Monday, December 8, 2008

Catholic Christmas Traditions: The First Advent Weeks

To quote the angel messenger who announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds, “Fear not…for I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

Christmas is neither about the feeling of growing excitement (spurred on by the hustle and bustle of gift shopping) nor is it, as we hear often these days, “a day that is really for kids.”

It is not about sipping egg nog in front of a crackling fire or listening to tinkling silver bells or fluffy snow. All these things are fine and may have their place as we remember the home joys of Christmas past, but none of them are the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is a mystery, the day God was born in a cave of Bethlehem in Judea, amidst the poor, the the humble and the lowly. It was the beginning of the Passion and Redemption, when the holy Infant humbled Himself from the very first days of His earthly life, He who came to sanctify us and to die on a Cross for us…a day which has held faithful Christians in awe for centuries.

Christmas is truly a promise of the Redemption.

Advent prepares us for the great Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). Like Easter, the liturgical season of Christmas continues for many weeks after Christmas Day. During Advent, many Catholic families find additional ways to celebrate St. Nicholas Day (December 6), the Immaculate Conception (a holy day of obligation, traditionally celebrated on December 8), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), Saint Lucia (December 13), St. John of the Cross (December 14) and other special days throughout the Advent and Christmas season – all to bring to mind the “reason for the season” - and which often become favorite family traditions.

Of the various saint’s days celebrated in December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 is the most important, as it is directly tied to the coming of the Savior. To share insights into the holy day of Christmas, parents often explain to their children the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which affirms God’s revelation that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, a singular grace accorded her by God.

Christians know why the Virgin Mother of God was given this great privilege, so they understand how it ties into the Christmas season. To state this mystery in very simple terms, the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived because She was chosen to be Christ's Mother. She was not simply a "vehicle," but "the woman" prophesied by God in Genesis 3:15. Like the first Eve, Our Lady was created without stain of sin from the very first instant of her life. Like the first Eve, who became "the mother of all the living," the second Eve - Our Lady - who forever retained Her first innocence, also became "the mother of all the living." In the order of grace, the Virgin Mary became the spiritual mother of all the living (those who are in the state of grace, and are not "dead in sin") because She is the Mother of God.
Our Lady is the Immaculate Conception. Especially during this week of Advent, we can recall (and discuss with our children) the papally defined dogma of 1854, when the Church solemnly defined the dogma that the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived. It turn, this can lead to the story of St. Bernadette and the apparitions at Lourdes in 1858, wherein Heaven affirmed the dogma - for at Lourdes Our Lady identified herself with these simple but profound words: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

On this Feast day, some families create a “Christ Candle” which is on display throughout the entire Christmas season of Advent. The Christ Candle is usually a large white pillar candle to which, at the candle's base, a small figure of the Infant Jesus is attached with hot-glue. Throughout Advent, the candle is used to honor the Virgin Mary, Christ's first Tabernacle, by attaching with elastic a sparkling piece of fabric, either white or blue (Our Lady's colors). The fabric, gathered like an apron to cover the figure of the Christ Child throughout Advent, is then removed on Christmas Eve after midnight Mass or early on Christmas morning. It remains in a place of honor and, to preserve it from burning away too quickly, it is lit only on Christmas Day, the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6), and on Candlemas (Feb. 2).

On December 12, Our Lady of Guadalupe, a bouquet of roses placed near the Nativity scene or on the family's home altar would not be remiss, because miraculous roses (miraculous because they bloomed in December) played the key role to a miracle we can still see today - the very Image of Our Lady of St. Juan Diego's tilma. The Immaculate Conception, who appeared to Juan Diago, placed the miraculous roses into the tilma, arranging them carefully. She told Juan to bring the roses to the bishop. When the roses later spilled from the tilma in the bishop's presence, the inexplicable Image was revealed for the first time.

All through this season of Advent - a special season of prayer and penance - let's recall the Catholic Christmas traditions and rekindle them in our own hearts and homes.

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