Thursday, January 1, 2015

Loving Christmas

Today may be New Year's, but it is also the eighth day in the Octave of Christmas. I love Christmas; it is a special time for me. There are so many things - spiritual and secular - that converge at this time of year that I cannot help but love it. Sad to say, as the years pass by and I continue to have more work to do at my job, Christmas sort of sneaks up on me now. That is one of the reasons why I am thankful for the season of Advent, counting down the weeks until we celebrate Christmas. Two years ago I bought an Advent wreath and I light it every Sunday in recognition of the season. It's my small way of reminding myself that Christmas is coming.

Another way is by watching lots of the old Christmas movies and television specials that I've come to love over the years. Watching them takes me back to a simpler time, an innocent time, growing up at home with a loving family. Watching these specials reminded me that any day Santa would be coming to read my letter and leave gifts. Hopefully, he would even WRITE me back before he left for the next kid's house. Sometimes before Christmas he'd stop by on a fire truck and the neighborhood kids would get candy canes. Or who could forget waiting in line for Santa at the mall?

Silent night, Holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace...

As the days grew darker and colder, and Christmas was approaching fast, one-by-one the houses in the neighborhood would be decorated. I remember one year in my early twenties going for a walk down the local neighborhoods; snow was falling, quickly filling in the footprints I left behind as I crunched my way through the snowy streets. The world was nearly silent - there is an eerie silence that envelops the area whenever there is significant snowfall. And as I walked through these neighborhoods - smelling that amazing chimney smoke that hung in the air - like a goofy child, I smiled as each house lit up the snow with a rainbow of colors from their shimmering, snow-covered Christmas lights.

And, on other nights, I would stare up at the night sky bedecked in the glimmering jewels of stars and planets. Sometimes the winter moon is so bright that you didn't need any outside lights to see everything around you. I love seeing the "winter" constellations eventually arrive - I knew that when I saw Orion that winter would be coming! Looking up at the stars, I often think of the Christmas story, even when it's not Christmas. We know the story well, of Caesar demanding a census, with Mary and Joseph having to travel to the place of his home country to be counted. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered (Luke 2:4-6). Delivering Jesus, she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger. I love the imagery of this going on while the Christmas star was shining above, leading the magi to the location of the newborn king. As shepherds tended their flocks, angels and a multitude of heavenly hosts appeared and directed the shepherds to the manger while proclaiming, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men!" Angels, a great heavenly multitude, filled the air as kings and shepherds fell at the feet of Mary holding her newborn son, alongside Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family.

And let's not forget about the food at Christmas! Mom would make all sorts of delicious Christmas cookies - the house would be filled with the delicious aroma of them baking - and if we were really lucky, we'd score a couple samples of the dough or the hot, soft cookies that just came out of the oven. And then there was Christmas dinner: family surrounding the table, enjoying all the hard work Mom put into making us a feast fit for kings, followed by dessert!

So, all these things converge at the same time: great food, beautiful decorations, time with family, Santa's visit, Christmas stuff on tv, winter weather, time off from school - all these things are awesome and shaped my love of the Christmas season. But I am also enamored over the spiritual aspects of this season; they say so much and I need to remind myself of their significance so that I don't take any of these familiar stories for granted.

We know it well: God became man. Does anyone stop and think about that? God made everything in the universe, visible and invisible - he made the stars and planets, the soft grass beneath our bare feet in the summer, and the ocean. He made the dinosaurs, comets, and sea turtles. He made angels, dogs, and us. Everything that there was, is, and ever will be comes from the creative mind of our God. This is the same God that made mankind, that flooded the earth, that created a people from Abraham, that rescued his people from their slavery. This is the God that brought the plagues upon Egypt, who guided the Jews to the Promised Land, and who decided that he loved mankind so much that he wanted to dwell amongst us so that we could be saved from eternal separation from Himself.

This same God - this same amazing Lord that the psalms say knew us before we were born and knitted us together in our mother's womb - this same God that called each one of us into existence (none of us would be alive if he had not allowed our conception to take place) - this same God became man himself. God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-perfect, lowered himself, as we say condescended himself, to become a helpless, poor baby in a manger. This same God who showed us a glimpse of his glory at the Transfiguration (Mat 17:1-9), was instead living without a home, no place to lay his head, as he brought the Gospel to his people.

Ave Maria, Gratia plena, Maria, gratia plena. Maria, gratia plena...

