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Christmas on a Sunday? Uh-oh...

In today's Wall Street Journal I have a brief piece about this year's "come to Jesus" moment for Christians faced with the prospect of Christmas on a (heaven forfend!) Sunday.Many Protestant churches won't be open or will have abbreviated services; growing up an evangelical, we wouldn't celebrate Christmas in church. That was a "Catholic thing."But when Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it does every few years, it puts pressure on some believers, at least, to either observe the day as a religious holiday or maybe concede that the faithful themselves aren't doing such a great job of keeping Christ in Christmas -- and maybe we shouldn't insist that stores do it for us by greeting customers with "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays."Here is my piece (note a couple debts to Commonweal authors).Some other, better additions to the topic:At First Things, Russell Saltzman makes a good, pointed and interesting argument:

Maybe we Christians ourselves should stop calling Christmas Christmas and revert to an older eleventh century phrase, Cristes MaesseChrists Mass. Best Buy can fend for itself.

In USA Today, Amy Sullivan presaged Saltzman's column, arguing that we should call it "Jesus Day" and let the secular world have Christmas. Since they already do.At EthicsDaily.com, Jim Evans gets to the heart of the matter:

How many among those who have clamored for retail outlets to carry the Christian message will be in church on Christmas Day?......It's time and past time to stop expecting department stores and shopping malls to proclaim our faith. The responsibility for that lies much closer to church and home than many may care to admit.

And for those of us in the Catholic Church who may be tempted to feel a bit superior to our Low Church brethren because we are Christmas churchgoers as a matter of course, Our Sunday Visitor has a feature on the decrease in Christmas Day attendance and the proliferation and popularity of Christmas Eve masses. (And of course there is "Midnight Mass" as a term of art.)I must plead guilty -- or mea maxima culpa, breast-beating and all, as I suppose we say now. Since my daughter was born, it's been Fr. Nonomen's "Jingle Bell Mass" on Christmas Eve for us. I would in an ideal world opt for Midnight Mass. But we could and perhaps should do Christmas morning, certainly. Yet we don't.In any case, I agree with those who suggest that it's hard to see how we can reclaim Christmas as a religious holiday when we don't observe it as such.

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A major revelation for many Catholics was the insistence of the liturgical renewal that Easter was more important than Christmas. That redemption is more tied into the Easter liturgy. We are an Easter people. The greatest thing V2 did was to restore the Easter Vigil to make it what it is; The most important liturgy of the year. So your Separated Brethren ancestors, David, had it right. Christmas still is largely a pagan celebration and even the Church's attempt to develop Advent does not help much. Perhaps, rightly so. Because while a birth is promising, the resurrection is decisive and well, redemptive. While all the great songs from Adeste Fidelis to Christus natus hodie help to creative a festive mood they just can't seem to beat Macy's and rightly so. The roots are pagan and is played out more so today. Even Black Friday overshadows advent. But, of course, we have to be wary of the Roman Empire. Just as it made a power move on the new translation. It might go full circle and declare Christmas more important than Easter. Again.

In the not too distant past, most Catholics customarily went to Mass every Sunday and on Christmas morning. Christmas, on Sunday or not, was a special day on which go to Mass, recognizing the occasion for the celebration in church and outside. Today, the underlying devotional practice of going to Mass has faded, whatever the occasion. It is not being observed by most Catholics most of the time in the US in spite of the precept obliging it weekly. It should not be surprising that the Mass part of Christmas Day should have faded away, given its status on the other 364 days a year. It was a custom, not a tradition.

On Verdicts, Jean refers to a persistent pool of resources into which succeeding generations dip as needed. The Church may be such a pool. Some generations may emphasize some aspects and others may find others more appropriate and meaningful. As Jack says, weekly mass seems to have fallen out of favor, and along with it, perhaps, Christmas mass. Customs and traditions, far from being static, are more or less stable only for a time, then they change. Pulling away or even abandoning one custom or tradition doesn't mean that people have abandoned the Church, just certain aspects of it. That's probably a confusing and maybe uncomfortable way to think of a Church that's supposed to be firm in dogma and ceremony, but nothing in our human experience can be firm to the point of rigidity. Try to make it that, and people will simply wander away.

