Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas as a new Catholic

"Happy 1st Christmas as a Catholic!" wrote one of my friends on a Christmas card she gave to me. I appreciated that because it is a bit different now.

The Congregational churches I used to attend had the usual four weeks of Advent. Each Sunday we'd light a candle of the Advent wreath-- three candles were purple and one was pink; I never knew why. We'd sing the glorious Christmas carols all month and have a beautiful candlelight service of carols late on Christmas Eve. That service was the epitome of the celebration of Christmas for me. I would throw my heart into the songs and usually ended up crying at some point. It was the best way I knew to worship God for giving us his Son. Who could ever thank Him enough? We'd all sing Silent Night with a sweet descant, and file outside with our lighted candles to sing O Holy Night in the stillness and cold, and then quietly go home to bed. Then came the big day which was all about family and presents, and then, too abruptly, it was all over but the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

But last year in Advent season I was in RCIA and had started going to Catholic churches instead. I was very surprised and not a little disappointed to hear no Christmas carols at Mass. "Just because they were mostly written by Protestants..." I thought. But then, after Christmas, boom-- carols galore! For Catholics, Advent is supposed to be a somewhat penitential time of preparation, and it's after December 25 that you get the whole Christmas season of celebration, lasting till around January 13. I loved it. It felt like we'd let the outside world's craziness blow by, and then we had our own quiet, profound observance of the season afterwards. (Same thing with Lent followed by Easter-- the Church has a longer time to prepare beforehand and a longer time to celebrate afterwards.) Purple, the color of penance, is the color of the vestments in Catholic churches during Advent. But on the third Sunday of Advent priests can wear pink-- excuse me, rose-- for Gaudete Sunday. That finally explained the candles of the Advent wreath. And Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a custom dating at least to the A.D. 600s, which may explain the late-night services I was used to (though really, since the Gospels seem to indicate that Jesus was born at night, it's clearly fitting to have a service then.)

The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary are centered around Christmas; now that I've learned the Rosary I've found it wonderful to pray them in December. What a good way to get my mind refocused on what's important about the season.

Another good way to do that has been the Liturgy of the Hours, which the priests of St. Peter Chanel pray every morning in church. It's been so moving to read the long extracts of Isaiah, full of longing and joyful anticipation of the coming Messiah. And then the second reading is usually a fascinating meditation on the Incarnation from one of the early Church Fathers.

I used to long for this kind of thing without really knowing what I was longing for. I just had a vague desire for more liturgical formality, and I wanted to improve on my pathetic lack of knowledge about the early Christians. I've gotten both as a side benefit of conversion.

I love the Christmas carols as much as ever, but now I have an even better way to worship God at Christmas: to receive Holy Communion at Mass:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel

1 comment:

David said...

I'm very happy that you have found such a great depth of spirituality in the Catholic Church. I myself celebrated Christmas this year for the first time in the Orthodox Church. It was, similarly, a wonderful experience for me and for my family.