Making Jesus the centre of Christmas is an important and worthy endeavour, if also a challenge in our increasingly secular culture.

Putting Christ back into Christmas evokes St. Paul’s reminder of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. “Put on Christ,” he encourages us in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:14).

The ways that we seek to focus on Jesus’ birth this Christmas can help us develop some spiritual practices to make Christ the centre of our everyday lives.

One of my guides this Advent has been Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely and humble hero of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I re-read this childhood favourite so that I could fully appreciate the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, currently playing in theatres.) Despite the lack of an overt Christmas theme, Bilbo’s adventures can offer some insight for our spiritual journey.

Christmas celebrations are full of great art — or at least imitations of great art. (We have all had occasion to shudder at an off-key rendition of our favourite Christmas hymn.) Great art — whether visual, literary, musical, cinematic or narrative — reminds us of our true human nature, as God created us. When a work of art expresses the best of what it means to be human, this goodness can be a starting point for dialogue with our secular culture. It can also become a doorway to spiritual awareness for the believer and non-believer.

Engaging with a great work of art becomes an adventure of the kind that Bilbo Baggins goes on. The newness of his experiences makes the little hobbit keenly sensitive to the beauties and dangers around him. His dwarf companions seek to regain lost treasure, but Bilbo goes on the journey for entirely different reasons. Ultimately, he is transformed — by the beauties he experiences, the goodness he witnesses in others, the dangers he faces and the choices he makes.

We can choose to engage our secular culture with a similar sensitivity: both to the seeds of the Gospel it contains and to its innate dangers. Especially at Christmas when the artistic expression is often clearly Christian, we can highlight the best of these expressions of faith. Instead of just listening to the radio, we can play a mix of religious hymns, letting their awe and wonder flood our hearts. We can look more closely at the masterpieces on our Christmas cards, even using them in our prayers as a way to meditate on the amazing mystery of the Incarnation.

Throughout the year, we can become like the magi, seeking Christ in the secular corners of our culture.

Gift-giving in a consumer culture easily becomes an exercise in impressing others, a way to “prove” our love by how much money we spend, or a way to “use” one another — gift-giving in the hopes of getting something back. Consumerism falsely fulfills our insecurities through the acquiring of more and more material things.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves’ attitudes toward the dazzling treasure are quite consumeristic. Bilbo is the one who sees the gold for what it is: useful only up to a certain point. His brushes with gold help him to see with a spiritual vision and to choose friendship over treasure, honesty over deception, justice over greed.

As Bilbo clearly saw, material things are gifts to be used and shared. We can strive to make our Christmas gifts more authentic expressions of love, more personal and meaningful: a homemade gift card for going out for ice cream together; a hand-crafted item; a favourite spiritual book. This personal approach shifts our focus from the gift to our relationship with the person receiving the gift. Gift-giving then takes its proper place as a celebration of God’s abundant love for us.

Throughout the year, we can continue to shift from our consumeristic, “gotta-have-it” attitude to a deepening perspective of gratitude. We can seek to share what we have received, giving of ourselves with greater love.

Christmas Mass is where we celebrate the ultimate gift: God’s coming to us. This coming of God is a mystery and a grace to be celebrated year-round with a humble and brave “hobbit-like” heart that views the spiritual life as a quest for a more abundant life. Every Mass — not just Christmas — becomes an invitation for us to cherish the coming of our God, to welcome Him, and to respond to His coming with love.

December 19, 2012

Christmas wishes

The birthplace of Jesus will be quieter than usual this Christmas. Many Christians who had planned pilgrimages to Bethlehem cancelled their trips when war flared last month between Israel and Hamas. Bethlehem was spared the rockets, but many missiles were aimed at nearby Jerusalem and so, unlike a year ago when Bethlehem had 140,000 December pilgrims, the lineups will be shorter this week at the Church of the Nativity.

Published in Editorial

JERUSALEM - The simmering smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in Catholic parishes

Published in Vatican

TORONTO - Each Christmas Hope for Children hands out about $800,000 to young people living on their own, young parents and families.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

TORONTO - If the thought of crowded malls full of screaming children and stressed adults has you putting off finding that last-minute Christmas gift, online shopping might be your saving grace.

Published in Canada

TORONTO - There’s nothing that makes a novena come alive like an eight-year-old Joseph and a nine-year-old Mary knocking on the door and singing their way into your heart — at least that’s the way it is at the mostly Mexican Hispanic parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

TORONTO - The DeSario family is encouraging people to stop and stare at the abundance of Christmas cheer that illuminates their North York home, all in the name of charity.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

PICKERING, ONT. - The youth of Holy Redeemer parish believe Christ is what Christmas is about, and it showed at Pickering’s Santa Claus Parade on Nov. 10.

The parish’s youth group entered its Keeping Christ in Christmas float in the annual parade this year.