Meanwhile, our parish will be celebrating TEN Masses for Christmas (OK, so that is only three more than our usual seven Masses for any other Sunday (that's two extra vigils, plus Midnight Mass)).

BTW, this Slate piece on the history of Christmas hymns/carols has been making the rounds. Interesting:http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/assessment/2011/11/the_long_strange_h...

Christmas carols have always been the product of hype and invented ritual, nurturing false nostalgia almost from the start. If anything, their legitimacy as tradition has only increased in recent years. Todays carols are one of our few genuine access points to the history of Western pop music, the centuries of mainstream fare buried beneath our own.An air of false exuberance has been the hallmark of Christmas songs as long as Christmas songs have been around. Although there are accounts of birth-of-Christ hymns being sung in second-century Romeby order of Christian authorities, not public preferenceit was not until the fourth century, when Christmas was formalized as a feast and fixed to Dec. 25, that a songbook started to take form. Some of the first contributions were existing, non-Christian carols adapted to the new celebration. The early church did not appreciate these pagan-Christian conversions and answered with hymns of its own. (Veni, redemptor gentium, or Savior of the Nations, Come, attributed to the fourth-century Milanese bishop St. Ambrose, may be the earliest still-extant Christmas carol.) Evidence suggests that people sort of hated these songs. The church-approved carols were in Latin and, in some cases, amounted to arcane doctrinal quibbles set to music. Christmas music swiftly became the yacht rock of the Dark Ages, proliferating in earnest even as it lost all public reputation.The man who freed the Christmas carol from this prison of poor taste was St. Francis of Assisi, one of the churchs gentlest but most crucial reformers. In the 13th century, Francis tried to break the Christmas celebration from its tedious husk, mostly by making the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. He organized nativity pageants featuring real hay, real animals, and, for the first time, real music: Deviating from tradition, he allowed for narrative songs in audiences native languages, turning Christmas music into an opportunity for mainstream creativity. Drinking songs were given Yuletide lyrics (greatly to the churchs horror) and disseminated by traveling entertainers. Christmas began to take on a life of its own, beyond the exigencies of the sacred feast.

Hmm, sounds somewhat revisionist, David - good guy (the hippie saint) versus evil old grinch (stodgy, probably corrupt churchmen). Why can't these guys see change without turning it into the victory of the rebels over the establishment?Oh, well - takes all kinds. Maybe the writer was just doing what he'd learned in journalism school - getting the reader's emotions involved.

Count me as pro-Christmas (or even pro-Annunciation) in the sense that salvation history actually begins with the Incarnation or Word made flesh. That is the decisive moment when the relationship God has with humanity is decisively and irrevocably changed.I think there is a wise intuition that St. Francis had regarding this feast. Not coincidentally, the medieval debate about whether it was due to the "fall" (as the Dominicans held) or because God so loved the world that He wanted to experience it in the most intimate way (as the Franciscans) still is played out today in the whole Christmas/Easter debate.

Slate is far behind the times -- the term "the Dark Ages" is old hat. I wouldn't trust any "historian" who is still using the term.

"Because while a birth is promising, the resurrection is decisive and well, redemptive."...but our practice of Advent and Christmas each year isn't so much about the Word Becoming Flesh" (i.e., "birth"), rather isn't it about preparing and reminding Catholics about the post-resurrection event we all wait in joyful hope for...that Christ will come again?

Excuse me, "by order of Christian authorities in 2nd century Rome"?Anybody who could write this is clueless about Christian history. And the rest of it is just as bad. What evidence is there that people "hated these songs" of St. Ambrose in the fourth century? Yeah, they hated them so much that we still sing them? And St Francis "freed the Christmas carol from this prison of bad taste"? This is all a tissue of lies. Honestly, how do people get away with making things up like this?

Check out the author. He tweets "This week I wrote on a serious topic: Christmas carols. Where they come from, where they're going, why we sing them", but his field of view is wider. http://www.slate.com/authors.nathan_heller.html

Perhaps it's because I'm a bubble wrapped Catholic, but I'm having trouble understanding the Protestant mindset here. If I'm a Protestant who would normally attend Church on a Sunday, why would I not go to Church on Sunday if it's Christmas?

