Herald of Hope Article – Bishop Jeff Haines – December 30, 2021
This time of the year, we often hear people say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year long? Why can’t we all just live each day as if it was Christmas?” Those thoughts were in the back of my mind as I was preparing to preach early this month at one of the Advent Missions, which was part of “The Gift of Sunday” initiative, our archdiocesan effort to renew devotion to the Eucharist and dedication to the celebration of the Mass.
And, what struck me in my preparation for the Mission on the Eucharist in the beginning of the season of preparation for Christmas was that it is precisely in the celebration of the Mass that we encounter the very things that we cherish about our commemoration of the Birth of Christ. Thus, it would seem to reason that if we would immerse ourselves more intensely in the Eucharist, then many of the things we value about Christmas might robustly infuse our hearts and our lives. It might perpetuate the spirit all year long. So, in that very spirit, I would like to offer reflections on five elements shared by both the celebrations of the Nativity and the Mass.
One of the most special things we love about Christmas – especially as kids – are Christmas presents. Think about it. What child doesn’t love that part of Christmas? When we are young, we not only wish for Christmas presents and ask Santa Claus for Christmas presents, we even dream about Christmas presents.
Which is why Christmas can be found in “The Gift of Sunday,” for there, in the celebration of the Mass, we are blessed by the most heart-felt gift any of us will ever receive. In the gift of the Eucharist, we receive the gift of Salvation. For, when we celebrate the Mass, through the grace and goodness of God, the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper makes present the very Sacrifice of Christ that he offers to us for our Salvation. The very offer of eternal life with God is held out to us – if we open our hearts and pledge our “Amen” of affirmation and commitment. When you come right down to it, one really cannot imagine anything that is more imbued with the meaning of Christmas than a gift like that.
Another of the things we love about Christmas is that every family has some form of a special meal – a Christmas meal – filled with particular delicacies and time-honored ways of preparing and serving them, often in a setting that complements the uniqueness of the dinner. Quite often, the nature of these meals is such that no one dares change the format or the menu of that repast. The main course, the side dishes and the desserts better be what they always are. After all, it is a Tradition. There is something about honoring the Tradition that captures what is meaningful and what is important about the occasion.
That same sense of importance captured in the dignity of a Tradition-based Christmas meal is found in the celebration of the Eucharist. Think of the time-honored elements of that Holy Meal. The vessels that hold the food and drink during the Mass are made of precious metals, and the actions of presenting and serving the meal are choreographed with refined and reverent gestures. In addition, the menu of the special hosts and the Sacramental wine is never compromised, as its meaning and symbolism are not only historic but profoundly theological in nature. The setting for the meal is also very elegant, for the table upon which it is served is not merely functional but crafted as a work of art. It is an altar of great beauty, surrounded by candelabra and candles, radiant in light and splendor. This setting, too, bespeaks the point that this is no ordinary meal. In fact, the setting, serving and style of the meal honors Traditions tha convey that something of great dignity, meaning and importance is being commemorated in the Eucharistic meal. Its exquisite nature is meant to reveal something that is Sacred. Only “such a meal” is suitable for the very manifestation of the Real Presence of the Lord.
Many people will tell you that one of the best things about Christmas is the opportunity it provides to bring our loved ones together. That is why most people speak of Christmas as a “family” holiday. Quite often, people come from near and far for the meal. And, nowadays, with the blessing of electronic devices, families can gather even though they are miles apart. But, another great thing about Christmas is the fact that we often include in our gatherings people we consider to be family, even though we are not related by blood or marriage. In some gatherings, there are elderly neighbors whose loved ones have passed, co-workers from the office who have no place to go or college classmates whose hometowns are too far away to travel. During the holidays, the doors to our homes are opened wide and such people are welcomed as part of our “kinfolk.”
Now, comparable to the manner in which the Christmas Gathering unites people, the celebration of the Mass brings together people from a range even more expansive and diverse. It is quite an eclectic gathering. I notice this especially in my own parish, the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in downtown Milwaukee. Sometimes, when I look out at the congregation, I can see such diverse arrangements like a president of a bank, a person who lives on the streets, a single mother and two fashionable urbane millennials all sitting in the same pew. I think only the Holy Spirit can accomplish something like that. So, in its own way, every Sunday Eucharist is a family holiday, as we also gather with our loved ones, all of us members of the Family of God.
