Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Tag Archives: Christmas

Be Still and Confess that I am God!

This familiar quote from Psalm 46:11 is in many ways, the center of Christmastide. The Sacred Writ reminds us of the interior and exterior disposition the Christian is to adopt in response to the Solemnity of the Incarnation.

At the Christmas Midnight Vigil, the Kalenda: the solemn proclamation of the birth of the Savior, present in the old martyrology and reintroduced in the Christmas liturgy after Vatican II, is chanted for the local community to hear. At first glance, one might deduce that it provides a context within Biblical and secular history of when the Christ child was born. On the contrary, it demonstrates how all history prior prepares for, leads up to, or is eclipsed by,  the Incarnation, and then all of history flows forth from it. There has been no event in history that has so baffled even creation itself. I believe that Mother Angelica said it best in her book, The Prayers & Personal Devotions of Mother Angelica:

The Angels must have been absolutely floored because they knew that God had a right to determine the circumstances of his coming—but the details were unknown to them.  Never in a million years would they have imagined not only that He would become man, but that God would be so lowly a man—born in a stable.  The Angels knew His Grandeur, His Majesty, His Awesomeness, His Power.  His Humility and Simplicity is something they and the entire world did not expect.

The Eternal stepped into time…and that should be enough to cause us pause. In fact, it should cause us to struggle with confusion just to grasp the concept. Confusion should then give way to reverential awe thus acknowledging the wonder that the God of the universe would choose to condescend Himself to the point of becoming human for the sake of our salvation. Concurrently, we should also remember that His Incarnation was not a necessary evil but an act of ravenous love for us that impelled Him to step down from the highest heavens in order to unite us to the Blessed Trinity.

Just a thought on the Feast of the Holy Innocents who were slaughtered for a Savior they never met and who never were given the opportunity to consider and meditate on the profound mystery of the Incarnation.

On the Second Day of Christmas…

With the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Incarnation, the season of Christmastime begins. Christmas is so important that it is celebrated for eight days straight…as if every day was Christmas morning. Since the Solemnity fell on a Saturday this year, the Feast of St. Stephan is suppressed.

Regardless, it is important to remember that with the first three days of Christmastime, the Church celebrates a Trinitarian festival of love through the feasts of martyrs. Each martyr(s) is unique in the manner in which they died. Martyrs offer their lives through will, love and blood. These feasts of martyrs include:

  • 26th: St. Stephen – martyr (red) by will, love and blood
  • 27th: St. John the Divine –  martyr (white) by will and love
  • 28th: Holy Innocents – martyrs (red) by blood

We should also mention the first Sunday (today) after Christmas which is dedicated to the Holy Family. The Church provides for us the model for a family: father, mother and the child. This day also recognizes our human brokenness and that all families do not resemble the prefect family. So, she provides extra grace through her liturgical blessings and offers the Holy Family itself to make up where we lack.

Natale hilare et Annum Faustum!

Merry Christmas! My family will remember you during Vespers this evening for you and your intentions.

The word Christmas originated as a compound word meaning the Mass of Christ. It finds its origin from the Middle English word Christemasse (1038) and matured to the Old English words Cristes mæsse (1131).  The word Cristes is from the Attic Greek (Greek used circa 400 years before the Incarnation) word Christos and mæsse is from the Latin word missa (Reference to the Divine Liturgy).

Secular society in an effort to remove the reference to Christ in Christmas have replaced it with an X for Xmas. Unfortunately, secular historians have forgotten basic etemology. The Greek letter chi or the transliterated letter X, is the first letter of Christ in the Greek word Χριστός. Similarly, the Latin letter X has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since the mid-16th century. I encourage the secularists to feel free to use X-mas since they are helping keep Christ in Christmas.

It is also common for secularists to say, “Happy Holidays!” I, of course, ask, “Which one?” Consequently, I then explain that the word holiday derives it’s etymology from the words, “Holy Day.” A reference to one of the six Holy Day of Obligations.

Feast of Adam & Eve

On the old calendar, today is the Feast of Adam and Eve. In the Germanic countries, many families put up their Christmas or Paradise trees. The tradition finds its origin in the European Passion Plays which were performed in accordance with the particular feast of the day.

As we have mentioned in previous posts, first we fast then we feast. Christmas Eve we celebrate the fall of man and then on the Feast of the Incarnation we celebrate the Hope of our Glory. The Son of God condescends Himself from the Blessed Trinity to become the Word made flesh.

Blessings to you who are preparing for Christmas. Parents with young kids…well, you know…

Will the Real Santa Please Stand Up

This time of year tends to present a quandary for parents concerning Santa Claus. The issue at hand is what do we tell our kids? Many struggle with the notion that they are lying to their children if they tell them that Santa brought some of their Christmas presents. Well Catholic dads, I am here today to tell you that if you do not believe in Santa Claus  you cannot be a Catholic in good standing. In fact, the American version we see on the street is more catechetically accurate than the icon above. No need to call my Bishop yet… read further.

Whether you call him Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, we are talking about the same person. There is no difference except in people’s minds. Some like to make this distinction in an effort to separate a secular notion from the saintly Metropolitan Bishop of happy memory, but that does not seem to make sense. Others prefer putting him in a tall miter and cassock to show his true ecclesial standing, but in doing so, lose the catechetical moment that secular society has provided us. We need to honor St. Nicholas as he truly is but without brushing aside the good that society has provided us.

We all know that St. Nicholas of Myra is a historical figure who lived in the fourth century. Secular history records that he was present at the Council of Nicea and earned a night in jail after punching Arius’ lights out. Records indicate that Emperor Constantine sent a letter to Bishop Nicholas warning him to never again threaten him after pleading a stay of execution for three of his soldiers (even if it was in a dream). We also know that his connection with the youth is attributable to spending his wealth by tossing bags of gold through windows to pay for dowries. Ecclesial history also shares that His Excellency was a Metropolitan Bishop of Myra (Modern day Demre in Southern Turkey). For a more complete treatment that also includes the legends, Catholic Online does a good job.

The Man, the Myth, the Saint

Let’s really get to the crux of it. The American image of Santa we have come to know and love was created by Haddon Sundblom in 1931. This began a thirty-five year Coca-Cola Santa advertising campaign that forever established Santa’s “look and feel” for the commercial culture. Interestingly enough, Mr. Sundblom was Eastern Orthodox which clearly influenced his artistry as we will soon recognize.

Much of the legend of the American Santa is pulled from several sources, but most particularly the 1822 English poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas (otherwise popularly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas) by Clement Clarke Moore. From this point forward I would like to demonstrate how the “secular” Santa is a Catholic catechesis and has much to teach us.

Dress for Success

What we wear says a great deal about us. Santa Claus’ uniform is no different. Let’s take a look. We find Santa in his fur-trimmed red jacket and pants. This would be quite appropriate and accurate. Amaranth Red is the color for Bishops. In antiquity, the ermine (or fur trim) also demonstrated the metropolitan rank. Since Pope Benedict XVI ascended, he has returned to this ancient dress by using the simple red, fur-trimmed cape. History also teaches us that St. Nicholas was a hermit and spent much time in solitude even as a Bishop. It was the tradition, at the time, that clergy (who were also hermits or monks) when they worked out in the fields, would set aside their cassocks for more appropriate attire… say…pants. Additionally, who could forget that monster belt. Even today, as with the Augustinians and Dominicans, the leather belt is a sign that the individual is a mendicant, penitent or hermit. A buckle was also the ceremonial dress for bishops on their shoes until 1984. It was a symbol of being a guardian of the truth.

His cap on the other hand warrants a short discussion. The fur-trimmed cap comes to a point with a pom-pom on the end. As you know, Western miters are tall and come to a point. Seems that the artist forgot the cardboard. But what do we do with the pom-pom? In the Eastern tradition, many of the miters are caps or crowns. Some even have a pom-pom on top (though a cross is far more common). The Western church also uses the pom-pom but with the biretta. Could it be that Mr. Sundblom leaned upon his Eastern liturgical tradition? I would like to believe that it was intentional to combine the East and the West, but I am content with providence.

Heaven a Winter Wonderland?

The sleigh and the reindeer come from the 1821 publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children’s Friend. Suddenly, St. Nicholas comes from the North in a sleigh with flying reindeer. And really, dads, what is so unbelievable about this? We have no problem believing that St. Joseph Cupertino flew around while holding steeples in his hand or St. Ignatius flying from the entrance of a Church to the tabernacle. What about all those other flying saints: Sts. Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, Francis of Assisi, etc.