The 23-metre-long float carried about 50 volunteers and included three key scenes. The choir of volunteers and the CFC-Youth For Family and Life GTA Music Ministry band were the angels of heaven, singing praise through traditional Christmas songs and upbeat Christian music. A traditional creche with the baby Jesus made up the second scene. And the third, a fireside family scene — Christmas tree included — had a mother and father telling the true story of Christmas to their kids.

The float, which was created as a witness to the Year of Faith, was the idea of Caroline Dupuis, who pitched it to her 16-year-old daughter Emma, Emma’s friends and parishioners.

Emma helped her mother oversee the entire project.

“I think especially in our society, Christmas has lost its true meaning,” Emma said,adding Christ has been lost in the secularization of the season.

“Without Jesus, nothing else really matters,” said Emma. “He came and it’s time to celebrate Him.”

Spreading the Catholic faith, encouraging community involvement and being a witness to others were some of the reasons for creating the float.

When she suggested the float’s theme, “Some people thought, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re crazy,’ ” said Emma.

Holy Redeemer pastor Fr. Morosco Lett and others in the parish community weren’t among those, and were very supportive of the youth group’s effort. The parish donated about $750 while the trailer was donated by a parishioner.

“A lot of the big things are being donated to us by generous people. So that’s helped immensely or we wouldn’t have funds to put something like this together,” she said.

Another parishioner built baby Jesus’ stable free of charge, and a construction team of volunteers put the rest of the float together.

“They’re all big strong men who are getting up at 6:30 in the morning on Saturday to help put all of the pieces together and to nail down the stable and everything,” said Emma.

With volunteers of varying age, the youngest being age five, Emma hoped kids watching the parade would see the float and think that “kids like me and kids my age or even older get excited about this kind of stuff.”

In turn, Emma would like this to inspire more youth to be involved and to know that “It’s not about Santa Claus and the presents,” but about Jesus too.

Published in Youth Speak News

As we settle into the new year, I can’t help reflecting on three gifts I received this Christmas.

All were thoughtful, one was unintentional, and all came from three wise women. Even a couple weeks later, they still make me smile for different reasons.

The first came from my beautiful and thoughtful wife. This present is the latest, state-of-the-art, high-tech, environmentally-friendly, non-stick, ceramic frying pan. A frying pan! I giggle just typing those words.

Published in Robert Brehl

TORONTO - The City of Toronto is conducting an online survey to determine if the public wants retail stores to open on holidays such as Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.

This retail holiday shopping consultation is the result of a May 2010 report recommending that City Council allow all retail stores to remain open or closed at the discretion of the store owner or manager. 

“We’ve had a number of residents, retailers and businesses who have said in certain areas of the city… the holiday shopping is allowed and what they have indicated to the city is they don’t think it’s fair that in certain areas of the city the city allows it, but not in other areas,” said Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of Toronto’s Economic Development Committee.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

VATICAN CITY - At Christmas, the human dream of being like God started to become a reality -- not through any human efforts, but through God sending his son to be born on earth to redeem humanity, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Addressing an estimated 7,000 people gathered for his weekly general audience Jan. 4, the pope encouraged Christians to continue living the joy and mystery of Christmas as they prepare for the feast of the Epiphany, celebrated at the Vatican Jan. 6, and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which the pope planned to celebrate Jan. 8 by baptizing babies in the Sistine Chapel.

Published in Vatican

VATICAN CITY — Tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square this morning for Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas Day talk and blessing “urbi et orbi” (“to the city and the world”).

Speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope said Jesus “is the hand that God extends” to humanity, which is afraid, uncertain and troubled. All people have to do, he said, is stretch out their hands and ask for help.

He offered special prayers for people who are suffering from natural disasters, war or political instability and tensions, including in the Holy Land, where Christ “chose to come into the world.”

Under a deep blue, sunny sky, the crowd that flocked to the square enjoyed the music of military bands while waiting for the pope and pressed around the Nativity scene in the center of the square.

Published in Vatican

VATICAN CITY — The Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square was unveiled this afternoon with a focus on Mary, the Mother of God. There were traditional Christmas songs played during the event and Pope Benedict appeared at his studio window to light a “candle of peace,” setting the tone for tonight’s Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Here is the full text of the pope’s homily from tonight’s Mass:

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Published in Vatican

The following is the 2011 Christmas message from Archbishop Richard Smith, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Stars give us a sense of direction and brighten the night. In the Book of Genesis (22:17), they are also a sign of God’s blessing. They herald God’s promise to Abraham that his and Sarah’s descendants will be countless. In the Book of Numbers (24:17a), a star is again a sign and promise of what is to come: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near — a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”

Published in Features

Creating a sculpture is like playing a game of chess, said sculptor Tim Schmalz of his expanding clay Nativity scene. 

"Your opponent does one move and that will determine your move," said Schmalz. "And with doing a multi-figured sculptural scene like this, I have to react with the central piece… I have to monitor what person plays what role within this drama."

Schmalz worked on his sculpture of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph at the sixth annual Friends of the Crèche International Convention in November and is currently working on adding the three wise men, shepherds, an angel and animals to the scene. He hopes to have the sculpture completed by Christmas.

Published in Arts News