Returning to the basics in this unusual Christmas season

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: 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.