Going back to Santa’s address, Scripture says that God dwells in the North and since he is a saint – I see no problem here:

Out of the north comes golden splendor; God is clothed with terrible majesty. (Job 37:22)

I stirred up one from the north, and he has come, from the rising of the sun, and he shall call on my name; he shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay. (Isaiah 41:25)

Snow is also a Scriptural symbol. Isaiah and the Psalmist use snow to describe the redemptive grace God offers through forgiveness:

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7)

Frankly, he has to travel somehow. With all that snow a sleigh just seems logical. Turns out that in early-European history, a reindeer and a sleigh were given to dignitaries. Granted, Myra was a rocky mess and a sleigh would not be useful. The reindeer on the other hand (with a side of mint) especially during a famine, might….nah, never mind (Don’t tell the kids).

Santa and Quantum Physics

And then there is delivering everything in one night. Parents, no need to panic! See, society just needs a class in Theology 101. As you know, saints reside in heaven. Therefore, since heaven (and all its citizens) is outside of space and time, there is not an issue with making sure every gift is delivered on time. There is also that long-forgotten quality of agility that we gain back once we have our resurrected bodies.

Angelic Elves

I am sure you are saying by now, “Well what about the elves?” What about them? Easier to explain them than an angelic being to a two year old. Try explaining how angels fight or even move material objects when they themselves do not have material bodies. Tolkien, through the Lord of the Rings, presented a thoroughly Catholic worldview and no one ever complained. I’m sticking with the elves.

The Mrs. Clause

One societal aberration I would like to correct: Mrs. Claus. Sorry, Tim Allen, there is no Mrs. Clause to send you searching for a Mrs. Claus. Why? Even in the Eastern Rites that allow for married clergy, this privilege does not extend to Bishops. In fact, Bishops are only chosen from among those priests who have never been married. Now, it was customary that a family member would live with the Bishop to assist in the “rectory” upkeep. I guess there could be a Mrs. Claus on his paternal side if you like.

Reading the Signs of the Times

All of this has a very catechetical purpose. Catholicism uses signs, symbols and yes, even her saints to communicate important truths. And to kids, that is not easy. We have to find ways to teach complex truths with noble simplicity.

For instance, we ask our kids to write a list to Santa which can be a first step to understanding prayers of petition. And when they receive a grace or gift we begin to teach the intercession of the saints. It also teaches them to ask for whatever they want – with guidance of course. Does not our Lord encourage this?

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. (Psalm 37:4-5)

We shouldn’t fear that they do not get everything they want. I certainly do not get everything I pray for either.

A fat, jolly Santa is what Catholic theology demands. We teach our kids that heaven is eternal happiness and a huge feast. Rotund does not equal glutton and Santa is always jolly:

He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly…

And then the gifts. Are they not just tangible answers to prayer? Do we not say that the saints and angels deliver the graces that come from the hand of God? This is plain and simple good Catholic catechesis.

What Do They say about Santa? He Delivers!

In my house, we have a HUGE devotion to Santa Claus. You pass his icon as you enter our house. I have parents ask me all the time, “Which one of your kids still believe?” We all believe. Some of us though, have matured in our understanding and it is all the more glorious. Our faith now has depth that started with a simple belief in Santa.

Practicum

The majority of my married life, I have never been able to afford (literally) anything for Christmas. But, as is our custom, my wife and I start praying to St. Nicholas in November for wisdom and something to provide for Christmas. A couple of years ago, he assisted us in ways that I could not imagine.

After 9/11 many non-profits went belly-up. The one I was working for was no different. I woke up on December 6th with no job, a full tank of gas and $40 dollars in the bank account. My wife and I had made a promise to buy our Christmas tree with the kids and we intended to keep our promise. As is our custom on the Feast of St. Nicholas, we went out to cut it down at the tree farm.

When we returned, my best friend was helping me carry it into the house. We decided to cut more of the trunk off so we dragged the tree back out on the front porch. I noticed a white envelope on the porch and told him to pick up what he had dropped. He said it wasn’t his. I opened it up and there was $1500 in cash. The next morning I came out to get in my car (I now could afford groceries and gas) and there was another envelope with an additional $1500 in cash. The next day, I received a letter from a friend who said he had been praying for me and was prompted to send the enclosed: $10,000. And lastly, my Pastor sent an $1800 check because he knew we were struggling. Thankfully, three months later I started a new job. The money that just appeared paid my monthly rent, school loans, house bills, food, gas, and gave my family a beautiful Christmas –with $10 left over.

Keeping it Real

I know we need to teach our children that there is more to Christmas. In the case of Santa, this is best done by using the raw material that the Church, and ironically society, has provided. If we continue to deepen the understanding of who he is and what he does we will continue to catechize our kids with authentic Catholic doctrine and spirituality. It is your job to keep everything in perspective. And, to do so without tossing out our theology on prayer, communion of saints, ecclesiology, etc. just because societies idea is twisted. We need to untwist the paper not rip it to shreds.

