Christmas is all around

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This was my third “Canadian Christmas” since I started working at Salt and Light. I got to spent my Christmas time in Vancouver. Being far away from my family at Christmas time is never easy, but the wonders of technology make the distances short. I can always be with my family even from far away with 8 hours time difference.

But there is the other side of the coin of getting to spend Christmas in a different place. I discovered that the traditions are different but the nature of this time is the same in Vancouver or in Portugal.

The first two years I got too caught up in  a very Portuguese concept,  “saudade “. It means longing. I was longing for my family and friends back home and not really fully enjoying the opportunity I had to spend Christmas on a different place.

This year I decided I wanted to enjoy this new reality. The “saudade” was there still but there was something else too: the warmth and the joy of Christmas. I realized there, in a loud dinning room enjoying Christmas lunch, that it all comes down to  sharing with one another.  After two years I realized “I also belong here!”

I learned that Christmas happens where ever you are and that the love of the Baby Jesus brought to the world is everywhere; that the joy of a big family is the same in Viseu, Portugal or in Vancouver B. C.

Christmas without Gift Wrapping

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As in past years, Christmas 2013 was what I had expected it to be; in fact it really wasn’t all that different from any other year. Seeing family at the regularly scheduled times, being at the same masses (emphasis on the plural), hearing the same carols and even in some cases the same sermons. Christmas dinner was as always: a turkey with all of the fixings on the side. Carrot pudding was the order of business come dessert and everything felt quite comfortable. This was Christmas, as I’ve more or less known it.

However despite the annual routine, which is almost habitual at this point in my life, two important points crossed my mind. The first is the wonder and the awe surrounding this day. Even now in my twenties, I still can’t help but find excitement in all that is Christmas, no different than I did as a young child. Seeing family on the evening of December 24th, or walking up the aisle at midnight mass, has never lost its luster. It’s not as if these are things I, or most anyone else, wouldn’t normally do every other day of the year, yet come Christmas, it all feels different.

The second point that came to mind was the experience I had talking to and sharing Christmas with those who had a completely different experience over these special and holy days. I spoke and spent time with people who had come from, and celebrated this solemnity, in less consumerist-based societies and countries. It wasn’t that they didn’t give gifts, however they seemed to be focused on other things: time spent with family, sharing meals, enjoying each other’s company.

When I look back at these two observations, one commonality is clear: my Christmas and the Christmas of others I met, no matter where else they are from, generates joy. It is a joy that can only come from one thing, one instance in the history of our world: the birth of Jesus Christ. His arrival was a light unto the entire world, the birth of he who would ultimately bring us salvation, even if some didn’t know it.

It’s safe to say that there are those who celebrate Christmas or what to many has become the “Holiday Season” without even the faintest thought of Mary, Joseph or the Christ-child. Despite this, their days are intentioned to be filled with joy and celebration that for some may be completely God-free in nature. It’s the hustle and bustle of gifts and other modern pageantry that tend to fog up the light and joy that came with Christ’s birth.  Despite this, there still resonates that joy, that light and it’s foundation in Christ, even if but an ember. Without his birth, we wouldn’t have a reason to exchange gifts, to light up our streets or share a hearty meal with friends and family. Given that, it is our duty, as Christians to reach out to a world that may not know Christ’s love. To take the light he has given to us, and spread it throughout the world through evangelization.

A Christian’s joy can never be extinguished, even in places where they face great persecution and suffering, more than at any other time in history. Despite this, despite all our challenges, we are all called to transmit God’s light and His love to others, and to teach others through word and deed, just who is the real reason for the season.

She Pondered These Things in her Heart

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For the past ten years my Christmas begins and ends with the noise and frenzy of an airport, the fuss associated with air travel, and the grogginess of jet lag.

It is filled with the excitement of counting down to the days “till I fly home” and then the bittersweet countdown to the day I have to fly back.

Knowing that the number of days I have left at home is dwindling often fills me with an anxiety that leads to trying to see everyone, go everywhere and do everything that I can only see, go and do at home. Usually, as the G force of the plane taking off over the mountains pushes me into my seat, I suddenly realize “I forgot to see X.”

