Monday, December 3, 2012

Keeping It Catholic at Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. (Lk. 1: 13-14)

In the Church, there is a pattern to what is called “the ecclesial year” – the array of Church seasons and feasts, which purposely place “the various events of the life of Our Lord before us in order that we may ponder over them and imitate the virtues presented.”[1] In a coincidental and stark contrast to the secular calendar which nears its close, the Catholic City always opens each new Church year on the first Sunday of Advent, the penitential season leading up to the joyful celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity.  Throughout the centuries and in all cultures, there developed in Catholic churches and homes customs and traditions which intentionally keep in mind “the reason for the season.”

Symbolism of the Advent Wreath
The usual four weeks [2] of Advent (from the Latin “ad-venio” – to come to [3]), recall the four thousand years [4] that elapsed from the Fall of our first parents until the birth of Jesus Christ. During this brief penitential season of the Church, we strive to “make straight for Christ the way to our souls, and behold, Our Lord will come at Christmas.”[5]Likened to a “mini-Lent,” the season of Advent possesses a two-fold purpose of spiritual preparation – first, to commemorate the Lord’s “coming to” the world as a humble Infant and second, in anticipation of His Second Coming, when He shall judge the living and the dead.
The symbolic elements of the traditional Advent wreath, a circle of real evergreen boughs in which are set four candles (three of purple and one of rose) serve a dual purpose. The evergreen wreath itself represents God (the Alpha and Omega, Who has no beginning and no end) and His faithful promise in Genesis 3:15. The four (blessed) candles signify the four thousand years of mankind’s sufferings and sorrowful anticipation of the Savior, as well as the four Advent weeks. Predominating the wreath are three candles of purple, the liturgical color of the somber penitential seasons (Advent and Lent). Rose, the liturgical color of joy, is the third candle in the wreath. [6] 

Of these four candles, it is said that the first candle recalls Adam and Eve and the Original Sin brought upon all mankind. The second candle reminds us of Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ’s Birth and Passion. The third candle (of rose) represents the Virgin Mary – the “Cause of Our Joy” and salvation, the Mystical Rose who brought Christ into the world. The fourth candle denotes St. John the Baptist, the immediate forerunner of Christ, and his message of repentance.
Traditionally, on each Sunday of Advent, a new candle is lit in the following order: purple, purple, rose, and purple. In other words, on the first Sunday of Advent, only one purple candle is lighted. On the second Sunday of Advent, two purple candles are kindled. However, on the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete or “Joyful” Sunday), the rose candle is lit along with the first two purple candles. This day is called Gaudete Sunday because the Feast of the Nativity approaches and we remember that God’s Promise of the Redeemer is fulfilled. As the 1962 Roman Catholic Missal explains, “On this day, the Church urges us to gladness in the middle of this time of expectation and penance…Now is the time for fervent prayers and for imploring Jesus to remain with us by His mercy.” [7] Finally, on the fourth Advent of Sunday, all four candles are set alight.
When the Advent wreath and its candles are blessed by a Catholic priest, it becomes a sacramental.  In the Catholic home, the wreath is set up on the first Sunday of Advent, and it is best placed where it will serve as a beautiful daily reminder to all family members that this is a season of penance and hope, of prayer and work. On each Sunday, the family can gather together, with the mother lighting the candles as the father reads a short blessing, asking God “to prepare all hearts for the coming of Christ” [8] and sprinkles the wreath with holy water. The candles remain alight throughout dinner, after which evening prayers may be said.