Wow, that was bad even for Slate.

This i why I love dotCommers! As for the Easter/Christmas issue, it wasn't until I lived in Italy that it suddenly dawned on me that, wow, Easter is as important as Christmas, or actually "more" so, if such a comparison can be made. It was a combination of the greatly lessened Christmas hype over there, and the Catholic (and Vatican) importance given to Easter, and in the celebration of Easter. Still, the Incarnation, as evidenced to the world in the birth of Christ, also strikes me -- shorn of all the commercial or pagan trappings, if you will -- as n event as powerful as Easter. I'm into "both/and" at this point. As for why Protestants don't go on a Sunday because it's Christmas, well, Mark, that seems to be the problem to me too! Victorian/commercial Christmas trumps sacred Christ's Mass. What ya gonna do?

One note: The Easter Vigil was restored in the mid-1950's, under Pope Pius XII, the most important of the liturgical reforms that Pope sponsored.

Thanks, Joseph. Strange that the memory of the Restored Holy Week Liturgy has been lost, folded into Vatican II.A hymnal used in my parish in Kansas City, the Laudate, by the Rev. Joseph Hohe, had been updated in 1942 by Fr. (later Mons.) Herman J. Koch and Fr. Andrew Green, OSB, to include more Gregorian chant. It was again revised in 1956 to include the Restored Holy Week Liturgy. Christmas hymns in the great old book include Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Adeste Fideles, Silent Night, Resonet in Laudibus, Jesu Redemptor Omnium, You Dear Little Children, Sleep Holy Babe, Venite in Bethlehem, Heart of the Holy Child.

Interesting that Protestants are still uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas An article about Dickens in this morning's Financial Times mentions how the observance of Christmas had declined by 1843, and how A Christmas Carol revived it for the Victorians.Mormon message boards are full of posts about how ambivalent they are about Christmas (aka Smithmas), and Church of Christ boards make it clear that Christmas, like Halloween, is Catholic/Pagan, therefore to be avoided.

According to Samuel Sewall's (1652-1730) diary, the Congregationalist forbade a December 25 holiday in Boston, and fined any Anglican who observed it. Presumably the Catholics were lying low in those years.

Taking off from Gerelyn's great list of hymns, one of the things I love about Advent/Christmas is the music. I won't insult the midrashic and Talmudic traditions by suggesting that Christmas music rises to their level. On the other hand, in the business of this season, I find the constant Christmas music---in the stores and shopping malls, on the radio, and (most especially) in our house)---to be filled with occasions to meditate and reflect on the mysteries of God's vastness and the Incarnation.We don't have recordings of songs that date back to St. Ambrose, but we do have versions of songs that date back several hundred years...as well as songs written in this century.Although he didn't write it with Christmas in mind, we have a complete recording of Handel's "Messiah": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6_nJ11BgTEAs well as Mervyn Warren's 250th anniversary tribute to Handel, "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration" which "inculturates" Handel's work to the late 20th century African-American context: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1V51aTh2c0QThere are carols like "In the Bleak Midwinter" which describe a setting Jesus, Mary and Joseph would not recognize...and yet find meaning in the combination of a northern European winter and an eastern Mediterranean birth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwStDK2_qpwThere are children's stories that have almost no connection with Jesus' birth...except for their recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of the poor and the outcast: Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (popularized by Burl Ives, blacklisted in the 1950s for his political associations) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TT4Cbt95P1k(And here's a Ray Charles version (he could find new sounds and rhythms and meaning in almost any song he covered): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G_owDUij1w"The Little Drummer Boy" has closer ties with the Gospel story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DT1fA59oH7Q Also, according to the notes with this video, it may have ties to the early 1900s opera "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame", which in turn is based on a 12th century French legend.Ella Fitzgerald's cover of "The Secret of Christmas" is *the* favorite Christmas song of a pastor I know: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23wclIK7QEw "...the secret of Christmas: It's not the things you do, at Christmas time; But the Christmas things you all year through."Mahalia Jackson's version of "No Room At The Inn": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiebHV5CoKc "The bus boy and the porter, The waitress and the cook, Will be witness one day in Heaven, To tell the things Mary took; She was driven away, And she had no place to stay, There was no room, Lord, no room at the inn." I could go on.... But probably best if I don't.(However, if anyone else wants to add links to favorite songs and what they mean for you, please do!)

