The array of practices and traditions that surround the celebration of Christmas is so vast as to be impossible to catalogue, from trees and gifts to cookies and carols and beyond, into those unique domestic rituals and inside jokes that every family nurtures without fully knowing quite how they started. They are individually and collectively delightful and marvelous evidence of our human ability draw together to rejoice with one another.
One look around you over the past four weeks was enough to indicate that something was underway that pulled people together, uniting them in purpose and intention. Even the generic greeting that public etiquette permits -- “Happy Holidays!”-- speaks in its ubiquity to the power of this season to draw people out of themselves and toward one another.
Happiness and holidays are good things, good for people and good for society, and I try not to go all Grinch on people when they invoke that happiness when I am immersed in Advent and Christmas. Still I long to say, But wait, there is more, if I may quote an old advertisement.
A recent column by the Archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila, drew my attention to the difference between holidays and holy days. They draw our attention beyond the horizon of all that we have done and are doing, toward what God has done and is doing.
A … quality of feasts is that they recalibrate our perception of what matters by drawing us out of our everyday existence. When we celebrate holy days, we recall the past events, words and miracles of God, but we also turn our hearts and minds to our future. Doing this reminds us that God loves us, and points us to our ultimate goal in life—living in intimate communion with him forever in heaven.
There is no more basic example of a holy day than Christmas. It is not when God took flesh as Man (that would be the Annunciation), nor is it when he did his most awesome work of sacrifice for our salvation (that would be the Holy Triduum at Easter). It is simply when God was born an infant, not so much simply emerging as rather erupting into our human existence. This direct and simple, immediately recognizable event has amazing power in lives young and old even in our own day.
The proper response, the natural response, the human response is self-evident: O come let us adore Him! as the song so often and so clearly says. At the heart of our holy days is the holy act of giving God what we owe Him, which in fact is the same as what we long to give Him: our devotion, thanks, and love. The Christmas Mass is in some way the most natural, most basic, and most intelligible action the Church does. Thus the Christmas Mass is also in some way the most natural, most basic, and most intelligible action that we people can do.
This divine aspect to our celebration, this Tradition at the heart of our traditions, adds something to our celebration that goes deeper, accomplishes more, and lasts longer than the human fellowship and fun that so many people legitimately but limitedly enjoy in their holidays.
Archbishop Aquila, whom I have known for years, went on to quote another person I have long venerated: In his book “Dogma and Preaching,” Cardinal Ratzinger expressed this dimension of feasts beautifully. He wrote, “It means that for the moment he is freed from the stern logic of the struggle for existence and looks beyond his own narrow world to the totality of things. It means that he allows himself to be comforted, allows his conscience to be moved by the love he finds in the God who has become a child, and that in doing so he becomes freer, richer, purer. If we were to try celebrating in this fashion, would not a sigh of relief pass across the world?”
One hundred years ago today, the nations of Europe were at one another’s throats, five months into the First World War. Hundreds of thousands had already died of the millions who would eventually fall. But that Christmas, troops on opposite sides of No Man’s Land, soldiers who had been murdering one another, emerged from their trenches and greeted one another with carols and cheer, to shake hands, laugh, talk, and even play sports together. It was The Christmas Truce of 1914, an example of the “sigh of relief” that Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned.
The day and the truce passed, and the war in all its savagery ground on. The subsequent Christmas, far less charity was to be found; and Christmases after that, none at all. I fear that relentlessness set the tone for the century since.
However, the same grace, mercy and peace that prompted that divine interruption of human misery is as alive and potent as He ever was. Many of our neighbors will be united in the fun and festivity of the holidays, but that will pass with the brittle trees at the curb and bags of crumpled giftwrap. You will have at the heart of your traditions that divine infant, that holy child. He will erupt into your family time, into your celebrations, and even into your loneliness. He will erupt not only into that manger in Bethlehem, but onto this altar in Four Corners. Come, let us adore Him! Worship the God who makes your holiday holy days, and gives you joy that will last.
I invite you and your families to turn your minds and your hearts to God, and allow yourselves to be comforted, and allow your consciences to be moved by the love you will find in the God who has become a child. You will be freer, richer, and purer, and you will be a cause for a sigh of relief from the world.
Any holiday can be happy, but the days touched by God are to be holy. On behalf of Fathers McCabe and McDonell, and all the generous souls who labor in this parish to bring you grace, I pray that God erupt into your life, and give you and yours, all whom you love, and everyone you encounter, a joyous, blessed, and holy Christmas.