For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed,
a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of thy authentic command,
and stood and filled all things with death,
and touched heaven while standing on the earth.
(Wisdom of Solomon, 18:14-16)
It is my second Christmas in my family’s new home of Ohio. It is strange spending Christmas in Ohio instead of California, but at the same time it is not strange. I miss our old home at times, but there is nothing wanting. It is the same people, the same furniture, albeit in a new environment. And while we are going to a new church and driving new(er) cars, and hanging our stockings on a bookshelf instead of our woodburning stove, Christmas is the same as it always was. We still have our customs and our understanding of this great feast.
Last night during Midnight Mass, and again during noon Mass of Christmas Day, I had many thoughts going through my head. It started as we stood to Sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”. We were sitting on the side of the church with the shrine to Mary, and as I stood I looked at her, and I was suddenly filled with joy. I am usually moved by the creche, which at St. Patrick’s was on the other side of the church; but last night I was moved by Mary. My thoughts as I looked at her and sang were something along these lines: how joyful she must be. We on earth are joyful tonight because we are commemorating the day our Savior was born. But she has been filled with joy from the moment that she said yes to the angel, and is filled with joy for all eternity. Someday perhaps I will be where she is, joyful for all eternity instead of just this one moment on Christmas eve. Last night that simple statue of Our Lady, which we see every day of the year, was more striking to me than the manger scene on the other side of the church.
Then I began to dwell on Christmas itself, and as the Mass unfolded in all its beauty and splendor, I mused on how my understanding of this feast has changed over the years. The very fact that I was so struck by the image of Our Lady is testament to that. When I was a child I was more excited about the tree and the presents than I was about Christmas itself. But all the same, even while I was more excited about those things, I understood Christmas. I attribute this to our family “traditions” and how our parents taught us.
Growing up, our understanding of Christmas stemmed from how we celebrated and kept Advent, a period that is so often overlooked even amongst Catholics, and especially by the world. Advent was always an important time, because we were preparing for Christmas. We always understood that it was a time of preparation, that it was not Christmas. Christmas, with its following twelve days, was Christmas. It was something we looked forward to with excitement, but not with preemptive celebration. We never decorated the house or put up our tree until Christmas eve, and when we were little we children didn’t even do that. We went to bed to an empty tree on Christmas eve, and woke the next morning to the wonder of a decorated tree and filled stockings. I still remember my delight as we ran around the house looking at the decorations. We would be excited to see where a certain decoration was put this year, and sometimes there would be new decorations to see.
In my family we never had Santa. We followed the German tradition of the Christ Child. The Christ Child would come in the night and decorate the tree and house and fill our stockings. I never gave it any thought as a child, but now I see that it was an excellent way to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But I was fortunate that my parents really understood how to keep Christ in Christmas. That was mostly because we kept Advent. Our culture does not keep Advent. Most Catholics do not even keep Advent outside of Mass. But Advent is such an important time, as it is when we prepare our hearts and minds and homes for the coming of Christ. How are we to welcome Him properly if we do not prepare? When I teach my kindergartners about Advent I give them the analogy of preparing for a guest. I ask them if they would invite special guests to their homes if there were clothes and toys all over the floor and everything was dirty. Little children understand that you do not invite special guests to a dirty home. So why should adults not understand that we do not invite Christ to an unprepared soul?
Helen McLaughlin, author of Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home, writes, “Children love to anticipate. When there are empty mangers to ﬁll with straws of small sacrifices, when the Mary-Candle is a daily reminder on the dinner table, when Advent hymns are sung in the candlelight of a graceful Advent wreath, children are not anxious to celebrate Christmas before time. That would offend their sense of honor.” This was true for me as a child, and for my youngest siblings now. Circumstances involving Midnight Mass have prevented us from decorating the tree when everyone has gone to bed, and for the past few years the older siblings have helped to decorate. But we still observe Advent properly, and we still wait until Christmas eve to bring Christmas into the house. It is hard to wait sometimes when the rest of the world is already celebrating Christmas, and everywhere you go you see and hear it. It almost makes Christmas a little tiring.
But our parents raised us to understand that for every time there is a season; the world celebrates Christmas for a month with shopping and decorations and music, but we celebrate for an octave with Mass and great joy and all the depth of our faith. So it was that as I welcomed Christ last night in the Midnight Mass I felt such joy. I was happy to be at Mass, happier to be there than I ever was as a child. Now I understand what it means that earth touched heaven, and that darkness has been overcome. As I sat in the church in the dead of night and the cold of winter, amid a world full of hate and anger and sin, there was a light inside of me, and a light all around me. Life is given richness with the proper practices of our faith, and I am ever grateful that I was given those proper practices as a child, and am able to love them and carry them on as an adult. I hope that one day I will have a family of my own to pass on these traditions to. I want to light the Advent wreath every night at our dinner table and fill up the Jesse tree with my children. I want to see the delight in the eyes of my children on Christmas morning as they race into the living room to see what the Christ Child wrought in the dead of night, and give them the gift of seeing, years later, what He has wrought in their souls many years later.