In Your Midst

Keeping Christ in Christmas

Xmas 2006

Parishioners meditate on making Christmas a true feast of faith in the midst of holiday hustle and bustle

Dear Friends,

Infant Christ        “Keeping Christ in Christmas” is hardly an original thought.  We’ve been hearing that as far back as we can remember.  I had an aunt and uncle, parents of a very large family, who took the idea so seriously that they had no Christmas tree at all in their home.  Only an oversized crèche scene that looked like it might have been on loan from their parish church.  Needless to say, there was no Santa Claus in that home although, happily, the Magi story did leave an opening for a modest gift exchange (nothing on the scale of gold, frankincense and myrrh, however!).

Even though I think my aunt and uncle may have gone a bit far, I have to give them credit for trying.  In our culture where consumerism is king it’s pretty easy to forget what Christmas is really about, and it’s definitely anything but easy to “put Christ back into Christmas.”

Advent can help.  At St. James Cathedral we make a concerted effort to let Advent be Advent: a quiet counterpoint to all the Christmas craziness that jams the airwaves from shortly after Halloween.  The gentle interplay between light and darkness in our Advent liturgies, the restrained yet joyful music, the haunting echo of hand bells, the scriptural texts with their themes of longing and anticipation, the Bible study sessions, the Sunday evening Advent sacred concerts—all these can help us focus on the Christ who came among us long ago but who continues to come among us in ever new and often surprising ways.

Advent can help.  And I think we can help one another, too.  In the pages that follow, some of our fellow parishioners share their thoughts and stories about Christmas and where Christ fits into it all.  I am hopeful that their reflections will get us thinking about how Christ can become the heart of our Christmas this year.

Father Michael G. Ryan

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As I thought about how I keep Christ in Christmas, I found myself contrasting the two central stories of Christ’s life— Christmas and Easter.  Easter is a huge, sweeping epic, which takes place in the blazing sun of mid-day in a vast, geopolitical context.  While the story is ultimately a glorious affirmation of redemption and resurrection, it also contains within it elements of sorrow, profound suffering, and betrayal.

Christmas is different. Christmas takes place on a dark, chilly night, in a lowly manger lit by a star.  There are no surging crowds, only a new baby, a young mother, her husband, and some guests— shepherds, a few wandering foreigners, and some farm animals.  Of course, I know how the story ends, so the setting is fraught with great meaning for me.  But I’m betting the folks gathered that night didn’t have much beyond their faith that this little baby might just possibly represent the yearning we all feel, even in the darkest, coldest night, for hope, for joy, and for the deep, abiding promise Mary—like all mothers—felt when holding her baby in her arms.

Each Christmas, John and I sit down with the Heifer International catalogue and decide whether to give a goat (always a popular choice) or a flock of chickens to a family in the Third World….maybe this year, we’ll throw caution to the wind and get a llama!  The decision to do this grew out of our reflection on what Christmas represents to us.  Christmas is a story of humility and simplicity….and wonder.  And it’s a celebration of faith, of life, and of the potential within all of us to become better people.  It’s about being led by a child to work for peace, for justice, for compassion and for love.

So, as I warble my favorite carols, cheerfully replicate my mother’s sugar cookie recipe and decorate our tree with much loved ornaments, I think of all the gifts I have been given – not the brightly wrapped kind, but the lumpy, damaged, complicated, intangible kind – and silently give thanks.  And I dare to hope that all of us can reach past our anger and fear and allow the spirit of Christmas to fill us with faith, and joy, and love.

Joyce Mork-O’Brien

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As the mother of two young girls, Meredith 4 and Katharine 6, it sometimes is a challenge trying to keep “Christ in Christmas.” When Katharine started Faith Formation classes two years ago, it seemed an excellent time to really open up dialogue on the true meaning of Christmas.  I bought a Playmobil Nativity set, and it gave us a child-friendly way to teach our children about Jesus’ birth, his family and the story of that magical night in Bethlehem.  The girls loved setting up different scenes in the stable, and playing with the Baby Jesus.  We talked about how Christmas is about Jesus’ birth, but they still wondered if Santa Claus was going to get them what they wanted.  And one day I found the Baby Jesus driving the Barbie car! 

