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How Catholic feasts are different

The Church has just celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day is on Dec. 12, and we are quickly approaching Christmas. The liturgical year is filled with celebrations, but do we really understand how Catholic feasts are more than religious parties?

It is easy to treat Christmas or other liturgical feasts as only a celebration of Mass, food, family and gifts, so this week I am going to discuss the Catholic understanding of celebrating feast days. I hope that all who read this column will become more engaged in Advent and usher in Christmas with a deeper joy.

The word “holiday” comes from the Old English expression hālig doeg, which means “holy day.” But over the years it has come to mean anything from taking a vacation to having a day off work.

The Christian and Jewish understanding of holiday has a deeper meaning and history. It comes from the very first one, which God established when he rested on the seventh day of creation and “hallowed” it, meaning, he set it aside for spiritual purposes. Following God the Father’s example, this is what we do when we celebrate the feast days of saints and events in the life of Christ.

In the life of the Church, there are three important dimensions to our celebrations that I want to share with you to deepen your joy and your experience, especially at Christmas and Easter.

The first aspect has to do with the message of a feast. You might think of feasts as events that punctuate the calendar year and are filled with food and friends, but faith sees them differently. Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote about this in his book, “Seeking the Face of God.” Feasts, he said, are an “expression of God’s inexhaustible love, of which we are made aware by an act of memory.” In other words, when we celebrate a feast, we recall the event that tells us of God’s love and immerse ourselves in it as a community or family. We remember God’s miraculous work, connect ourselves to it, and experience the effects of that grace together.

A second quality of feasts is that they recalibrate our perception of what matters by drawing us out of our everyday existence. When we celebrate holy days, we recall the past events, words and miracles of God, but we also turn our hearts and minds to our future. Doing this reminds us that God loves us, and points us to our ultimate goal in life—living in intimate communion with him forever in heaven.

In his book “Dogma and Preaching,” Cardinal Ratzinger expressed this dimension of feasts beautifully. He wrote, “It means that for the moment he is freed from the stern logic of the struggle for existence and looks beyond his own narrow world to the totality of things. It means that he allows himself to be comforted, allows his conscience to be moved by the love he finds in the God who has become a child, and that in doing so he becomes freer, richer, purer. If we were to try celebrating in this fashion, would not a sigh of relief pass across the world?”

Finally, feast days should be moments of genuine joy. When we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the birth of Jesus, Christ’s death and Resurrection or the life of a saint, we are filled with joy because we know through faith that we have been freed from sin and death. All of these moments that we observe throughout the year point to the same fundamental truth: God has freed us from sin and death through his son, Jesus. He has liberated St. Joseph, Mary, St. Francis, St. Frances Cabrini, St. John Paul II, countless unnamed saints, and you and me!

As you prepare for Christmas this Advent, keep in mind the three dimensions of feasts. They are an experience of God’s unfailing love for us, a moment of reorientation to what matters in life, and a time of profound joy.

It is easy to fall into treating holy days as celebrations of material things—a feast for the sake of enjoying ourselves—but this will not satisfy us. When we forget God and the reasons why we celebrate, we begin to lose our joy, our understanding of our purpose in life and our ability to share God’s love with others. When we keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on God’s particular love for us, our hearts are filled with joy.

May we all enter into this Advent time of preparation with a renewed sense of why we celebrate and experience the lasting joy of Christmas!

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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