Friday, December 18, 2009
THE SYMBOLS AND MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
I decided to give my Fifth year students a class on Christmas. It was in part an act of desperation and in part a felt need to do something on the coming festival before we break for the holidays. That done I opened by pointing out that among all the posters decorating the school advertising Christmas not one has an image of the Crib, of the Christ Child or anything religious. No angels, no Star, no shepherds, nothing. Perhaps they were told not to put them in. What we have are images of snowmen (in Dublin, Ireland were snow is almost as rare as hen’s teeth), fir trees, presents and penguins (I don’t know so don’t ask me).
It points to at least a drift or even a push towards the total secularization of society and its religious feasts. In a national hospital staff have been told that there is not to be a ‘Christmas party’ but an ‘end of year party’. Irish minds of course being rebellious and peculiarly common-sensed are outraged and will probably ignore such nonsense but it’s the tip of the iceberg.
So I took my students through a short catechesis on the Christmas festival and it may be of use to you dear reader:
Although Christ was probably born around April Christmas is celebrated at this time of year because it provided our ancient forbears in the faith an ideal time to feast without attracting attention from their sometimes hostile pagan fellow citizens. By starting their feast near the solstice they could seem to be celebrating that event while actually celebrating the birth of the true sun, Jesus. The birth of Christ itself marks only the beginning of the festival for it extends to the Epiphany and beyond, a long celebration of the Light entering the world and history at the darkest time, taking human flesh from the womb of the Virgin Mary. Thus the birth of Christ is the root of our Christmas but not the whole of it. The festival climaxes with the celebration of His manifestation to the three wise men, to His revelation of Himself by turning water into wine and the Father’s affirmation of Him at the Jordan.
There’s more: our decorations point to the beauty of heaven and the graces He brings to us. Our gifts are echoes not just of these gifts but of Him who is the GIFT from the GIVER OF ALL GOOD GIFTS: the Father. The tree represents both the Cross and the trees of paradise that bear fruit for the healing of the nations (Ezek. 47:12).
There is an old Irish prayer:
“O King of the Friday
Whose arms were stretched on the Cross.
O Lord who did suffer
The bruises, the wounds, the loss.
We stretch ourselves beneath the shield of thy Might.
May some fruit of the Tree of Thy Passion
Fall on us this night.”
The Christmas tree like the wood of the crib points to the Cross and its baubles are symbols of the graces Christ has won for us.
Even pagan symbols such as the wreath have been taken up and given Christian meaning. The wreath becomes a symbol of the undying victory of Christ and His power to protect and save. The festal meal becomes a symbol of the Eucharistic Feast, the true ‘table where no one grows old’ and therefore also an anticipation of the wedding feast of heaven.
The birth of the Christ is the beginning of the journey that leads to Calvary and beyond. In celebrating His birth we celebrate the One who came to reveal the Father’s unconditional love and mercy and His utter worthiness to all love and glory and who reveals it above all in His Passion and death on the Cross. One feast points to the other, the Child that is born is born to die so that all of us who are dead might live forever.
Forget the snowmen focus on the Child.