My husband, Mark, and I continue to teach traditions that help our family keep Christ in Christmas.  During the Advent season (and throughout the year), we attend Mass as a family, and have our own Advent wreath at home so that the girls can experience, through our faith, this blessed time of year.

We’ve also established the tradition of having the girls select tags off the Giving Tree, going shopping for the items, and allowing them to experience the joy of helping others.

Our daughters love music, so singing beautiful songs such as “O Holy Night,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and other traditional Christmas hymns help us further reflect on the wonders of the season.

We pray, that by our example, and with the Grace of God, our children will learn to experience “Christ in Christmas.”

Christine L. Leahy

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Nativity SceneI love Christmas: the hustle and bustle of shopping for ornaments at touristy stores in the middle of summer; spending time in prayer at Midnight Mass in a small parish in snowy Casper, Wyoming where I don’t know another soul in the church; spending time with my parents and nearby family in Renton in a celebration that for many years has focused more on sharing our favorite scripture passages and less on sharing gifts; and the three or four days spent in large parties with my newer extended family and friends in Wyoming – families who have been gathering annually for these events since before I was born. And then, of course, there are the wonderful liturgies at St. James Cathedral—so wonderful that a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined not spending Christmas day at St. James.

Honestly I’m not sure which of my Christmas moments are the most grace filled. The way I keep Christ at the center during this time is by consciously incorporating each event into the two month Christmas pageant that begins around the first Sunday of Advent and ends sometime after Epiphany. Sometimes, admittedly, it gets out of order. One moment is all red and green tied up with bows, then Advent and purple and then back to Christmas gold. But by immersing myself in the liturgies that are going on throughout these seasons, I can remain aware of the bigger picture of the mystery of the Incarnation without worrying too much if the sequence of the pageant is a little messed up: sometimes the Magi get to Bethlehem before the shepherds.  As long as the angels get the Gloria in Excelsis sung, it all works out fine.

Wendell Dyck

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Wise MenWeeks before Christmas, I do some serious  ”Spring Cleaning” in preparation for the coming of a very special guest.  Christ is coming!  We want Him to feel welcome. With the house ready, I have to be ready, too, but how?

Back home in the Philippines, December 16-24 is a period of preparation we call Simbang Gabi, a novena of Masses in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she waits for the birth of her son, Jesus.  So we wait with her and as we wait, we pray for the sick, the poor, the aged, the lonely. We forgive, ask forgiveness and reconcile. Simbang Gabi is a time to let Christ’s light, symbolized by the parols, to shine through.  The parols adorn the windows of every Filipino home from the stately mansions to the humblest shanties.  The array of parols illuminating the streets is always a sight to behold.

Simbang Gabi came about as the result of the efforts of the early missionaries who wanted the farmers who were up at dawn to work in the fields and the fishermen who were coming home from the sea, to be able to attend Mass.  Simbang Gabi is also called Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) because the Mass take place at the crack of dawn when roosters begin to crow.

Filipino Catholics who came to the United States brought with them Simbang Gabi as an expression of faith. In 1995, the Archdiocese of Seattle adopted it as an annual archdiocesan event. Although the celebration of Simbang Gabi outside the Philippines has been adjusted to accommodate climate and social conditions here in the United States, its intrinsic value remains the same:  to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord at Christmas.  The beauty of the parols reminds us of the star that led the shepherds and the wise men to the Santo Niño—the Holy Child.

Teresita Guerrero

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I am grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts about keeping Christ in Christmas.  I thought a bit and prayed a bit, and suddenly my muse (her name is Edith) insisted I could write a poem of some sort on the subject.  I reread some Herbert, some Crashaw, some Milton, and this is the result!

A king they say is on his way
to guest our humble home:
break out the bunting, deck the hall
as he comes to his own.

Go shop the mall from wall to wall
and get him lots of things:
buy gold and swank and scents and fur
as fitting for a king!

But wait, they say a newborn babe
will be our guest instead:
buy binkies, blankies, teddy bears,
a crib and feather bed!