When I was a lad, growing up near Philadelphia, the Prince-Bishop of the Archdiocese (Dennis Cardinal Dougherty) forbade midnight masses (according to my father, not an admirer of His Eminence, it was because he feared drunkeness among his flock). So we would betake ourselves to midnight mass at Rosemont College, where his writ did not run (I wonder whether there was weeping and gnashing of teeth at archdiocesan HQ over this exception). At my present parish, "midnight" mass begins at 9 PM (more suitable to a graying congregation perhaps), but I will go at 9 AM on Sunday.As for the mentions in the Salon article of Christian authorities ordering the singing of hymns in 2nd century Rome, and reference to the Dark Ages, perhaps we should pray that people read more history before they write about it. But what can you do? There are still masses of people who feel the need to cling to the old 19th century superstition that the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth (I bet some of them have even had a brush with the Divine Comedy, which makes no sense if the earth is flat).One comment on the next to last para. in David Gibson's WSJ piece; whatever else it may be to say that people should go to church on Christmas, it's hardly "puritanical," given the Puritans' antipathy to such popish feasts (they also disliked Easter and Whitsuntide). The Lutherans, however, presumably stuck to all these celebrations.

The Boston history to which Margaret refers is illuminating as to how we got to where we are. A piece of it from MDCCCLVI is worth a look today. Theodore Parker, Minister of the 28th Congregational Society of Boston and notorious free thinker, wrote "A Christmas Story for MDCCCLVI", which survives in EBook form as THE TWO CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS, A.D. I. and MDCCCLV. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17006/17006.txt

Thanks, Father Komoncak, for reminding us that is was Venerable Pope Pius XII who restored the Easter Vigil to much of its former glory, and that this was NOT initiated by Vatican II

Maybe Rita can help us out with the details here. I don't have the time to put it all together. But my sense is that the Easter Vigil was proclaimed more by Vatican II and the meaning was made clearer. I think the ritual was revised around that time when the celebration became more intense and attended to. Before Vatican II the attendance was low. Anyway, Rita?

In the Middle Ages, the Franciscans and Dominicans were prominent in the development of Philosophy & Theology, and one of the questions they debated concerned whether Christ took on our human nature on account of our sinfulness (the Dominican position) or whether the coming of Christ was the original plan of God (the Franciscan position). The Franciscans, inspired by the Christological hymns in Ephesians and Colossians, argued that even had we not sinned, Christ would have come.My confrere, Richard Rohr, in his on-line reflection this morning, writes: When God mirrored us through the entrance, invitation, and eyes of Jesus, the certainty of our redemption was once and for all given and accomplished. In Franciscan eyes, we needed no further blood sacrifice to reveal Gods intentions toward us. We were already saved by the gaze from the manger. In my Franciscan heart, there is no surprise that the celebration of Christmas without taking anything away from the importance of the celebration of the Paschal Mystery in Holy Week and on Easter touches the human heart and resonates deep within the human spirit. Who can resist a baby especially when its God-Become-Man God-With-Us?

Below is a link to the decree, dated November 1955, restoring the Triduum and giving the reasons why. A restored Easter Vigil had already been approved, for experimental use, in 1951. I think that it was because this reform was universally welcomed and appreciated that the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy did not have to urge a reform of Holy Week in its section on the liturgical calendar.http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=112Opponents of the conciliar liturgical reform say the rot began with these pre-conciliar reforms under Pius XII.

Here is an article by someone who considers the renewal heresy. I refer to it because it indicates how John XXIII furthered the work of Pius XII. http://www.traditionalmass.org/articles/article.php?id=37&catname=6

The Protestants I know (Lutherans, Methodists, UCC, MCC, American Baptists) are far from uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas. I'm exculding Episcopalians because the ones I know do NOT consider themselves to be Protestants, and UUs because they are all over the map, some even possibly being non-Trinitarian Christian. Furthermore, I do not consider the LDS and Church of Christ, SDA, etc. to be mainstream Protestant by any stretch of the imagination.However, when dealing with fundigelicals (and who can decipher most of them?) comfort/discomfort/hatred/ambivalence about anything is up for grabs.

