Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
It’s no secret that many of us put up our Christmas trees and decorations before Christmas is actual here. I say “us” because I’m guilty as charged. My family puts up lights, the tree, decorations, and some presents under our tree pretty early. We boast that we’re the first people in sight to put up our tree which is usually before Thanksgiving! I know, we’re terrible!
The Catholic Church has designated the four weeks preceding Christmas as Advent, a time to prepare the way of the Lord for His coming as our King and Savior. In addition, the Church teaches:
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviors first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating [John the Baptists] birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: He must increase, but I must decrease. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 524)
When I converted to the Catholic Church one of my new Catholic friends caught me listening to Christmas music prior to Christmas day. I say “caught” because this person informed me that it was wrong to listen to Christmas music before Christmas. I get that, and liturgically, my family does our best to observe Advent as the season of repentance, hope, and anticipation. But I still rock out to Trans-Siberian Orchestra almost all year long.
There is a lot of use in holding off on our Christmas-themed traditions until Christ is actually here. The liturgy is beautiful that way, in how it can turn seasons into a microcosm of salvation history. While the world is coming down from the highs of the Christmas season, we should be coming up on ours! The minute Wal-Mart puts everything on sale, you know we are celebrating the birth of our Savior.
Many families are confused and some are, in good faith, worried about how they are celebrating Christmas. “Should we put up the tree?” “Should we listen to music?” “Can I take my tree down?” “When is Christmas actually over?”
My family strives for this, and each year, we see ourselves pulling back from our activities and traditions to align ourselves better with the liturgy, celebrating advent to Christmas, and Christmas to Epiphany. Some dislike the Liturgy, many because they see it as inconvenient, or another season of “Catholic guilt” if they leave up décor or sing a song when they shouldn’t.
Here’s a brief summary of what just happened in the Liturgical calendar:
As most Catholics know, Advent is four Sundays long, culminating on Christmas day. So sometimes it is not a full four weeks depending on what day of the week Christmas lands – many might not realize this. Next is Candlemas, which falls on February 2 — the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus (also the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary), and this is the day the Vatican usually takes down their Christmas décor. However, Christmas is still not over! If you were to count forty days from the first Sunday of Advent, you will always arrive on a Friday, which is the Feast of the Epiphany. This, twelve days after Christmas day, is the official end of Christmas. So we should all feel very free and encouraged to observe all our Christmas traditions and joy through this day (and it doesn’t hurt at all the begin Christmas preparations during Advent).
To some, the Liturgy is a legalistic mark of the Church, telling us when to do something, when not to do something. Others might see the Liturgy as a mere suggestion. But I hope you see it as much more than that. With the Liturgy, all Christians are unified in our observances, celebrations, and activity. The Liturgy is a constant reminder of our unity and our way of life as Christians, which is love. The Catechism puts it this way:
The human person is ordered to beatitude by his deliberate acts: the passions or feelings he experiences can dispose him to it and contribute to it. The term "passions" belongs to the Christian patrimony. Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil. The passions are natural components of the human psyche; they form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind. Our Lord called man's heart the source from which the passions spring. There are many passions. The most fundamental passion is love. (Nos. 1762-1765)
Our fundamental passion should be love, and sometimes, holding off is the most loving thing we can do. I’m not saying it’s morally wrong to listen to Al Pitrelli on an awesome guitar solo, or to eat a tasty Lebkuchen cookie, or even to put up lights (none of these are), but perhaps some restraint is in order for a more perfect holiday season. Merry Christmas, and happy Epiphany.