But no, they say creation day
he long since made his bed,
yet he will own when he comes home
no lair to lay his head.

Can I, wee king, do anything
to keep you from the cold?
When there’s no lodging at the inn
what good are gifts of gold?

No offering will please our king
but humble, homely heart
whose chambers offer cordial warmth,
whose door is never barred.

Then welcome in, my newborn king,
come sit upon your throne
made not of stone but frail flesh,
come make my heart your home.

They say all gifts are from above,
but dearest was the one
when in his everlasting love
God gave his only son.

He shows us thrift in giving gifts:
far more than goods or pelf
to share such love as never ends
and give the gift of self.

David W. Colbert

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Christmas at St JamesAs a music teacher and singer, my life during Advent can quickly resemble the verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but the Lords-a-leaping, calling birds, and partridge in a pear tree are replaced with dress rehearsals, concerts, special liturgies, and school performances.  Don’t get me wrong.  I count my blessings.  I love what I do!  Somehow, in spite of all the reminders around me of what this season was all about, I was getting to Christmas Day and feeling empty.  Sure, my eyes tear up as the tympani, brass, and organ begin “O Come All Ye Faithful” at Midnight Mass.  But something was missing.

Two years ago, five days before Christmas, I happened to overhear a conversation among some fellow parishioners.  They were having to forego the festivities of Christmas so that a roof would remain over the heads of their four children.  Well, three days later, with the help of my family and friends, we delivered gifts and food.  The family invited us into their small apartment (which, by the way, was far tidier and more organized than mine).  We shared tea, talked about the kids, and at the end of our time together they said, “See you tomorrow at Mass.”

One year later this giving project, with the help of my students at St. Catherine School, grew to sponsoring thirty-five families.  I sat in my car last Christmas morning in front of the apartment building where these families live, and felt the joy of every hand that had prepared and every hand that had received these blessings. How do I keep Christ in Christmas?  Easy—make sure the guest of honor is invited.

Stacey Sunde

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In Mexico, my husband’s native home, Christmas is celebrated differently.  The most obvious difference is that in its predominantly Roman Catholic culture, the Mexican Christmas has not morphed into the generic holiday of winter break.  As a result of my experience with the people of that country, every year I make a conscious effort to have a more humble yet more dignified way of celebrating Christmas.

Besides trying to be more modest in our consumption, we have turned to the traditional way of thinking of Advent as a little Lent.  Each year, our children receive an Advent calendar at the beginning of the season with little doors to open each day.  This way they can actively anticipate the season’s events. We decorate our family table with an Advent wreath and each week we say a prayer as we light our Sunday Advent candle.

St. Nicholas comes on the eve of December 6th and leaves a small present and coins in everyone’s shoes that have been left in the hallway outside of the bedrooms. Beginning on the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th, we decorate the manger of our Nativity scene.   Joseph and Mary start their journey around the house beginning on the third Sunday of Advent.  Baby Jesus, of course, arrives on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings complete their journey to the manger on Epiphany. We attend Mass as a family on the Eve of Christmas. Instead of buying presents for others, we try to bake cookies together for them.  We also encourage our children to make their own gifts; so, for example, our seven year old son is currently in the process of knitting scarves for his friends.

Jennifer Wilcox Acevedo

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Winning the War on “Xmas.”  Much like the shorthand X that takes the Christ out of Christmas, there is so much to distract us during Advent.  Sometimes the remembrance of the birth of Love and Salvation and Hope—the answer to our prayers—by way of the arrival of God’s son— even seem foreign to our typical modern celebrations. I’m not sure exactly how to do Advent right, but I can certainly tell you what not to do. Here goes:

Do not go downtown.  Standing on the corner of Fifth and Pine you will have the rare advantage to hear both the steel drum band, the bagpiper, the Salvation Army bell ringer and the Holiday carousel—the cacophony of sounds will render the average person dumbstruck. If you can think of Jesus’ message of hope, let alone cross the street, you just may contain the genetic makeup to cure ADD.

Don’t go to every party you’re invited to.  I find it difficult to go to a Christmas party and feel part of the true spirit of the season in a room full of people I know for a fact do not believe in Jesus. Don’t worry about making an excuse; explain to the host it’s like attending a Super Bowl party without TV.