This past New Years day the pastor at my parish in Vancouver gave a short, beautiful homily (at the request of some of the readers and Eucharistic ministers who gave him the mandate to “keep it short and not too loud”). He spoke of the line in Gospel that tells us Mary saw everything that was happening around the birth of her son and “pondered these things in her heart.”

Maybe it was the way he paused after saying “she pondered these things in her heart” that created a deep sense of peace in the church.

I thought to myself, what if I ponder too?

What if, as the homily suggested, I ponder the year past and try to recognize the lines that were clearly not written by me, but by a divine pen? What if I try not to count the hours and minutes left at home, but absorb the experience of being at home; Of sharing coffee and cookies with my parents, of walking over to a relative’s house, unannounced, in the coastal mist, of waking up to a view of the mountains, of listening to an elderly aunt tell the story of our how our family came be in Canada, of helping to hastily organize a family dinner for 12 due to a freak power outage?

When I stopped counting and started pondering everything, even the freak power outage, seemed less like a sign pointing to an end and more like a gift.

(CNS Photo/Paul Haring)

Christmas and Pope Francis

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The following is an article written by Fr. Thomas Rosica for The Windsor Star, looking at how Christmas at the Vatican was different this year with Pope Francis at the helm.

Nine months after the momentous papal election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Vicar of Christ on earth, Supreme Pontiff and Bishop of Rome, many in the world stand in awe at how this 77-year-old man has captivated humanity in such a short period of time. His free gestures, his connection with people, especially those who are broken, sick, poor, destitute and living on the fringes of society have made the world stop and listen.

Working in the business of media in my role as head of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, many of my more cynical colleagues in the “secular” world have teased me about the Pope. They say: “You folks did it well! You must have paid a fortune to fix the brand, market the product and get your message out! It must have cost you a fortune!”

I smile and tell them that it cost us nothing. No one could have ever planned such a thing and a result as what we have witnessed since that cold, rainy, March night when Pope Francis made his debut on the world stage. If ever I believed in the Holy Spirit, it was during that conclave and on that night … and I saw it all up close as I was working in the Holy See Press Office a the Vatican throughout the Papal transition. This was God’s doing and the Holy Spirit’s action and not ours.

The heart and soul, the spirituality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is about human faces: the face of Christ, of Joseph and Mary, of Saints Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber. And the Pope sees the face of God in the face of the poor, the weak, the broken, the elderly and helpless children. Over the past nine months, his words both attract and perplex. They are an unvarnished call for the church and every Christian to undergo reform by standing under the gaze of Christ. In the transforming light of that face, everything else follows.

Pope Francis is a world leader preaching a global transformation, a new stimulus to international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill, or, worse, promises which all too often have not been kept. He acknowledges a “globalization of indifference” that has swept over the world and made us turn our backs to those most in need. He disarmingly makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that allows us to recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects rather than in relationship with God and others.

Pope Francis rejects an elitist church. He also rejects the reduction of Catholicism to hot-topic moral issues. He does not want to reduce the church to discussions of abortion, gay marriage, contraception and homosexuality. In his comments, he makes a distinction between dogmatic and moral teachings, reminding us that they do not hold the same weight. With Pope Francis, the church must re-enter public discourse with a full-throated defense of the common good that rises above bitter partisan divisions.

To be a church for the poor, the Church must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our national histories. Each of those issues, poverty and abortion, constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person.

Pope Francis sees and understands the Church to be a reconciler and a house of reconciliation. For him, faith enters the church through the heart of the poor, not through the heads of intellectuals. “Only the beauty of God can attract.” He reawakens in us a desire to call strangers neighbours in order to make known his beauty.

He wants the Church to speak a simple message. “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people” he says. The Church must present Jesus as the compassion of God.

“We need a church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a church capable of meeting people on their way. We need a church capable of entering into their conversation.”

In a recent interview with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis spoke about the meaning of Christmas. He said:

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it. All of us from the holiest of saints to the greatest of sinners; from the purest to the most corrupt among us. Even a corrupt person has this ability …”

He continued: “Christmas in this time of conflicts is a call from God who gives us this gift. Do we want to receive Him or do we prefer other gifts? In a world afflicted by war, this Christmas makes me think of God’s patience. The Bible clearly shows that God’s main virtue is that He is love. He waits for us; he never tires of waiting for us. He gives us the gift and then waits for us. This happens in the life of each and every one of us. There are those who ignore him. But God is patient and the peace and serenity of Christmas Eve is a reflection of God’s patience toward us.”

We waited patiently for you, Pope Francis. On March 13 this past year, you were an early Christmas gift to the Church and the world. Thanks for making Christmas a daily occurrence for us all.

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The Christmas Onlys: 10 million Canadians attending a Christmas service

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You would think we are a religious nation. Some 1 in 3 Canadians – adding up to more than 10 million people – say that they are attending special Christmas services.

To put things in perspective, that total in our allegedly secular nation easily exceeds the number of Canadians who earlier this year watched the Super Bowl, Grey Cup, or the final game of the Stanley cup final. And the number is only slightly below the number of people who say that, the day after Christmas, they plan to join the stampede to Boxing Day sales.

Such are the findings of a new Angus Reid Global on-line survey of 1,508 Canadians completed earlier this month. The measure of error is 2.5%.

Sociologist Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge, who assisted with the survey and analysis, says the magnitude of Christmas service attendance is both unexpected and remarkable. “At Christmas time, 14% of Canadians who worship fairly regularly will find themselves sharing the pews with another 18% who normally are somewhere else – making for a total of 32%. Not a shabby market share for late December.”

What is particularly noticeable is the attendance spike for people who are Roman Catholic, United, and Anglican.

Some 23% of Catholics outside Quebec normally attend services. But that figure will more than double to 48%. In Quebec, where regular attendance has plummeted since the 1960s, just 13% of Catholics typically attend services; but the Christmas level will balloon to 38%.

In the case of the United and Anglican churches, normal attendance levels in the 25% range will jump to temporary Christmas service levels of around 50%.

The increases in evangelical churches, where regular attendance is the highest in the country at around 45%, will be a bit more modest, but still could reach almost 60%.

The 18% of Canadians who are “Christmas only” attenders are slightly outnumbered by regular worshippers in the three Prairie provinces. However, they out-number the regulars in British Columbia, Ontario, and – in particular – Quebec and the four Atlantic provinces.

The “Christmas Onlys” are just as likely to be male as female. They do, however, stand out in tending to be younger than regular attenders: they comprise 18% of Canadians who are under the age of 55, compared to 11% for regular worshippers. The finding is important. It shows that lots of younger Canadians have not abandoned religious groups. They still are showing up on their own from time to time.

Reflections on the Findings
What does it all mean, especially in a place like Quebec, where just about everyone has assumed the Catholic Church is in deep trouble? Or in the rest of the country, where the common lament is that the golden days of solid attendance are long gone?

For starters, it means that faith, led by Christianity, continues to be important for a sizable number of Canadians. But things need to be kept in perspective. The finding that 2 in 3 people are not in Christmas services is also a reminder of the current Canadian religious reality of polarization. Some people value faith, some don’t, and a lot of ambivalent, “religiously undecided” people are currently in the middle. They could go either way.

That qualifier aside, the numbers at Christmas services point, Bibby says, to an important fact: “There’s lots of latent faith in Canada. The valuing of faith readily surpasses active involvement. Or to put things in more crass and memorable terms, the number of people who find faith important readily surpasses the number of bottoms in pews.”
The prevalence of latent faith should surprise no one. Close to 8 in 10 of the people who only attend at Christmas reported in this latest survey that they were raised in pro-faith Protestant and Catholic homes. So it is that the same proportion acknowledge that “the religious aspect of Christmas is important to them personally.”

The “Christmas onlys” are near-unanimous in embracing the concept of “Christmas” over “Holiday Season.” They will resemble regular attenders in celebrating with trees and decorations, along with carols, gifts, and giving. Some 60% of their Christmas dinners will be preceded by table grace – compared to 87% for regular attenders.

“Some of the Christmas Onlys,” Bibby comments, “want little more from religious groups. These ‘same time next year’ people are into what we’ve been referring to for years as ‘religion à la carte’.”

But, a cause for pause is that a significant number of these same people, who constitute something of an “‘ambivalent middle” between embracing religion and rejecting it, have been saying that they are open to greater involvement. The asterisk? They have to find their involvement to be worthwhile for themselves and their families. By ‘worthwhile,’ most are talking about solid ministries that address their spiritual, personal, and relational needs. “It seems to me,” observes Bibby, “that these are hardly unreasonable or excessive expectations of groups that aspire to be more than clubs for the initiated.”

The proverbial bottom line? “This reading of Christmas attendance should come as great news for Canada’s groups,” says the University of Lethbridge sociologist. “It provides a reminder of what’s possible. To put it mildly, this is hardly a time for leaders to respond by chastising people for packing the place once a year. That would be like the lame sports owner who looks at the sold-out park and complains, ‘Yah, the place is jammed, but the fans don’t come out all that often.’”

In sharp contrast to such debilitating morbidity, the presence of the much-maligned “Christmas crowd” should serve as a reminder of the existence of remarkable opportunity and need – and the urgency for life-giving responses on the part of the nation’s religious groups.

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Dr. Reginald Bibby is a best-selling author and professor of sociology at The University of Lethbridge who has been monitoring social trends in Canada now for four decades. The trends research is continuing in collaboration with pollster Angus Reid Global and Andrew Grenville. The findings on the significance of Christmas will be part of Bibby and Grenville’s new book, The Future of Life in Canada, which will be released in late 2014. Media contacts: Reginald Bibby: bibby@uleth.ca Andrew Grenville: andrew.grenville@angus-reid.com

Have Yourself a Goth Christmas

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By Mark Matthews, our Salt + Light Hour Hollywood Undercover Missionary

My co-workers and I got this crazy idea into our heads recently that we needed to visit a Goth Bar. If you don’t know what “Goth” is, it’s a whole movement of look/style/culture similar to punk, except that Goths are known for wearing all black, being really depressed and listening to The Cure all the time. Why did we need to go? Don’t you think it’d be a fascinating cultural experience? And, of course leave it to Los Angeles to have a club for every manner of style and dress on the planet.

However, neither my co-workers nor myself live the Goth culture. We’re pretty much clean-cut middle class geeks. So we’d certainly stand out in their midst and weren’t sure that we’d be welcomed with open arms. Regardless, we dug out our darkest items of clothing and found a club advertising a safe sounding “Goth Karaoke Night” and visited one December Monday night for some Friday I’m in Love sing-along fun.

Despite our juvenile fears we didn’t get turned away at the door. They didn’t bat an eye and simply handed us karaoke songbooks instead. The look of the club and clientele certainly lived up to our expectations, with plenty of black, spiked hair and dark eye-shadow. I channeled my inner teenage angst and picked “Sad But True” by Metallica. I think we all were expecting the night to be nothing but droning and tears into the microphone, but imagine my surprise when the first songs of the evening were CHRISTMAS CAROLS!

It was a reminder to me of just how ingrained Christmas customs and traditions are. In that club, nothing seemed further away than the thought of Christmas. Yet the patrons wanted to brighten it up a bit with some songs inspired by the incarnation of God-made-flesh. That probably wasn’t their exact motivating thought, but it’s significant no less. We often forget that the reason we do things like put up an evergreen tree is that it signifies the ever-lasting life we have in Christ. This openness to signs and symbols is an open door to share our faith with a culture normally deaf to theological truth.

Signs and symbols, “sacramentality”, are an ingenious invention of Christ, faithfully used by the Catholic Church. I’d go so far as to say that humans can’t live without some kind of sacramental reality. Sacraments are also a form in incarnation, as they make something a physical reality. There is so very much that can be said about incarnation, but suffice it to say that the greatest Incarnation was God made flesh in Jesus Christ, and we are called to incarnate in smaller ways too.

What exactly is the Hollywood connection here? Artists are incarnators, and Hollywood is full of artists. The primary job of an artist is to create concrete forms, images, objects, sights and sounds to communicate an idea or feeling. Because of this they are particularly sensitive to the incarnate works around them.

Something that has struck me since I moved to Hollywood is just how classy and beautifully-done Christmas is. All the décor is very well done in Hollywood – not gaudy or showy, but classical, simple and beautiful. Even the Scientologists get in on it and put together some very nice displays.

