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The Essence of Christmas

Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus is essentially a spiritual observance; however, like many other religious festivals, the onslaught of the material and consumer dimensions has greatly submerged the essence of Christmas.

The Essence of Christmas

By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus is essentially a spiritual observance; however, like many other religious festivals, the onslaught of the material and consumer dimensions has greatly submerged the essence of Christmas. Three signs of the Christmas Season which go beyond the realm of being purely ‘spiritual’, in a way continue to communicate the glad tidings of Christmas: of peace on earth; of love, joy and fellowship to all women and men of goodwill.

These signs are the Christmas carols, the crib and the star. These are the signs, which were not confined to a Church but belonged to the public domain: in simple houses, in bustling streets, in neighbourhoods where Christians lived. These signs made the Christmas season a vibrant, living one!

Carols and the singing of carols can be traced back several centuries. According to Wikipedia, “the first known Christmas hymns may be traced to 4th century Rome. Latin hymns such as Veni redemptor gentium, written by Ambrose,  Archbishop of Milan, were austere statements of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism.

Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's heart begotten) by the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 413) is still sung in some churches today. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Christmas "Sequence" or "Prose" was introduced in Northern European monasteries, developing under Bernard of Clairvaux into a sequence of rhymed stanzas. In the 12th century the Parisian monk Adam of Saint Victor began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something closer to the traditional Christmas carol”.



It also highlights the fact that, “in the 13th century, in France, Germany, and particularly, Italy, under the influence of Francis of Assisi a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in regional native languages developed. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of 'wassailers', who went from house to house. The songs we know specifically as carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvest tide as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas. Many carols which have gained popularity today were printed in Piae Cantiones, a collection of late medieval Latin songs which was first published in 1582. Early, Latin forms of carols such as "Christ was born on Christmas Day", "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" and "Good King Wenceslas" can be found in this book. "Adeste Fideles" ("O Come all ye faithful") appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the 13th century”.

In the course of the years, carols became more widespread after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence (well-known Reformers like Martin Luther authored carols and encouraged their use in worship). This was a direct consequence of the fact that the Lutheran reformation ardently propagated Church music. Music is contagious.

Catholic countries also began to encourage the singing of carols, both within and outside the Church. Today carol singing, which begins much before Christmas and ends as late as the 2 February, is an important event in several countries like Poland and Austria. Interestingly, in Lebanon with a majority Muslim population, there are carol-singing programmes in the run-up to Christmas. Several of the carol-singers in some of these concerts are Muslims.

The crib is another distinct feature of Christmas. The credit of having the birth of Jesus depicted in a live nativity scene goes to St Francis of Assisi. Apparently, St Francis had visited the Holy Land and had a profound experience in Bethlehem. On his return, he got some friends to stage the nativity of Jesus. He was convinced that such an enactment would touch the lives of the people and bring them closer to Jesus.

During his lifetime, he also encouraged people to make little statues of baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and angels, the magi and of animals like sheep and oxen, asses and camels. These were placed carefully in a simple place, which represented the ‘manger’ in which Jesus was born. Over a period, the ‘Christmas crib’ was necessary in most Catholic homes. It meant days of preparation. In a way it got the entire family involved- from the little ones to the elders; everyone chipped in to ensure that the crib was as close to the original nativity scene as possible-replete with hay and rocks and a bit of cow dung too! . In traditional Catholic countries, huge cribs were put up in public places for all to see!

Then there is the star! The ‘Star of Bethlehem’ is found in the Gospel of Matthew. It is the star that directs the Magi to Jesus. They lose sight of it for some time and they land up in Herod’s palace. Only when they come out of the palace, do they see the star once again. The star signifies the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, it is a five-pointed one with a long, luminous tail- so much like a comet. Apparently, the wise men knew about stars and the galaxies and it was this star, as we are given to understand, that led them to Jesus!

The star becomes an important Christmas sign. Several Catholic homes put up a star during the Christmas season. The star signifies several things: that Jesus is born, he is the light and savior of the world and we are his disciples. In the past, many families made their own star; today however, like the other Christmas decorations they are bought ready-made by many.

In countries like India, carol –singing, the crib and star have been under attack since the past several years. A few days before Christmas 2002, I heard that several of our Catholics and other Christians in Ahmedabad were not going to put up the traditional Christmas star outside their homes/balconies for fear of repercussions. Sectarian violence and bias against a certain sections of the society had put the Christians, Muslims and other minorities on the back foot.  I tried to encourage some friends to hang out their stars, but they did not have the courage to do so. Their fear was natural and palpable!

