Catholics, and Orthodox, lay special claim to being sacramental churches. Both these communities honor the celebration of seven rituals that are efficacious in linking us to God. They commence early in the development of a church member, and accompany a person throughout his/her life.
Catholics especially have gotten into the practice of tracing the origins of the sacraments, which takes us back to our beginnings, usually in the life and ministry of Jesus, or at least in the practices introduced by the early church. So we become historically oriented, and try our best to reconstruct just how it was back then. This is especially evident at this time of the year, which we call Advent, and which melds into Christmas time. The original historical Christmas event is not a sacrament, except in its Eucharistic component, embedded in and amid all the church trimmings of Christmas. These latter elements provide the familiar signs of a Christmas awash with strong historical overtones centering on the manger set up in a prominent place in church, where it resembles a ramshackle structure with straw on the ground, a small crib with an infant lying in it, a man woman kneeling on either side of a baby, and often some bedraggled looking shepherds, and, eventually, some regal looking figures. There will be a few animals rummaging around, and maybe an angel or two hovering in the rafters. That’s the way we make Christmas as present an event as possible.
And such a scene is usually pretty accurate, historically. But Christmas is more than reconstructing, as best we can, the way it “was”. Christmas is the way it “is”, and so functions somewhat like a sacrament. And this means bringing about the re-birth of Jesus into our lives here and now. This entails capturing the original meaning of Jesus’ birth (more than just the original historical setting) as a here-and-now happening. What does this mean? It’s somewhat like talking on the phone with someone. His/her voice is present to me right now. It’s not just me imagining a conversation. It’s a real event happening right now. But even if my phone is equipped to capture and provide me an image of my conversation partner as speaking to me here and now, it’s still a different way of that person being present t me than if she/he stood next to me, just five feet way. So the person is truly present to me– sort of.
Or, to take an example even closer to home: myself. Here I am, in 2013, a rather corpulent self at 175 pounds (or more), standing 5’8” tall, with graying hair, celebrating Christmas. Should I wish, I can surround myself with photos of myself in earlier Christmases, when I was 3 months old, 5 years old, 12 years old, 18, 25 and 33.
But, can I faithfully re-present myself, at this very moment, so as to be a total replica of my infant self, my childhood self, my teen self, my young adult self, etc.? Of course not. That part of my life is gone forever. I can’t reproduce it. So, I’m different person? No, of course not. I’m the same person but “in a different way”. It’s the same with Christmas (and every sacrament operates this way, too). The same event (the birth of Christ) is present right now, but in a different way. This is worth pondering. It’s not a matter of trying to wearing diapers again, or knickers, or a short skirt, We can’t repeat the past this way. But being open to a new birth of Christ taking place within me here and now is quite plausible. That’s how sacraments work—and our Christmas celebration too.