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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Keeping Both Christ and Mass

As Advent comes to an end, I am finally becoming ready for Christmas. Not necessarily for the decorating or the presents (I have one more to finish) or the baking (after the power outage, we're going pretty simple this year), but for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the intersection of God and time at a particular point of human history, the Incarnation.

There are some who celebrate this holiday as Jesus' birthday, and while I commend their desire to keep the focus on Christ, I think they miss the point. Jesus is fully God and fully man, but that doesn't mean He was just any old fellow. We aren't going to light 2000 candles this year for His birthday, that intersection of God and time wasn't when Jesus became, but when He became man, otherwise He could not have been slain from the foundations of the earth, He could not have been part of creation. A birthday is what all of us have, none of our births were God taking human flesh. Christmas is not about happy birthday to Jesus, but about the awe and wonder of God becoming one of us to fulfill the covenant made with Abraham and to untie the knot made in Eden. Calling this merely a birthday trivializes that.

It is well meaning, to be sure, and I wish that more people would focus on Christ instead of presents and decorations. It is also a little frustrating to me to hear people talking about doing things like this and keeping the Christ in Christmas, and then talking about how their church isn't having services on Christmas day so people can be home with their families and open presents. If it is about Christ, then we shouldn't cancel church so we can get stuff. Traditionally, Epiphany was when people exchanged gifts, and it is a relatively recent shift that has made Christmas a day of gifts, rather than a day of holy observance.

It is this shift in priorities that has made it so easy for modern culture to shoo Christ out of Christmas in the first place. If people didn't decide that the mass was optional, it would have been harder to make Christ optional. Christmas means Christ's Mass, of course, though many wish to forget that. In fact, one of our priest's wife went to a very Protestant bible study in which the members and leaders tried to convince her that the -mas in Christmas really meant worship and not mass. Needless to say, she was not convinced. While worship as we use the term today is a part, and even a major part of the mass, it is not the same thing as the mass, which they were trying to deny. Not only were they trying to rewrite history, they were evidently trying to rewrite etymology. Perhaps they are from the same camp that believe that Jesus turned the water into non-alcoholic wine, and that the Israelites in the hot desert were able to preserve grape juice rather than it fermenting.

Mark Shea wrote a little about keeping the Mass in Christmas:

But it is also worth it for Evangelicals to note that when Protestantism got rid of the "Mass" part of "Christmas" they more or less guaranteed that the Christ part would come under attack someday too. Once the faith ceases to be the faith of the Body of Christ and becomes simply whatever each individual says it is in the court of private judgement, it's just a matter of time before the court of private judgement decides it sees no particular need for Christ at all.

(The rest of his blog is worth reading, he makes a lot of clear and interesting points, regardless of whether or not one agrees with him. Here is a very interesting post about the origins of Christmas.)

Since the first day of Christmas (out of the 12) is the 25th (not the day after Thanksgiving, or November first, as our local Christian radio station sets the date - I very nearly wrote to them to tell them that because of their buying into the commercial, non-Christian tradition of making Christmas come earlier each year, I was switching our radio station to the godless, heathen ones until Christmas Eve), I am finally ready to start celebrating it. Our family has had to shut out a lot of the mainstream culture to observe a holy Advent that isn't just a countdown to Christmas day, which then ends the Christmas season. We were instead trying to build ourselves up to receiving the Christ child on Christmas day, and celebrating His first coming for those 12 days (we are planning a Twelfth Night cake and Epiphany presents for the kids, and St. Martha's is having an Epiphany gift exchange that day as well). Advent prepares us to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation, and to await with joy the Second Coming.

We don't do Santa in our home. Not because we think he is evil, or that it is somehow morally wrong to "deceive" our children about this fictitious character (after all, we do the tooth fairy here), but because he is a commercialization and secularization of a real saint of the Church. St. Nicholas is a real man of God who was generous to the poor, loved children and served the Lord faithfully. Every gift he gave was because of his love for God, and because we believe and have taught our children to believe in the reality of the communion of saints, it doesn't matter that he died in the fourth century, because we can be reasonably sure that he lives with God for all time. So, we celebrate his feast day on the 6th of December, we hang stockings up on the night of the 5th, put a carrot out for his horse and write letters, the little kids draw pictures, for him to take up to Jesus. On the morning of the 6th, we wake to find that he has visited and brought us gifts, taken our letters and his horse has had a little refreshment. It is not the sense of wonder that we find objectionable, but the crass commercialism that makes Christmas into a gimme gimme event.

Everyday Mommy wrote an article about Christians and Santa Claus and how odd it is that he is the figure fixed on as a paganization of Christmas, when he is one of the only Christmas symbols we celebrate anymore that has anything to do with Christendom. The wreaths, mistletoe, Christmas trees, Yule logs (Yule, folks!), and holly all have their roots in pagan worship, but somehow these are not the target of Christian ire, Santa is. While I do not object to the use of any of these things during Christmas, so long as you aren't actually worshiping the tree, or celebrating Yule or so on, if any of them should go, Santa should be the only one left standing. Especially since the image of Santa bringing presents to good little children popularized by 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore, is part of what saved Christmas in England from being a dangerous day when people in the streets acted out drunken behavior and turned it into the family oriented, child centered celebration we are familiar with today. I remember reading in a book about Christmas traditions that in many ways Santa saved Christmas. Because the Everyday Mommy doesn't celebrate saints' days, she doesn't observe December 6th for St. Nicholas, but features Santa in their family celebration.

The Santa toward whom most of the objections are aimed is more of the Coca-Cola Santa than the Clement Moore Santa, to be sure. That Santa is secular, hyper-commercial, and indeed has very little to do with true Christmas devotion, pointing not to an infant Lord in a manger, but directing us instead to the cult of the almighty dollar. The response shouldn't be to hate Santa, though, but to reclaim him. Even Clement Moore took liberties with St. Nicholas, tying his actions to Christmas, and making him a jolly old fellow rather than the young, strong bishop he was, though his depiction was fictional and in fun. So, we instead honor a man of faith who served all those around him as he would serve his Lord.

Tomorrow is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the last day of Advent and Christmas Eve. We will be at church twice tomorrow, and once on Christmas day. We will be helping our children keep Christ in Christmas as well as keeping the Mass in Christmas, so that they will be able to focus on our Lord rather than the presents, food and family, good and enjoyable as those things are. Tomorrow is the Good Night, it is not a night for sleeping.

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