Santa Claus is not a legend. He is quite real, visits our house every Christmas Eve and sometimes more frequently. Your children are starving for sacramental mystery and truth. On a day that celebrates the birth of our Lord, isn’t it interesting that he has an evangelist in Santa who comes to teach us joy and charity? Lastly, why do you feel that our Lord is dishonored by asking to provide a nice Christmas? He desires to give us not only what we need, but like any parent, what we desire – within reason of course. Let’s be honest. Like my wife and I, you too pray just as hard for how you might provide a simple Christmas in these tough economic times. So, tell them the truth: To be Catholic is to believe in Santa…It will set them free.

Here is a short PowerPoint to help fill in the gaps: St Nicholas

Signs, Symbols & Traditions of the Season: Plants

I can remember while growing-up my maternal grandmother starting in the summer preparing her Poinsettia to bloom at Christmas using light deprivation. Into the dark closet for twelve hours and out for twelve. Her Poinsettia plants were her pride an joy. Could you imagine what Mass would be like without all those beautiful red and white Poinsettias decorating the altars and sanctuaries? There a number of plants and flowers that are associated with this feast day. The three most popular are Poinsettias, Mistletoe and Holly. Let’s take a quick look…

Over the centuries, a few Christmas traditions have developed concerning plants. The most obvious, of course, is the Poinsettia.  (Actually, here in the United States, it is a tradition that is less than 100 years old.)  The plant finds its origin in Mexico where it grows as a shrub. It blooms at Christmastime and, thus, has earned the name “flower of the Holy Night.” The first Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), brought them to the United States and had them grown in his greenhouse in South Carolina. (Only since 1920 have they become potted plants.)  Eventually, they were named after him and have become associated with Christmas just like Lilies are associated with Easter.

Mistletoe can be found hanging above the doorway in many houses during Christmas. While a number of authors have tried to suggest that it is a Christian symbol, it is not. In fact, it was forbidden in most Christian Churches (Catholic and Protestant alike) even as late as 1960. Once one pushes aside the superstition, the main objection to Mistletoe is its use in treaties and modern traditions. In the past, Mistletoe “groves” were used to settle treaties by sending in the daughter and the son of a warring clan, or nation, at which time they consummated the treaty with far more than a kiss. Over time, it became the practice that anyone who found themselves in a mistletoe grove would be obliged to consummate their meeting (especially in Scandinavia). In modern times, a young man may still steal a kiss from a woman when they are found under mistletoe. (Most have forgotten that when a kiss is stolen a berry is removed. The kissing privilege was only valid when the Mistletoe still had berries.)

As we might surmise, the Church did not have a favorable opinion of mistletoe… not just because of the pagan superstitions, but also because of the association with forcible relations and “love” without commitment. Mistletoe is also an invasive and parasitic plant, something that true love and the marital gift is not.

The Church did offer an alternative though… holly. Christianity saw in the natural formation of the plant a symbolic link with agape, or sacrificial love. The evergreen leaves symbolized the eternal and divine nature of Jesus. At the same time, the holly being a created thing symbolized His humanity. The five sharp points on the tips of the leaf were connected to the five wounds of Christ. The red berries symbolized the drops of blood shed out of for love us. The Church preferred, and continues to prefer, holly over mistletoe in the ecclesial Church and the domestic Church (our houses).

There are a number of legends associated with various Christmastime plants but the aforementioned are the three most prominent. As we draw closer to the Christmas season, take some time to decorate your house with the signs of the times. Kids will remember what they see and one day be old enough to receive the proper interpretation. For the rest of the world, let them decorate. They, too, will one day meet the reason for the season. Remember, cultural practices rise up out of our worship and beliefs. Take a look around your house… does it reflect a Catholic worldview, or are you merely decorating to win the local neighborhood award?

Here is some Christmas cheer while you are decorating:

A Spokesman for Christmas

If you have forgotten what Christmas is about, Linus can assist:

‘Tis the Season to be Jolly…Umm, Which One?

In the secular world, the Christmas season started the day after Halloween. For the retail world, the Christmas season began on Black Friday. As for Catholics around the world, the Christmastime season begins at the Vigil on December 24 with the Solemnity of the Incarnation. What we usually think of as the Christmas season is actually two different and distinct seasons with their own celebratory expressions. These two seasons include: Advent, Christmastide or Christmastime. So, does it really matter when we are jolly? Of course it does! The reasoning is wrapped up very much in what we call the Principle of Progressive Solemnity.