The faux-traddies cited by Bill M above most certainly are an interesting lot.

"The new issue of the Harvard Magazine has an article about the re-evaluation of medieval literature by contemporary scholars. Theyre discovering that the 'Dark Ages', while brutal in some ways sometimes (like us?), were also quite enlightened."This really isn't a new idea. Thirty years ago, the Medieval Conference at Western Michigan University, which attracts scholars worldwide, offered a session on the 7th century "renaissance." England moved from a pagan, illiterate conglomeration of Germanic tribes to a confederation of literate, Christian people. This was largely due to the Irish missionaries in Northumbria and the rise of Northumbrian scriptoria under SS Aidan and Hilda, and under the great abbesses Werburgh in Chester and Etheldreda in Ely. But those damn Danes ...!

"... and UUs because they are all over the map, some even possibly being non-Trinitarian Christian."Of course, that's what "Unitarian" means, non-trinitarian. Christmas was an interesting time as a kid in the UU church. On those rare occasions when we were home and not running to visit many competing sets of relatives, we would go to the UU "service of light." Usually we kids had to sing some carols at the front of the church ("The Friendly Beasts" was popular). Then anyone could get up and read a poem, a prayer, remember someone who had died and then light a small votive. Some people just silently lit a votive if they didn't want to say anything. My brother, who enjoyed lighting matches, always tried to wangle more than one candle ...When all that was done, there was a frugal chili supper to remind us of the poor (many people had helped the Salvation Army set up and serve Christmas dinner that day), and we kids were sent down in the basement where games and punch and cookies were set up. Easy to make fun of, I know, but I still think of those little Unitarian lights leading to the Light of the World.

It is quite correct to say that Pius XII ordered and approved the restoration of the Easter Vigil (1951) and the rest of Holy Week (1955, with some emendations to the Vigil at that time). Joe Komonchak is also surely right to point out that this reform paved the way for acceptance of reform at the Council and following the council. Nevertheless, Bill Mazzella is also quite correct in saying that it was the reforms of Vatican II which changed our perception, making Easter the center of the year, and that the reform of the Vigil after the Council -- for it was revised -- was instrumental in this shift.Two strategic revisions contributed to the change Bill is speaking about. First, the 1951-55 revisions of the Vigil barely mention the celebration of Baptism. It occurs only in a rubric that indicates Baptisms may be celebrated. But in the 1970 Missal there is a large constitutive part of the Vigil given over to the Liturgy of Baptism. It is envisioned and presented as integral to the Vigil. This, combined with the restoration of adult initiation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972 in Latin, 1974 in English) which also integrated catechumenal rites into the Lenten season, has had a huge impact on how people experience Easter. The insertion of the renewal of baptismal promises in 1951-55 was a good step, but the post-Conciliar reform indubitably went further.Second, in the revisions of the 1950s Holy Week stands alone. Yes, there was a simplification of the rubrics in 1955, but that was nothing like the thinking-through that went into the post-Conciliar reform. The documents on the revision of the Calendar that followed Vatican II make it crystal clear that the Easter Triduum is the high point of the liturgical year, and that the Vigil is the high point of the Triduum. These directives, which were only issued after the Council, had an enormous effect on our understanding of the relative importance of these feasts. Add to this the priority given to the concept of the Paschal Mystery in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy--something then-cardinal Ratzinger noted as highly significant in the thinking behind the reform as a whole--and you have the conditions capable of producing a real shift.So yes, the steps forward in the 1950s were important, but it was the Council that changed how we view Easter and the importance of Easter relative to Christmas.

