Christmas with the Holy Fathers

Last year’s reading goal was 35 books, which I accomplished with five days to spare. “Do one more!” my boyfriend said, a challenge I graciously accepted. I picked up Christmas with the Holy Fathers, which I’d been planning to read during the season anyway. It’s a short book, I thought. I can do that in five days.

This little book is deceiving. I didn’t do it in five days, but not because it’s a difficult read—it didn’t seem right to whip through words inspired by the coming, and birth, of Jesus. These are words to absorb and contemplate.

It contains excerpts of homilies relevant to the season, penned by various popes through Church history. They bring tidings of peace and hope; they reveal something of the world at the time, ranging from the fifth to the twentieth century. Though different wars were fought, and cultures changed, the root of humanity hasn’t changed—and neither has Jesus and the Church’s teachings. In a reflection from 1964, Pope Paul VI spoke of the need for silence in the unceasing noise of modern society. I’d love to hear his thoughts on that today.

The lesson of silence: may there return to us an appreciation of this stupendous and indispensable spiritual condition, deafened as we are by so much tumult, so much noise, so many voices of our chaotic and frenzied modern life.

This makes me wish I’d been part of the Church when Pope John Paul II was around, to hear his words when they were new and bold. It’s given me an appreciation of Pope Leo I, worthy of the name Saint Leo the Great. Now there’s someone I have to read more from.

There’s not enough materials for a “daily reading” format through Advent, but it’s a good one to pick up throughout the season. It also continues through Christmas and Epiphany, so I did end up finishing the book as the season was coming to a close. A worthy book as my first of 2020!

The Creasters

Last year I attended Mass on Christmas Day, rather than Eve. I simply hadn’t had the time in the midst of co-hosting the biggest family gathering of the year. But this Christmas Eve, we were done setting up early. Mom’s 3:00 ready-time had miraculously happened, which meant I could attend 4:00 Mass before the extended family arrived.

Christmas is a time of celebration, a literal Christ Mass to welcome the Messiah’s birth. I envisioned the early-evening Mass akin to the celebrations of old, where the family attended church and then had a feast. And a feast we had—a four-course meal awaited us, complete with the traditional seven fishes. We would welcome Jesus into the world, and then celebrate Italian style.

We arrived at church twenty minutes early.

It wasn’t enough.

The nave was packed, standing room only. Parishioners spilled into the narthex. I was crammed into a back corner, jostled every time the door behind me opened. Kids stepped on my feet as they restlessly bounced from one parent to the other. I didn’t have a hymnal, so I only knew the first couple verses of the Christmas hymns. I was accompanied by shushing parents and the crinkling of their children’s bags of snacks.

As I later learned, 4:00 Mass isn’t for celebrating Christ before the feast. 4:00 is to get it over with and get the kids to bed. 4:00 is convenient for those who only attend Mass on Christmas and Easter. The Creasters.

This was not the celebration I had envisioned.

The pinnacle of celebration, the Eucharist, was upon us. I felt a wash of relief, but for the wrong reasons: the rapid emptying of the church. People received the Host in their winter jackets, then filed right out the door. Before the Eucharistic table was even cleared, a third of the congregants had left. Some of us standees hesitated, like the occupants of those empty pews might actually return. But before long, we were moving in.

My lower back was starting to twinge, so I was grateful for the seat and cushioned kneeler. But it also made me sad. Partially for myself, because I’d spent most of Christmas Eve Mass trying (and failing) to push away my annoyance. But mostly for the Creasters. For the ones who left, and for those who’d attended because “that’s just what we do.” I was sad for the restless kids who don’t understand why they have to go to this weird, fancy building when they should be home waiting for Santa. Because Jesus isn’t part of their lives; He’s a twice-a-year obligation. He’s just a baby in a manger, then the resurrected God. He has no life, no ministry, and no death.

“From now on,” I said in the car afterward, “I’m sticking to Christmas day Mass.”

I’m certainly complaining a lot, but it didn’t ruin my Christmas. We had the celebratory feast, and kept the constant reminder of Who we celebrated. And, as I’m inclined to remind everyone, Christmas isn’t over yet. It’s not a single-day celebration—it’s a season, and I refuse to take down my tree until it’s properly over. Everyone has switched over to “Happy New Year,” but I still wish my fellow Catholics a Merry Christmas. Jesus has arrived!

My hope is that some of those Creasters in our packed churches remembered the importance of the celebration. I hope they’ve made resolutions to be active in church again, and keep them. I hope they remember that Jesus is more than just Christmas and Easter, and so are we. Maybe they won’t, be I’ll try not to be cynical. After all, God has wrought bigger miracles.

Advent Spirit

I’ve been unusually contemplative lately, if you can tell from my last few posts. I’ve been doing a sort of mental/spiritual cleanse. A lot of gunk has been building up, and I’ve slowly been picking it apart. We’re talking years of fears, heartache, and rejection. Trying to do good for myself and for others, and often not knowing the difference.

Advent has become a time of reflection for me. It’s not like Lent, which is more penance and abstinence. During Advent, we’re preparing for the coming of Christ. It’s like frantically cleaning the house before company arrives, down to scrubbing the bathroom grout with a toothbrush (as if they’d notice). Except the house is your life, and the company is literally God.

Similar to your home, it’s embarrassing to face how messy it’s gotten. During RCIA, life was going great. I had a direction, and a good one. But while I was okay in faith, everything else was a negligent mess. I was on-track with God, so I blindly jumped into various situation I thought were “right.” But they weren’t. I couldn’t tell that I was swimming in muck, because I’d dumped in glitter so it looked fine and sparkly. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out, and starting picking off the tar, that I realized what had happened. (Glittery muck is the weirdest mental image, but it’s the most accurate metaphor I’ve got.)

Then Advent rolled around. I was inundated with reminders of Christ’s coming and of Mary’s obedience. I was halted by every nativity scene I passed. I always understood why He came to Earth, but this time, it was personal. He came not as an obligation, but because He wanted to. Human beings have mucked up everything—and I’d certainly mucked up my own everything—and God came to clean up the mess. (Spiritual glitter, if you will.)

Earlier this week, I sat in a mostly-empty church for some midday quiet. I was feeling generally sorry for myself, fretting over all that muck. Nothing around me changed, and there was no audible voice, but a little nagging calm started to bloom. I could feel the Spirit whisper, It’s okay.

“But Jesus,” I silently whined, “don’t you know I—”

Shhh. Of course He knows.

I’d been writing a completely different post for this week, but it was starting to get me down. I’ve messed up a lot the past few years. I made some questionable career choices, and was too trusting with untrustworthy people. But I’ve dwelled on these mishaps enough. This Advent reflection isn’t for crying over the mess, but for cleaning it up. Get out that spiritual toothbrush and get the house ready. These weeks before Christmas—the time of Mary’s anticipation in pregnancy—is a kind of forgiveness. God knows I’ve messed up; He knows the details more than I do. But He’s coming anyway.

I just have to be patient. I’m patient enough with other people, but rarely with myself. Cleaning up takes time. I’ve hauled out a lot of mental gunk, but there’s still a ways to go. But Jesus is coming. Advent really is a new year, not just liturgically—it’s a rebirth. A chance for forgiveness. And maybe it’s finally time to tidy up the house.