The Meaning Of Christmas
I hope you're all having a wonderful Christmas. I say "having" because the Christmas season goes on till the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, this year on Sun. Jan. 9th. I feel it is important to remember this. The Mass readings and Divine Office prayers between now and the Baptism feast help us to put Christ's birth in the context of his Incarnation as God made Man, of his life, death and resurrection. In his birth the Passion is foreshadowed through the feast of the Holy Innocents (children massacred by King Herod in his failed attempt to root out and kill the prophesied threat to his throne) and obviously in the gift of Myrrh which was used for embalming the dead.
That's not to say that we should dampen peoples' spirits at this time of year by getting all morbid. But I think that being able to see and celebrate Christmas in its wider liturgical context can help people to overcome the inevitable feeling of let down that follows the "high" of carol services on crisp winter nights, mince pies around the fire, Christmas trees + decorations + presents + Nintendo Wii games played in a drunken stupor...
This is also one of the reasons why I always look forward to coming here to our Mother House in Ploërmel, Brittany (where I write this) 2 days after Christmas, not that we too get the Nintendo Wii out, but rather that the talks + discussions that we have together during our Study Session (whatever the theme is that year), and especially the fraternal warmth of our time together, help allay those post-Christmas blues.
On the theme of Christmas in the context of the liturgical year, here's a wonderful reflection on the meaning of Christmas by Andrew O'Connell in Ireland:
The Meaning of Christmas (The Irish Catholic, 23rd December 2010)
It happens sometime around six o’clock every Christmas Eve. The Angelus bell rings. The shops close. Everyone goes home. The hustle and bustle ceases. And Christmas finally arrives.
A strange stillness descends on the land and for a few hours there is a peace which we’re not used of. It’s in these rare hours that the meaning of Christmas becomes a little clearer, far removed from tinsel and Toy Shows and the nostalgia of “what’s another year”.
My family lives in the countryside near Tralee. Our tradition on Christmas Eve is to attend the 10 o’clock Mass in our parish church, Our Lady and St. Brendan’s.
We live on a hill which looks out over the countryside of North Kerry. As we drive to Mass the houses in the distance seem to be dancing. From Ballyheigue to Listowel Christmas candles flicker in the windows. They’re placed there as a sign of welcome to the Holy Family should they happen to pass through Kerry this night. Twinkling at us in the skies above as we make our way are the lights of another Kingdom.
The Mass begins and in the packed church we try to comprehend the great mystery of the Incarnation. Tonight, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Nancy Griffith got it all wrong. “God is watching us from a distance,” she sang. He’s not at a distance. He’s here with us.
He’s with us as a baby. It’s a measure of the greatness of God that he can become so small. Later in the Mass he’ll do it again. He will give himself to us in the humble appearance of the host, a small piece of bread.
Bethlehem in Hebrew means “house of bread” and it is here that the Messiah is born. He will say of himself, “I am the bread of life”. So on this Holy Night, in the words of the Great Pope, John Paul II, adoration of the Child Jesus becomes Eucharistic adoration.
We look at the crib. See who has been given front row seats to witness this moment- the shepherds. We’ve always looked on them as avuncular friendly types. But, in the world of their time, shepherds were looked down upon; they were considered untrustworthy. And on this night when man has no room for God in the inn, God finds room for these outcasts in his stable.
We look at Mary. There’s a strange sadness about her, a melancholy. It’s more than the exhaustion of child birth. Tonight she looks as though she has already heard the words of Simeon and seems to know that this child will one day pierce her heart.
Beside her is Joseph. Strong and silent. He reminds me of another Joseph- the man from Arimathea, who will take the thirty three year old Christ from a cross and place him in a tomb.
And in a few months time we’ll be back in this church late at night again. Then it will be to celebrate an empty tomb. This baby in Bethlehem is also the Christ of Calvary.
The crib points to the cross and the cross to the empty tomb of resurrection and new life.
“Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth” rings the third verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. And for me, this is the meaning of Christmas. This is why we are joyful tonight. For tonight begins the story that will defeat death.
They say the gates of Heaven are thrown open on Christmas Eve. And so our thoughts wander to our loved ones who are no longer with us. We think of the happier Christmases of other years. And though our hearts are sad they don’t despair since Christ has changed death from a curse to a blessing.
This is the night which captivated us as children and enthralls us now as adults.
On this night, in a stable in Bethlehem, Heaven meets Earth.
And after this night nothing, nothing, is ever the same again.