Reflections on the Christmas Season

Cunningham_formal_robesMost Reverend Robert J. Cunningham, D.D.

The Christmas season is all too quickly drawing to a close.  Christmas trees have been discarded at the curb.  Fewer lights are decorating homes.  Gifts given and exchanges made are not as common as they were just a few days ago.  Weeks of preparation have given way to an all too quick celebration.  The Church in her wisdom, however, does her best to extend our celebration of the Lord’s birth not only through the 12 days of Christmas but even beyond until we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  The quieter days toward the end of the Christmas season give us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the season and to savor some elements which the world at large does not fully appreciate.  So let us do that for a few moments right now.

On the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day the Church celebrates the Holy Family.  It is particularly appropriate to do so since Christmas is a family time of year.  Most families make every effort to spend time together during the Christmas season.  The inconveniences of travel give way to the joy of being together enjoying the present and remembering the past.  At this time of year we call to mind with affection and love those who have gone before us, the joys they brought us and the lessons they taught us. We commend them once more to the warm embrace of the Lord.  We ask them to help us do our part in making our family – a holy family!

On the last day of the year – December 31st – it is a praiseworthy custom to spend time reflecting on the gifts and blessings, as well as the challenges and disappointments of the past year.  Perhaps some of you may have seen on television the traditional Vesper Service from St. Peter’s Basilica. During the service, the Holy Father intoned the Te Deum, the Church’s great hymn of praise, thanking God and praising Him for the past year.  I found myself in the quiet of my own room reciting that magnificent hymn and reflecting on the blessings of 2009 — — primary among them the invitation and call to service which I received to be the Bishop of Syracuse.  I thanked God for the warmth of the welcome, the spirit of cooperation and the promise of prayers and assistance offered by so many.  I especially thanked Him for the gift of a dedicated presbyterate and the joy of working with my brother priests as we move into a future filled with hope.    During this year dedicated to the priesthood, I trust that we will together grow in holiness. May all of us, diocesan and religious, active and retired, young and old, support each other and strive to deepen our relationship with the Lord.

I remembered, with the concern of a loving father, the 13 young men currently enrolled in our seminary program and a number of others currently considering the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood.  I will be spending some time with the latter in the next few days as we discuss their joys and hopes and heartfelt aspirations.

There is so much to be thankful for and unfortunately all too often we fail to recognize God’s gifts.  The last day of the year gives us a brief opportunity to do just that.

January 1st,  New Year’s Day, the Church invites us to reflect upon the need for true peace in the world.  For the past number of years this day has been celebrated as a world day of prayer for peace. The theme of this year’s observance was: “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.” During his homily on January 1st, Pope Benedict reminded his hearers that people will only respect the environment to the extent that they respect themselves and others.  True respect for the environment, he said, requires seeing all of creation as a reflection of God, the creator.

The Church in the United States observes the week of January 3-9 as National Migration Week.  This year we are especially focusing on the young.  Minor migrants and refugees are an exceptionally vulnerable population that are easily taken advantage of, exploited and abused.  This is particularly true when they are undocumented and unaccompanied in a foreign country and, all too often, with no one to turn to for help.  Immigration reform is a great need in our country.  While we wait for a truly just immigration reform, we make every effort to welcome the immigrant in our midst, to receive  the migrant as Christ received the three wise men who came from afar bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The immigrant, too, brings gifts and talents to our country.  We need to welcome them as we would welcome Christ.  We are reminded also that Christ lived as a migrant in Egypt for a time, before He was able to return to His own home in Nazareth.

Finally, as the Christmas season ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Church invites us to celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week, January 10-16.  This week provides the opportunity for parishes throughout our diocese to promote vocations through prayer and education.  It is our common responsibility to encourage young people to be generous in their response to the possible call of a lifetime of service to the church.  Young people need to be encouraged and taught to listen for the whisper of God.  Parents, families and parish communities must recognize their duty to assist with this work. Vocations are everyone’s business.  We pray for an increased number of seminarians and candidates for religious life.  We need to nurture, educate and strengthen our young people who may receive the call.  We need to help young people hear the Lord in prayer, so that they can recognize Him in their lives.

I am hopeful that these random thoughts will broaden your perspective as we look back upon the Christmas season drawing to a close.  The Church invites us to enter into these various celebrations and observances.  Through them Christ comes to us in new and different ways.

As I write this article, the Feast of the Epiphany is being celebrated.  May you know God’s blessing and take comfort in this prayer from the Divine Office and Mass for the feast:

“Father of light, unchanging God, today you reveal to people of faith the resplendent fact of the Word made flesh. Your light is strong, your love is near; draw us beyond the limits which this world imposes, to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete.  We ask this through Christ Our Lord.”

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