People are often heard to remark that with each passing year, Christmas displays in stores and shopping malls appear earlier and earlier. When once it was rare that anything suggesting Christmas appeared before Thanksgiving, it now is commonplace to see Christmas trees competing with Halloween jack-o-lanterns, and even some back-to-school sales.
But all of that comes to an abrupt end on December 26, when the Christmas trees and lights are whisked away to make room for the cupids and hearts of Valentine's Day. No sooner do we celebrate Christmas than it is over, at least in the eyes of the world around us. That is because our culture fundamentally misunderstands Christmas, often missing the very reason behind the decorations, the parties, and the merriment.
To the Church's sense of the season, however, that is unthinkable. The Church takes Christmas far too seriously to be superficial about it.
Every year, in the weeks before Christmas, the Church sets before us the season of Advent, a time of extended spiritual preparation so that we might be better attuned to the graces available to us at Christmas, and more in awe of its inexhaustible mystery. The violet color of the vestments at Mass reminds us that Advent is a time of waiting, a time of discipline, even a time of fasting, similar to the period of preparation for Easter that we call Lent.
Advent is intentionally a time of darkness, a time of waiting, precisely so we can enter into the darkness that preceded the birth of Christ, and wait with ancient Israel for the Savior God had promised.
Living as we do in a world that works very hard at reducing our waiting time for anything at all, it can be difficult for us to enter into the waiting of Advent. But it is only by waiting for Christ in Advent that we can fully rejoice when He finally arrives at Christmas. In order to know how to feast well, we must know how to fast well.
It is for this reason that the Church's celebration of Christmas begins with Christmas and extends until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, even as the culture around us has turned its attention elsewhere. It is precisely because of Christ's coming into the world that we have reason to celebrate. Then, the decorations and celebrations - so appropriate to the season - are seen in their proper context.
In the centuries of human history before Christ was born, the gates of Heaven were closed off to humanity because of the sin of our first parents. The very reason Christ became man was so that He could open to us the hope of Heaven. He accomplished that on Calvary. As we look at the Christmas manger, we must never forget that the wood of the manger is the wood of the Cross.
That is what we celebrate at Christmas, that the light of Christ came into the world to scatter the darkness of sin. Just as the first man, Adam, brought sin into the world, so Christ, having assumed our humanity, conquered sin.
As Cardinal Newman wrote so beautifully over a century ago:
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive, and should prevail!
These are the things we contemplate during the darkness and quiet of Advent, and when Christmas finally comes, we welcome the coming of the true Light that enlightens all of humanity.
Advent is the time to contemplate the mystery, to prepare for Christ's coming into our own hearts, as He came into this world over two millennia ago. That is cause for celebration indeed.
Let us pray
that we shall be able to welcome
Jesus at Christmas -
not in the cold manger of our heart,
but in a heart full of love and humanity.
- Mother Teresa
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