Friday, December 28, 2012

Two approaches to Christmas

You may have heard the saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” But during the days that immediately follow December 25th, we should probably keep another saying in mind: “Keep Christmas in the Christmas season.”

The world has a tendency to build up anticipation for something only to get bored of it and quickly drop it. As soon as December 26th arrives every year, Christmas songs cease. And as far as the world is concerned, there is nothing more to celebrate. But the Church believes that Christmas is so important, that one day is simply not enough time to properly observe it. Yes, the Advent season is a kind of anticipation for Christmas. However, once the Christ-child is given to us on December 25th, the celebration of thanksgiving has just begun. In fact, the commemoration of Christ’s birth in the Catholic Church continues until the feast of our Lord’s baptism.

In observing the way the world celebrates and how the Church celebrates, we can learn a thing or two about or own lives.

Bishop Fulton Sheen once said that worldly people will feast first only to be forced to fast later. In other words, there are many people who immediately gravitate to the pleasures of the flesh without any thought of its consequences in time or in eternity. The attitude, “If it feels good, do it!” is borne out of living in the moment. What is more, it is an attitude that values the mere enjoyment of experience over what is truly important in life. To be sure, the worldly person is always coveting the next thing or the next experience. But once it is obtained, he moves on and seeks the next series of exciting experiences. Unfortunately, this pursuit of accumulating experiences is always at the expense of his long-term happiness and even of his own salvation.

Christians, on the other hand, are called to fast then feast. This is to say, the Lord wants us to sacrifice for his sake so that he could bless us for our sake. We store up our riches by denying ourselves in the quest to do the right thing. The reward will come, in part, in this life. But it will also come in full measure when our earthly life ends. This is what Christian morality requires of us: to see through short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. As Christ said, we are to lose our life for his sake in order that we might repossess it in abundance.

Returning to the celebration of Christmas: Our secular society bids both children and adults to eagerly anticipate Christmas day. But once the presents are opened early that morning, the same society says, in so many words, that there really is nothing else to look forward to. The magic or better yet, the mystic, of Christmas gives way to the anticipation of a new year. With this, the celebration of Christmas is dropped abruptly. Members of our society “feast” on Christmas morning but “fast” (i.e. abstaining from the Christmas celebration) in the days to follow.

However, the Catholic Church approaches Christmas differently. She has designated about a two week period for the feast of Christmas. Like the season of Lent, a one day celebration is simply too short for such an important event. It takes time for Christians to take in and reflect just how important Christ’s coming into the world is. Christians, especially, need to remember that the unbaptized world in the first century was barbaric and cruel in many ways. There was no exaggerating when the prophet Isaiah wrote about a people in “darkness” in the land of “gloom” or when St. Zachariah referred to a people who “sit in darkness and death's shadow” in his canticle. We need to know that a world without Christ was indeed an inhospitable world. But we return to that world, little by little, as people cease to adore the Christ-child in the arms of Mary.

In short, the Advent season is an anticipation of Christ’s first and Second Coming. It is a season of longing for deliverance. It is a period of time with an emphasis on the theological virtue of hope. But the Christmas season is time to thank God that he has sent his Messiah…a time of gratitude.

As difficult as it is, therefore, let the Christmas songs such as “Silent Night” or “Come All Ye Faithful” continue. And let the images of those songs conjure up the Nativity scene of our Lord and what his coming means to us.