Don’t go shopping.  My family decided to take our yearly Secret Angel gift exchange up a notch and make each other gifts. It is by far more beautiful and meaningful than the digital camera that seemed to show up like the Magi year after year.

Don’t give up.  Every year I vow I am going to eschew the many traps of the commercial holiday season and make Advent a more spiritual journey, live the Gospel in a new and invigorating way. And without exception I fail in some new and surprising way. But even if you try and fail, the important thing is hope wins in the end, which is what the Christmas season is all about.

Scout Colmant

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How often can any of us say we have been able to recreate a cherished childhood memory?  My happiest time as a child was always Christmas.  I grew up in a small town in Arizona, and as a little girl I believed completely that my family’s Christmas was the best one anyone could have, year after year.

Very early Christmas morning Father Ben would come to our house, pick up my two younger sisters and me, and take us to Fort Whipple Veteran’s Hospital.  There we would sing Christmas carols during Mass that was broadcast over the hospital radio into the rooms of the patients.  We never saw them but Father Ben would always tell us later how much it meant to the men to hear us sing.

Back home again to open gifts.  After all was cleared away, we began to help our parents prepare for our REAL Christmas.  Tables borrowed from the Elks Club were set up, from the front door of our old Victorian house to the kitchen.  My mother would spend the day in the kitchen cooking Christmas dinner for the 30 to 40 homeless people my father was to bring home in the afternoon.  Some were people we remembered from the year before, others were new; all were seated at the tables, given little gifts and my mother’s wonderful turkey dinner.  Before dinner began my sisters and I were called to the head of the table, my father would ask everyone to bow their heads while we led them in saying grace.  This vivid memory is as clear to me, more than 50 years later, as if it were today.

And now, my memory and the dream of my past have been given to me all over again.  As a case manager for the Archdiocesan Housing Authority, I have had the honor for the past twelve years of recreating that Christmas dinner, this time for the thirteen residents of Rose of Lima House for homeless women, and their guests.

Our celebration at Rose House begins early, with decorating, baking, cooking dinner, singing.  Although people who know us here in Seattle are very generous and our living room is filled to brimming over with lovely gifts, what we all love most are the funny, kind, creative gifts we make for one another and for our guests.  Once again, as in my childhood, I can look down the long tables where sometimes more than twenty people are celebrating.  Our prayers before dinner are in thanksgiving for the gift of being together and come from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish traditions.

My wish is that everyone could experience this miracle of Christ’s love as I have, repeated again and again over time.

Kathy Lewis

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Infant ChristWhen I think about Christmas and how I celebrate this amazing event, the birth of that magnificent Baby, I have two different experiences.  All the Christmas years pre-2003 were pretty much the same… frantic baking, decorating, gift buying, party going and real chaos.  Every Christmas Eve Mass concluded the same way, with me crying as I heard ”O Holy Night” being sung.  I would think about that Baby who would suffer and die such a horrific death.  I wonder now as Mary held that Baby if she had any idea what was in her future.

I mentioned the year 2003 as being the time when Christmas changed for me.  That Christmas my only son, Marc, was heroically battling cancer. I had no desire for any celebration but Marc really wanted my husband and me to put up a tree.  Marc said that he wanted to see the decorations.  My husband and I had been collecting them for the thirty-eight years we had been married.  They all had a story. When I think about that day now, I wonder if Marc was really saying “I want to see those decorations one last time.” It did happen that 2003 was the last time Marc saw those decorations.  Marc lost his battle on December 26, 2004.

When I look at the statue of Mary in the Cathedral I feel like we are sisters.  We both have held our sons at birth and at death. I have to be honest and say that Christmas is a conflict for me, celebrating the birth of my Savior and the death of my son.  I am trying to focus on the love I feel for my family and friends.  This new approach to Christmas is so freeing and I am able to really celebrate and focus on the EVENT that changed the world.  The only decoration in our home now is a Nativity that I bought forty years ago for the first Christmas as a new wife.  What else do I really need?

Bette Mandich

 


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