Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I get so excited that I start listening
to my Christmas music at the beginning of November, much to the surprise and chagrin
of some of my loved ones. This year, I’ve been asking myself what I’ve been getting
excited about. Is it the celebration of Christ’s birth? I wish I could say so, but
the truth is that I’ve been enamored with the secular trappings of the season. Decorating
the Christmas tree, baking cookies, singing catchy tunes, visiting relatives, watching
classic movies, giving and receiving gifts (sadly, mostly the latter), playing in
the snow (in those few lucky winters), and other generally faith-free activities
have been Christmas’ raison d’etre for me.
Realizing this has not been a pleasant experience for me. At first, I was merely
depressed at the commercialization of the holiday, and my contributions to it, as
I’ve mentioned in a previous post.
As I dealt with what I felt Christmas shouldn’t be, it occurred to me that I had
only a vague idea of what it should be. We’ve all heard “Jesus is the reason
for the season” so many times that it’s become cliche. It’s a bit preachy,
but it’s based on a solid principle. Or is it? There’s an assumption built into
that phrase that the whole season, from early December to New Year’s Eve is Christmas.
Most of the popular carols bear witness to this assumption. I only recently realized
how wrong this is, at least for those of Christian faith. It finally dawned on me
that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to dates after December
Sure, I’ve heard of Advent before. I’ve been a Christian (or nearly so) my whole
life. It’s the season that leads up to Christmas. That’s about as deep as my understanding
of it was until this Sunday. I remember my family having an Advent calendar when
I was a kid. A cute little mouse with a Santa hat was moved each day across a background
of snow, holly, and other popular symbols. It only really served to enhance the
excitement of anticipating the opening of presents on Christmas morning. It was
another warm fuzzy to be experienced during the holly-jolly, peace on earth, good
will to all, consume until it hurts season. It never dawned on me that the season
wasn’t just a pre-game show before the big game of gift-giving and partying.
As I sat in the choir loft on Sunday, listening to the readings and the homily and
reflecting on the songs we sang, I was struck by a feeling of deja vu. I felt like
I was at a mass during Lent. How could that be? Was I misunderstanding Lent or Advent?
What is Lent? I’ve always felt that I had a pretty darn good handle on that. It’s
a time of penance as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s salvific act, the Paschal
Mystery. It starts with Ash Wednesday, commonly the most heavily attended mass all
year, despite not being a holy day of obligation. We receive ashes on our foreheads
as a reminder of our mortality. For the next 40 days we fast and/or abstain from
meat as acts of mortification. We are to die to this world. We purify ourselves
in anticipation of the eternal sacrifice we cannot offer for ourselves, the redemption
secured by Christ. Then we rejoice as we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. He was
born again into everlasting life and by doing so He obtained the same for us, if
we follow Him faithfully.
If you’re wondering why I’ve gone to the trouble of describing Lent, a season several
months away, imagine how I felt as these thoughts came to me during the mass for
the second Sunday of Advent. In the gospel reading for all three liturgical cycles,
we hear of John baptizing people in the Jordan River. What for? Repentance. He was
preparing people for the spiritual rebirth that Christ would bring. He lived an
ascetic life. He renounced worldliness and practiced mortification to purify himself
and called people to repent. Sound familiar? It should.
This came as a bit of a shock to me. Advent is to Lent and Christmas is to Easter.
Advent should be a time of contemplation and penance. Celebration should be reserved
for the end of the season. There’s plenty of time to celebrate during the days from
Christmas Day until Epiphany.
This alone gave me a lot to think about, but then I found out there’s more. We’re
not just ritually recalling the world “in sin and error pining”, as the
song says, in hope and longing for a savior, any more than Lent is only about recalling
events leading to the crucifixion and resurrection. During Lent, we should anticipate
our own death and resurrection. During Advent, we should recall that in baptism
we die to sin and are reborn into the Mystical Body of Christ. Both holidays remind
us that Christ will come again. Christmas and Easter are intimately linked.
This relationship was further impressed on me as I participated in my goddaughter’s
baptism later that day. As we renewed our baptismal vows, I thought of the practice
of blessing ourselves with holy water as we enter a church. We do so to remind ourselves
of our baptismal vows and to prepare ourselves for the theophany of Christ’s presence
in the Eucharist. Likewise, we fast prior to receiving that presence into our bodies.
What a blessing God has given us through the Church! Every mass is an echo advent
and lent consummated with an echo of Christmas and Easter.
So what does this all mean for my celebration of Christmas? It means I’m not waiting
for the new civil year to make resolutions. Advent marks the start of a new liturgical
I’m going to be more selective about what music I listen to and what decorations
I put up before Christmas. My wife and I are slowly adding ornaments to our tree
and adding appropriate figures to our manger scene as the season progresses. I’m
going to try to pray more and read more Scripture (which I should be doing anyway).
I’m going to try to shut out as much of the Sparkle Season, Saturnalia, Yule, or
whatever you want to call the greedy, superficial, and debauched celebrations our
culture tries to push on me. When I have children, hopefully my wife and I will
be able to raise them to respect that there is “a time for every affair under
heaven”, including time for penance and reflection. Celebration has its time
and purposes. Gift-giving, if not done selfishly, need not be purged from Christmas.
After all, God gave us the greatest gift of all in the person of His only begotten
Son, Jesus Christ. My presents, if I can afford any, will be charitable donations,
made by hand, or purchased to fill a need. I’ll sincerely try to avoid frivolities,
for myself and for others. My hope is that opening gifts will be ever more special
for my family than it ever was in my childhood. Ever notice how doing without something
for a time makes you more appreciative for it? Imagine how special Christmas morning
will be after Christmas’ Lent.