The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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December 7, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

What we share with ancient Rome

In combating paganism
or secularism, Christians bring Christ to season


By Bishop Robert Banks

As I write this column, it is 24 shopping days to Christmas -- and 25 if you include a trip to the drug store on Christmas Day for that gift you forgot to get.

Now, relax! I do not intend this column to be an extended criticism of all the shopping done before Christmas. I have a few gifts that I have to pick up myself.

Instead, it has occurred to me on this Saturday before we begin the four weeks of Advent that we are faced with the same problem the Church had to deal with when it began to emphasize the celebration of the birth of Christ.

This all goes back about 16 centuries. Rome was still heavily pagan and Christians really did not pay a great deal of attention to celebrating the birth of Christ. Easter was the big day of the Church year.

For the pagans, however, the end of December was a time for celebration. The occasion was the winter solstice around Dec. 21 when the sun was furthest from the equator and just beginning its return to the northern skies. The pagan devotees of the god Mithra celebrated the day as the birthday of the invincible sun. And the emperor declared this sun god to be a principal patron of the Roman Empire.

According to some of our best Church historians, the response of the Church was to declare Dec. 25 as the birthday of Jesus, who is the true light of the world. The result was that as the number of Christians grew, so did the importance of the Christian celebration. And now, 16 centuries later, only a few atheists or secular humanists send cards celebrating the winter solstice. Most of us are into Christmas cards.

Sixteen centuries ago, the challenge facing the Church was how to turn a pagan celebration into a Christian celebration. The challenge facing the Church today is how to turn the increasingly secular celebration of Christmas into a religious celebration. Back then, they did not stop the pagan celebration; the Christians celebrated it, but in a different way. So today we have the challenge of taking part in the secular celebration, but making sure it is also a religious celebration.

So how do we handle a modern culture that makes December the most commercial month of the year? This year it has even become a patriotic duty to go out and shop until you drop. We cannot escape it, since all the media are filled with advertisements for sales. The questions most on our minds this month are what do we get for the kids, the spouse, the in-laws, the best friends, and even the pastor.

We are going to shop and put a lot of money into gifts. How do we Christianize this?

• One way is to accept the hassle of shopping and finding the right gift as a kind of penance or sharing in the difficulty of Joseph and Mary's trip that first Christmas.

• Another is to see and intend each gift as a way of carrying out Jesus' command to love.

• One other, that might take a little extra time, is to pray for the person while we are wrapping his or her gift.

• And finally, make sure at least one gift, a substantial one, is made to the poor or to the work of the Church.

We are also going to put some time and effort into decorations: the Christmas tree, lights inside and outside the house, reindeer and Santa Clauses. How do we Christianize all this? The Christmas tree can have many meanings for a Christian. It certainly can remind us of the most important tree in history and the one that has brought the most happiness to people -- the cross. Or, if it is a live one, it can remind us that God is the source of all life. As for the lights, every one should be a reminder of The Light of the World, Jesus.

I am not sure how we get Santa Claus and the reindeer and all the other decorations Christianized. Granted that Santa Claus is derived from St. Nicholas, I, as a bishop, would not want to push the rotund Santa as a good image of my brother bishop, St. Nicholas. But all the imaginary figures that crowd the Christmas scene are pleasant and fun-filled reminders that Jesus came to bring us joy -- in this world and the next.

One of the delights of Christmas time is seeing all the lights as we drive around town. As we enjoy them, it can help if once in a while we let them make us think of what it means to say that Jesus is the light of the world. Light not only helps us to see our way around in the dark; it also brightens our spirits and beautifies the world around us. That is what Jesus does for the person who believes, even when life is darkest.

Then there are the Christmas carols. Some public schools, by excluding Christmas carols from the songs that can be sung in their musical programs, at least do us the favor --unwelcome as it might be -- of reminding us that the carols are religious songs. During Advent, we might make the resolution of trying to sing the carols as religious songs, meaning as deeply as we can the words that we sing so easily.

These are some things we can do to Christianize somewhat the very secular and commercial season that the world celebrates during December. But there is also a specifically religious action that the season of Advent suggests. That would be participation in the reconciliation services that take place every Advent in most of our parishes. If the Son of God came into this world for anything, it was to forgive sin and reconcile us to God and one another. I won't go into all the reasons why sin seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary and the lives of so many of us. The best antidote is not argument but participation in a reconciliation service.

May this Advent be a time of blessing and grace for all of you.



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