Merry Christmas, Still Print
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Wednesday, 05 January 2011

On Christmas Night I received an email from a friend at 11:40 p.m. The message began, “In these last twenty minutes I would like to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas.” He forgot that although we formally celebrate the birth of our Savior on December 25, this is only the first day of Christmas, a three-week season of yuletide cheer to celebrate and contemplate the wonder of the Incarnation.

Christmas is a day that consumerist culture cannot wait to arrive, and then one that it would like forget as soon as the “post holiday” sales at the mall begin. Christmas decorations go up at Thanksgiving, even before the liturgical season of Advent begins. Christmas music peppers the radio waves at the same time, until by mid-December disc jockeys crank out the marathon of Christmas tunes that lead us to the big day on December 25. When the morning of the 26th arrives, the Christmas records go back into storage for their annual eleven-month hibernation.

Consumerist culture is not Catholic culture, of course, but elements of the former have crept into the latter, and it has damaged our celebration of Christmas. Consider our Christmas greetings to one another: “Have a good holiday” has been making inroads on “Merry Christmas” for years, so much so that apart from the store check-out line, I have even heard this banal secular phrase outside of church on Christmas Day. The traditional greeting has not been discarded totally, and those still bold enough to use it tend to do so even a couple of days after Christmas.

But by December 28 common parlance hastily drops “Merry Christmas” with its mysterious potential to offend and eagerly seizes the benign “Happy New Year,” a greeting pleasant to all regardless of creed or circumstance. In this rush to the new year, and then to the work routine with its looming reports of year-end earnings, we forget that Christmas still lives on in our churches and, ideally, in our souls. “Merry Christmas” is just as valid – and perhaps even more necessary – in the first two weeks of January as it is on December 25.

    Let the crèche stay out a little longer. (Vatican Library)

The Church in her wisdom shapes the time necessary to contemplate the incomprehensible: the great mystery of salvation. She gives us four weeks to prepare for the coming of the Lord, first at the end of time (the first week of Advent), and then in time with His birth. The reality of Emmanuel – of the infinite and eternal God who willingly and lovingly condescends to live with us as one of us – is so immense that it cannot be contained within a single Mass or a single day. On Christmas Day itself, the Church offers three different Masses that each approach the wonder of the Incarnation from different angles: midnight Mass celebrates the temporal birth of Jesus Christ, the early morning Mass celebrates His birth in our hearts, and the noontime Mass commemorates the mystery of the Word who has come to dwell among us.

For the Church, “Christmas Day” is not one day but eight days, a unified and timeless octave that allows for continuous joy and prayer over the hidden God in the manger. The Masses of the week showcase the cost of belief in the Savior (the martyrdoms of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents), the reality of God as love (St. John the Evangelist), and the eternity of the Son of God. The octave concludes on January 1, when we celebrate Mary, the chosen mother of God, and look ahead to the mission of this Savior as His blood is shed for the first time by circumcision.

Jesus Christ is the Savior not just for a few, but for the whole world. This is the theme of the Epiphany, the second and third weeks of Christmas and the first two weeks of January, when Jesus’ divinity is revealed to the world. The Magi begin this celebration, as they are the first non-Jews to recognize the divinity of the newborn King. The Gospel readings for this week recount the earliest manifestations of God’s power possessed by this man Jesus. The liturgical preface for Epiphany week reminds us of the purpose of the Incarnation: “Today You revealed in Christ Your eternal plan of salvation and showed Him as the Light of all peoples. Now that His glory has shown among us You have renewed humanity in his immortal image.”

The “real world,” we are told, is too sophisticated for the piety and sweetness of Christmas: it is a day like any other, and should be left behind as soon as it passes. But this world, for all its wondrous material and technological achievements, is cold, dark, and aimless without the more wondrous Light that came to bring hope to the world. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 4-5).

We need Christmas in January to bring us hope and cheer, as much now as ever before. So let the decorations and the crèche stay out a little longer, and let the Christmas joy continue unabated. Let us not allow empty consumerism to deter us from wishing one another a Merry Christmas at the dawn of a new year.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
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