What is the point of Christmas? Is it “Peace on Earth” as the cards proclaim? “Caring enough to give the very best,” as the jewelry ads have it? Or maybe about something in between universal brotherhood and mere materialism, something ordinary and yet vital, like family and friends?
The Ties That Bind
Family and friends are true goods after all — gifts from God that we should treasure. Christmas is a wonderful time to remember those we love, not just with cards and presents but with presence. Family is right at the heart of the Christmas story. Isn’t that what we call Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus all together there in the Christmas scene? The Holy Family, yes.
It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of giving attention to family ties. The stresses and strains upon family have never been greater and the secular world has never seemed so hell-bent on the destruction of the family. Christmas reminds us that God Himself chose to be part of a human family and that salvation passes by way of the family.
That is why a number of the large Evangelical Protestant churches around the country have decided not to have Christmas services on Christmas Sunday this year. Rev. Gene Appel, senior pastor of Willow Creek, a Chicago megachurch, put it this way: “The best way to honor the birth of Jesus is for families to have a more personal experience on that day."
A Holy Day of Obligation
Well, OK. But we Catholics won’t be closing our church doors on Christmas, whether it falls on Sunday or any other day of the week. Christmas is a Holy Day of Obligation. Like a mother who gathers her children around the dinner table to hear stories of the family history, the Church determines to gather her children together too on this day to retell and celebrate an event in salvation history. So, yes, gathering with family is an important part of the celebration, most especially gathering with the family of God, the Catholic Church.
It isn’t as though Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus were alone. The shepherds to whom the angels declared the Good News of the Savior’s birth were drawn irresistibly to worship the newborn King. We too are drawn to visit Christ the Lord by the angels’ message. Unlike Protestants who enjoy the spiritual presence of Christ by baptism and faith, we have something more. We have Christ’s Mass. That is what Christmas means really: Christ’s Mass. And you cannot really and truly celebrate Christmas for what it really and truly is without, well, without Christ’s Mass.
Still, we aren’t going to be snide here and say, “Oh, so what?” about the fact that our separated brethren want to stop going to church on Christmas, as though because they did not have the Mass anyway, they were just going through meaningless motions. Every step away from Catholic practice that our Protestant brothers and sisters take just widens the already sad division in the Body of Christ. The Catholic Church rejoices with every piece of Catholic truth and remnant of Catholic practice that remains within the Protestant faith communities, seeing those things as areas of agreement in a common heritage of faith upon which we can build greater unity. So this development, which I think will spread, is an unhappy one. If they can close the church on a day when Christmas falls on Sunday, they are unlikely to open the doors when Christmas falls on another day of the week.
It’s About the Incarnation
From the name Christmas, we understand Christ’s Mass is much more than simply a birthday party for Jesus — although that is a fine way to lead children along in understanding it. But those of us who are no longer babes are given much to ponder in the events of this Holy Night. The Church leads us though the penitential season of Advent to prepare our souls to wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation.
At Christ’s Mass we celebrate that the Word became flesh. Flesh! God now has a body, a human body. The Creator of the Universe has assumed human nature to Himself. This is the beginning of our salvation. And one of the most important things it tells us is that our human nature, our fleshliness, is not the thing from which we must be saved. This is amazing news, because for millennia humans have been questioning the meaning of the one brute fact of human life that no mentally competent person can escape: We do things we know are wrong. We are miserable in our aiming for a standard of behavior we fail to reach again and again. And one of the theories — really quite logical, so logical that it has been proposed by countless spiritual teachers over the course of human history — is that our flesh is to blame for this misery. If only we could get rid of our flesh, then we would be saved from these desires and impulses that weaken our will. We could be pure spirit, pure mind, no longer weighted by this gross body of flesh — and then, oh how spiritual we would be, how good and perfect.
Into this messy world of flesh and family, God dives from heaven, down, down, down, into the womb of the Immaculate and clothes Himself in her flesh. Why? Because He is going to save us with our bodies. He is going to grow that flesh He took from Mary into a man, a real flesh-and-blood man, Whose body will be subjected to hunger and thirst and tiredness, but Whose flesh veils the Godhead, Deity itself. That very flesh will be beaten and whipped and finally nailed to the Cross. That same flesh will be laid in the tomb, only to rise on Easter morning — saved, glorified, made fit to enter heaven — spiritual flesh, spiritual body, no longer veiling godhood but revealing it.
Human flesh can be spiritual. We do not have to become pure spirits in order to be perfect. If human flesh can be glorified to reveal God, it can certainly be glorified to live perfected human life. Before the Incarnation and the Resurrection, we did not know that. He was raised for our justification. God’s very flesh is so perfectly united to His Divinity that it can be distributed as food — food that transforms us, that makes us righteous and fits us for heaven. Food that could not be a more personal experience of Jesus. Christ’s Mass. That is what it is all about.
- © Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
- Mary Kochan, Senior Editor of Catholic Exchange, was raised as a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness. She is a member of St. Theresa parish in Douglasville, Georgia, and she is homeschooling two of her grandchildren. Her tapes are available from Saint Joseph Communications.