Christmas: The Birth of a Revolution

Christmas is beyond a doubt the most culturally rich experience that we have as Americans and also as Catholics. We have traditions around how we decorate the inside and outside of our homes, the types of foods we eat, how we open presents, how we serve the poor, how we worship, and my personal favorite, the songs that we sing.

The music, in my opinion, is the most obvious aspect which separates Christmas from every other holiday in both American and Catholic culture. If you think about it, we don’t really have popular, genre-defining music for any other holiday or liturgical season other than Christmas. If I’m honest, nothing makes me want Easter to come sooner than listening to “Lord Who Throughout these Forty Days.” At least in Advent we get the saving grace of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel…”

All snark aside, Christmas music is both enjoyable to listen to and incredibly rich with theology. If we take the time to listen to the lyrics, we can avail ourselves to the power of the gift that Christmas really is. For example, the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” tells the story of Christmas but also communicates an underlying meaning:

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

The song begins by encouraging us to let nothing dismay us and wishing us comfort and joy. Right now, as Catholics, that seems like a pretty tall order.
From scandals within our Church, to grave sins being institutionalized into our society, to suffering through family members and loved ones abandoning the faith, dismay and discouragement have dang near become some people’s temperaments. Yet, the message of Jesus Christ does not leave room for dismay and discouragement but offers comfort and joy.

In a materially driven society, we may associate the word comfort with hot cocoa, fuzzy blankets, and memory foam mattresses, but scripturally, it has a different connotation. “Comfort” is the word that the prophet Isaiah uses to mark a significant turning point in the history of God’s people. Isaiah 40 begins, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” The prophet then briefly outlines the ministry of what will be John the Baptist and continues in verse 5, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The call for “comfort” issues in the revealing of God’s glory! It is clear that Isaiah isn’t saying, “Relax, O Israel! Take a load off, warm your feet by the fire and fix yourself a bourbon and eggnog…” In reality, the message is more akin to, “Take heart! There is hope!” For as the song tells us, “Remember, Christ, Our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” Take heart and be joyful because at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a revolution.

Photo: Lightstock

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “revolution” as: “the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.” This is exactly what begins with Christmas. Jesus himself teaches us that the ruler of this world is the devil. We are born, according to the Catechism, in “captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the power of death, that is, the devil.” Christmas is the birth of the revolution which establishes the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

In this revolution, which began over 2,000 years ago and continues today, we all have parts to play. Continuing the motif of the carol, we can see a couple of paths which should inform our response to the grace of Christmas. The most perfect example is of course given to us by Jesus’ Blessed Mother, Mary.

In Bethlehem, in Israel
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn

We are all familiar with the trials that Mary and Joseph faced leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. In Hispanic culture, these trials are remembered and re-enacted in a celebration called Las Posadas. In the midst of all the trials which surround the birth of grace, revolution, and hope, Mary scorns none of it. Instead, she holds on to the promise given to her by the angel and faces all of her trials with conviction, peace and complete confidence in her God. When the seed of salvation is given to you, are you scornful at the conditions in which it comes to you? Are the opportunities to be selfless, patient, and uncomfortable, occasions for grace and growth for you? Or complaints and resentment? Mary scorned nothing about the unideal situation in which Christ was brought into the world.

Our other example comes from the Shepherds:

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find

When the message of the Lord reaches the shepherds, they are engaged in other responsibilities. Yet, they leave their flocks. Not only do they leave them, but they leave them in tempest, storm and wind. Given the magnitude of the grace being offered, the shepherds could not afford to wait to settle their affairs but went straightway to Bethlehem to find the Son of God. When the renewed grace of Jesus Christ comes into your life this Christmas season, many of you will be engaged in other responsibilities. But can you afford to delay your search to find the newness of the Son of God?

Every Christmas, the Lord gives a new grace to us. Every Christmas, He comes into the world in a new way, shaping the direction of the plan of salvation as it continues to be lived out by His Church. In 2020, I believe the Lord is doing a new thing as it is written in Isaiah 43:19.

Christmas is the season where we ask the Lord to open our eyes to perceive it! While recent years and events may tempt us to dismay, take heart, take courage, take comfort and rejoice in the Lord who has given us the gift of His son, Jesus.

Concerning what’s before us, I say: Woe to you 2020, because Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior, is born again. The mustard seed of the Kingdom has been planted and nothing will stop its growth. Catholics in Northern Colorado, set yourselves apart, gird your loins and prepare yourselves to advance the revolution which Jesus began and continues to lead as His thirst for souls and love for the lost can never be quenched. May the holy tide of Christmas come like a flood and may the new grace which the Lord offers us be received as Mary and the Shepherds received it. Let us scorn nothing of our circumstances and drop everything to seek you, Jesus. Let this year be your year, the year of Christ the King.

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.