Waiting to Celebrate Christmas

My “Truelove” Gave to Me…

How many of you remember the 12 days of Christmas song? Many of us sing it (or at least hear it) every year around Christmas, but have you ever wondered what those 12 days are? They are a song about the Christmas Season, as celebrated in the Catholic Church. Although retail stores would like you to think that the Christmas season lasts from “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) through Christmas Day, the Church celebrates the Christmas season starting on Christmas Day and extending beyond. On the old Church calendar, the Christmas season went from Christmas Day (December 25th) through the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th). Christmas Day was celebrated and the 12 days of Christmas were the next 12 days up to Epiphany. On the new calendar, Christmas begins on the evening of Christmas Eve and lasts until the celebration of Jesus’ Baptism which falls on the Sunday after January 6th (or on Monday if January 6th is a Sunday). This year, the Christmas Season ends on January 9th. The Christmas Season may no longer be exactly 12 days, as it was on the old calendar, but the idea remains: Christmas is so special that it is celebrated over a season, not just on one day.

The Church tries to clearly differentiate between the Advent season and the Christmas season. You’ll notice a big difference between Masses during Advent and Masses during Christmas. The color for Advent is purple (and rose on Gaudete Sunday); there is no Gloria, and the songs all sing of Jesus as “coming” (i.e. O Come, O Come Emmanuel). The color for Christmas, on the other hand, is white; the Gloria has returned (often in grand fashion), and the songs all sing about Jesus as being “here” (i.e. Joy to the World! The Lord is Come).

Our culture has a tendency to try to celebrate things before their time. How often do you see people starting to celebrate Christmas at the beginning of December? By the time Christmas afternoon comes they’re ready to throw out the tree and pack up all the decorations. At that point, however, the Church is just starting the celebration. Celebrating Christmas early also short-changes the Advent Season. Advent begins 4 Sundays before Christmas (November 28th this year) and lasts until the Christmas season starts at the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve. Advent is a time of excited waiting for the imminent celebration (just as we are constantly excitedly awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming). It is also a time of recollection of how the whole Old Testament was a time of waiting for Jesus to come. All of Advent is a preparation for celebrating Christmas with the Church. By celebrating Christmas early, our culture cuts off Advent’s preparatory power and it leads people to think that Christmas ends on Christmas Day. By doing so, they unknowingly treat most of the Christmas Season as if it were nothing special.

Throughout the Middle Ages, every element of the Christmas celebration was ordered to enhancing the celebration of the Solemnity in Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and sacramentals. Many forms of celebration were employed: songs, flowers, images, statues, etc. Even outside the Mass extra things were used to help highlight what was being celebrated in the Christmas liturgies: plays, carols, songs, dances, etc. All of it went to serve the liturgical celebration of the feast, particularly the Mass–the Christ-Mass. Calvinists and Puritans condemned the religious celebration of the Christmas. They felt that nothing should outrank Sunday in terms of celebration. When Puritans came to power in England, they abolished Christmas (1642). Eventually the monarchy was restored (1660) and re-allowed Christmas, but now it was a much more secular celebration–which became the roots of what we see in society today. There was a focus on the food (plum pudding, goose, minced pie, and roast beef, etc.), a focus on decorations (mistletoe, holly, ivy, the yule log, etc.), but nothing that directly highlighted Jesus or the story of His birth. You can note the lack of Jesus in Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Story. It highlights generosity and goodwill (which are good emphases), but it lacks Jesus Himself. In America, as late as 1870, the Puritan emphasis still kept students in school under strict punishment on Christmas Day, so they could not be out celebrating.

As Catholics, we are encouraged by the Church to celebrate with Her. I encourage you to buck the popular secular trend, which takes Jesus out of Christmas, and return the celebration to its proper focus: Jesus Christ and the Masses at which we particularly celebrate His birth. I encourage you, if you are able, to try to organize your Christmas decorations, parties, and other festivities so that they happen within the Christmas Season. It will take a lot of self-restraint to resist the temptation to decorate and celebrate early, but I promise you, if you truly celebrate Advent during Advent (as a season of waiting and preparation and recollection of salvation history) and Christmas during Christmas (as a season of rejoicing that Jesus is present), you’ll gain a greater appreciation for Our Lord’s Coming and for why the Church celebrates the way She does.