"...perhaps we should pray that people read more history before they write about it. But what can you do?"Dear Nicholas,You are a more generous soul than I am, and I probably benefit from this too so I thank you, but I still would say that Salon is printing egregious misinformation about Christian history from this guy, and that's disgraceful. The status of Christians in second Century Rome is available to anyone who can read an encyclopedia. If someone said "George Washington, who was president during the Civil War" we wouldn't give them a pass, would we? I'm not nailing this guy for buying the Sol Invictus theory, or some other item that is questioned by more recent historians. David Gibson tells us this essay is "making the rounds" as a legitimate summary of the history, and I say, shame on Slate for even publishing it.

. . . but it was the Council that changed how we view Easter and the importance of Easter relative to Christmas.Disagree.As a person who lived through that period and who was acutely aware of liturgical changes made in the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to my Benedictine teachers, I would have to say "we" were made verrry aware of "the importance of Easter relative to Christmas" with the introduction of the Restored Holy Week Liturgy. Perhaps talking to some old people would help younger people appreciate the difference between the mid-50s and the mid-60s. The impact of the liturgical changes made in the 40s and 50s was greater on average Catholics than the impact of the Council's underlining the importance of those changes after they were well in place.

I would agree with Gerolyn on this point. The relative importance of Easter and Christmas was warmly argued before the Council, the arguments on each side being roughly what they are still today. Louis Bouyer's brilliant book The Paschal Mystery was published in French in 1947 and in English in 1951 and was much and widely appreciated. I was an altar boy when the triduum was restored, and a seminarian later. It was a thrill, three or four months after ordination, to be able to lead the Easter Vigil at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome in 1964. In many respects, the theological introduction to SC confirmed what many of us had already reaped as fruits of the liturgical movement. The post-conciliar developments that Rita correctly outlines built upon foundations well-laid before the Council. Of course, I did have the inestimable good fortune to have had Myles M. Bourke as a mentor in this regard, as in many others.

Gerelyn and Joseph,You were in privileged situations, and the forerunners to the Council were certainly active in paving the way. But I would respectfully suggest that your own good fortune did not extend to the rest of the Church, nor did it have the same force that it did once it was backed not only by the research of scholars and advocacy of religious communities such as the Benedictines, but by the Church's official documents and teachings.It was certainly not the general experience to integrate the baptism of adults (or of children) into the Easter Vigil, and while your teachers and pathfinders may well have argued for the centrality of the paschal mystery (and thus Easter) this was still a debated point. Even at the Council, it was the French who championed it, not so much the Germans, although the early research was theirs. The Society of St Pius X still argues against it as an illegitimate innovation stemming from the Council, though of course with its precursors and advocates long beforehand.Robert Amiet was experimenting with the Vigil as far back as 1939, and Odo Casel as well (he actually died during a Vigil, I seem to recall); but the "we" to which I refer is everybody, and certainly it took the Council to make this insight reach the broadest levels.(I too esteem Bouyer's very fine book, by the way!)

Here is an explanation of both/and, not either/or, about Christmas and Easter -- "In 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in Greccio with an ox and an ass and a manger full of hay, a new dimension of the mystery of Christmas came to light. Saint Francis of Assisi called Christmas the feast of feasts above all other feasts and he celebrated it with unutterable devotion (2 Celano 199; Fonti Francescane, 787). He kissed images of the Christ-child with great devotion and he stammered tender words such as children say, so Thomas of Celano tells us (ibid.)."For the early Church, the feast of feasts was Easter: in the Resurrection, Christ had flung open the doors of death and in so doing had radically changed the world: He had made a place for man in God himself. Now, Francis neither changed nor intended to change this objective order of precedence among the feasts, the inner structure of the faith centred on the Paschal Mystery. And yet through him and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus humanity in an entirely new depth. This human existence of God became most visible to him at the moment when Gods Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger."The Resurrection presupposes the Incarnation. For Gods Son to take the form of a child, a truly human child, made a profound impression on the heart of the Saint of Assisi, transforming faith into love. The kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed this phrase of Saint Paul now acquired an entirely new depth. In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God."And so the liturgical year acquired a second focus in a feast that is above all a feast of the heart. This has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is right here, in this new experience of the reality of Jesus humanity that the great mystery of faith is revealed. Francis loved the child Jesus, because for him it was in this childish estate that Gods humility shone forth. God became poor. His Son was born in the poverty of the stable. In the child Jesus, God made Himself dependent, in need of human love, He put Himself in the position of asking for human love our love."--Benedict XVI, Homily for Midnight Mass, Christmas 2011