In 2003, we decided as a Centre to take the initiative. The day before Christmas, we had the whole building illuminated with a massive star that could be seen from far away. The act of illuminating our building and displaying a star was not about an exercise in showmanship, but a simple strategy to reclaim some space which we had lost to those who had been trying to destroy the secular fabric of our country.

From 2007, we went a step ahead. Just outside the gate of our Centre, we put up an almost life-sized crib depicting the birth of Jesus. While we were preparing this crib, a few good-intentioned people advised us not to do so, because they felt somebody would attack it and perhaps it might be the cause of added tension. Our argument was simple, that this crib was not an obstruction to anyone, that there was a Hanuman Temple near our gate encroaching several feet of the main road, and we saw no reason for anyone to touch the crib.

Together with the crib, were huge banners proclaiming the good news of Justice, Peace, Love and Joy, which is in essence, the message of Christmas. At first people began to trickle in. Some were hesitant in making in comments. Some had the courage to ask us why there was no ‘Santa Claus’?

However, before the Christmas season ended there were huge crowds, some just coming to see, but several coming to stay and pray. The most heartening point of this exercise is the fact that in some small way we had tried to put Christ back into Christmas. In 2008, the crowds were larger with greater media coverage. For the next years, the crowds that actually came to ‘look’ at our crib and pay homage to Jesus had swelled to numbers beyond our imagination.

The point of this illustration is to highlight a fact that somewhere down the road we have lost sight of the meaning and message of Christmas. Above all, we give in to threats and intimidation and are afraid to communicate to people around us the real meaning of Christmas! There is a wrong notion that carols singing and Christmas celebrations are a form of proselytization.

In Gujarat today, as in several parts of India and in fact a good part of the western world, Christmas has been relegated to another festivity of crass commercialization and consumerism. The image of Christians during Christmastime has become synonymous with ‘Santa Claus’ and Christmas ‘trees’; the partying and drinking binges and of course the overindulgence. All this has precious little to do with the Child who was born vulnerable in a stable. The Christmas message can obviously not be contained only in a crib portraying the birth of Jesus; in carol singing or by putting up a star! All these however, are necessary as a means to re-vitalise a miniscule minority of the country and at the same time to provide avenues to communicate the Christmas story.

As Christians, we are all invited to embrace and internalize a spirituality, which is truly incarnational. As Christmas approaches the carols, the crib and the star must help us primarily to realise that:

Jesus is born poor: This is perhaps an understatement, but it is the fact of Christmas. It is not about power, possessions and privileges. There was indeed no material comforts for Jesus, except the hay and the swaddling clothes. Definitely, there was the warmth and love of Mary, Joseph and the animals. This is the message of the crib!

Jesus is born vulnerable: Perhaps this is the greatest symbol of Christmas. The fact that there was no room for him in the inn. Dispossessed, an exile right from his birth; a refugee, a displaced person. A good lesson for all of us to take sides with the Adivasis, with the Dalits, the minorities, the excluded and the other vulnerable who are driven out of their homes, lands and forests because of mega-projects, multinationals and other vested interests. Our carols need to communicate this!

Jesus is born to ALL: The good news is first proclaimed to shepherds. In a short time, the Wise Men of the East (the Gentiles, the unbelievers) are also brought in. From his very birth, Jesus transcends the narrow confines of sectarianism and communalism, of hate and prejudice, of religion, of rites, of ethnicities and nationalities. He is born to ALL. He does not divide. He unites. That is the star of Bethlehem!

Jesus is born in Truth and in Fearlessness: We live in a world, which has been gripped by falsehood and fear. We are afraid to challenge those who exploit the poor and the weak. We are afraid to let our light shine. We are afraid to put out our star. Christmas is essentially about truth and fearlessness.

Jesus is born that we might learn: The message of Christmas is not about 'having,' but about 'being.' It is a message, as we have said earlier, of Justice, Peace, Love and Joy. It does not belong only to those who worship him, but it belongs to all. It is a message, which has a mandate and needs to be realized in concrete action.
Sadly, several Christians in India and other parts of the world today lack the courage to permit the message of Christmas take hold of their lives. As Christians, we need to get out once again, go onto the streets, to sing aloud and share the message of Christmas with all, to let our light shine through a star and above all, in our homes, in that little crib, to put Christ back into Christmas!

(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ, is a human rights activist and a member of the Gujarat Jesuit Province. Since January 2016, he is based in Beirut, Lebanon with the Jesuit Refugee Service ( MENA Region) in Advocacy and communications. He is the recipient of several national and international recognitions for his work on human rights, justice and peace. Contact cedricprakash@gmail.com)

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