Magic of Christmas

When you’re a child, there are few things that top the magic of Christmas. The entire month of December is leading up to the most magical day of the year, where you gather the whole family together for a giant meal, try to spy Santa out the window, and sit by the pile of gifts beneath the Christmas tree as you wait for the parents to wake up.

Over time, that anticipation changes. You become busy. Christmas prep is an obligation, and even the day itself passes in a rush. You try to integrate that childhood wonder into your now-adult life, but all you want is a break from the bustle.

I intended to attend Christmas Eve Mass this year. I’d made plans with my aunt to attend the four o’clock Mass at her parish, even though it wasn’t the closest to my parents’ house, because I wanted to go with family. But Christmas Eve is a big event for this Italian family. At the time I should’ve left for Mass, I was still setting up tables and helping to clean up for the twenty-five people who would arrive in three hours. I promised myself to attend on Christmas Day instead, when it would be less busy.

But as four o’clock came and went, I was overcome with a terrible guilt. Had I really just skipped the celebration of Jesus’s birth? When my aunt arrived for dinner, I immediately asked was whether attending Christmas Day instead was okay. It was a silly question, but I needed confirmation from someone else that it was fine, too.

Christmas Eve went beautifully. The big, Italian family; the meal with the variety of fishes. I went to sleep at one o’clock in the morning, after cleaning up some of the aftermath.

And the next day, after watching the nieces attack the pile of gifts under the tree, I attended the 11:30 Mass at a local parish.

I’d left early, not knowing how or if it would be crowded. There weren’t many cars in the lot, and the nave was only half full. When I claimed a pew to myself—it was only mine, throughout the entire service—the guilt of the previous day fully dissipated. I knelt before Mass began, smelled the incense in the air, and finally felt magic again.

It isn’t the same childhood magic. Childhood has its own excitement in innocence and naiveté. It’s okay when that begins to fade, because in its place is something more. During Mass, my gaze drifted to the manger scene before the altar. No, I couldn’t make Christmas Eve Mass. I wouldn’t have made Midnight Mass, either, after the all-day bustle of that giant meal. But being in church on Christmas morning is, for me, more right than attending with everyone else the previous day. There was joy, excitement, and the warmth of magic.

Christmas Eve is the day to spend with family, and Christmas Day is the Lord’s. It may not have ended up the way I’d planned, but many things often don’t. It ended up the way it should have, with celebrating Jesus on the very day we celebrate his birth. Not fitting it into our busy schedules, or half-asleep in the wee hours of the night. Christmas Day is the time He wanted to spend with me. That became the new magic of Christmas. One, I dare say, that is better than the magic of childhood.

Merry Christmas.

The Messiah

When the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra announced its concerts for the holiday season, there was one that I absolutely could not miss: Handel’s Messiah, performed at the diocese cathedral. I purchased tickets immediately, not even knowing how I’d make the one-and-a-half-hour drive during Friday night rush hour.

That problem was solved for me, as I wound up not being able to make that particular performance. But the NJSO was very helpful in exchanging my tickets for another venue closer to home. Not at a cathedral, alas, but still the Messiah.

I’d never listened to the piece in its entirety, nor live and in person. I didn’t know the lyrics, only that they were Biblically-based. It’s a Christmas classic, a tradition for many, and from the first resounding notes you understand why.

This is the type of Advent celebration I had been searching for, the music sweeping up to my balcony seat in the auditorium. For Part I, I merely listened. I didn’t even know the words were listed in the program, and perhaps that was a better way to start. To rest, and to listen. When I finally did turn to the program, I learned that this piece isn’t merely about Jesus’s birth.

It’s of God’s glory. His victory. And the prophecy of His coming, both in Bethlehem and in the end times.

A prophecy declared in Isaiah, which then moves to the actual event of His birth in the New Testament.

As I read the program notes during intermission, I learned of the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah chorus. That was a neat little thing, but as Part II began I realized why: we always stand. We stand during the alleluia.

I got a little misty-eyed.

As I read along to the verses, there was a gradual shift from the joy of Christmas to something even more important—the prophecy of his rejection. The torture, the death. Then, gloriously, the resurrection. I wondered, “Why is this a Christmas tradition?” Handel used the verses from Isaiah, rather than texts from the New Testament. All of Messiah is the prophecy, rather than a story of past events. Even the most famous Hallelujah isn’t about Christmas; it’s about His ultimate victory. He shall reign for ever and ever. This is the joy of Easter!

The Messiah is nearly three hours long. By that point, with many pieces, you’re a little restless. You just want to get up and go home. But when the trumpet sounded in Part III, I wasn’t ready for the end that was soon to come. It sang with the glory of Revelation. With the promises of God and His perfect kingdom. I loved sitting up high in the balcony to receive the sound of celebration.

When we left the auditorium, there was a light mist. I hardly felt the late hour, because the music still resonated. “I want to make this an Advent tradition,” I said, despite the driving Easter message. Because Advent—the new liturgical year—is the start of His story. We are in the time of the prophecy, awaiting the coming Messiah.

Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. —Revelation 5:13

Amen.

Second Week of Advent

I was sitting in my weekly meeting this morning, listening to everyone talk about the days they’ll be out of the office around Christmas. I frowned, turned to the person beside me, and whispered, “Is next week the week before Christmas?” So it is.

The first week of Advent was a whirlwind of busy: There was one project at work that just wouldn’t get resolved. I had a concert that weekend that needed programs, bake sale goods, and a lot of practicing. There were multiple gifts to wrap and drop off for adopt-a-families. Two Bible study groups were wrapping up for the season, with accompanying homework.

At least I slept. It was my only downtime during the week.

Even in the midst of the week, I knew I was doing Advent all wrong. I’d picked up the Little Blue Book for daily readings, but crashed at night without opening it. I was reading two days at a time to catch up. As the days progressed, I was sorely disappointed with the looming priorities and the lack of time spent with the One whose season we were supposed to be celebrating.

But Advent is a renewal, right? It’s a new liturgical year. It’s leading up to the celebration of birth. So there’s no reason why I can’t begin my true Advent in the second week.

The Little Blue Book suggests setting goals for the season. I’d written some down that first week, but hardly remembered them. I had to flip back to see what they were. I may have an abbreviated schedule, but can still finish that list: Read two books; write Christmas cards to friends I don’t see as often; practice piano. (I’ve been meaning to relearn that for a while.) So this week, I began reading The Crucified Rabbi. I made a list of Christmas card recipients. As for piano… I began by dusting it off.

But that’s part of it: we don’t have to do it all at once. I got burned out last week and didn’t appreciate the glory of the coming of Advent. So this week, I take it one thing at a time. I was too focused on doing and not focused enough on experiencing. It’s easy to fall into this around Christmas. There are gifts to wrap, cookies to bake, and concerts to perform. But it’s not about the mechanical doing. It’s a celebration, and a welcoming of new life.

So I’ll sit at my kitchen table, light two candles on the Advent wreath, and open the Little Blue Book. And experience it.