Christmas is a time for tradition. Many of these traditions, both for family and church, were interrupted during the COVID pandemic, and although we are not yet fully recovered some will be brought back this year with proper care and diligence. For the Parish, the most wonderful return has been our Christmas Pageant with the children in the religious education program. If you did not see it, please check this link. I hope that many of us will have been able to visit family and enjoy other Christmas activities from trimming the tree to decorating the cake.
The liturgy, however, never takes a vacation and always allows us a special participation in the celebration of the Nativity. The music, the creche and the stories allow us every year to reflect on what it means that God became man. It has been said that tradition is the living faith of the dead and it certainly a pattern that is handed down to us. (See Footnote 1 below.) These customs should not be changed too radically. That would prevent us from making our Christian history our personal one as well. Every year we should approach these symbols and stories and sing these songs with a deeper understanding of the mysteries they proclaim. Year after year this allows us to see if we have grown in our faith and understanding.
This year I have found that the Christmas story has revealed the meaning of two personal experiences.
My favorite weekly mental exercise is to prepare the online commentary for a non-Gospel Sunday reading. This saves as many brain cells as doing a crossword puzzle, I learn important things and I can share them with others. Another great benefit is that I do not choose the topics and must examine some I might otherwise overlook. This year, many readings required that I look at God’s promise to King David that he, God, would never abandon his, David’s, line. There were times when it seemed that the line had died out or had become purely ceremonial. Yet the scriptures often returned to this theme. They even insisted that a descendant of King David, who they called the Messiah, would reunite all the Jewish people. Remember that after Solomon the son of David died the kingdom was divided in two: Israel and Judea. Israel was destroyed and the people scattered a century later. Although it seemed like putting toothpaste back in the tube, this reunification was biblically nonnegotiable.
Yet look at today’s reading. Joseph must go to be counted in Bethlehem the city of David because he was of “the house and family of David.” We call Joseph the foster father of Jesus but in Jewish and Roman law by accepting Jesus he became his legal father. This made Jesus a member of David’s line. St. Matthew’s gospel is even more explicit on Jesus’ linage. As I celebrate Christmas this year I do so with a recognition that God always fulfills his promises, he never forgets even if we do. Also, his way of fulfilling them is always beyond what we could even imagine. He brought together not only all the Jewish people, Israelites and Judeans alike, but expanded this to include we who were not even born Jews. There is much in our world that is difficult and dangerous and even the church has found herself divided, yet I have a greater appreciation this year of God’s power and faithfulness that no matter how bad things may seem as we read at the end of Matthew’s gospel “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)
This year also saw a news story pop out of our screens and on to our streets. Literally. When I watched people crossing the southern border this summer, I had no idea that they would be transported across the country and end up on Joralemon Street without food, clothing, or housing. When they began coming to the church for help, I remembered the line from the book of Exodus: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:20). I remembered the stories as well from my maternal grandparents of the hostile reception they received when they arrived in America at the turn of the last century. Others were obviously moved as well, and I was inspired by the reaction of so many of our parishioners and neighbors to help them. Yet we cannot forget that there are significant and validly contested issues here. If our borders are national, then doesn’t every region of the country have a responsibly to support the border states? Indeed, what is the meaning of borders, can we have a country without them? Every service organization was preparing for an increase in homelessness this winter for our own citizens, will they now be deprived of assistance? These, and others, are valid questions and need to be addressed concretely. But the reality of the needy among us must take precedence. The bedrock of Catholic Social teaching is the dignity of the human person (see Footnotes #2 and #3). This is God-given and we cannot deny or take it away for any reason. I will look at the manger and visualize the flight into Egypt differently this year. I will remember the Venezuelan families I met this summer and see the Holy Family. They taught me the meaning of the words “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Ge 1:27)
Look back on your year. See what was most important in it. Then read the stories and sing the hymns of Christmas and ask If they make the events of the year more understandable. Do they reveal the presence of Jesus perhaps hidden in the moment? This knowledge, which can only be given by the spirit, is the greatest Christmas gift of all.
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.
Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (quoted in “The Church’s best kept Secret” by Mark Shea, (This is an introduction to Catholic Social Teaching.)
At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” He affirms that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us. The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 402; 634; 2793)