I mean that literally. We know a couple of the Church’s liturgical seasons well—Lent and Advent come to mind right away. But what happened to Christmas?
The truth is that it’s easy to make Advent into a sort of almost-Christmas season. There are gifts to purchase and wrap. There are carols and Christmas parties and Santas all over the place. Christmas trees and lights go up a month ahead of Christmas Day. So by the time Christmas Day actually arrives, it finds everyone a little tired of tinsel. Many people take their Christmas trees down within the next couple of days, and then it’s on to New Year’s celebrations.
The Church is wiser than we are. She knows that people need time. So the most important events of our faith don’t just come and go in a day: they’re given a whole season, so that we can understand and reflect and absorb their various meanings.
The Christmas season begins—rather than ends—on Christmas Day. Advent is a season of anticipation, but it is also a season of penitence, as we prepare for the coming of Our Lord, an event that would change human history forever. We need to think about that, to ponder its meaning.
On the other hand, Christmas, it would seem, is sheer blazing joy. Christmas is all our dreams come true. Christmas is the gift of eternal life. God took on human form on Christmas, became one of us, began the process that would end with giving his life for us. God is here, in this manger, slipping into exile, returning home to learn carpentry. God is here so that we need never ever be alone.
How can all of that be contained in a day? Of course, it needs to be a season!
Which doesn’t mean that it’s an easy season to celebrate, given the secular world’s pre-Christmas obsession. But now, while we’re still observing Advent, it’s a good time to plan out how to observe Christmas, so our emotional exhaustion doesn’t win the day.
And if you pay attention, you’ll see that the Christmas season is also filled with strange and sometimes alarming events, events that invite reflection and contemplation. The twelve days of Christmas, the days between December 25th and Epiphany on January 6th, give us stories that offer a preview of the year to come. We hear of the death of the Church’s first martyr, Stephen, on the day after Christmas. Rachel wails for her children in the “slaughter of the innocents” on December 28th. The stories of joyous shepherds in Luke, of wandering Iraqi astrologers in Matthew, and of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in John provide—at best—a strange comfort.
And that is, perhaps, the real gift of Christmas: the understanding that there is strange comfort in the birth of this child in Bethlehem. The promise of eternal life is there in the manger, but with it is the promise that there may be some very rough patches indeed getting from here to there. There is the acknowledgment that the world is not always a safe place, and that violence and sorrow are intrinsically part of the human condition. The season of Christmas shows us both: the world’s highest hopes and its deepest suffering.
As you move through Advent and approach Christmas, try and think of ways that you can be fully present to both seasons, and hear the messages that God is sending through them both.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir