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The true meaning of Christmas

English Spanish

The Catholic contribution to the holiday season is to provide a wider sense of festivity cantered on the Incarnation of the Word. It avoids on the one hand the rush of anticipation fostered by the business community, since this is the season of their highest prosperity. The Catholic mind protests this over-emphasis on consumerism. At the same time, the Catholic mind avoids the push to end the season before it is over. Catholics remind their neighbours: More is to come.

If we pay close attention, there is a magic in the Christmas season which touches everyone. There are songs and hymns which are heard and sung only during this season; family gatherings; especially-made Christmas cards which reach out to so many people, family and friends, only during this time of the year. Children look forward with excitement and expectation. The decorations make the city and the buildings shine in ways which strongly appeal to the senses.

Yet Catholic Christians have a peculiar way of celebrating this season. Catholics celebrate Christmas for a longer period of time than the rest of the people. For Catholics, the Christmas season begins with a long and careful period of preparation called Advent. The purpose of Advent is to prepare the heart to hope in the coming of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah sounds the theme of hope and optimism. It is a common practice in parishes to have charitable drives reaching out to the elderly, the sick, and people who are left out of family celebrations. This is a time when most Catholics come to the sacrament of reconciliation seeking healing and filled with good resolutions.

At times, walking in my neighbourhood on the day after Christmas, I am shocked to see how quickly the Christmas trees and decorations disappear. But Catholics then are only half-way through the Christmas season. Right after Christmas, there are eight days (octave) of high festivity and beautiful readings and hymns. The Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the Holy Family of Nazareth. On January 1, we focus on Mary as the Mother of God. It also is a universal day of prayer for world peace when the Holy Father provides a message that is preached in the entire world. In 2009, the theme of the message is “Fighting Poverty to Build Peace.” The first Sunday of the new year, we celebrate the Epiphany, a story which is only found in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It represents the world, symbolized by the three kings, who come to offer homage and adoration to the King of Glory, to the Savoir of all. The Christmas season only ends with the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord, which happens in mid-January.

We are indeed very indebted to the liturgical calendar, for it is the liturgy of the church which forms a culture of celebration and prayer. The Psalmist says: “Taste and see how good the Lord is.” The liturgical practices and the popular religiosity which surround them encourage a communitarian way of celebrating a fundamental mystery of God, who dared, out of incredible love, to become one of us in Jesus Christ.

How do you celebrate the Christmas season in your home? Do you remember to celebrate the full season of Advent?

Bishop Felipe J. Estevez
Auxiliary Bishop of Miami

Comments from readers

emilio laban - 01/01/2009 05:17 PM
Thanks so much Bishop Estevez for your very well article that you participate us.
Without doubt the generosity and humility of God is infinity. "being rich to become poor for our cause, then we to become rich with spiritual gifts" (Ph 2). the way as we to learn says our holy fatheer to reach the glory and to tranform the poor reality to living with dignity and justice then the Lord Jesus Christ peace will reign all over the world!
Priest Emilio Labán from Paita - Piura- Peru.
Maria E. Semper - 12/28/2008 06:55 PM
Thank you Bishop Estevez, again, for your teachings and your words of wisdom. They are very much appreciated and needed.
During the Advent season, as the city lights up and we rush to get "ready for Chistmas", I often wonder if instead our souls are driven away from the Lord more than ever. So lilttle time is left to stop, be in silence, reflect, pray and truely get ready. Luckily, we might occasionaly drive by a Nativity scene where we are shortly reminded of the true reason for the season. It looks like the reason for the season is either Frosty or Rudolph or Santa, a winter scene, the company party, cards with children's pictures, family and friends or even "giving". Yes, it is the season for all of these but none of these should drive us apart from His presence in our hearts and the joy of having Him within us during the season and throughout our lives. With this love and joy in our hearts for Him, we should live our lives, put up every decoration, pack every present and participate in the Liturgies, for He is the true reason for the season and He is the greatest LOVE there is. As you said, harshly, all stops the day after Christmas, then comes January with the New Year's feast, football games, and going back to work and the same routine. Have we by then forgotten the ongoing feast or have we not ever been part of it? Thank you for reminding us to follow the spiritual guidance of the Liturgical Calendar of our Catholic Church.
May the Lord be always with us, that is my wish to all, and may the Feast of the Three Kings show us the wisdom to always search for the Lord.
robert cruz - 12/26/2008 09:13 PM
Cesar, I could not agree with you more on your posting. It reminds me of my friend and I speaking about the Christmas season, a time lasting for more than one day. We both came to an understanding that this season is a time to give back to those in need, in whichever way possible. By giving back, friendships and could form and what a great time for it to occur.

The way we celebrate Christmas in our home is by trying to understand its whole message, one of spending time with each other. It can be related to the feast of the Holy Family, falling under the Christmas season. Furthermore, we learned from our ancestors in Spain (on my mother's side) that Christmas is not a one day event, but many days. The tree is removed once the Epiphany has concluded. In addition, we say "Merry Christmas" to our friends and family during the many days, not December 25. If not, would we taste and see the goodness of the Lord?
Cesar J. Baldelomar - 12/26/2008 12:22 PM
Bishop Estevez reminds us all that the Christmas season signifies much more than the exchange of gifts, putting up the tree, and sleeping in on days when many of us would normally wake up before the crack of dawn. In today’s fast-paced, sensory overloaded world, when many events, individuals, and time itself are taken for granted, it is necessary to slow down and reflect on the life and meaning of one person, one God: Jesus. It is also essential to reflect on our lives in light of Jesus’ life.

The liturgical calendar of the Church, as Bishop Estevez mentions, allows us all to pause, acknowledge, and celebrate the numerous miracles of God and their significance for our lives. Further, the Catholic Christmas liturgical celebrations bring together the entire Catholic family to celebrate the awesome Incarnation of the Word. It thus fosters community, which is essential in today’s fragmented world when playing playstation or surfing the internet is replacing face-to-face engagement with family and friends.

And lastly, as Bishop Estevez says, the liturgical celebrations of the Church encourage a sense of social justice, for “It is a common practice in parishes to have charitable drives reaching out to the elderly, the sick, and people who are left out of family celebrations.” Matthew 25 clearly serves as a reminder to us that serving the least in our world is tantamount to serving Jesus, since he is found especially in those that society considers the least.

So, Christmas season – which does not end on December 25 – is a time to celebrate many facets of the human experience, such as relationships with relatives and friends, our lives, the little things we constantly take for granted, the hope and optimism found in those who emulate Jesus by serving the vulnerable, and, of course, the one who inspires all: JESUS!

Thank you, Bishop Estevez, for a great and timely article!

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