As I extend my prayers and blessings to you and your loved ones for a very blessed and merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year, allow me to share a few personal memories and reflections of this holy day.
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** One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received was a chalice, a chalice that belonged to the very first priest I remember, Father August Schoppel, the long-time pastor of my home parish in Pittsburgh. The chalice apparently had been damaged in a fire and then relegated to a flea market. A devout Catholic recognized it for what it was, rescued it, and mentioned it to my mom and dad who obtained it and gave it to me for Christmas. Later, when I became a bishop, my parish had it restored and re-presented to me as an ordination gift. The chalice is a classic and beautiful work of art in sterling silver. I use it to this day with fond memories of Fr. Schoppel and my early days as a child in church.
** Non-Christians, and even agnostics and atheists shouldn’t be threatened or offended by the celebration of Christmas. Though they might not share the religious significance of the day – the birth of Jesus, the Son of God in Bethlehem – they can certainly enjoy the common sentiments that are part of the holiday: humility, generosity, peace and joy. After all, lots of people who aren’t Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, right?
** Pope Benedict on Christmas: “God has made himself small for us. God comes not with external force, but he comes in the powerlessness of his love. He places himself in our hands. He asks for our love. He invites us to become small ourselves, to come down from our high thrones and to learn to be childlike before God. He asks us to trust him and thus to learn how to live in truth and love.”
** I enjoy receiving Christmas cards, especially from longtime friends from whom I hear only at Christmas time. It’s especially fun to receive family pictures from former parishioners, families with growing kids whose parents I first met when they themselves were teenagers. A reminder that even though I’m rapidly fading myself, the life of the human family goes on, one generation to the next.
** Speaking of families, another special Christmas gift I received was the photo album my mom put together many years ago, a collection of family photos that she took the time to gather from shoeboxes, organize, label and put in chronological order. The pictures are of my grandparents, my parents when they were young couple, aunts and uncles and cousins, neighbors and my siblings and me as we grew older and reached various milestones in our lives. Interesting footnote: my elementary school pictures included my third-grade class picture on which I had crossed-out the pictures of all the girls. For some reason that didn’t happen to my eighth-grade class picture.
** I love the sacred music of Christmas. And no, it doesn’t include “Santa Baby.” Perhaps the most beautiful hymn is “O Holy Night.” Consider these lyrics: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” It strikes me that our weary world today really needs a thrill of hope, a new and glorious morn. That perennial gift of hope is one of the reasons the celebration of Christmas is so important.
** I always buy lots of extra Christmas stamps, religious Christmas stamps of course. I use them throughout the year, especially for personal correspondence and cards. The stamps say, “USA” and “Christmas,” and feature a beautiful picture of Madonna and Child. What other time of the year can you send a religious message courtesy of the federal government?
** Pope Benedict, again on Christmas: “Joy is the true gift of Christmas, not expensive presents that demand time and money. We can transmit this joy simply – with a smile, with a kind gesture, with some small help, with forgiveness. Let us give this joy and the joy will be returned to us.”
** Remember that Christmas is a season, not just a day. It’s too bad that on the day after Christmas radio stations will stop playing Christmas music, folks will rush to the stores to return their gifts, and many will begin taking down their decorations, which in some cases have been displayed since Halloween! We should try to observe the entire Christmas Season, prayerfully, liturgically and personally. Keep the tree up and the house decorated as long as possible – at least through New Year’s Day, the Octave of Christmas, and ideally until the Feast of the Epiphany, this year, January 8th.
** According to several venerable calendars, the world will end in December of 2012. You might want to delay your Christmas shopping next year. And you’d better be well-prepared to meet the Lord and render an account of yourself, just in case. I came across this observation recently: Live every day as if it’s your last, because someday you’ll be right!”
** We conclude with this prayer for the New Year: “Bless us, O Lord, and bless the time and seasons yet to come. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart. And fill this New Year with your kindness that we may be glad and rejoice all the days of our life. Amen.”