The Lady Candle and the Christ Child Candle
In the Advent wreath, there is sometimes seen the addition of a fifth, all-white candle, set in the wreath’s middle to symbolize Jesus, the Light of the World; it appears to be an organic adaption of the Christ Child Candle. Usually a pillar, the Christ Child Candle may be decorated with a symbol of Jesus, like a tiny baby or a small lamb. Although on display during the Advent season, the Christ Child Candle is not lit until Christmas Eve (the Vigil of the Nativity) or Christmas Day.
At the beginning of Advent, the same white pillar candle could be used to honor the Virgin Mary by sewing elastic to a tiny piece of stiff veiling or solid fabric, either in white or blue (traditionally known as Our Lady’s colors).The veil or cloth, covering the symbol of Jesus on the Christ Child Candle, is removed either after Christmas Eve’s midnight Mass or early Christmas morning. Beginning on Christmas, the Christ Candle is lit every day, either throught January 1st (commemorating the first eight days of Jesus' life, for on the eighth day, He was circumcised and first shed His Precious Blood), or through Epiphany (the day the Holy Infant allowed His identity to be made known to the Magi). Families might even light the Christ Child Candle through February 2 (Feast of the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, when the prophet Simeon called Him "a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory for thy people Israel." [9]).
Other families prefer a separate “Lady Candle” (today, it is often called a “Mary Candle”). A simple but loving custom which commemorates the Virgin on one of her greatest solemnities (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8), the “Lady Candle” is either a white pillar candle with blue or white veiling, or a tall white pillar candle, adorned with tiny blue roses or a simple blue ribbon. In either case, the “Lady Candle” could be placed in front of a statue of Our Lady or near the Nativity Set and lit each night, beginning December 8 through Christmas as the family prays the Rosary. Within the octave (eight days) of the Immaculate Conception, many families still retain the custom of beginning a nine-day Christmas Novena to the Infant Jesus (starting on December 16 and completed on Christmas Day).

The Nativity Set and the Virtue of Charity
The Advent season is the perfect time to refocus on practicing the virtue of charity, which first means love of God and His laws above all things and second, love of neighbor. The highest virtue is charity, even above obedience, for all good things are founded upon charity. After all, it is God’s own charity toward men that gave us His only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world; and from this charity also issued Christ’s obedience, even to His death on a cross.  The humble little Nativity set, all by itself, tells a story about charity, and the lack thereof amongst those who would not give shelter to Our Lady and St. Joseph.
Parents and children can prepare themselves for the celebration of Jesus’ Birth by renewing the offering of “daily duty” in silent sacrifice to God, but making those sacrifices “visible” in a unique way with the family’s Nativity set. Setting up the Nativity set on the first Sunday of Advent, parents remind the family that everyone (adults included) is responsible for preparing the stable and the Divine Child’s manger. The manger itself is covered with a small cotton ball (to cover the Infant Jesus) and outside the crèche is set a tiny bundle of clean straw (available at craft stores). Each tiny straw piece represents a “little work” done in the spirit of pleasing God and preparing for Christ’s Coming – like a prayer or an act of self-denial.
Through the whole of Advent, the miniature stable and the manger are slowly built up, as every person who makes a sacrifice quietly adds one small piece of straw (just one) in the stable.  Each person’s daily goal is to add as many little pieces of straw as possible, but these acts are not meant to breed a family competition or self-congratulation, because such things are not the spirit of Christ. The practice of adding straws represents the entire family’s many hidden acts of love for Christ. When one thinks about it, the tiny pieces of straw are reminders of the littleness of our actions, which only become meritorious in God’s eyes when they are done with love and in union with Christ.
Supernaturally speaking, parents can help their children “set the tone for the day” by gathering the family together, praying the Morning Offering, and reminding each family member to place one small piece of straw into the manger (representing their morning prayers). After that, each person keeps track of any good deeds offered to God by adding another tiny straw piece to the manger or inside of the stable.
There are countless ways to make acts of charity and offer them in reparation to God for sins - morning and evening prayers, giving alms, exercising patience, practicing good manners (which is so sadly lacking in our modernist culture), giving up something which one prefers (a favorite activity or food, a social gathering, the company of people whom one particularly likes), and doing our best to think and speak well of others (and very little of ourselves). The offering of even little things is consistent with the Church’s teachings, exemplified through St. Therese the Little Flower and what she called the “Little Way.”

