By Father Kyle
As a bit of a movie-fanatic, I have to admit that I get frustrated sometimes when people don’t give a good movie a chance, especially when it is part of a trilogy or saga. Watching or reading an epic story requires an investment of one’s time, focus, and energy, if one is going to really understand and appreciate it in all of its grandeur. If you were to watch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi without watching the previous 5 movies in the saga first, or at least episodes 3 and 4, then you would be really confused and lost as to what is happening, especially if you get as far as seeing the teddy-bear-like Ewoks on Endor. On the other hand, if you only watch Episode 1, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and nothing beyond it, then you would undoubtedly feel dissatisfied because you only saw the beginning of the story. What happens after that first episode is really awesome, especially the Clone Wars and the whole story of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, one of the best dramas of any series ever made (in my humble opinion), but you would never know, or at least never experience it for yourself, because you gave up on all of it too soon. The whole Star Wars storyline, from Episode 1 to Episode 9, including all the additional offshoot movies and series in between, is truly a work of art that you should discover and savor, if you have not already done so.
This evening, we celebrate Christmas, which at least for us Christians, is not a holiday; it is a solemnity. For us, it is much more than the equivalent of Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Labor Day, or any other holiday listed on the secular calendar, and despite our beloved cultural traditions that have clung to it, it is not about gifts under a decorated tree, cookies, eggnog, Santa Clause, Frosty the Snowman, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Christmas is infinitely more. It is the day when the Church commemorates and celebrates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, her head, shepherd, and bridegroom – the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. It is so important that it is one of the holy days of obligation, and its celebration is not limited to one day. It has a whole octave, like Easter, when each of those eight days is celebrated with the same solemnity as December 25, and beyond that, there is a Christmas season that extends it even further.
Unfortunately, many people in our society, including many in the Church, stop celebrating Christmas on December 26th, which is a sad manifestation of the tendency of many to look at the birthday of Jesus as an isolated event, which it is most certainly not. When we commercialize and monetize what we celebrate over the next couple weeks, we secularize it and blind ourselves even more to how it fits into salvation history. We then fail to see its proper context, both historically and spiritually. Jesus was not born in a vacuum – it didn’t just randomly happen on a given day. Our readings from Sacred Scripture situate Christmas in a timeline, in God’s plan for His people, which was laid out over millennia. Today, both St. Paul and St. Matthew help us to understand this. In addressing his fellow Jews in Antioch, Paul speaks about the birth of Christ in the context of the whole history of the people of Israel, taking us from the birth of the nation during their exodus from Egypt all the way up to the life and desert ministry of John the Baptist. Today’s Gospel reading, with all of those long names that are difficult to pronounce, traces the story all the way back to Abraham, relating the birth of Jesus to the covenants made with Abraham and King David and helping us to see that in Jesus, God’s promises to Abraham and David have been fulfilled. Jesus of Nazareth truly is the long-awaited and much-desired Davidic King, the Messiah, whom the Jewish people sought for so long, and in Him, all humanity has found blessing and salvation. In other words, Christmas celebrates a monumental event in the greatest story ever told – the true story of mankind’s redemption, a story starting with Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis and ending with the new heaven and new earth we hear about in the Book of Revelation, the ushering in of the Kingdom of God in its fullness when Jesus will come again in glory.
Although there is a definite end to the Christmas season, the story of which Christmas is a very important part continues on through the rest of the liturgical year, from Ordinary Time (focusing on Jesus’ public life and ministry) to Lent to Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to His passion, death, and resurrection during Holy Week, to His ascension into heaven, to the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to His second coming at the end of time, for which we wait and prepare in a special way during Advent. Throughout the Church’s three-year lectionary cycle, we hear most of the whole Bible – the entire story of God creating us, saving us, and restoring us to eternal life. It is a story far greater than Star Wars, not only in its length and breadth, but also in its relevancy. The story of Star Wars is something we can watch, read, or play on video games, but the story of salvation history includes each and every one of us because we Christians are all members of the Church, the Mystical Body of the One whose birth we celebrate this evening with great joy. Since the Head and the members of the Body of Christ have been inseparably joined by God, Christmas is a celebration of the Church, as it is of Christ her Head. Today’s first reading from Isaiah foretells the creation of this new Israel, the new Jerusalem, which is the Church, the Bride of Christ, who is her Builder and Lord. The story of salvation history continues with and in us.
Just as the feast of Christmas is part of a bigger picture in the liturgical year, we are all part of a bigger picture that can only be understood and appreciated if we each play his or her special part in God’s plan for humanity and all creation. If we make Christmas nothing more than a short-lived celebration of an isolated event that happened long ago, then we will miss its true grandeur and wonder, while we reduce ourselves to spectators on the sidelines. If we cross out our names in the Book of Life by severely limiting our practice of the faith we have been given, being Catholics and Christians in name only and excusing ourselves from the sacramental life of the Church, then we will exclude ourselves from sharing in the divinity of Him who humbled Himself to share in our humanity. Christmas would then become a reminder of what we are missing out on, instead of a gift we have been given and a preview of something even greater yet to come. By investing more of our time, focus, and energy into being a living part of the Church throughout the year, we can celebrate Christmas in the right way with true joy and with the hope of discovering and forever savoring the fullness of what God becoming man promises us.