|Christmas can be recaptured for Christ once again by the use of symbols. Shutterstock photo
I once knew an older priest who said that since we stole the 25th of December from the pagans, and now they have taken it back, we should celebrate Christ’s birthday around the 9th of January.
What with Christmas cards, the sending and receiving, buying and getting of gifts, parties and carols, colored lights and decorated trees, it has become a stressful and far too busy time of the year. Some are even relieved when it is over. Suicide rates go up during the Advent and Christmas seasons. If there has ever been an example of not seeing the forest because of all the trees, it is our modern way of celebrating Christmas.
Theologically we all know what it is about. It is as though the Lord is saying that He still believes and bets on us, by sending his Son. That should generate a great sense of gratitude and thankfulness. Our faith reveals to us that the Incarnation is the visible manifestation of the love of a Triune God. “God so loved the world that He gave it His only Son” (Jn 3:16).
Love Is the Dynamic Center of All Revelation
St. Alphonsus said that this becomes the foundation that brings us the certainty that love is the dynamic center of all Revelation. It is a love that is not only effective, bringing about its effects, but also affective. It comes out of Love, and generates a reaction in us of grateful love in return. It is a freely given; the initiative is His.
That does not always help us, though, as we live with people who have been sucked into a different reality. I will bet you that, if you take a survey among children from 5 to 14 about what is the meaning and significance of December 25, the majority would mention Santa Claus in first place. Maybe the ideas of 15-to-35-year-olds would not be much different!
To recapture Christmas for Christ once again, there is a need to build an expectation, create an excitement that something important is coming up. That we are looking forward to it. That there is an anxious waiting for the big day to arrive.
Humans take in and process words, events and actions that form attitudes that lead to action. If we want to change the way people do things, we have to first change their way of thinking. We must provide new input. I would like to share a great experiment that has been working for over 25 years in Brazil. There a Christmas Novena for use in homes has been put together called Natal em Família. The Redemptorist press alone prints over two million copies annually, and many other imitators have sprung up. Tens of millions of people, many who are not regular churchgoers, participate actively in Natal em Família at their neighbors’ houses.
The idea is to build a small group of Faith. Ideally nine families meet for nine nights in a row before Christmas, each night in a different house. Or it could be, for example, the four Mondays of December (Americans seem to be busier than most others). Once the nine families have been formed, new people are encouraged to found a new group.
Frequently guided by the use of a small pamphlet, people pray together, discuss current issues in the light of the Word of God, and end the session with a response that leads to an action. Themes discussed can be developed about the crazy love that God has for us (sinners) by sending His only Son to save us. Or how, through the weakness of coming as a child, the power and might of the Lord is revealed. Or that the world continues to live in a moral darkness and needs the light of Christ. He comes as the source of unity and peace, to unite all brothers and sisters into one giant family. Or gratitude. God first gave us creation as a sign of His eternal love; now the Incarnation is the second creation that restores our fallen nature.
The use of symbols is very important: have a small crib and baby Jesus which goes from house to house; light Advent candles; sing Advent or Christmas hymns. Include praying one decade of the rosary. Get the children involved. Give them some task to do, something to look at, to see. We are fighting billions of dollars of advertising and have to bombard children’s senses with something Christian. Spiritual themes have to compete with the false joy and glitter that surrounds them. The beauty and the mystery of the Incarnation need to be as inspirational and emotional as they are intellectual.
To close the gathering, light refreshments could be offered by the owner of the house. Officially the service lasts less than an hour, but as time goes on, people tend to linger longer as they talk and get to know each other on a deeper level. Many groups tend to gather again during Lent to repeat the experience during the seven weeks of preparation for Easter.
Among many options, Liguori Press (636-464-2500) offers a Christmas Novena based on the meditations of St. Alphonsus Liguori, which can be adapted for praying in groups.
A parishioner might be surprised when inviting Protestant or non-churchgoing neighbors how many will accept and be grateful for the invitation. It will also give the group some sense of “legitimacy” if the pastor shows up once. A zealous priest can easily make contact with two groups a night. In Brazil certain groups will come together to meet with other groups on the final night in a larger community celebration.
What is fundamental is that the preparation has to escape the confines of only a personal, private event. Our Church and the process of our salvation have a communitarian dimension that needs to be resurrected. St. Alphonsus Liguori said that, if God reveals himself as Loving Mercy, then mankind cannot be seen as a mob or rabble of condemned people. It is a type of love which reaches to the exaggerated: “He gave His only Son.” Or as St. John says, “Love consists in the following: it was we who loved God first, but it was He who loved us and sent us his Son. . .” (1 Jn 4:10).
The great mystery is that the Love of God penetrates freely into every human being. It is our job to proclaim it, so that all know or remember it. It is not merely for our salvation, but also, even more important, for our sanctification. It is no longer enough to sit back and complain that the holiday season has pushed Christ out of the picture. We have to get busy and do something about it, getting people caught up and occupied with a first-class preparation for celebrating Christ’s nativity.
People do not spend the majority of their time in church. We have to help them get ready at home also, where they spend the majority of their lives. If Jesus accepted to be born into a family, our religious appeal cannot remain only in the temple. After all, did not Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., say that the family that prays together will stay together? How much stronger if various families pray together.
FATHER KIRCHNER, C.Ss.R., was ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in Moral Theology in Rome, taught (an is looking to teach courses) in parishes, and is currently working and living at Liguori, Mo.