Recently, someone asked me what Purgatory is. I tried to give an adequate explanation without getting caught up in too many details. Purgatory is, essentially, an opportunity for purification for those who die in a state of serious sin. After the conversation was over it occurred to me that a better explanation of Purgatory would have been to say, “It’s a provision in God’s mercy for good people who weren’t quite good enough at the time of their death.”
Purgatory is intended to offer hope to people with a checkered background. I think there are some things and events that need an analog to Purgatory. Christmas, for example, has a checkered history, and would benefit from some time spent undergoing some appropriate form of purification.
Christmas began as a means to preach the Gospel in Persia, to those who practiced Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Magi mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. Zoroastrianism celebrated the winter solstice as a major feast. Christian preachers replaced the Zoroastrian feast of the “rebirth of the sun” with the Christian feast of the “Birth of the Son,” and Christmas was born. This translation of the Gospel message into pagan terms proved useful again in the early middle ages when the Gospel was preached to the rural pagans in northern Europe. They, too, celebrated the winter solstice as a major feast. The Christmas decorations that are so popular today began their lives as the trappings of Yule, the pagan feast of the lengthening of daylight.
At around the time that Christmas became an established feast for the whole Church, it began to run into trouble. In the Seventeenth Century Calvinist reformers in England banned all celebrations associated with Christmas. (Calvinism has been described as a deep-seated fear that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.) People were forced to go to work on Christmas Day; businesses and markets were required to keep regular business hours on the day.
In the middle of the 19th Century Christmas celebrations were banned in parts of the United States. Businesses were required to remain open on Christmas Day, and children were required to attend school. Today, the threats to Christmas are of a different sort. Today, Christmas seems to be trying to return to its pagan roots by way of the cash register. Few people today have to worry about surviving the long, cold nights of winter, but most of us still spend great energy and resources piling up commodities to last us (and everyone we know), through the winter months.
Last week, someone asked me why the Christmas poinsettias weren’t in the church building. I pointed out that while Christmas at Walmart begins after Labor Day, Christmas in the Catholic Church begins only on Christmas. A pagan feast that began its existence as prayer for survival has, for the most part, returned to its origins. Now we pray that we might survive the credit card debt we incur in order to buy enough Christmas presents for those on our list.
Christmas is still a good feast, but it’s not quite good enough; Christmas is in need of its own form of Purgatory. I think there’s enough good left in Christmas that it can be saved, and that it can make a positive difference in our lives, but it’s going to need our help to do so. I have a simple suggestion that I think can purify Christmas, and make it again a means to preach the Gospel message to non-believers. I suggest that we take seriously tonight’s Gospel reading, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means: God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
If you knew that your phone was tracking all of your travels, you might be careful where you go, and how fast you drove. If you knew the NSA was listening to your conversations, you might be careful about what you say, and to whom you say it. If you knew someone was checking your Browser history, you might be careful about how you spent your internet time.
We know we live in a culture that sees Christmas as nothing more than permission for over-indulgence, consumerism and the despair that is the unavoidable consequence of materialist values. Shouldn’t we indulge those whom we love with the message of Gospel hope? We are surrounded by demands to spend lavishly on things of temporary value. Shouldn’t we spend our energies lavishly to forgive those who have offended us? We are expected to rush around at an insane pace to accomplish a nearly impossible list of things that will be soon forgotten. Shouldn’t we rather be in a hurry to give public witness to the value of repentance and religious faith?
Jesus was born in human flesh in order that we might know God is with us. It is still the purpose of Christmas to proclaim that message of hope, even though the message is buried now under several layers of sentimentalism, materialism and desperation. It is not an easy task to purify something that is good but not good enough. It might require some effort on our part to avoid the pointlessness of the secular celebration of Christmas. Despite the effort required to embrace counter-cultural values, I encourage you to do so. If you make the effort to purify this Christmas into a proclamation of Gospel hope for our society, you will find that hope transforms your life as well. Merry Christmas! – which means: God is with us.