Perhaps talking to some old people would help younger people appreciate the difference between the mid-50s and the mid-60s. In response to a comment I made about people playing "angry birds" on their iPhone during homilies, my dad was just telling me about Mass in the 50s: people busily praying the rosary, doing their own thing throughout the Mass, although still standing, sitting, and kneeling at all the right times, thanks to the little bell. In the mid-50's he went to a parish in Paris (France) in which during Mass, while one priest was saying the homily, another priest was continuing the Mass in parallel, so that one was preaching while the other was doing his own thing at the altar at the same time.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome seems to have been the site of an important early manger scene, long before the time of St. Francis of Assisi. The same church also displayed a replica of a Bethlehem cave. The neighborhood was known as "Bethlehem in Rome." The church still houses relics related (to use an ambiguous word) to the original manger.http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/a_roman_christmas_ritual_micr... the name of the church suggests, the Catholic celebration of the Nativity has always been associated with the veneration of Mary, which might be another reason for the reluctance of some Protestants to celebrate the feast.

Yes, Claire, very true. In those golden olden days, there was a lot of real devotion. Click http://images.google.com/hosted/life/f?imgurl=7e342e1cadbed82b to see the faces of boys saying the rosary in 1948 at the funeral of Fr. Flanagan of Boys Town. They were not being litufgically correct, of course. They should have been using missals to follow the Requiem Mass.

Rita --The new issue of the Harvard Magazine has an article about the re-evaluation of medieval literature by contemporary scholars. They're discovering that the "Dark Ages", while brutal in some ways sometimes (like us?), were also quite enlightened. The article, by Adam Kirsch, is "Mysteries and Masterpieces". It really is time that the general curricula of American colleges got this point straight. http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/01/mysteries-and-masterpieces

I'm glad that Joe Komonchak had a good experience with the Easter Vigil reforms of Pius XII. I'm afraid they didn't get the memo in my Boston parish. It was held on Saturday morning and I was one of very few people present. Though I was not very liturgically aware as a lad of 15, when the Vatican II inspired reforms were implemented it was clear thatthesewent well beyond what Pius started. The 50's reform said nothing about the historical order of the sacraments of initiation, nor was it even conceivable that ordinary priests could confirm adults just baptized or "converts" from Protestant communities. The rejection of these particular reforms is , in my view, the clearest testament to their brittle attachment to anything old or ancient. Why we devote any energy to their scurrilous reservations is beyond me. But I do wish them and all a Blessed Christmas.

Mr. Foley: Pius XII's 1955 reform of the Easter Vigil was what moved the celebration from the morning to the night."9. The solemn Easter Vigil is to be celebrated at the proper hour, namely, a time which will permit that the solemn Mass of the Vigil begin at about the midnight which falls between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. "Nevertheless, where in the judgment of the local Ordinary, the conditions of the faithful and of the place having been considered, it is advantageous to anticipate the hour for the celebration of the Vigil, this may be done, but the Vigil may not begin before twilight, or certainly not before sunset." I remember the morning celebrations and how sparsely attended they were. Did your parish ignore the move to the evening, or are you remembering the period before the Pius XII reform?

It's Sunday.It's Christmas.I'm going to church.So there!

The gaps between theory and practice require attention, as illustrated above. It might start at the top. The Pope was adorned in gleaming full regalia and towering gold-starred headdress today as he told us we should "ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season". He was bedecked in an even more ornate panoply of tapestry and fur earlier when he spoke from his monarchical throne to the world of the call to humility and simplicity. Imagine the immediate impact on the Catholic world and beyond if the man had spoken in a black cassock from the altar steps of the "the superficial glitter" of which he claims he disapproves and the "humility and simplicity" to which he says he believes God's humility calls us.

