December 17, 2021

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Let Christ transfigure family hardships into a new kind of Christmas joy

Sean GallagherIn 1734, the great classical music composer J.S. Bach penned his Christmas Oratorio. Most of the music is bright and joyful as is fitting for such a happy feast.

But in the middle of it, there is a chorale with the tune of the Holy Week hymn known commonly in English translations today as “O Sacred Head Surrounded.”

A text related to Christmas was sung to the tune. But the message sent by the use of that tune, so well-connected in people’s minds to Christ’s crucifixion, was unmistakable.

While Christians do well to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child with great joy, they must keep in their hearts and minds very consciously that the holy child of Bethlehem was destined to die a gruesome death. But it was a death with jubilant meaning—a death that reconciled all humanity with God. The joy of Christmas is only a small foretaste of the endless bliss of heaven that Christ won for us in his death on the cross.

But Bach didn’t discover the connection between Christmas and Good Friday. It’s been a part of the Church’s tradition since its earliest centuries.

It’s seen in the longstanding tradition of the Church celebrating the feast of

St. Stephen, the first to die as a martyr for Christ, on the day after Christmas. This is not only a clear reminder of the trajectory of Christ’s life. It also suggests that we, his followers, are to place ourselves in his story with the help of his grace.

St. Paul mysteriously wrote about this only a few decades after Christ’s ascension when he said we are to fill up what is “lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1:24).

The Church’s tradition tells us that while Christ’s sufferings were sufficient for the salvation of all humanity, he nonetheless allows us to join our sufferings to his and have them thus gloriously transfigured by his infinite love.

All of this was made possible by the Son of God—the second person of the Blessed Trinity—taking on human flesh and a human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and revealed to the world in his birth in Bethlehem. In our Catholic tradition, we call this the incarnation.

All of this may seem like lofty beliefs far removed from our daily lives. But nothing could be further from the truth, especially at Christmas. This is an important truth for families to keep in mind at this time of year.

Living in this broken world marked by the sad effects of original sin, so many families approach the holidays with mixed emotions. Below the superficial happiness of the season promoted by our culture which is given depth by our faith, feelings of sadness and anxiety can touch the hearts of many of us.

They may be rooted in missing loved ones who have died or who are separated from us for various reasons. Job loss, health problems, tensions among relatives brought together by the season and so many other trials can also make this time difficult for families.

But when we at Christmas allow Christ to take to himself our hardships, he gives in return a new kind of joy. It may be a very different kind of happiness than what we’ve known in the past and what our culture tells us we should have at Christmas.

Yet this grace-inspired joy experienced in the midst of life’s inevitable hardships is rock solid and can last throughout the year. This gift, offered to us by Christ, is the best that families can receive at Christmas.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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