It often is said that while Christmas is for everyone, it really belongs mostly to children. That is because they embrace the holiday with such sincere belief, open-hearted trust and wondrous awe. For them, every Christmas is a new adventure filled with hope and the potential of extraordinary and delightful surprises. Even wishes can come true.
I will never forget the child-like wonder of my nephew Christopher from a Christmas long ago. This was a time when he received a present that was quite nice, yet what fascinated him more than the gift was the enormous box that contained it. So, Christopher spent most of the evening, not entertained by the gift, but playing in its box. With his eyes bright with wonder, his imagination took him on journeys to spectacular places – as throughout the evening the box became a rocket ship, a castle, a fortress, a sky scraper (building) and the Bat Cave. It was impossible not to be enraptured by his awe and wonder.
I truly believe that it is possible to be captured by that same awe and wonder when we are willing to open “The Gift of Sunday.” There is potential in every celebration of the Mass to experience a similar adventure filled with the hope and potential of extraordinary surprises, as God reveals his glory and majesty in the Eucharist. Yet, for this to happen, we must recall what Jesus Christ told us when he was here on earth; that grace is open to us only if we become like children, for as he promised, it is children who are closest to the Kingdom of God. It is when we embrace the celebration of the Eucharist with sincerity of belief, open-hearted trust and wondrous awe that faith can take us into the very presence of God, where our deepest yearnings and wishes can come true.
There are many people for whom one of the best parts of the season is Christmas music. That’s why some radio stations even begin playing a Christmas music format as early as mid-November. Whether it be Christmas carols, hymns, songs or instrumentals, everyone seems to have a favorite. Some people prefer the gentle lullaby of “Silent Night,” others cherish the stirring anthem of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and still others favor the soaring artistry of “O Holy Night.”
However, it has long been my opinion that one of the reasons for the fondness of many people for favorite Christmas songs is that they tap into the deepest longings of the human heart. Which is why I believe so many people cherish Christmas songs that focus on the desire for peace.
In the heart of all believers, don’t we all long for peace at Christmas time? Don’t we all meditate on the Incarnation of God’s very Son in the flesh and wish with all of our hearts that the Prince of Peace would vanquish all war and violence and establish a reign of justice and peace? And, when we hear the chorus of the heavenly angels singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace” don’t we all want to get down on our knees and pray – pray with all we have – that this might come to pass? This just might be? That it might come true?
Which is why we all need “The Gift of Sunday” so much more than we sometimes even realize. Because it is precisely in the Eucharist that the song of peace continues. Think of it — every celebration of the Mass is filled with ongoing prayers for peace. We literally begin the Mass with the Penitential Act and beg the Lord to pour out his mercy on us and our world. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the great Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present to reconcile our estrangement from God and others. In the gesture of the Sign of Peace, we extend our hands in the clasp of harmony and concord. In the Invitation to Communion, we beg the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world and grant us peace. In the rest of the world, the cacophony of terror and viciousness is loud and bombastic, so we need – we desperately need – to enter into the celebration of the Mass so we can continue to sing the hymn of peace, so we can nurture our longing for it and never, ever forget its melody.
It is very common for theologians and religious teachers to speak about “The Gift of Sunday” in the language of Easter. Because the Eucharist commemorates what is called the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, each and every Sunday often is referred to as a “Little Easter.” Yet, as I have carefully tried to articulate the connection between the experience of our annual celebration of the Birth of Christ with the Eucharist, I think it also is possible to refer to each and every Sunday as a “Little Christmas” and to intentionally explain to people how faithful participation in the weekly Mass will keep alive the joy of the Christmas.
Which leads me to conclude this message with one final point. That is, I would like to encourage – and, yes, even challenge – you who have read this article to invite someone or some family who rarely attends church to come with you for the celebration of the Mass. I know that this may sound a bit intimidating to you, since we Catholics are not used to doing such brazen evangelization. However, it is only fitting that you should do this. As we all know, God has graced each and every one of us with “The Gift of Sunday.” In gratitude for this generosity, this most precious of gifts should be given as a present to someone else that you know and that you care about. I promise you, it will enliven and keep the spirit of Christmas in your heart!