The new issue of the Harvard Magazine has an article about the re-evaluation of medieval literature by contemporary scholars. Theyre discovering that the Dark Ages, while brutal in some ways sometimes (like us?), were also quite enlightened. The article, by Adam Kirsch, is Mysteries and Masterpieces. It really is time that the general curricula of American colleges got this point straight. Not at all what the article is about. (And the term "Dark Ages" does not appear in the article.) (Click to the right of the first paragraph to hear some passages from the Rule of St. Benedict.)http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/01/mysteries-and-masterpieces

You were in privileged situations, and the forerunners to the Council were certainly active in paving the way. But I would respectfully suggest that your own good fortune did not extend to the rest of the Church, nor did it have the same force that it did once it was backed not only by the research of scholars and advocacy of religious communities such as the Benedictines, but by the Churchs official documents and teachings. The hymnals that came out in the mid-50s with the Restored Holy Week Liturgy were not published for my benefit. I was not exceptional. I understand the need revisionists have to discount the experiences of those with living memory of past events, but as time goes by, new revisionists will dismantle today's certitudes. The leaders of the liturgical movement of the first half of the 20th century were far more than "forerunners to the Council".

"The Pope was adorned in gleaming full regalia and towering gold-starred headdress today as he told us we should ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season. He was bedecked in an even more ornate panoply of tapestry and fur earlier when he spoke from his monarchical throne to the world of the call to humility and simplicity."As long as Rome continues this blatant hypocrisy and we continue to tolerate it, the message will have trouble getting across.

Thanks, Ann, for the Harvard Magazine article. Gerelyn, wouldn't you agree with Ann's thought that American colleges ought to learn that those seven hundred years were far from a wasted time of ignorance and barbarism? That's more or less what the writer's saying, I think.

Ann, thanks for the article from Harvard Magazine. That's very good news about the series on the Middle Ages taking its place alongside the classical library's formidable contributions.I'm afraid people do either dump on the middle ages or idolize them. It would be good to "get it right" in contemporary curricula.Gerelyn, I do appreciate your experience and I'm grateful to you for sharing it. I'm afraid I don't understand your position, howeever. Are you saying that your experience was universal? What then are we to make of the comments of Bill Mazzella and Jack Foley, both of whom have living memory the same period too but evidently their experience was different from your own? Second, are you saying that the Liturgical Movement of the first half of the twentieth century did NOT prepare the way for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council? This position is held by a very small slice of contemporary historians, such as Alcuin Reid, and some upholders of the 1962 edition of the Roman Rite. But I'm not clear that this is actually what you are trying to say. Perhaps Reid's re-evaluation of the Council's liturgical reforms as alien to the Liturgical Movement is what you mean when you speak about "revisionist history"? None of my comments here would qualify as revisionist history.

"Im afraid people do either dump on the middle ages or idolize them. It would be good to get it right in contemporary curricula." Disagree. (Again.) Can you name a college/university whose curriculum does not "get it right"? Harvard's course catalog is online. Hard to see either dumping or idolatry. http://tinyurl.com/8xm5bz8About the other issue: I don't side with those who regard the Council as inconsequential, heretical, invalid, illicit, etc. Nor do I side with those who would agree with you that "it was the Council that changed how we view Easter and the importance of Easter relative to Christmas." (That's revisionist. Ask anyone who was in parochial school in the late 40s, early 50s. There are plenty of us still above ground, and many of us remember how we felt when Sister told us Easter was more important than Christmas: Sure it is. Hard-boiled eggs are waaaay better than toys.)Am I "saying that the Liturgical Movement of the first half of the twentieth century did NOT prepare the way for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council?" A person who remembers the time BEFORE a given historical event obviously has a different viewpoint than a person who only knows that time from documents. Anyone can say anything prepares the way for what comes after. The publisher who put out the Missa Recitata booklets used in my parish in the late 40s did not know that s/he was paving the way for the Second Vatican Council. The scholars and liturgists who prepared the restored Holy Week Liturgy did not know the Council was in the future. They should be respected for what they did and not regarded as mere forerunners to others. To diminish the work and life experiences of those who worked and lived before an important event is like the unfortunate tendency to regard everything in the Hebrew Scriptures as pointing to the New Testament. Prophets, kings, etc., are seen as types of Christ instead of as personalities important in their own right.

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.