Finding the joy of Christmas

In his greeting to people gathered outside St. Peter’s Square last Sunday, Pope Francis offered a message to children in attendance. “Dear children,” he said, “may you feel wonder when you gather in your homes in prayer before the Nativity, gazing at Baby Jesus.”

Wonder and joy often come to mind when we gaze lovingly on little ones, infant children so innocent and pure. That was the case while attending Mass last Sunday at St. Bernard Church in Green Bay, the same day Pope Francis addressed children at the Vatican.

Fr. Mark Vander Steeg – dressed in the pink outer vestment worn on the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday – spoke about the joy of this third Sunday, symbolized by the pink candle on the Advent wreath and his pink chasuble. At the same time, two young couples with their months-old babies sat a few pews ahead, vying for my attention. The moms may have been sisters. They were joined by their parents, grandparents and, my wife and I assumed, their great- grandparents. Four generations celebrating the joy of family and faith.

Children can sometimes be a distraction at church and these two babies were no exception. They made it hard to focus on Fr. Vander Steeg’s Advent homily. In a good way. With eyes wide open, curiously scanning their surroundings, those of us sitting behind them could not take our attention off of them as they smiled, cooed and moved from one parent or grandparent to another.

The joy of Christmas is found all around us if we open our eyes and our hearts.

Yes, the season of Advent and Christmas invites us to be joyful. But, as Pope Francis reminds us, Advent is a season of conversion, and if we are to accept God’s invitation to joy, “we need to be asking ourselves at this time, ‘What should I do?’”

Here are a few suggestions, generated from stories and columns in this week’s paper.

The first suggestion comes from Bishop David Ricken.

If your family doesn’t do this already, get into the habit of placing a crib scene in your home. It’s a way to share the story of Jesus’ birth with children or grandchildren. Also, Bishop Ricken suggests, “pray as a family before the crib scene and come to church on Sundays and especially the feast of Christmas.”

That leads us to the next suggestion: Consider attending one of the 12 midnight Masses celebrated around the diocese on Christmas. If you haven’t been to a midnight Mass, it can a daunting challenge to stay awake so late. But the mood of the congregation, the prayers, the hymns and baby Jesus in the manger all add up to a meaningful way to celebrate the Lord’s birth.

We are also called to share the joy of Christmas in another way: with others. For example, members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay hosted a Christmas party for children of incarcerated men and women. The event was part of Angel Tree, a program sponsored by Prison Fellowship.

There are many projects and services aimed at helping children in need. Few, however, offer hope and joy to the incarcerated and their families. Learn more about the program at prisonfellowship.org.

Joy, prayer and gratitude. These are three attitudes, Pope Francis says, that will prepare us for Christmas in an authentic way.

May you have an opportunity to gaze on the face of a baby this Christmas season and experience joy (for newborn life and for Jesus’ birth), prayer (for those in need, both near and far) and gratitude (for all your blessings, past and present). Merry Christmas.