Ideas for celebrating the Advent Season (November 28th – Evening of December 24th):

  • Don’t put your Christmas decorations on your tree right away. Instead, use your tree as a Jesse Tree and hang ornaments that represent Old Testament figures. Pull out the Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve and decorate the tree as a family.
  • Make an advent wreath and light the appropriate candles during family meal times:
    • 1 purple candle during week 1.
    • 2 purple candles during week 2
    • 2 purple and 1 pink candles during week 3
    • 3 purple and 1 pink candles during week 4
  • Go to Mass every day (if you can) or read the daily readings for Mass (in the Magnificat or for free online). Reflect on how God prepared mankind for the coming of His Son.
  • Pray the Advent Season Liturgy of the Hours.
  • Prepare a manger scene that only has animals in it. Place Mary and Joseph far away and slowly move them across the room/house throughout the Advent Season, until they arrive at the stable on Christmas Eve. Once Christmas has begun, put baby Jesus in the manger and bring in the shepherds and sheep. Wait for Epiphany to place the Wise Men in the scene (they came later).
  • Many families who have a larger manger have a custom of placing a piece of straw in the manger for every good deed each person does throughout the season of Advent. As they do so, they are preparing the manger to be nice and soft for Jesus.
  • There are more ideas at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/seasons/Advent/

Ideas for celebrating the Christmas Season (Evening of December 24th – January 9th):

  • An old custom is to put lights in the windows throughout the Christmas Season to celebrate Christ as the “light of the world” Who has now made Himself visible.
  • Many of us put up Christmas lights on our houses. One suggestion to “highlight” the season is to put up the lights and check them while it is still warm enough outside, but wait to turn them on until Christmas Eve night, then leave them on throughout the Christmas Season (or at least the nights of the Christmas Season).
  • Go to Mass every day (if you can) or read the readings for Mass. Reflect of the joy that we can now share because Jesus is finally here.
  • Pray the Christmas Season Liturgy of the Hours.
  • Wait to give anyone any gifts until the Christmas season actually starts. Since Christmas isn’t just one day long, the gifts can be given throughout the season. (“On the 12th Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . .”) If you have multiple gifts to open, try opening only one or two per day so that you are opening gifts throughout more of the season. In the east, Epiphany is the main gift giving day (that is when we celebrate the 3 wise men arriving and presenting gifts to Jesus).
  • Celebrate Epiphany with King’s cake (look online for information).
  • Hold your Christmas parties during the Christmas Season and not during Advent.
  • There are more ideas at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/seasons/christmas/

May God bless your Christmas Season,

Casey Truelove

"Judged By What They Had Done"

I was just reflecting on the reading from Revelation chapter 20 from last Friday’s Mass [my focus is in blue].

[11] Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. [12] And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. [13] And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. [14] Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; [15] and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

I was reflecting on judgment and how our acts determine where our souls end up. We are constantly in a spiritual fluctuation–our good acts draw us closer to God; our bad acts draw us farther away, and our really bad acts cut us off from God.

When we die, we will be judged by the current state of our souls. We too often think (or are led to think) of judgment as God looking for any way He can prevent us from Heaven.

Our current pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote Eschatology–a magnificent book that explains an understanding of the last things (death, Judgment, Heaven & Hell). He describes judgment as a lack of salvation. Here are some of my notes from that section:

• Christ Himself is sheer salvation. Perdition is not imposed by Him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ.

• In death, a human being takes the place which is truly his by right.

• The masquerade of the living with its constant retreat behind posturings and fictions, is now over . . . Judgment consists in [the] removal of the mask in death. [206]

• Man is what he is in truth. Judgment simply manifests the truth.

•The true frontier between life & death does not lie in biological dying, but in the distinction between being with the One who is life and the isolation which refuses such “being-with.” [This one is another topic and deserves its own discussion . . . maybe a future post . . .]

•Man becomes his own judgment. Christ does not allot damnation. Instead, man sets limits to salvation. [207]

Salvation is freely offered to us. We are fully capable of accepting it (free will), but we are also fully capable of rejecting it too. We can act to reject the salvation offered to us (sin).

Judgment isn’t an unjust accusation. Judgment is a revelation of the truth. We will have no ability to hide behind a false front. Ultimately, judgment just reveals where we are. It distinguishes between who is really “with” God and who is just faking being with God, or who has outright rejected being with Him. Only those who are truly “with” God at their deaths will remain “with” God for eternity.

Our spiritual fluctuation ceases when we die. At that moment, one’s spirit separates from his body and it is set on where it will go. There will be no ability to use one’s body to hide behind external showings and fake a relationship with God. It will either be present or it won’t.

By each and every one of our acts, we either draw deeper into a relationship with God, or farther from Him. Those acts are the basis of our relationship with Him and are the matter on which we will be judged.