This Creator of the universe, creating everything out of nothing just by his Word, could have entered this world in any way he chose. He could have just appeared in the desert one day and strolled into town. He could have ascended down from Heaven in a big blaze of power and glory. Instead, he chose to be conceived in the womb of a virgin, a young girl that he saved from sin from the moment of her own conception, so that he could dwell in a pure tabernacle. Hail, full of grace,the Lord is with you! (Luke 1:28) [S]he brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (Rev 12:5). This deity, powerful enough to create the universe out of nothing, and loving enough to raise the dead, became a small, defenseless baby. Think about that. Our God, creator of Adam and Eve, destroyer of Sodom and Gomorrah, nursed at Mary's breast and played games with the other neighborhood kids. He had his 'diaper' changed. He teethed. He was circumcised. He might have had nightmares, running to his mother and father for comfort (we think here of the glorious icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help). The Messiah, the Word of God, needed to be taught his first words. He learned Aramaic and recited the psalms. He went to the synagogue and made trips to the temple. Learning the Jewish faith from his parents, he led an active spiritual life, and we are told in the Scriptures that he was an obedient son; he, the one that we should be obedient to, was first himself obedient, even unto death.

Everything changed with his birth. When mankind was created, we were in perfect communion with God and with one another. Death didn't exist. Sorrow, lust, trauma, tragedy - nowhere to be seen. But when we refused God's will, when mankind was disobedient to God's commandments, all of that was lost. Being in that perfect relationship, being in Paradise, was all over. Women became subordinate to their husbands, men had to struggle for their food, and our modesty was protected from our lustful eyes with clothing God first provided for us - death entered the world, as God made our garments from animal fur. Due to our sin, Creation became damaged - storms, droughts, floods - We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now (Rom 8:22). But, God's mercy endures forever (Psalm 136) and even as we were forced from Paradise, God promised Satan that he would be defeated. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gen 3:15). Even while we were being punished, God was promising our victory over the devil.

That is why Christmas - the Incarnation - is so earth-shattering. We often compare ourselves to people who do evil things, finding comfort in the fact that quite often we're not like these other people. "Well, I think I'm a good person - I'm not Hitler or anything. I never killed anyone..." But the Bible and Tradition reminds us that we're doing it backwards - we're supposed to be comparing ourselves to God and seeing ourselves in those conditions; because our sins don't offend Hitler - they offend God. Even the smallest sin keeps us away from God. [N]othing unclean shall enter [heaven], nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood (Rev 21:27)... But with Christ, we are baptized into his body. Through the Eucharist, he dwells in us and we in him. Through Confession, we are blessed with the healing love and forgiveness that we need to have our broken relationship with God restored. Through all the sacraments, we are given the graces to follow his will and keep his commandments. Through prayer and the Scriptures, we ponder his mystery in our hearts and praise him with our lips. Through his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, death has been defeated and Satan has foreseen his inevitable destruction.

This event was so life-changing and earth-shattering that (to the best of our ability) Western man started to number the years differently, measuring how many years our Lord has reigned since his birth (give or take a few years). And that's something we need to remember; when I was really young, since I knew BC meant "Before Christ", I had thought AD meant, "After Death", after Christ's death. But I was quickly corrected that it meant "Anno Domini", or more precisely, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi . In the year of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, in a world that wants a "less religious" demarcation for the years, they are using BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). But, we who believe that Jesus Christ isn't a ghost or a spirit or angel, but is a living, breathing human being and currently sitting on his heavenly throne as God and Judge, we should be repulsed by this worldwide rejection of his rule. The beer Stella Artois, 'stella' meaning 'star' (as in, Christmas star) was originally brewed in celebration of Christmas; now their advertisements claim it was brewed "for winter" and they won't even use the word 'Christmas' in their commercials. I'm sorry, but to me the Incarnation of Christ is too big of an event to pretend that it's not Christmas, but instead an unnamed amalgamation of a variety of festivals and rituals. No, it's Christmas. If your commercial is using Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas wreaths, Christmas presents, and Christmas carols, you're not advertising a "Winter Sales Event" for the "holidays".

I love Christmas and I am thankful that through the Joyful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, I can meditate on these amazing Christmas images a couple days a week! I'd like to think that if I can ever afford a house, I would keep it decorated for Christmas from the fourth Sunday of Advent to the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord. This is a significant holy day, a day so significant that it's celebration is eight days long (an Octave), from Dec. 25 through January 1. It is so significant that not only is this day an Octave, but it's also a liturgical season (Christmastide) and, depending on the customs, ends at either Epiphany (Jan 6), the Baptism of the Lord (the second Sunday after the Octave), or on the Feast of the Purification of Mary (Candlemas, on Feb 2). Whichever liturgical customs you follow, the obvious fact is that for the Christian, Christmas is a big deal, as it should be. It's bad enough that the secular world has stolen Mardi Gras and Halloween from the Church, but they are working furiously at taking away Christmas and Easter, as well. Christmas is my favorite time of year, for obvious reasons, and even if the world insists on seeing it as a secular holiday to celebrate snow and presents, I'm not going to let that prevent me from celebrating what this day - and season - is all about: Christ the King, God Incarnate, dwelling among us. Merry Christmas!

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"