Returning to the basics in this unusual Christmas season

Mary Beth Bonacci

I really wanted to start this column any way except, “Well, it’s been an unusual year.”  Seeing as how virtually every article you read this week will most likely begin the same way. 

But how else can I begin, when I want to discuss what promises to be the most unusual Christmas season in my lifetime? And, according to my Dad, the most unusual Christmas season in his lifetime too. Which spans nearly a century. 

So, it’s been an unusual year. And it promises to be a very unusual Christmas, as well. 

I have to tell you — as someone who lives alone, there is a lot I look forward to in the Christmas season. Holiday parties, for one. I get to dress up, and see people, and eat yummy sweets in the shape of trees and snowflakes while drinking hot spiked beverages — all in festive surroundings. And family, for another. As someone who doesn’t actually live with my closest family, I really love the time I spend with them on the holidays — especially on the holiday itself. I look forward to its all year. 

This year, it will be different. It’s not just that the parties will be fewer and further between. But, due to reasons related to my elderly parents, I need to quarantine through this holiday season. No parties at all. And probably no time with my family on Christmas. 

I don’t mind saying — it fills me with something closely akin to fear to think that I will experience few if any of the “usual” Christmas activities this year. 

Why is that? Why have those “extras” become so essential to our experience of Christ’s birth? Why is it not “really” Christmas if I can’t have family and festivities? 

Don’t get me wrong, I think all of the ways we celebrate Christmas are good — very good. We are celebrating the arrival of God into our world. We want it to be a special time. And so we make it special in the ways that our culture makes things special. We get together. We eat special foods and drink special drinks. We exchange gifts. 

It’s all wonderful. But the danger is that we get so wrapped up in those externals that we forget what we are celebrating. We’re eating snowflake cookies and drinking hot buttered rum, and the Infant Jesus is alone in a corner somewhere, forgotten.  We aren’t paying attention to Him — adoring him, contemplating the meaning of His incarnation, asking him for the graces that come on the day we commemorate His birth. 

If the externals become so essential to the celebration, then we run the risk of a certain kind of idolatry. We make idols of the parties, the big family gatherings, the wassail, the cookies. Instead of just serving as signs of what we celebrate, they become important in themselves — in many ways the object of the celebration, instead of just the way we celebrate. Christmas become just a time when we exchange gifts and decorate the house. Except for the tree and the date of the gift exchange, it becomes indistinguishable from all of the other holidays celebrated here in the “holiday” season. 

Perhaps the good Lord is offering us, in this strange pandemic Christmas season, an opportunity to rectify that. He is stripping away so many of the “trappings” of the holiday season. 

Honestly, while I see the benefits, I’d be lying if I said I like it. I want a “normal” Christmas. But I find comfort in meditating on the story of the first Christmas, and particularly on Mary’s experience. There was nothing “normal” about that, either. Of course, there was no such thing as Christmas, so she wasn’t missing out on mistletoe and holly or anything. But there was such a thing as giving birth. And it wasn’t supposed to happen in a barn, far from family. Of course, the pregnancies themselves didn’t generally initiate with a visit from an angel, either. And most new mothers don’t immediately need to set out for Egypt because an evil King is attempting to kill their baby. Mary was in completely uncharted territory in every way. She was “winging it.” I’m sure she would much rather have given birth at home, surrounded by her family, in warmth and comfort and safety. But she didn’t. And yet, we have no doubt that she trusted God every step of the way. 

And so, this year I’m going to try to emulate Mary. I’m going to trust God in the midst of some very real fears and stresses, especially surrounding my parents. And I’m going to try to focus my attention on Him, and the absolute miracle of His coming. As I mentioned above, the celebration of Christmas is not just our observance of an anniversary. It is a real, spiritual “event.” He really does come into the world, spiritually, in a special way on Christmas. There are graces available to those who make the effort to prepare for Him. 

We, as a culture, are not good at preparing for Him. I, as an individual, have not been good at preparing for Him. But I want to get better. And I think He is giving me that opportunity. 

My favorite scripture quote says that “all things work for good for those who love Him, and walk according to His ways” (Rom 8:28). That includes Christmas, even when it doesn’t look the way we want it to look. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!