The Christmas Season Continues
Over forty years ago, Mary Reed Newland wrote, “There is only one reason in all the world to feast and be merry at Christmas: because we are redeemed, and Christmas is the feast of the beginning of our Redemption. In this bewilderingly beautiful season, in a most mysterious and beautiful way, God became a Baby.”[10]
The true season of Christmas – traditionally known as Christmastide, the season of joy in which we celebrate events of Our Lord’s “child life,”[11] - only begins on Christmas Day. In the traditional ecclesial calendar, the length of this period was regulated by the position of Septuagesima Sunday, which occurred any time between January 16 and February 22.[12]
In the days and weeks after Christmas, we might remember the first forty days of Jesus’ life, hidden away in a stable, tended by the Virgin Mary and guarded by St. Joseph. On the Feast of the Holy Family (traditionally falling on the first Sunday after Christmas), parents should lead their children into asking God for the graces needed to be a holy family, too. Husbands should look anew to St. Joseph, his trust in God, his purity of body and soul and, above all, his sacrificial love for the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Wives may look to Our Lady, who is the model of all virtues. Children should be encouraged in emulating the Christ Child in His attitude toward God, His Virgin Mother, and His foster-father, St. Joseph. 
On January 1, which once commemorated the Circumcision of the Lord, the Church celebrates the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. This is the perfect time for religious resolutions, to continue what we practiced in the Advent recently passed, and to consecrate ourselves (or renew our consecrations) to Jesus through Mary.
At this time of year, there is also the Catholic custom of “marking” the house doors with the initials CMB intertwined with the numbers representing the new year.  For example, the marks for the Year of Our Lord 2012 would be written in the following manner: 2 + 0 + C + M + B + 1 + 2. The initials “CMB” have two meanings – “Christus
Mansionem Benedicat,”
which translates to “Christ, bless this home” and they are also the first initials of the traditional names given to the Magi - Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These marks are written in chalk at the tops of doors or over the main entrance. Another option is to write the year and the initials on a small hand-held chalkboard, which can be nicely decorated around the frame, easily fitting in the space above the front door.

Jesus – Light of the World
In some Catholic countries, small gifts are given to children on each of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” beginning on Christmas Day and ending on January 6, the traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Originating in the third century, the Epiphany commemorates the Magi’s finding of the Christ Child “with Mary His Mother” – the day the wise men offered their symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Tradition relates that these gifts represent the mysteries of Our Lord’s life – gold (signifying His holy, temporal life), frankincense (a gift reserved only for kings), and myrrh (a rare and bitter healing herb, signifying the future Passion of Christ and the Redemption).
There is no doubt that, by early January, the world considers the Christmas season to be over. In contrast, families in the Catholic City might renew the tradition of keeping the Nativity set on display and the Christmas lights burning for 40 days, up to and including Candlemas (February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple). In so doing, we declare our belief that the “Light of the World” has come.
[Copyright Marianna Bartold, 2010. All Rights Reserved World-wide. This article was originally published in Catholic Family News and was updated only in regard to the year 2012.)


[1] Most Rev. Louis LaRavoir Morrow, D.D., Bishop of Krishnagar, My Catholic Faith: A Manual of Religion [Kansas City, MO: Sarto House, 2003. Reprinted from the 1954 edition]:  pp. 240-241.
[2] Advent usually begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30), with the last Advent week coinciding with the Sunday preceding Christmas Eve. Depending on the calendar dates in a given year, there are rare occasions in which Advent is observed during the course of three Sundays, not four.
[3] Francis Mershman, "Advent," The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. [New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907] at
[4] According to the Hebrew and Vulgate chronology, as noted by Dom Gueranger’s Liturgical Year, cited by “Advent Overview” on Fisheaters website []
[5] Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962 [Kansas City, MO: Angelus Press, 2004. Newly retypeset, based on The Ideal Missal, 1962]: p. 136.
[6]“A Catholic Encyclopedia” in The Family Rosary Edition of the Holy Bible [Chicago, IL: The Catholic Press, Inc., 1953 Imprimatur): p. 27.
[7] Roman Catholic Daily Missal, op. cit., p.147.
[8]Mary Reed Newland, The Year and Our Children [San Diego, CA: The Firefly Press, reprinted with permission from the 1956 edition. Copyrighted by the estate of Mary Reed Newland]: p. 15.
[9] Lk. 2: 32 (The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims version, with Challoner Revisions 1749-52; 1899 Edition of the John Murray Company).
[10]Newland, op. cit., p. 33.
[11]Most Rev. Morrow, op.cit., p. 241.
[12] Ibid., p. 241.

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