A Catholic Kind of Advent & Christmas

While it may seem simple (or totally predictable, given my background), one of my favoriteIMG_0874 pastimes, especially during the summer is to walk through shallow – and not-so-shallow – streams.  Whether it’s in a field or in the mountains is irrelevant (although I think I’d prefer a stream running through a mountain meadow); there’s something peaceful and intriguing about such an experience. That being said, on multiple occasions I’ve unintentionally found myself up to my neck in water or carried downstream by a powerful current.  To stand in anything more than a trickle requires calculated treading and sure footing.

This has obviously been a unique Advent and Christmas season for me in that I’ve been away from the states, but it has also provided the opportunity to step back – to retreat, in the best sense of that word – from the “typical” pre-Christmas season that I’ve been so immersed in for over 3 decades.  Before continuing, it must be said that we (Americans living in Rome) happy-holidaysspeak of a cultural imperialism, that is, America is “conquering” Italy by means of our culture, both good and bad; unfortunately, it’s usually more bad than good.  For example, I have walked into a number of stores only to hear cheesy American Christmas music about snow and reindeer, lights and Santa, and vaguely wintery themes with no reference to the authentic roots of the Christmas Holy-days (in English, holidays).

From this perspective – that is, from “the other side of the pond” – I gratefully realize the absence of a flood of commercials about the latest and greatest thing you MUST get in order to be guaranteed to find the HAPPINESS you’ve always been looking for (I state it explicitly so we can see what they are really trying to claim AND to see how ridiculous the claim is in light of our Christian faith!)  For example, a certain car company claims to be in the “pursuit of perfection,” and a certain beverage producer who claims that opening a can of their beverage is opening happiness.  Interestingly enough, their website actually gives advice on finding true happiness, but in a nation rooted in Christian values, the only “authority” NOT quoted is an authentic Christian source, probably because Christianity is not the “cool new thing.” As an aside, even Aristotle’s definition of happiness was close-enough to a Christian notion of happiness that St. Thomas Aquinas was able to interpret it almost as-is in his Christian theology, but that Aristotelian definition is nowhere to be found on the website.

I must say that this year’s experience of the Advent and Christmas seasons has been VERY unique and has allowed for this reflective possibility. I also apologize to my brother priests who I know are very busy in these final days of Christmas with confessions, Masses, and Christmas preparations.  However, I recognize the blessing of being able to stop and smell the roses, or, in this case, to appreciate the Christmas lights.  IMG_3613There’s something beautiful about the simple lights in the streets of Italian cities big and small; those lights are meant to point us to Jesus Christ, the true Light who is coming into the world. It’s a beautiful custom to appreciate the beauty of such things, so even if you’re not rivaling Clark Griswold, someone nearby likely is.  One of my favorite practices during the days of Christmas is praying in church only by the light of the Christmas trees and the light of the nativity scene; there’s something beautiful and peaceful about such moments.

Furthermore, we as Catholics have to be intentional – like walking upstream through a creek bed – about immersing ourselves in Advent, rather than being immersed in the world’s values (see the references mentioned above or consider others I’m sure you’re aware of); I know this would all have been helpful about 4 weeks ago, but we’ve still got 3 weeks of Christmas to be on guard against the world and to focus on our Savior.  This means saying no to some things – perhaps, many things – so that we can have some quiet in our lives.

In these Advent and Christmas days, many have the beautiful practice of making the house like a little reflection of the Church.  After all, the family is referred to as the “domestic Church” so it’s not weird to have religious images and signs which help us to focus the eyes of our body and of our heart on the true purpose of these festive days.  I invite you to look around you, the places you spend the majority of your time during the day; are there things that tell you this time is different?  I say things because we’ve got lots of regular things in our life that silently drown out these special moments through their constancy and “ordinary-ness.”  If there are more things that suggest “ordinary-ness” than the special nature of these holy days of Advent and Christmas, then chances are we’re more likely to get carried away by the current of the prevailing culture.

IMG_3241I also appreciate the availability of lots of free music on the internet, maybe on the radio as well, which can help us to fill the spaces of our homes with religious music for Advent and Christmas – yes, there is such a thing as Advent music.  (I’m not talking about those vague songs in department stores about snow and sleighs and Santa!)  Many have the beautiful custom of Advent wreaths in the home lit during family dinners (which, yes, can still be held nightly) as well as Nativity sets around the house.  Because we’re physical beings, we need physical reminders of God; otherwise, we’re likely to forget (as we often do) because, as they say, if it’s out of sight, it’s probably out of mind.  I recently spent some time with a young family who has a nightly custom of opening an Advent calendar while incorporating family prayer and singing.  For the sake of ease, here’s some other ideas that may be of use for filling our lives with the authentic living of Advent so as not to be drowned by the world’s idea about the “winter holidays”:

  • Using our wealth to be of service to the less fortunate because it’s not the wealth that’s a problem, but the selfish hoarding of it.
  • Having kids put “hay” in the crib for the baby Jesus every time they do some good deed
  • Keeping vigil on Christmas Eve with family prayer and quiet time
  • Turning off the rest of the world – radio, television – so as to dictate what we read, see, and hear so that we might direct our minds and hearts to Christ
  • Take time to pray or sing or engage in works of mercy

We say the Advent and Christmas seasons should be a different, so let’s do things differently.  As I said, there’s still time (mostly in the Christmas season).  Honestly, you might look like a weirdo, but as a friend of mine says: “Heaven’s worth the awkwardness!” Here’s some other ideas for celebrating the Christmas season:

  • Celebrating the Octave of Christmas and the Christmas season (which runs Dec.25 through the Baptism of our Lord in January) with festive activities (and foods)!
  • Reserving Christmas Eve and Day for family & prayer: it’s become popular, for example, to release movies on Christmas day, but if we really want to enter into these holy days, we need to spend our time in other ways.
  • Don’t take your Christmas lights down on the 26th (and not because you’re lazy!) and wish people a Merry Christmas until the Baptism of the Lord (this year, it’s January 11!) … remember, Heaven is worth the awkwardness!
  • Listening to real Christmas music after Christmas (because PS It’s STILL Christmas!), not just Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby or even Mariah Carey (however good they are as singers, they may not be turning our hearts to Christ – though Frank and Bing probably still had some faith when they sang such songs). Just think: if it can be sung in Church, it’s definitely going to keep Christ before my mind and heart.  I think of songs like “O Holy Night,” “What Child is this,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the like. Find that (free) music that reflects the sacredness and nobility of this celebration (Ex. Kings College)Gerard_van_Honthorst_001

We can talk all we want about “keeping Christ in Christmas”, but it’s only going to happen when we start taking those calculated steps with sure footing to make it happen and when we start teaching – rather showing – our kids how to do it so they’ll continue it.  A Merry Christmas and a blessed Christmas season to everyone!  Let us celebrate the birth of our Savior, our only Hope, the Cause of our Joy and the Source of Eternal Happiness!

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