Monday, December 24, 2018

Our Lost Christmas Eve

It's Christmas Eve. People my age will likely remember when Christmas Eve was really Christmas Eve. Growing up we were off from school on Christmas Eve, but it was still a regular workday for most people I knew. (Some companies, like the one my father worked for, may have closed early and had a late afternoon Christmas party for their employees.) For many, December 24 was a day for last-minute Christmas shopping. Certainly, "housewives" had a lot to do, shopping and cooking for the forthcoming holiday meals. and, of course, there was decorating to be done. Even if the Tree had been bought some days earlier, decorating was likely to be done - or at least completed - during the day of Christmas Eve. 

Churches, of course, kept even more scrupulously to the liturgical calendar. Some work, like setting up the stable, might have been done a day or two beforehand, but the stable itself either was still empty or the nativity scene was hidden from view by some sort of temporary screen. I remember attending a funeral with my 5th-grade class on Christmas Eve in 1957. The church was still quite bare, with no sign of either the forest of evergreen trees or the multitude of red poinsettias that would fill the sanctuary a few hours later. Whoever did all that decorating, most of the priests were totally tied up on Christmas Eve for some six hours or more hearing confessions, as long-lines of parishioners approached the sacrament of penance as the religious part of their preparation for the holiday. And, of course, Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence, which in Italian families like mine meant a delicious codfish stew (baccalĂ ) for Christmas Eve dinner.

Nowadays, the celebration of Christmas has been going on for weeks. Homes, offices and even churches have long been decorated for Christmas with little or no deference to  the traditional calendar. Companies have had their Christmas parties by now, and many more people than used to now travel for the holiday and are already on the road to somewhere else for Christmas. The toll this has all taken on the Church's Christmas calendar has been especially heavy. The same consumerist convenience mindset that gave us Saturday afternoon and evening anticipated Sunday Masses has altered Christmas Eve (and by extension Christmas Day), transforming the liturgy of the feast almost beyond recognition.

While the third Mass of Christmas, the Mass in die was always in theory the principal Mass of the feast, Midnight Mass was widely celebrated and enjoyed great popularity in my younger years (when, of course, it was the only time in the entire year when Mass was celebrated at night). I can remember how the crowd would gather in the cold outside church as early as 11:00, waiting for the doors to open and reveal the beautifully decorated church, with tuxedo-wearing ushers helping people find seats, the parish choir of men and boys singing Christmas carols to keep the congregation awake until it was time for the celebrant, deacon, and subdeacon in fancy gold vestments to begin the Solemn High Mass. 

I still love Midnight Mass, and Midnight Mass certainly still retains a real appeal to a "niche" constituency, but increasingly it is the even earlier Masses on Christmas Eve - even in the afternoon - that capture the biggest crowds. Some have compared the displacement of Christmas Day by Christmas Eve to the historic anticipation of the Easter Vigil to Holy Saturday morning, a situation supposedly corrected in the 1950s (only to see the "Easter Vigil" now again moving earlier and earlier into Saturday evening). There may be something to that comparison. But an important difference is that hardly anyone at all attended the old Saturday morning "Easter Vigil" and not many more attend the contemporary evening version. Where Easter still brings out crowds to church, it is on Easter Sunday morning, In contrast, Christmas has become an increasingly day-before celebration for more and more churchgoers, with radically diminished attendance on Christmas morning. I guess we have forgotten the words of the traditional Christmas Eve Introit and Invitatory (based on Exodus 16:6-7): Hodie scietis quia veniet Dominus, et salvabit nos: et mane videbitis gloriam ejius.(Today you  will know that the Lord is coming, and in the morning you will see his glory).

Even more worrisome to me, however, is the increasing popularity of the Christmas Eve "Children's Mass" or "Family Mass" or otherwise named "Christmas Pageant" Mass. I have nothing against Christmas Pageants per se. What I find worrisome is not play-acting the nativity, which is, after all, every bit as legitimate as, for example, holding a procession on Palm Sunday (although to my mind the more "traditional" form of such Christmas play-acting, the procession to place the image of the Infant in the manger either at the beginning or at the end of the Midnight Mass may be both more modest and more meaningful). My worry is what message is conveyed when the entire liturgy - and especially the homily - seem so child-centered. Christmas is still one of those (increasingly few) occasions when all sorts of people show up at church, including many who are seldom there otherwise. So it is one of the very few opportunities the Church still has to communicate with the wider society through the symbolic power of her liturgy and to speak literally through the homily.  It is, therefore, all that much more important to take those annual, or only occasional, visitors seriously as adults - adults who need and deserve to hear and experience the Church's message about Christ's coming into the world and into their lives. My worry is that, instead of doing that, it may actually confirm what some of those attending may already believe or suspect - that religion may be a nice, sentimental thing for children but has little or nothing of of relevance to say to adults.

A more traditional and authentic approach to Christmas Eve (before it took the place of Christmas Day) was expressed by the famous 20th-century monk and liturgical scholar Pius Parsch in his classic The Church's Year of Grace: "When our first parents were driven out of paradise, its door was closed, guarded by a cherub and the flaming sword. It would remain for the Messiah to open that door and enter, Today we stand before this door expectantly."

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