The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
This weekend some decorations for Christmas may already be in place in your church. In the Catholic liturgy, much of what we do and say has a tradition associated with it. So it is with the decorations we use in our sacred spaces during the time of Christmas.
Most churches will have at least one evergreen tree in place. While local fire codes may dictate that the tree be artificial, nonetheless, the evergreen remains a symbol of eternal life. It holds its green needles even as other trees die back and lose their leaves in winter. The shape of the evergreen points us to heaven.
Often, evergreen boughs are cut and fashioned into wreathes. A wreath is a circle, with no beginning or end, and symbolizes the everlasting life found in Christ.
The poinsettia is the flower most closely associated with Christmas. Mexican legend tells us that a poor, little girl wanted to bring the Christ Child a gift. Having no money to buy a gift, she did the best she could. She gathered a handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet.
The girl felt embarrassed by this small gift, but when she placed it at the bottom of the Nativity scene in her church, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers. Since that time, the poinsettia is known as the “Flower of the Holy Night” (Flor del Noche Buena). The shape of the poinsettia symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem and its red leaves symbolize the blood of Christ.
You may find an image of Our Lady in your church that is surrounded by evergreens with flowers and fruits lying on the boughs. Many plants and fruits have been given meanings to symbolize our Blessed Mother. White flowers symbolize her chastity and pears represent the fruit of her womb. The apple symbolizes our salvation and, when cut horizontally, reveals a “Christmas star” in its center. Lemons represent the fidelity of Mary’s love and oranges, her generosity. A popular fruit of the Christmas season, the pomegranate, alludes to the church because of the inner unity of countless seeds in one and the same fruit.
The most beloved of Christmas symbols is the Nativity crèche. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first Nativity scene in 1223. He received permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals — an ox and an ass — in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.”
As Christmas draws near, we are surrounded by so much beauty, for one reason, the coming of Emmanuel (“God is with us”).
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.