Nativity is that it is God's gift of himself to us and (ultimately) his gift of salvation through the Incarnation.  Because of this, I think it is good that we imitate God in celebration of that gift by giving gifts to others.  This is where I think we can see that a firmer grounding can help us to truly celebrate what is good in the holiday, even despite that this aspect has become secularized and commercialized.
Now, I just said "the Nativity" referring to Christ's birth; however, there is yet more significance in the "Nativity scene," as it is commonly known.  This is the portrayal of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, angels, and the wise men at the birth of Christ.  Of course, it is great in the obvious significance of recalling the historical events surrounding Jesus' birth.  But I think there is a deeper meaning to be garnered from it.  Catholics often refer to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as "the Holy Family."  It is in this Holy Family that we see God further blessing the social institution of the family.  God chose to not only become human but to become human in the context of a loving family and to grow up within that family.  During Christmas, we have a special opportunity to cherish this significance, and it adds theological depth to the common acknowledgment that "Christmas is about family."  Without the Catholic tradition of the Holy Family, one loses a rich source of grounding in the value of the family and, especially, why we should celebrate it at Christmas.

Another neat Catholic tradition in relation to the Nativity scene is the practice of not putting Jesus in the manger until Christmas.  This is a physical expression of the theological significance of Advent.  In fact, having grown up with "complete" Nativity scenes, I find it quite poignant and noticeable when Jesus is not present.  It becomes an immediate and regular reminder of the purpose of the Advent season, and it adds an extra happy ritual for Christmas when we finally get to put Jesus in the scene, further emphasizing the meaning of the celebration.

One might think we could stop there.  We did, after all, just talk about Christmas, right?  Well, another old Catholic tradition is the celebration of the "twelve days of Christmas."  These are the days from Christmas to Epiphany, which is the celebration of the finding of Jesus by the wise men.  This is the time whence we get the term "Christmastide."  It is the source of the song about the twelve days of Christmas, and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was set on the last night of Christmas.  During this time, American Catholics celebrate other important holy days (feasts) like the Holy Family (on the 26th), St. John (the Divine, apostle and author of John's gospel), the Holy Innocents (those slaughtered by Herod's henchmen in search of Jesus), Mary (the mother of God, celebrated on New Year's Day), and other saints. 
Christmas isn't just a one or two-day affair for Catholics.  It starts four weeks before Christmas and ends twelve days after with the Epiphany that the wise men had in finding him.  It's not just about the birth of Jesus, at least, saying this does not speak to the profound significance that this holiday holds for the Christian, including a season in which we are called to renewed conversion and repentance to prepare for the coming of our Lord.  It's not just about feeling good and having fun with your family; it is an essential celebration of the value of the family as shown through the Holy Family.  It's not just about running your feet off, buying gifts for people because that's what everyone does; it's about imitating God and giving of ourselves to others as he did of himself in the Incarnation.  Even the paradigm of the giver, Santa Claus, is derived from St. Nicholas (an early Christian bishop) who freely gave of himself to the poor.

We can still enjoy the season with all our fun American traditions, but I think these should be additive to the more essentially Christian significance of the holiday.  I'm thankful for becoming Catholic, learning about, and experiencing these traditions that enrich this uniquely Christian holiday.  I had many reasons for becoming Catholic.  I have many reasons for remaining so, and the Catholic experience of Christmas is just one of the ways in which I think Catholicism offers a richer understanding of the Christian faith and heritage.  You don't have to be Catholic to enjoy this holiday as I've described above, but it is certainly easier to do when it is built into the culture and history of your Christian community, and there is something to be said for the shared experience to be had in a communal celebration of these things, which I think can only fully be found in the Catholic Church.

Saturday, December 10, 2005 4:30:53 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
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