“Gaudium magnum”[i] (great joy) is how the angel described to the shepherds the first Christmas, but is this the experience of most people today in the 21C? The people displaced by war in Ukraine and other places, the persecuted Christians of the underground church in China and in other places, the homeless sleeping rough on our streets, the families struggling with the rise in the cost of living, the elderly frightened to heat their homes… the lonely, will they experience “great joy” this Christmas?
The word “Christmas” is derived from the old English phrase “Christes maesse”, meaning “Christ’s Mass”. This title reminds us of the real reason for the season, which is the remembrance of the birth of a Saviour, the Messiah, our Redeemer, Jesus, the Christ.
The Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, the testimony of God’s love in Christ for us, Who sacrifices Himself for our trespasses and restores us to right relationship with God. This ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of the world is why we celebrate Christmas and is the meaning of its name.
Without the Christ i.e., the Saviour, without the Mass i.e., the Cross, there is no point in feasting and celebrating what is meant to express our joy, hope and faith in God’s love.
St Pius X wrote, “Without any doubt there is a desire in all hearts for peace. But how foolish is he who seeks this peace apart from God; for if God be driven out, justice is banished, and once justice fails, all hope of peace is lost.”[ii] Sadly, dark forces are striving to negate the whole point of Christmas, and in so doing quash true joy from our lives.
Corrupted by Commercialism and Secularisation
Regrettably, over time, Christmas has been slowly diminished by consumerism and secularism. Rather than being a spiritual holiday, it has become a period of shopping, socialising, and indulgence. The authentic intent of the holiday has been forgotten and the emphasis on materialism has stripped Christmas of its true felicity and its genuine elation.
Christmas, for most people, is to be mired in debt, anxiety, and fear of not meeting expectations, a far cry from its original purpose of being an expressive and demonstrative time of faith, hope and love. Regrettably, it has become a time of material worship, hopelessness, and self-centeredness. This is having a deleterious effect on our children, our society and even our faith.
So many Christians have succumbed to this secularised version of Christmas, allowing consumerism and materialism to take over a religious season which was to symbolize trust, expectation, and affection. Instead of honouring our faith, we have allowed our observance to devolve into a season of materialism, unhappiness, and selfishness, the very antithesis of its true meaning and purpose.
Ignorance of our inherited traditions and customs, theology, and history has caused our contemporary witness to become distorted by the values of the world. Forfeiting our unique faith heritage, losing our religious culture and by doing so depriving ourselves and others of the spiritual richness and significance of the season. This infidelity to Christ and His sacrifice on Calvary is why for so many, this season is wretched and despairing.
Our surrender to the secularist narrative and failure to denounce the consumerist zeitgeist is why we fail as ambassadors of the Gospel in our own time and generation. Our apathy and thus capitulation have allowed the corruption of our holiday season and in doing so we have robbed the world of the true spirit and meaning of Christmas.
Reclaim by restoring Christmas!
It is paramount that we re-establish Christmas as a period of joy, hope, and love. We must remember its historical roots, its spiritual significance, and its true meaning. We must strive to reclaim the holiday from its secularisation and consumerism and bring back to the forefront the values of faith, hope and love that are at the core of what Christmas should be about.
In the first instance, we should observe appropriately the pre-season of Advent, through genuine prayer and fasting, not indulging with others in pre-emptive celebrations that spoil the eventual joy of the Christmas season.
We must example ourselves the reconciliation and mercy that is at the heart of the true reason for Christmas and strive to make peace with all. Humbling ourselves to apologise for past hurts or even to accept the contrition of others towards us. Particularly among family, but also acquaintances and colleagues. Let us restore the sense of “goodwill” that was so redolent of this season.
We should encourage thoughtfulness, kindness, and compassion by spending time in activities that reflect the true spirit of Christmas, such as carolling for charities, visiting the sick, elderly, or lonely, volunteering at shelters or soup kitchens, and other ways that express consideration and service. We should strive to demonstrate our faith and how it can make a difference in our communities.
We should take the time to explain the spiritual significance of Christmas and its true meaning to our families, friends, and colleagues. Not shying away from explaining why we are volunteering in charitable activities or attending religious services. We should make a conscious effort to send greeting cards and buy gifts that are meaningful and have a purpose that can also help to restore the meaning of Christmas.
We must counter the concept that Christmas ends on December 26th and restore an extended celebration, like the traditional twelve days of Christmas, that for centuries enabled our forebears to forget their apprehension of the darker days, long nights, and depression regarding the winter months. We should try to reserve our celebratory gatherings and socialising events for the period after Christmas Day, making a point and using any influence we have over the organisation of such events; in times past this was the customary time for seasonal parties, and we could make it so again.
We should rediscover our seasonal customs and traditions and catechise ourselves about their religious and theological significance. This is best done by supporting and restoring authentic Catholic tradition and spirituality, the sacred liturgy and devotional life that in times past turned sinners into saints and formed the basis of our culture and way of life.
We should restore the concept of Christmas as primarily a family-centred celebration, recalling the experience and example of the Holy Family, challenging the rampant individualist attitude prevalent today and fostering an appreciation of familial ties. From there, we can expand the concept to include friends and neighbours and hope to restore “society”.
Pope St. Leo I, “Our Saviour, Dear Friends, was born today: let us rejoice! For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentle take courage in that he is called to life.”[iii]
We should strive to ensure that our celebrations are not merely a matter of exchanging gifts, but that we find time to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and its spiritual dimension. We should not forget to pray together, worship together, serve each other and in so doing mirror Him “who came first to serve us”[iv] by offering us salvation, restoration, and reconciliation with God.
Finally, we must not forget that Christmas is ultimately about Jesus and the transformative hope that He brings, for as the carol states, “the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in Thee tonight…”[v] We should strive to re-establish Him at the centre of our lives as we celebrate His coming into this world and hope thereby to bring true “great joy” to all people.
With my prayers for you all this holy season
In Vigilia Nativitatis Domini MMXXII A.D.
[i] Luke 2:10 “And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people:”
[ii] “E supremi” October 4, 1903
[iii] Pope St. Leo I, Sermon on the Feast of the Nativity
[iv] Cf Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
[v] “O little town of Bethlehem” Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) of Philadelphia, wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1868, following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine especially at night time. His church organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) wrote the melody to O Little Town of Bethlehem for the Sunday school children’s choir.
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