A Catholic Response to Aberrations of Advent and Christmas
Michael Monshau, OP
Professor of Liturgy, Homiletics and Spirituality at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum) in Rome
Observe Advent devotions and make Christ the center on the feast of his birth
Days, and in some instances, weeks before the first candle was lit on this year's Advent wreaths, shops, display windows, restaurants, television and print advertisements and even some homes began displaying Christmas decorations. One might make the challenge, "Whatever happened to Advent?". Further, worry over the seeming disappearance of Advent pales when compared to the more significant problem that most of the Christmas displays suggest secular aspects of a winter holiday rather than the birth of Christ. Has the annual Advent-Christmas observance become a marketer's paradise or is it still a religious event? What is the correct Catholic response to these growing aberrations of the holy seasons of Advent and Christmas? Can there be a correct Catholic response?
Catholics across the globe, of course, look for signals from Rome to help chart such challenging waters and once again in this instance, those signals are well in place. During his First Sunday of Advent Vespers Homily at St Peter's this year, the Pope inaugurated the holy season by preaching that "Christian Advent becomes an opportunity to reawaken within ourselves the true meaning of waiting, returning to the heart of our faith which is the mystery of Christ, the Messiah who was expected for long centuries and was born in poverty, in Bethlehem". The Pope spoke of this season as a hopeful time for awaiting the Lord's coming, and as a time for contemplating in hope Christ's presence among us.
Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly identified consumerism as a threat, not only to an authentic celebration of the birth of Christ, but to authentic Christian life in general. In 2005, the Holy Father warned that Christmas is being polluted by consumerism. By way of example, he suggested that families might invest loving effort into the construction of their home Nativity creche as a way of safeguarding the holiness of the season. The Pope has also expressed particular concern about the power that consumerism is gaining in the lives of children and youth. In his Urbi et Orbi address in 2007, the Holy Father called for peace as he urged world leaders to act with "wisdom and courage to end bloody conflicts in Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo". Whereas the Pope faithfully proclaims the Church's consistent Christmas themes of courage, peace, prayer, family love and reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation, he does so in the midst of a city, a country, and a world that are busy promoting price discounts, winter holiday excursions and the arrival of Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, as is the case in Italy) .
It would be sufficiently challenging for the Catholic family to exercise the fortitude necessary to keep the holy seasons holy. It is even more challenging for the Catholic family (or the neighborhood, school, workplace and even the parish) to understand how to go about responding to these numerous distractions from authentic celebrations of the faith.
Perhaps it's best to begin constructing a reasoned response by recalling the sources and probable rationale of these competitors for the attentions of people of faith at this time of year. Certainly, enemies of faith who will stop at nothing to compromise the Church's message are involved in this situation. Undoubtedly, so are secularists: people not necessarily opposed to the Church, but who regard organized religion and faith traditions in general as unnecessary. However, included among the vast majority of those absorbed in celebrations of holiday consumerism weeks ahead of Christmas are distracted people of faith who simply have to make a living during the busiest retail season of the year. Also, there are those who simply want to enjoy gathering with family and friends, because, after all, "'tis the season to be jolly!". Some instances are even more complicated. For instance, in order to observe Advent properly, does one forbid Catholic schoolchildren to celebrate Christmas with their classmates and teachers in the parochial school since the Christmas vacation usually begins several days before Christmas and often lasts well past the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord? How do Catholic schools model the correct way to celebrate Christmas if they cannot do so during those Advent days when the children are in school? Is it wrong to allow the youngster the opportunity to share a box of chocolates with his favorite teacher or best school friend simply because it is still Advent when they will last be together before the school Christmas vacation?
Perhaps the badly needed proper corrective can be far less dramatic than some suggest. In his last public audience of 2008, the Holy Father said "Even non-believers perceive something extraordinary and transcendental, something intimate that touches our hearts in this yearly Christian event. It is the festivity that sings of the gift of life. The birth of a child should always be a joyful occurrence". The announcement of the birth of a child, especially the birth of The Child, occasions peaceful discourse, not a call to arms.
Possibly the most reasoned approach for today's individual or family is to disagree primarily in silence when others disregard the holiness of the seasons, but to be intentional about one's own observance. For example, the Holy Father remarked that even nonbelievers perceive the joy and peace that surround the Birth of Christ. Why not take advantage of the gratuitous pulpit provided by the consumerist and/or non-Christian holiday-makers and insert the word of Christ into the secular dialogue already in progress? Is this not what Pope John Paul II had in mind when he announced the New Evangelization?
The fact that it is the Birth of Christ, and not some athletic competition, scientific discovery or military victory around which half the world observes its primary season of celebration is already a victory for Christ! True, not all take advantage of the depth dimension of the holy season, but they are certainly liable to draw some advantage from the season merely by celebrating in its vicinity. Our Lord has their attention for a brief moment; it is up to us to extend that attention, and not end it abruptly by issuing correctives or argument.
Even in a Catholic family whose celebrations have evolved into such a way that little of the Christ Child matters anymore, the gentle suggestion to add an Advent wreath to the home's decor for the preceding weeks can deliver a subtle invitation to prepare inwardly. When the subject of the Christmas holidays comes up among neighbors, it's true that one's response can be "I don't believe in having Christmas parties that early; it's wrong because it ignores the season of Advent". However, a more fruitful response might be, "I feel the same way. How I love Christmas gatherings! In our home we add to the joy by calling in friends for quieter and smaller gatherings that begin with some Advent prayers and a lighting of the Advent wreath in the days before the actual arrival of Christmas. Do you know about that custom?". Another, having followed the suggestions of Pope Benedict, may share "We try to prepare for Christmas — we're Catholics you know — by making a family evening in early December of building an Advent wreath with the children. Lighting the new candle each Sunday (and at supper each evening) has become a special tradition for us. Can I show you our wreath?".
The introduction (and sometimes the re-introduction) of very subtle activities can begin to draw family, friends and neighbors to Christ at Christmas when the culture exercises its influence to distract attention away from him. Why not return to a habit of sending only religious and conspicuously beautiful Christmas cards. The card that announced "Holiday Greetings" with a cover picture of a reindeer, some holly and a holiday Hi-Ball will result in few remarks afterwards. But the Christmas card featuring a remarkably beautiful Madonna and Child or a choir of adoring angels along classical artistic lines will evoke comments, comments that might flower into conversations about the true persons of the Christmas story. Conversations that recognize the lack of peace in the world can be turned into suggestions that Advent prayer address concern for those parts of the world currently enduring violence or military conflict.
Perhaps one shouldn't harangue those whose Christmas celebrations begin in late November; refuse simply to do so yourself. Observe Advent devotions and others will notice, and those others will be friendly observers, not your recent opponents in argument. Shop, prepare feasts and gifts as you need, but do not let your home become a warehouse for sales items or a workshop for processing and packaging merchandise, rather, let your home be a retreat in which the delight of preparing to share generously occupies an important position during this season. Share gifts beyond the circle of your friends and family; remember the poor. Celebrate well and often (and even early), but do remember to include the lonely. Without castigating those who do not or will not, feature religious symbols at Christmas in your business, workplace or home (yes, as much in the public arena as possible!), and in doing so you will have the consolation of knowing that you have affected one more hearing of the story of the Birth of Christ.
St Francis of Assisi is often credited with teaching that one should always be preaching about Christ, but that words would only occasionally be necessary to do so. Every thoughtful manner of observing Advent until December 24th, and then of keeping the feast of the Birth of Christ with Christ at the center, is one more opportunity to preach to the world that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Prince of Peace. What will your sermon sound like this year?
Weekly Edition in English
9 December 2009, page 13
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