This principle says that not all liturgical days have the same weight of importance as others. Therefore, the celebration of our liturgies should reflect a progression from a lesser to greater solemnity in song, action and ritual. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in its consideration of liturgical music, the Liturgy of the Hours and overall liturgies, discusses this principle in paragraphs 271-273:

273. A celebration with singing throughout is commendable, provided it has artistic and spiritual excellence; but it may be useful on occasion to apply the principle of “progressive solemnity.” There are practical reasons for this, as well as the fact that in this way the various elements of liturgical celebration are not treated indiscriminately, but each can again be given its connatural meaning and genuine function. The liturgy of the hours is then not seen as a beautiful memorial of the past demanding intact preservation as an object of admiration; rather it is seen as open to constantly new forms of life and growth and to being the unmistakable sign of a community’s vibrant vitality.

The principle of “progressive solemnity” therefore is one that recognizes several intermediate stages between singing the office in full and just reciting all the parts. Its application offers the possibility of a rich and pleasing variety. The criteria are the particular day or hour being celebrated, the character of the individual elements comprising the office, the size and composition of the community, as well as the number of singers available in the circumstances.

With this increased range of variation, it is possible for the public praise of the Church to be sung more frequently than formerly and to be adapted in a variety of ways to different circumstances. There is also great hope that new ways and expressions of public worship may be found for our own age, as has clearly always happened in the life of the Church.

By way of practical example, we understand that while Fridays during the year are days of penance (CCC 1438), Good Friday holds a pride of place, not only in notoriety but in the solemnity of its celebration. To that end, we celebrate Advent differently than Christmastime.

Advent in the Latin Rite (sometimes erroneously known as Roman Catholics), begins on the first Sunday of the new liturgical year. It continues until the Vigil Mass of the Solemnity of the Incarnation or Nativity on December 24. This season is notably different from the preceding season, Ordinary time, and the season that follows it, Christmastime. The vestments during Advent become more subdued with the use of violet and the Gloria is no longer sung during the Sunday liturgies. Decorations are  sparse. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because Advent is also called a “little lent.”

As we get closer to the Solemnity of the Incarnation, things pick up. The third Sunday of Advent, Guadete Sunday,we take a brief respite from the penance with a liturgy of “joyful” expectation. Beginning on December 17th the O Antiphons begin. Each day recounts the various titles of the Christ within the Economy of Salvation. Each title and correlating Scripture reading builds on the one before it. I know you are very familiar with the O Antiphons because I know you have sung O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. As a sidebar, this popular seasonal song is really only suppose to be used during the period of time designated for the O Antiphons e.g. December 17-24 but alas, it is sung almost every Sunday in Advent (In the great scheme of things there are bigger fish to fry).

At this point, December 24: O Emmanuel, the season changes to Christmastime or Christmastide. This season by contrast is ablaze with color, singing, exuberance and joy. Within the Church, the Christ child is present in the manager, the Christmas trees are lit, the vestments are white, the Gloria is part of the liturgy…there is a glorious beauty in the festivities.

Christmas is so important that it is celebrated for eight days straight…as if every day was Christmas morning. That being said, the Church raises the stakes and celebrates a trinitarian festival of love through the feasts of the martyrs:

  • 26th: St. Stephen – martyr (red) by will, love and blood
  • 27th: St. John the Divine –  martyr (white) by will and love
  • 28th: Holy Innocents – martyrs (red) by blood

We should also mention the first two Sundays after Christmas. The first celebrates the Holy Family. The Church provides for us the model for a family: father, mother and the child. This day also recognizes our human brokenness and that all families do not resemble the prefect family. So, she provides extra grace through her liturgical blessings and offers the Holy Family itself to make up where we lack.

The following Sunday is the Solemnity of the Epiphany. This theophany celebrates the Lord revealing Himself for the first time to the Gentiles. Even from the beginning, Jesus desires the entire human race to draw into communion with Him.

The Christmas season concludes with the Baptism of our Lord. This feast celebrates His revelation to the world through His ministry. And so the next day begins Ordinal or Ordinary time.

The fact remains that most people are tired of Christmas by the time December 25 comes around. Maybe if we celebrated in the pattern the Church has laid out for us we would enjoy it more. Enjoy the seasons!