Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Greetings This Holy Season

I favor keeping “Christ in Christmas,” but I am not offended by those who wish me “Happy Holidays!”

According to a Wikepedia article, the expression “Happy Holidays” became a Christmas greeting in American English in a 1937 Camel cigarette advertisement.  Previously it had been used in British English in reference  to the summer-time break from school.

The word holiday came from the Old English term haeligdaeg which means “holy day.”  “Holiday” originally meant “holy day!” The term “holiday” then has religious origins if not religious connotations today.

And so, when I hear “Happy Holidays,” I think “Happy Holy Days,” and I find no reason to be offended. I suspect most people who use that “Holiday” greeting mean no offense, and even if they use “Christmas” in their greeting they probably are  not conscious of all that this term means.

 "Happy Holidays" can also include the Jewish Festival of Lights.

The Old English expression was Cristesmaesse describing the liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Middle English transformed the word into Cristemasse. Both terms meant “Christ’s Mass.” It is, so to speak,  liturgical language.

In the literal sense when we wish someone “Merry Christmas,” we express the hope that their “Christ Mass” may be agreeable or pleasing. The implication of the greeting (though clearly not intended by most who use the expression) is that one’s attendance at the Mass celebrating the birth of the Christ may be a pleasant experience.

Those who claim to know say that the greeting “Merry Christmas” was first used in an informal letter in 1699, and again in 1843 in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is the English way of expressing greetings in the observance of Christ’s birth.

It is curious, however, that most Europeans do not put the word “Christ” in their season’s greetings. Most of them are wishing others “Happy Nativity Day!” Such is the Italian Buon Natale, the French Joyeux Noel, the Spanish Feliz Navidad.

The Germans, of course, say something different: Frohe Weihnachten, Happy Holy Night. But I especially like the Hawaiian way: Mele Kalikimaka (the phonetic equivalent of the English “Merry Christmas”). Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters have helped me to accept and enjoy that version.

However it is expressed, whatever the language, the greeting during this holy day season acknowledges the most extraordinary event in human history: that time when God took on the human condition and, in the picturesque language of John’s Gospel, “pitched his tent among us!”

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Mele Kalikimaka!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Challenges of the "Francis Effect"

It seems to me that the so-called “Francis effect” (the modus operandi of Pope Francis) has had little influence on the agenda, statements, and actions of most Bishops’ conferences around the world, including the United States Catholic Conference.

Most of the People of God, especially the laity, however, are enthralled. And their acceptance of his papacy rests on more than the media's misrepresentations of what the pope has said and done since the evening he first appeared on the Vatican balcony.

The “Francis effect” is an echo of the “effect” of the Gospel, of the style of Jesus, of the values of the Kingdom as presented by the Christ.

Papa Francesco’s papal style challenges the old mind-set and  the bureaucracy of many Church leaders. He begins with people not law. He advocates simplicity. He admits we do not have all the answers. He questions whether the answers we have are in every case the correct or appropriate ones. He puts aside the royal airs and aristocratic bearing of some of our previous popes. His lifestyle is a threat to the episcopal lifestyle and wealth of some Church leaders. He does not fear to act, to move and remove, to tackle the tough issues of Church and world.

I suspect that some  bishops are thinking (maybe hoping) that Francis won’t last long, that his papacy is an anomaly, that his successor will take us back to the way things were. Such reasoning, however, is baseless. It is well known that “You can’t go back;” you can resist change or you can move ahead, but you can’t go back.

As the number of pastoral bishops increases during the Francis’ years, so the mindset among bishops will alter. Many of those in the chief pastoral office of their dioceses have never been parish pastors. Their degrees in Canon Law or their careers in bureaucracy have formed their attitudes and their vision of what it means to be Church.

Francis urges the People of God to ongoing discernment, to recognize that some Church customs are no longer meaningful or useful, even that some Church precepts “should be insisted upon with moderation ‘so as not to burden the lives of the faithful’ and make our religion a form of servitude” (Joy of the Gospel, 43).

A couple US Bishops have banned the hymn “All Are Welcome” on the grounds that it sends a false message. Francis says, “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always open wide” (Joy of the Gospel, 47).

Many bishops are so protective of the Church, perhaps so fearful of the Curia, that they hesitate to act, except perhaps in raising money or binding their people to strict interpretation of Canon Law. Francis says, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security” (Joy of the Gospel, 49).

Francis urged bishops to enter into pastoral dialogue “out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear” (Joy of the Gospel, 31).

It is clear that Pope Francis is urging on Church leaders and all the People of God a new way of doing business.

The outcome of this new expression of papal leadership, the results of the “Francis effect” still lie in the future, but over time this papacy will have its influence on bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity alike –not because it is new or challenging, but because it is Gospel-based, reflective of the values of the Kingdom. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus.

Jesus’ style was troubling to the religious leaders of his day. He promoted mercy, forgiveness and love. His priorities did not ignore Torah but they definitely challenged and changed some aspects of what was once thought the only way.

The “Francis effect,” however slowly it is implemented, will be effective because it echoes the “Jesus effect,” and Jesus simply will not go away.