Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas basics

Here is a list of some of the basic words, images, facts, and practices of Advent and Christmas.

*the word "Christmas" is a combination of two words "Christ" and "Mass."

*the word "Nativity" is often used at this time of year.  It means "birth" and refers to the Birth of Jesus.

*the word "incarnation" is used to describe the fundamental Christian belief that the Son of God (the second Person of the Trinity) became a man. John's Gospel begins with a beautiful prologue that tells us that "the Word became flesh."

*Advent is the preparation period before Christmas.  We prepare for the coming of Jesus 1) in time, 2) at the end of time, and 3) into our hearts here and now.

*the four Sundays of Advent are marked by an Advent Wreath.  It is common in the United States to have three purple candles and one pink candle.  The pink candle is lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The 3rd Sunday of Advent is sometimes called Gaudete Sunday which means "rejoice" Sunday.

*Jesus (a form of the name Joshua) means "savior."

*Messiah is a Hebrew title meaning "anointed one."  The Greek title for "anointed one" is CHRIST.  It is NOT Jesus' last name.

*a commonly used title for Jesus during Advent is "emmanuel."  This means God-with-us in Hebrew.

*the stories about the birth of Jesus are found in two Gospels - Matthew and Luke. These are sometimes called the "infancy narratives." We encourage you to read the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke.

*in ancient Nativity icons, like the one above, Mary is often shown with three stars on her clothing (her two shoulders and her head). These stars symbolize her perpetual virginity. She was, by God's grace, a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus.

*the Eucharist figures in the stories of Jesus' birth.  He was born in Bethlehem which means "house of bread;" He was placed in a manger which is the feeding place for cattle.  He is our Bread of Life.

*a 14 point silver star now marks the spot where Jesus was believed to have been born.  It is in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The number 14 is "David's number."  That is why 14 is mentioned so often in the beginning of Matthew's Gospel.

*the swaddling clothes of Jesus at the beginning of His earthly life are meant to prefigure His burial garments at the end of His earthly life.

*the Bible never says how many Magi visited Jesus and Mary. Traditionally, since three gifts are mentioned in Matthew's Gospel, three Magi are shown in art. They were later given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Catholics will sometimes mark their doorways on the Feast of the Epiphany (when the visit of the Magi is celebrated) with the year and the Magi initials.  Here's an example:  20+C+M+B+15.

*Although the Feast of the Epiphany is now celebrated on a Sunday in the Christmas Season, formerly it was fixed on 6 January.  From Christmas to Epiphany was called the "Twelve Days of Christmas."

*the Gospels do not call the Magi "kings."  The notion of calling them "kings" comes from Psalm 72:10.

*gold symbolizes the kingship of Jesus, frankincense symbolizes the divinity of Jesus, and myrrh symbolizes the death of Jesus.

*to show that the Magi represent all people coming to Christ, artists and creche figurines often show the Magi as men of different races. Another way of showing this "universality" is to show one magus with a long beard (old), one with a short beard (middle aged) and one without a beard (young).

Children's Pageant at St. Benedict's
Christmas Eve, 2014
*since the time of St. Francis of Assisi, we often combine the two Gospel stories (Matthew and Luke) into a creche scene.  Sometimes these creche scenes are live ("Living Nativity Scenes"), with children playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, etc.  Note, for example, that only Luke's Gospel mentions shepherds and only Matthew's Gospel mentions the Magi.

*often, many types of animals are included in creche scenes; however, two animals are symbolically important and should never be absent from a creche scene - the ox and the donkey.  They are included because of a prophetic verse in the Book of Isaiah (1:3): The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

*the Christmas Season ends at the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.