rorate caeli 2017
Our Rorate Caeli Mass at Epiphany, an Advent tradition stressing the seriousness and beauty of the Nativity

Year B Advent 3

GK Chesterton, who was a Catholic writer and journalist who did most of his work in the early 20th century, really, really loved Christmas. In fact, he wrote so many Christmas articles for the newspaper, along with entire plays and poems, that there’s an entire book now with a collection of just his Christmas-related writing, and that book isn’t even complete. He was interested in every single part of Christmas, such as why the turkey tastes so good or why Santa Claus seemed to have a benevolent attitude towards him even though he was such a terrible child.

In that sense, Chesterton is the patron saint for us because if anything Christmas has become even more of a focal point for our lives than it ever was before, even though as I read in a newspaper article the other day, the holiday is becoming more and more secular. This may surprise you to learn, but before massive corporations figured out they could sell us a lot of stuff around this time of year, before an army of Santas invaded every shopping mall in this fine land, celebrating Christmas was actually frowned upon. Mostly this scrooge-based denial of joy came down through the Puritans, who thought that all the revelry was pure Catholic superstition. There’s actually an interesting historical event that resulted from this cultural quirk. During the American Revolution you may remember how, on Christmas Day, George Washington rowed his troops across the Delaware River and made a surprise attack on a group of German mercenaries that the English had hired. The Germans, being good Catholics, were having a great feast, drinking beer, singing songs, and generally having a good time. Washington’s troops, though, didn’t particularly care that it was Christmas. The unready Germans were defeated.

The Christmas that we know and love today with all the traditions that have come down to us, was basically invented by Charles Dickens, the writer of A Christmas Carol. Chesterton comments on this phenomenon, saying that to the non-Catholic mind, all of the gravity and magic of Christmas is totally lost and so it needed to be rescued. This is so true, and we still see it today with the way some of these newer, secular Christmas traditions are fighting for prominence and many of them, let’s say, don’t have a whole lot thought behind them. There are people out there who at Christmas just watch a few movies and go shopping and that’s the whole holiday to them.

Chesterton writes about these watered-down celebrations, “People are losing the power to enjoy Christmas through identifying it with enjoyment. When once they lose sight of the old suggestion that it is all about something, they naturally fall into blank pauses of wondering what it is all about.” In other words, Christmas is not some random holiday so that kids can get a week off school and we can all watch Home Alone and eat cookies. This is to say, Christmas is about a very real event, an event that rattled heaven and earth and immediately curved the orbit of everything around. All of the sudden angels are singing in the sky, shepherds are kneeling by the cradle of a baby in adoration, the very stars in the sky hover in an unknown constellation and the magi are drawn out of their homeland across the desert to find out why. Christmas involves a lot of fun and kitsch and celebrating, but it is also serious business. The seriousness of it, in fact, is what makes it so joyful.

This an event that was prepared from the beginning of time, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This is the very prophesy that Our Lord as an adult would read in the synagogue to begin his public ministry. This prophecy proclaims the day of the Lord, that day at the end of time when Our Lord will return and set all things in order according to his justice. It is because of this entrance of God into our history that Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord.” The joy comes from knowing Jesus. John the Baptist has much the same message, saying that he is not the Messiah and that, when the Messiah comes, he will be greater than any prophet of human being who has ever walked the face of the earth.

The way we prepare for Christmas, our traditions, our prayers, our happiness, all of this revolves around that baby in the manger. Keep that in mind as you celebrate – the drama of what happened, the suspense of what is to come, the joy of the present moment. And then, go out and put up as many Christmas lights as you can, bake as many cookies as you can, put garland in every single nook and cranny of your house, and celebrate the birth your Savior.

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