December 15, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Imitating the gracious generosity of God during Advent and Christmas

In Psalm 96, we read: “Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes.”

In our Advent liturgy, these words have been joined to other words from other psalms.

“Mountains and hills will sing praises before God and all the trees of the wood will clap their hands, for the Lord is coming, the ruler, to an eternal kingdom.”

Pope Benedict XVI, in an early collection of his homilies, remarked: “Our decorated Christmas trees are really nothing but an attempt to make these words visible. The Lord is there. Our ancestors believed this and the trees of the wood had therefore to go meet him, bend down before him, and be a song of praise to their Lord. They believed this with such certainty too that the mountains and hills singing before the Lord became a living reality for them. They themselves broke into a song of praise and it can still be heard today, so that we too have an inkling of the nearness of the Lord, since such sounds can be given to man only when the Lord is very close to him” (Seeking God’s Face, Franciscan Herald Press, 1982, p. 80).

I must admit that when my Dad and brother and I went looking for a cedar Christmas tree on Grandpa Buechlein’s farm, I didn’t have that understanding in my mind. Decorating the tree was special and I knew it was a warm tradition, but I didn’t make the connection to the psalmody of the Old Testament.

Vaguely I suppose, I did sense a connection with the sacred meaning of Advent and Christmas if for no other reason than we went to a lot of trouble to find that tree and to decorate it.

More directly, I sensed the nearness of the Lord at Midnight Mass in the awesome St. Joseph Church in Jasper as we sang “Silent Night” (“Stille nacht”) in the original German to the accompaniment of harp and stringed instruments. I had “an inkling of the nearness of the Lord.”

The Holy Father went on to comment: “Even such an apparently external custom as our Christmas fare has its roots in the Church’s Advent liturgy, which echoes the wonderful words of the Old Testament: ‘On that day the mountains will drip sweetness and the rivers will bring down milk and honey.’ It was in words such as these that men in the past expressed the quintessence of their hopes in a redeemed world, and their thoughts were echoed by our ancestors when they celebrated Christmas as the time God really came. If he comes at Christmas, he as it were distributes honey and it must be true that the earth flows with it. Where he is therefore, there can be no bitterness. In his presence, heaven and earth are in harmony and God and man are one. Honey and all the sweet things of Christmas are the sign of this peace, concord and joy. … All these elements come together in our joy that God became a child who encourages us to trust as children trust, to give ourselves and to let ourselves receive” (p. 80-81).

My mom’s fudge and seafoam candies were traditional sweets at Christmas, but again I didn’t make a scriptural connection. Yet, as I read and reflect on the Holy Father’s words of years past, they make intuitive sense to me.

To be sure, decorated Christmas trees, fanciful candies and gift-giving seem to have lost the spiritual connection with their original Christian intent. And ours is not necessarily a culture that promotes childlike trust.

But the point that I want to make is simple. With the eyes of faith, strengthened by the grace of the Advent season, we can re-invest the trappings of Advent and Christmas with the spiritual meaning of old.

When we look at our decorated trees, when we enjoy the “Christmas fare,” can we not make the scriptural connections in our hearts?

We can celebrate this Christmas and the wonders of the season with a deeply grateful understanding that this is the time when “God really came.”

When we exchange Christmas gifts, may the deeper meaning infuse our intentions: We give and receive with the understanding that we are imitating the gracious generosity of God—after all, he gave us himself.

Let’s make the intention not to let the spiritual meaning of our giving be lost on the floor with the discarded gift wrappings. The meaning of the exchanged gifts, then, does not quickly fade on Christmas afternoon.

Advent and Christmas provide a spiritual opportunity for us to reclaim our Christian culture as it is celebrated in the beauty of the season. It is the time “when God really came.” His name is Jesus. †

Local site Links: