Belfast Telegraph

Embrace the Nativity, and leave the commercial revelry to non-believers

By Fr Des O'Donnell

Without any overt persecution of the Church, a military government succeeded in secularising 80% Christian Uruguay in about 10 years.

In Latin America, Christian feast days are expressions of some faith at some level. The anti-Church Uruguayan government did not try to change this directly. Its strategy was to rename the feasts.

Holy Week became Semina di turismo, the 8th of December became Diede la Playa (Beach Day) and Christmas Day became Fiesta de la Familia. The leaders of secularism in Uruguay knew the power of symbolic words.

They knew all symbols generate and carry emotionally-experienced meanings. They gradually changed people's experience by changing words. Signs may point but symbols evoke and motivate.

Take the word Christmas. Christian leaders stress the etymology of the word - Christ's name - in our preaching. We do this in the hope that the Christian experience is nurtured or generated within. But it is only after Advent and Christmas services that many people go about celebrating what the word Christmas primarily symbolises for them. The etymology of the word is not the issue.

The issue is the conscious or unconscious experience of the person using or hearing the word. What the word Christmas triggers in our consciousness is the important issue.

The question is: what is happening within us when we use or hear the world Christmas? Is the experience of the modern person one of imagining the Christ-child in a manger and of prayerfully thinking of God's enfleshment among us? Or is it just one of Santas, sleighbells and shopping to the sound of carols in colourfully decorated gift stores? When the word Christmas ceases to activate something about God-made-man within us, it seems clear the word has effectively lost its meaning, it has lost its power to generate any deep Christian sentiment. And so it seems that the word Christmas is lost to the Church.

If most Christians were asked to spontaneously complete this sentence: 'When I think of Christmas I think of...' it is safe to say that most would reply shopping, or gifts, or home-coming, a turkey dinner, carols on the radio, a week off work or, sadly, a lonely time.

Churches have lost this word because it can no longer evoke a Christian experience in most people. Secularism and consumerism have hijacked it. It has also happened with the word Easter, when eggs and bunnies replace any memory of the Resurrection.

However, I think that for communities of faith there is still time to rescue the Christmas experience. It is possible to find and to use another word for Christmas within our Churches and among ourselves. This would mean a quiet in-house campaign to use a new - or very old word - in homilies, parish bulletins and in greetings. Why not let the word Christmas go, since we have already lost it?

We could gradually substitute the word Nativity in church and in conversation among believers. Could clergy get used to saying 'We are now approaching the feast of the Nativity' or 'Let us prepare for the Nativity' and encourage believers to wish one another a very blessed feast of the Nativity?

We could ask parishioners to purchase cards which depict the Nativity and so make this a Nativity feast rather than a red robin, a Santa or Yuletide one. Nativity is a meaning-laden, faith-generating word for believers. It may even touch marginal believers too.

The one-word change would be an in-house, among-believers one. We could leave the word Christmas to our non-believing friends.

Belfast Telegraph

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