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home : bishop : columns

12/21/2017 9:00:00 AM
Where is Christmas?
'Christmas is wherever Christ is, wherever a human heart will "give God permission" -- a favorite phrase of Mother Teresa -- to be born again within it. Christ will come to us and give us Christmas, if we will only let Him.'

The birth of our Lord Jesus was certainly no Christmas -- not, at least, as we know it, or as we dream Christmas might be each year.

So much is focused on that one day (or night), just to get it "right." The pressure to do all that must be done, while it's at least manageable and maybe even fun for the healthy and well-organized among us, brings stress and even melancholy to many others.

Cultural trends and the much-maligned commercialization of the season have so redefined "Christmas" that many Christians -- for these and other reasons -- shun the celebration altogether, since it no longer bears much semblance to what actually happened at the Nativity and what that means for humanity.

Celebrating Christmas through the eyes of children can be a tremendous joy, and can help bring families and communities together. It might also motivate us to be mindful of those on the margins, those in poverty, grief and isolation - especially at this time -- and motivate us to include them in our prayer, outreach and festivities.

When I was pastoring in the Brooklyn Diocese, we started a tradition of a Christmas Eve gathering in our parish hall that anyone could attend. Each year, we did it a little differently, with new volunteers and arrangements, so it would not become something else that we "just do."

Each year, some people returned, but often we saw new faces: people who were not church "regulars." It was an occasion to meet new friends and to invite everyone to Mass later on, of course - a "soft" evangelizing moment.

In a very moving way, it brought to mind the image of shepherds being drawn to the little family from Nazareth whose quiet lives would change the world.

Indeed, our Savior entered our world virtually unnoticed. Hardly anyone knew what Mary had known for nine months: that God was with us -- Emmanuel, or God present to and within the human, earthly world of flesh and blood.

Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, was one of the first to learn, feeling the Christ child's presence through the joyful response of the child John that she herself was carrying.

Joseph, with great wonder and patience, remained faithful to the mysterious unfolding of God's plan in his life, much different from what he had expected.

We actually celebrate quietly that precious and decisive (because Mary said "yes") arrival of our Savior on March 25 -- exactly nine months before Dec. 25 -- the feast of the Annunciation.

If we take the Gospel of Luke literally, this date was probably closer to the actual birthday of Jesus. In chapter two, verse eight of that Gospel, we read that "there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock." That would imply the season being spring.

It was not until 336 AD, during the era of Constantine (306-337 AD), the first Roman emperor to publicly profess Christianity, that Christians would begin observing the octave of Christmas on Dec. 25.

After almost 1,700 years, it remains Christian practice to observe this octave, or eight-day week, as Christmas "Day:" Dec. 25-Jan. 1. Octaves are ways of prolonging a special celebration. We do this at Easter, too.

Of course, many of the traditional decorations associated with Christmas appear much earlier than Dec. 25 these days -- even before Thanksgiving -- mostly as a marketing strategy. They can, however, encourage conviviality and bring friends, family and coworkers together.

The outdoor, city-square Christ-child markets of continental Europe combine such elements, both sacred and secular. Our more industrialized indoor versions this side of the Atlantic seem to be somewhat on the wane, though malls still attract crowds with their lights and displays, despite the growing popularity of online shopping.

With so many people and objects moving around this time of year (sometimes, one can hardly tell the difference), how can we find a quiet place to encounter the peace the world cannot give?

The answer is really simple: Christmas is wherever Christ is, wherever a human heart will "give God permission" -- a favorite phrase of Mother Teresa -- to be born again within it. Christ will come to us and give us Christmas, if we will only let Him.

God is never more present to us, heaven is never closer to Earth, than in the Mass itself, His real eucharistic presence. Every time we celebrate that presence of God in our midst, we celebrate the real meaning of Christmas.

We actually emulate the shepherds and the magi, who were drawn to the Light of the World. Though our singing may not always resemble that of the choirs of angels, they are certainly among us at every Mass.

What we celebrate at Mass -- that God-given reality of heaven linked to Earth -- we can take into our families, workplaces and communities. The world then becomes, as our hearts have been made to be, a fit place for God to dwell.

As it does, what a different, new and wonderful place it will become. Christmas, then, a world renewed, will be wherever we go.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

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