Friday, December 4, 2015

Our Lost Christmas Gospel

I first got to know Dr. Rita Ferrone about 25 years ago when she was the Director of the Catechumenate in New York. Sometimes, I don't completely agree with what she writes (e.g., her negative assessment of the traditional Roman liturgy and its contemporary revival), but then sometimes I do agree with her. One such instance is her latest Commonweal column, “'His Own Received Him Not': The Perfect (Neglected) Christmas Gospel Reading.” 

It definitely deserves reading in full!

One of the many unfortunate aspects of our collaboration in the evolution (i.e., secularization) of Christmas has been the diminished attendance at Christmas Day Mass in favor of anticipations of Christmas on the evening (or even worse in the afternoon) before. And, of course, one consequence of that has been the de facto downgrading of the principal Mass of Christmas (the third Mass or Missa in die) with its glorious gospel reading from John 1, the famous "prologue," which, until 1965, was also fittingly read at the end of almost every Mass. Even worse, as Rita notes in her column, even when people do attend Mass during the day, they might not hear the proper daytime gospel and may get instead the Lucan gospel from the Midnight Mass.

"Many priests routinely avail themselves of the permission to use other readings in place of the readings proper to the Mass of Christmas day,” she writes. “People want to hear about shepherds and angels,” a pastor she once worked for told her, “and that’s what we give them.” She is "convinced this represents a loss" - as I too am convinced. (For what it may be worth, I always faithfully follow the Missal’s order and use the appointed readings on Christmas Day. But I can also recall one year, way back when I was a deacon, when the priest insisted on using the Midnight readings at all the Masses on both Christmas Eve and Day, along with Eucharistic Prayer II. I have no doubt he believed he was giving people what they wanted! And maybe indeed he was!)

“Here is where I think the church’s ministry too often fails," Rita responds, "it does not show people how to enter into mystery. Much sensitivity is needed to bridge the divide between the secular world and its habits of mind, and the sacred, to which gospel and liturgy invite the faithful.”

Of course, she is right. But, if our ministry “often fails,” if it fails “to bridge the divide between the secular world and its habits of mind, and the sacred, to which gospel and liturgy invite the faithful,” isn’t that sort of built into our individualistic, consumerist, post-modern, American style of life – and a corresponding style of liturgical worship – that is itself riddled with “the secular world and its habits of mind“?

Often, when people get worried about what the world has done to Christmas – and what our contemporary liturgical adaptations have collaborated in doing to Christmas – often the proposed solution is Advent. But I am convinced, as I have said before, that the solution cannot be some sort of competition between Advent and Christmas (a competition Christmas will surely win and Advent can only lose!). And, anyway, in themselves, the Christmas things that occupy us for most of Advent – parties, decorations, gift-giving – are not per se in themselves bad things. They too can be valid vehicles for incarnating the Christmas story in the sights and sounds of our culture.

The problem is not some supposed competition between Advent and Christmas but the lack of seriousness of both Advent and Christmas in today's "Holiday" season. As I wrote here last week, the issue is not whether one's Tree is already up at home but whether one's heart is at the mall. The Advent Wreath is not an alternative to the Christmas Tree. Like the Christmas Tree, the Advent Wreath is itself just another cute folkloric custom, which in its contemporary incarnation can become yet another frivolous substitute for Advent's challenging message about the impending Day of Judgment – just as the illuminated Tree can become yet another frivolous substitute for John’s gospel’s challenging message of the light that shines in the darkness.

(Rita Ferrone's Commonweal  column on the Christmas gospel can be found at not?utm_source=Main+Reader+List&utm_campaign=b1360ad627-July+18_The_Week_at_Commonweal&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_407bf353a2-b1360ad627-92355161).

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