A Cause for True Celebration

Encountering Christ at Mass and at Home This Christmas

Jared Staudt

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: What parents want most from their child’s school — and how Catholic schools fulfill it

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By Carol Nesbitt

What do parents of school aged kids want most of all from their child’s school?

Safety

Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

It’s probably first and foremost to know they’re safe — not only from physical harm, violence, and drugs, but also other negative influences kids have to navigate in today’s complicated and confusing world, including cultural pressures to do what ‘feels good’ instead of what is right, just and moral.

This past year, some news media outlets questioned the safety of students in Denver’s Catholic schools because of sex abuse from decades ago. The reality is that the Church and all of the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic Schools have worked diligently to ensure the safety of all students. In fact, many parents say they specifically chose Catholic schools here because they feel their children are safer than the alternatives. But the term “safe” is much broader in today’s society.

“Their physical safety, as well as the safety of their souls, is something that is always on our minds as parents,” said Kelsey Lynch, a parent of two school-aged children. She and her husband, Michael, said that knowing their children were safe in school was one of the main reasons they chose St. Mary’s Catholic School in Greeley.

“St. Mary’s has proven over and over that our children’s safety is on the forefront of their minds,” she said. “They are taking every preventative step possible to keep our children safe from the evils that are so prevalent in our world today. With open communication, facing the hard topics instead of shying away from them, and vetting all people that our kids will come in contact with, we feel a Catholic school is the safest place for our kids to receive an education.”

The safety of their children’s souls is equally as important to mom Kelsie Raddatz and her husband, Justin, who have five children. Their two oldest attend St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Loveland.

“There is truly no greater lesson to learn than to know that you are so incredibly loved by God and that God is so good. These crucial lessons aren’t allowed to be spoken in public schools,” Kelsie said.

Faith

Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

That’s why the Raddatzes make the financial sacrifice to send their kids to St. John’s, with the strong belief that not only will their children be physically safe, but that they will fully understand that their purpose in life is to share Jesus’ love with others through everything they do; whether it be in the classroom or on the playground, speaking to others the way they would speak to Jesus.

“Every single moment is an opportunity to see Jesus present and to serve Him as well,” Kelsie continued. “What a blessed environment for our kids to learn and practice such crucial lessons!”

The Lynches say they can’t do it alone. For their children to become the saints they are called to be, the Lynches know that they need to work in partnership with their school community.

“Our kids’ teachers and classmates get more time with our kids during the week than we do, so it’s important that the people they are surrounded by are also helping them grow into the individuals God created them to be,” Kelsey said. “Our kids are learning what it is really like to have a strong faith family and the importance of a community that stands together in prayer and action to serve each other and the world around them, in both good and trying times.”

Kate McGreevy Crisham and her husband John echo the Lynch’s in their desire to have a strong faith foundation in their children’s education. That’s why they send their kids to St. Vincent de Paul in Denver.

“We are so fortunate in Denver to be able to choose Catholic schools because they are academically excellent AND thoroughly Catholic,” Kate said.

She and her husband wanted their faith to surround their children at home and at school. “We wanted God to be a part — actually the center — of the educational process of drawing out, igniting curiosity, working with challenging concepts and, as important, failing, struggling, and building resilience,” Kate shared. “Catholic schools value that process, encourage it, and love kids through it.”

Character

Photo by Brandon Young

She said she can see Jesus incarnate on a daily basis at St. Vincent de Paul.

“I see Jesus when I see an 8th grade boy stop to high five a group of kindergarteners. When I talk to the teachers of my kids, I see Jesus in their pure interest in what is best for my child — not what I want to hear — yet their words are delivered with professionalism and yes, love.

“From the maintenance staff to the principal, hearts are aligned in the work being done to educate the whole child.”

After exploring various options for preschool for their eldest child, Christy and Scott Kline toured Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, and although there was a free public school across the street, there was no question where they would send their kids. The decision was about so much more than simply educating their child.

“We have a ‘caught caring’ award (at the school) that is multi-faceted,” Christy said “Children are recognized for doing good — not academically — but in ways that benefit society and communities as a whole. Teachers and administration are ‘looking for the good’ in the school and finding it. When you look for something, it stands out.”

She feels that by looking for the best in people, you bring out the best. Kline also believes that strong parental involvement helps keep the school as safe as possible.

“The onus is on all of us to create an open, safe, transparent culture going forward, not just in Catholic organizations, but in all organizations and activities where children are involved,” Christy said.

Academics

Photo by Brandon Young

That same responsibility is on parents to choose schools that will reinforce the values they’re working to teach their children at home. David and Kathy Silverstein have had four children in Catholic schools in Denver over the past 20 years. Although there were many options for schools, including a charter school near their home, once they stepped foot inside St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Longmont, they knew it was the ‘only choice’ for their kids. As their children transitioned into high school, the Silversteins found that Holy Family High School was another perfect fit.

“In today’s world, finding a school that excels at education, sports and extra curriculars is challenging enough, but to find a school, particularly a high school, that prioritizes kindness, morality, personal responsibility, strength of character and just plain old being a good person — that is the uniqueness of Holy Family High School,” said Kathy. “An atmosphere of respect lives within the halls, between teachers, between students. It’s expected.”

For these families and countless others, they have experienced that it is the overall commitment by Catholic schools to keep students safe, to help them truly know they are loved by God, to incorporate faith into every subject area, and to set high expectations for students which reinforces parents’ decision to choose Catholic schools for their kids.

“My greatest desire for my children is for them to know how deeply they are loved by Jesus (and us, too!) and that their whole purpose in this life is to share Jesus’ love with others through every single thing they do,” Kelsie Raddatz said. “The classrooms are such a beautiful example of Jesus’ presence!”