I’ve heard some fascinating conversion stories of people whose primary mode of conversion involved art. One walked into a beautiful renaissance church, was touched by it’s beauty, and ultimately became Catholic because of it. Wow, a conversion through incarnated beauty? I previously never thought it possible! For this reason, those who seek to evangelize artists should incarnate the faith around them.

My advice is to incarnate Christmas by putting up some beautiful decorations. Specifically, try to pick things reflective of our faith, like the crèche, a star, or wise-men. Maybe this will lead to some good conversations with your neighbors, and at the very least it lets people know subconsciously there is something more to Christmas. The benefit of this is ultimately two fold. These signs and symbols help us see the un-seeable spiritual reality. They remind us that our salvation is leading us to a much better place that “… no mind can comprehend”. Secondly, it will help others see this reality and truth too. We want to encourage this attraction to signs and symbols of our Lords birth – even in a Goth bar.

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Mark Matthews is a graphic designer and animator working in Hollywood. Listen to his “What’s Good About Hollywood?” column once a month on the SLHour. And listen to this year’s special Christmas-edition of the SLHour too!

The Angels of Christmas

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The drama of Jesus’ birth at Christmas introduces us to a very diverse cast of characters who bring us one of the most beloved stories of all time.

The stage is vast — covering quite a bit of territory in biblical Israel. It encompasses the power and might of Jerusalem’s temple and the sleepy hilltop town of Nazareth where a young woman, home alone, welcomes a heavenly visitor who sets the whole story in motion. The plot moves from Nazareth in Galilee to the little town of Bethlehem in the land of Judah where the dreams of prophets and message of angels are realized.

But the drama of Christmas not only involves those on Earth, but also quite an impressive heavenly troupe as well. Today let’s consider the angels of Christmas.

One need only view the wide variety of angels on greeting cards, or consider the care in choosing the appropriate angel to crown Christmas trees, or the precision in placing angels in our manger or creche scenes at home or in church to discover that Christmas without angels just isn’t Christmas.

The stories of Jesus’ infancy and childhood contain evidence of the activity of angels. In the opening moments of the gospel according to Luke, an angel informs Zechariah about the birth of his son John the Baptist, and the same angel foretells the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus. Later Luke has angels announcing the good news to the shepherds in the fields.

In Matthew’s account, an angel advises Joseph to accept Mary’s pregnancy. An angel warns Joseph of the danger he’s in from Herod, and later returns to give Joseph the “all clear,”to leave the temporary exile in Egypt and to return to Israel.

For Christians, the stories of the angels in the life of Jesus have a power which no sermon, university lecture, television or radio broadcast could ever have. When we read the story of his birth of a virgin mother, it speaks to us of the utter kindness and generosity of God, and of his creative power that draws new life out of empty wombs and barren tombs.

When we read the story of the turmoil the child Jesus brought into the lives of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, Herod, the whole of Jerusalem, and all the babes of Bethlehem — we are forced to ask ourselves whether the risen Christ challenges and moves our lives in the same way.

When we read the story of the shepherds and their vision of angelic choirs, we discover anew how God can break into our life as well. When we read the story of that incredible good news from heaven — of those words of “glory in the highest and peace on earth,” we hear an echo of the risen Christ who would say those very things to his adult disciples and continues to say to the whole church: “My peace I give to you.”

When we remember and relive the angelic roles in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the veil that separates us from the world of the spirit is drawn back. These angelic beings stir awesome responses within us. The powerful drama of Christmas may well give us one of our deepest glimpses into the heart of God and the mind of his son Jesus Christ, who comes to pitch his tent among us at Christmas.

Pope’s General Audience – Wednesday, Jan. 9

Published below is a translation of the address that Pope Benedict gave yesterday inside the Paul VI Audience Hall. This week, he reflected on the final days of the Church’s celebration of Christmas.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In this Christmas season we focus once again on the great mystery of God who came down from Heaven to enter into our flesh. In Jesus, God became incarnate, he became man like us, and thus opened for us the door to his Heaven, to full communion with Him. [Read more…]

The 12 Days of Christmas – Sebastian Gomes

In this small 12 day series, Sebastian Gomes of Salt + Light shares his memories, hopes and traditions of Christmas.

The 12 Days of Christmas – Chris Adamczyk

In this small 12 day series, Chris Adamczyk of Salt + Light shares his memories, hopes and traditions of Christmas.