By Corey Close
Last month, reflecting on Thanksgiving, I wrote about how I feel like a foreigner when celebrating a uniquely American holiday overseas. Conversely, the celebration of Christmas has made me feel at home even in a foreign land.
Those of us studying in Rome have the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s off, so we visit other parts of Europe during that time. And wherever we find ourselves for Christmas, we’re sure to find a Catholic church celebrating Mass that evening.
The word “Catholic” means “universal;” it is at a time like Christmas that I truly see the universal character of our faith. No other faith in the world transcends cultural boundaries quite like the Catholic Church, and we get a glimpse of that over here on this special holiday. I’ve been to Christmas markets in Munich and midnight Mass in Prague, and this Christmas I will be in Paris —all different cultures, all different languages. But we come together on the same night to celebrate the birth of the Saviour we hold a common belief in.
Even though I have been far away from home and my family in these experiences, Christmas is a time when I’ve felt closer to the people I’ve been with in seminary in a way not otherwise possible. One of my favorite memories of the past few years was Christmas in Prague. Two friends of mine and I were staying with a nice lady in Prague who entertains seminarians. We all bought each other small gifts, wrapped them, and exchanged them on Christmas day, just as if we were at home. It was certainly a modest Christmas, but I think we experienced something of the unifying character of our faith that day.
For at Christmas we celebrate the coming of Christ into our world; he came to bring us together in bonds even stronger than family ones. Christ came to form one human family from the many scattered families and people that already existed. It is this experience of family that I have had the privilege of being a part of in my time here. Of course I have missed my family during these times, but the people I’ve celebrated with, in the spirit of faith, have truly become my family, even though I didn’t know them but a short time before.
We see this in the Christmas story itself. Christ brought together Jewish shepherds and Gentile Magi to bear witness to his birth — two groups that were as opposite as one could imagine. Besides religious differences which should have kept them apart, the Magi were wise and learned while the shepherds were simple and uneducated. But Christ’s coming brought them together into one family, forged in the fires of Divine Love.
Some today say the Jesus does not have much to say, or perhaps Christmas should only be a secular holiday. A few years ago I remember an evangelical Christian group saying that Christmas should be spent with families, not at church, but I feel this has missed the whole point. Yes, we should spend Christmas with our family, and because of Christ, the whole Church is our family.
When we go to Mass on Christmas, or on any other time, we are living proof of Christ’s power to bring people together, overcoming the obstacles that would normally set us apart. Christmas is truly a unique holiday. It is a time that we prepare for and celebrate the coming of a child who has taught us how to be at home and to be a family, even when we are in a foreign land with strangers.
(Corey Close is a third-year seminarian studying for the Diocese of Davenport at the North American College in Rome.)