A Cause for True Celebration

Encountering Christ at Mass and at Home This Christmas

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.
Christina Rosetti

Within the bleakness of winter, as the poet Christina Rosetti expressed it, Christmas brings needed warmth and cheer. In the darkest time of year, Christ brings his light, the very reason why we celebrate his birthday at the winter solstice (formerly Dec. 25), the turning point of the year when daylight increases. And yet, the world still seems hard as iron and full of spiritual bleakness. If we accept the reign of the newborn king, meeting him in the humility of the stable, then we can truly rejoice! We know that since God became one of us, life does indeed have meaning and all things shall be well.

Christmas is the greatest celebration of the year, even within our secular society. Like the Star of Bethlehem, it gives us light in the darkness, which is why we illuminate our houses both inside and out. As we all know, however, the secularism of our culture has rubbed off on the way we celebrate. Christmas is a time of cheer, decorations, presents, food, music, and family, although many people experience these joys without even knowing why. Christmas is the biggest party of the year, because it marks the turning point of all history: God himself came into the world he made to remake it again from within.

Our festivity will be even more meaningful if we reconnect these practices to Jesus as expressions of his birthday. Christmas means Christ’s Mass and the celebration of Jesus’ birth takes place first and foremost in church. There we not only remember the birth of the Son of God, but actually enter into this great mystery and share in its spiritual power. Our salvation stems from the Incarnation — the Word of God taking on human flesh — and this truth should lead us to rejoice! We wish each other a “merry” Christmas because this celebration should make us happy. The cheer of the Christmas season extends the celebration of Mass into the rest of life. Mass is the most important part of the celebration, but Christmas is such a big deal that we have to continue the feast at home.

The celebration in our homes begins as we decorate them and welcome the baby Jesus within a family manger scene. After midnight Mass, it’s traditional to place Jesus in the manger at home and sing carols to greet him. The entire house is prepared for his coming with green decorations related to the new life he brings, such as the Christmas tree as a sign that he has given us a new life. Smaller red decorations represent the way he brought this new life by shedding his blood. Even at Christmas, we remember how the child would save us — by offering up the human life he accepted. Apples on the tree represent the sin of our first parents and the angel and star on top the manifestation of his birth to the shepherds and the nations.

Gentile da Fabriano’s beautiful painting, Adoration of the Magi, painted in Florence in 1423

Just like the wisemen, the manger scene in the home gives children an opportunity to kneel before baby Jesus. The scene makes the spiritual reality of Christmas more accessible to children and draws them in, being able to picture the figures and animals, as we see above in Gentile da Fabriano’s beautiful painting, Adoration of the Magi, painted in Florence in 1423.

Just like for anyone’s birthday party, families celebrate in the home by feasting: having a bigger dinner, singing, and giving presents. Why do we celebrate birthdays at all? We affirm the goodness of the life and the love we have for the particular person. With Jesus’ birth, it is not only his particular birth we celebrate but also our own rebirth. The Christmas meal expresses this joy, showing the importance of the day by eating special food and gathering extended family together. This gathering demonstrates that as a family we honor the day, think it is worth celebrating, and are doing something out of the ordinary to show its importance. The meal itself is a communal act of thanksgiving and act of love for God and one another.

Usually we give gifts to honor the person who is born, but, for Christmas, Jesus wants us to receive gifts to show that his birth is a gift to us. By giving gifts, we imitate the Magi who brought Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh to represent his divine priesthood and kingship. Santa Claus found his way into the feast because St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, has a Dec. 6 feast day. Americans in New York saw the Dutch celebrating the feast and connected it to Christmas two and a half weeks later (while Clement Moore’s Night Before Christmas embellished his identity with fantastical elements). Catholics can reintroduce St. Nick’s true identity, especially by emphasizing the saint’s love for children and how he gave gifts to three young girls to save them from servitude. We can also help our children to give Jesus himself a present by offering him prayers and sacrifices in the manger (by putting straw in it to represent each act) and, in imitation of St. Nicholas, by offering Christmas gifts to the poor. Jesus told us, “when you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The Twelfth Night, Jan Steen, painted in 1662

Christmas Day begins the celebration, but Catholics continue celebrating for much longer, unlike the radio stations that turn off the music the next day. Advent gives us weeks to prepare for the feast and calls us to increased prayer and penance as spiritual preparation to be able to celebrate more fully when the time comes. Christmas has 12 days of feasting, as we know from the famous carol and also from many beautiful paintings that portray the tradition of throwing the biggest Christmas party on the Twelfth Night (Jan. 5), such as the one above from Jan Steen, painted in 1662.

We can see carolers in the doorway to the left, bringing the star of Bethlehem for Epiphany that follows the twelfth day of Christmas. Children play a game with the candles, while a child takes the honorary role of king of fools for the feast (with a real fool making jokes to the left of the table). Twelfth Night, which can be resurrected in Catholic life as the culmination of Christmas, was a time for dancing, masquerades, turning things upside down for a night, and toasting the New Year.

Even with the coming of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, the tradition of singing Christmas carols continues until the Presentation (Candlemas) on Feb. 2. Songs are essential for expressing Christmas cheer and preserve the spirit of Merrie Olde England more than anything else. In fact, our carols give us a direct link to past celebrations. The text of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” was written by the poet Prudentius in the 4th century; “O Come All Ye Faithful” reaches back to the 13th century; “Good Christian Men Rejoice” to the 14th, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” comes down to us from the 15th. St. Augustine remarked, “only the lover sings,” and our beloved carols give us the words and melodies to express our love to baby Jesus. Even with many secular elements moving into Christmas, carols continue to point everyone to the true reason for the celebration.

Eating, singing, presents, time with family, remembering the poor, singing — all of these things express the celebration of the coming of the Savior into the world and our own lives. At Mass we give praise to God and meet the baby Jesus directly, whose living reality comes to us in the Eucharist. From that encounter, God enlivens the rest of the festivity and fun. When we know the real cause of joy we want to share it with others. We send Christmas cards, which become acts of evangelization as we share the good news of God made man, and we invite our friends into our homes to celebrate with us. When we encounter the newborn Christ anew each year, we have to celebrate! God has become man — the source of joy and our hope. Come, let us worship our king and, then, let us celebrate.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.