We will be judged by what we have done, and many of the things which we should or should not do are written down so that we know how best to stay in good relationship with God. Some of the best examples of these are the 10 Commandments [Catechism of the Catholic Church 2052-2557], the 7 capitol sins and their opposite virtues, and the 3rd section of the Catechism: Life in Christ [CCC 1691-2557].

Trying to act rightly and repenting from the times when I do not,

– Casey

Ad Orientem

It’s not just for the Extraordinary Form
(commonly called the “Latin Mass”) 

Quotes from the book The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 
(then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI) 

The History

Before Christ

The Jews saw the synagogue in relation to the Temple. The synagogue was never just a place for instruction, a kind of religious classroom. No, its orientation was always toward the presence of God. Now, for the Jews, this presence of God was (and is) indissolubly connected with the Temple. Consequently, the synagogue was characterized by two focal points. The first is the “seat of Moses” . . . The seat of Moses does not stand for itself and by itself, nor is it simply turned toward the people. No, the rabbi looks–as does everyone else in the synagogue–toward the Ark of the Covenant, or rather the shrine of the Torah, which represents the lost Ark. [64]

The Ark points beyond itself, to the one place of its presence that God chose for himself–the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem… The rabbi and the people gaze at the “Ark of the Covenant”, and in so doing, they orient themselves toward Jerusalem, turn themselves toward the Holy of Holies in the Temple as the place of God’s presence for his people. [66]

After Christ

The worshipper no longer looks toward Jerusalem . . . Christians look toward the east, the rising sun. [68]

In the early Church, prayer toward the east . . . was always regarded as an essential characteristic of Christian liturgy (and indeed of private prayer). This “orientation” of Christian prayer has several different meanings. Orientation is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man. The word “orientation” comes from oriens, “the East”. “Orientation” means “east-ing”, turning toward the east. [68-69]

The sign of the Son of Man, of the Pierced One, is the Cross, which has now become the sign of victory of the Risen One. Thus the symbolism of the Cross merges with that of the east. [69]

On the altar, what the Temple had in the past foreshadowed is now present in a new way . . . it takes that community beyond itself into the communion of saints of all times and places . . . the altar is the place where heaven is opened up. It does not close off the church, but opens it up–and leads it into the eternal liturgy. [71]

The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places and yet maintains the concreteness of divine revelation. [76]

Pope Benedict XVI often celebrates Mass ad orientem.

The Confusion

Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. [75]

The controversy in our own century was triggered by another innovation. Because of topographical circumstances, it turned out that St. Peter’s faced west. Thus, if the celebrating priest wanted–as the Christian tradition of prayer demands–to face east, he had to stand behind the people and look–this is the logical conclusion–toward the people. For whatever reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement in a whole series of church buildings within St. Peter’s direct sphere of influence. The liturgical renewal in our century took up this alleged model and developed from it a new idea for the form of liturgy. The Eucharist–so it was said–had to be celebrated versus populum(toward the people). The altar–as can be seen in the normative model of St. Peter’s–had to be positioned in such a way that priest and people looked at each other and formed together the circle of the celebrating community . . . . [But] the Council [Vatican II] said nothing about “turning toward the people.” [77]

Quoting Vogel: “Even when the orientation of the church enabled the celebrant to pray turned toward the people, when at the altar, we must not forget that it was not the priest alone who, then, turned East: it was the whole congregation, together with him.” [79]

The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” As one of the fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J.A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us. [80]

The Solution 

Everyone joins with the celebrant in facing east, toward the Lord who is to come. [72]

Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer. [81]

Wherever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy. [70]

It must be plainly evident that the oratio [the Eucharistic Prayer] is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the actio of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him. [174]

Another Courageous Priest Attempts Ad Orientem

I just read over at Reverend Know-it-all’s blog that he was sampling the traditional posture of offering the Mass Ad Orientem. [Sigh] How I miss the solemnity of the Ad Orientem liturgies of Holy Rosary Parish in Cedar, MI and Ave Maria Oratory, Ave Maria, FL!
It is so refreshing (uplifting, honest, directed, etc.) to have the priest facing the same direction as the congregation when he is addressing God. It only makes sense: face the people when you talk to the people; face God when you talk to God.
The good Reverend Know-it-all called it “one of the most beautiful experiences of [his] priestly life.” He also hinted at some big issues with Versus Populum (facing the people):
  • How difficult it is to face a congregation of people and not address them when trying to address God the Father
  • The temptation to be a performer instead of a priest
  • The lack of any Vatican directive to face the people
If you haven’t experienced this before, or if someone lied to you and called it “the priest turning his back on the people,” I urge you to be open to it. See why Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
Wherever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy.
Spirit of the Liturgy, p.70
Praying toward the East,
– Casey