Holy Day

December 15 2019 | by

TALK to someone about preparing for Christmas, and you’ll get plenty of suggestions. Kids write lists to Santa. “Dear Santa, Please text my dad. He has my whole list.” “Dear Santa, Sorry for what I did in the past, and thank you for the Christmas letter – I love it. But what I want for Christmas is $53 billion dollars.” “Dear Santa, How are you? I’m good. Here is what I want for Christmas: Kid Galaxy Amphibious RC Car Morphibians Killer Whale. All Terrain Remote Control Toy, 27 MHz.

Families bake cookies. But nowadays, before devouring them, someone has to take a selfie with the gingerbread men. Then there’s Christmas shopping. As columnist Dave Barry noted, “Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”

Finally, families gather to put up the Christmas tree. One wit said that he honored Valentine’s Day by taking the tree down.


Advent penance


Preparing for Christmas can be stressful. As such, it is a socially acceptable type of penance which, as Saint Margaret of Cortona noted, has to be inconvenient and burdensome to be considered penance. For many people, inconvenient and burdensome describe Christmas preparations.  

Doing penance before Christmas survives in the Church’s Advent season when purple, the color of penance, predominates. Unfortunately, aside from having a home Advent wreath and doing some additional light spiritual reading in preparation for Christmas, most Catholics consider the secular pre-Christmas stress described above as enough penance for them.

 Saint Anthony recommended a much deeper approach to the holy holiday. In his Sermon notes Anthony begins his instruction by applying the familiar Gospel account of the birth of Christ to doing penance. The Gospel account begins with Luke 2:1, “There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.” Anthony analyzes every part of this phrase to make his point: “In the enrollment of the world… is moral teaching, about how anyone who wants to repent of the sins he has committed should first take a census of his life in contrition, and afterwards hasten to confession” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals IV, p.1; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Noting that Caesar means ‘possessor of the chief place’ and Augustus means ‘standing with dignity,’ Anthony, in his moral analogy, states that Caesar Augustus “represents Almighty God, the owner of the whole of creation” who “has dignity, glory and nobility.” The human emperor sent out his decree once, but “our Emperor sends out his decree every day, by means of his heralds who are the preachers of the Church” (Sermons IV, pp. 1-2).


Rejected gifts


What is the divine and eternal Emperor calling for, through these heralds who issue his decree? Penance! Conversion! Anthony reminds us that “human life… comes full circle as Genesis 3 tells: ‘Earth thou art, and to the earth thou shalt return.’ [Gen. 3.19].” Thus, to prepare for the holy day of Christmas, Anthony calls for a life confession. “Each man must review this entire globe, recalling in bitterness of soul the things he did in childhood, in adolescence, in his youth and in his age. Note that it says ‘the whole world’, implying that the record includes sins of thought, word and deed, things done and things left undone, together with their circumstances… recorded in all the variety of their manner and circumstances” (Sermons IV, p. 2). This is no list of gifts we want, but of gifts of grace which we have rejected.

Note that once a person makes a life confession, it is not necessary to confess the same sins at another time. If an individual were to follow Anthony’s suggestion and make a life conversion before this season’s Christmas, next season he or she would confess only sins committed during the year between the two Christmases.


Implicit sins


If we begin to take a complete inventory of our lives (every thought, word, deed and circumstance), we might realize that in the Christmas humor which began this article there are implicit sins. Sins of greed in the children’s Christmas lists. Sins of gluttony and vanity in the gingerbread cookie selfie. Sins of vanity and greed, and in relegating God to second (or lower) place in Dave Barry’s comment about the mall. Sins of procrastination and sloth in the joke about taking down the Christmas tree on Valentine’s Day.

Anthony holds the penitent to high standards. Being sorry implies not only experiencing suffering for what we did, but also for what we should have done but didn’t do. Once we admit both, we grow humbler as we realize that we aren’t as perfect as we thought. “He makes the first census of his sins when he firstly in contrition makes a detailed examination of what he has done or left undone… he has mastered pride and arrogance… What more laudable governorship can there be, than to be in control of oneself and to humble one’s own pride?” (Sermons IV, p. 2).

 For Anthony, being penitent for one’s sins is insufficient. One needs to go to confession. This is the meaning that he gives to the statement from the Gospel, “They all went to be enrolled.” The enrollment means being enrolled in penitence. Anthony puts it this way: “Contrition should be followed by confession, so that confession is as it were the fruit of contrition, together with absolution and reconciliation… The weeper, i.e., the penitent, goes up to confession bedewed with tears, which go up from his cheeks to God” (Sermons IV, p. 3).




 In Anthony’s day, confession was considered sincere only if the penitent cried. Tears would flow if the penitent were “to confess everything nakedly and openly.” Then the penitent soul “may conceive and bring forth the spirit of salvation” (Sermons IV, p. 4) which was birthed in the flesh of the Holy Infant. “This God is made a little child for us, is born for us… If you hurt a child, make him cry, or smack him, but then show him a flower, a rose or something like that, and after showing it give it to him – then he will not remember the hurt, he will put away his indignation and run to embrace you. In the same way, if you offend Christ by mortal sin, or inflict any kind of injury on him, but then offer him the flower of contrition or the rose of tearful confession… then he will not remember your offenses, he will take away your guilt and run to embrace and kiss you. So Ezekiel 18 says, ‘But if the wicked do penance for all the sins which he hath committed, I will not remember all his iniquities [Ezek 18.21, 22]’” (Sermons IV, p. 9).

 Anthony ends his reflection with a hymn of praise expanded from Isaiah 9:6, “And his name shall be called Wonderful (in his Nativity); Counselor (in his preaching); God (in his working of miracles); the Mighty (in his Passion); the Father of the world to come (in his Resurrection). When he rose, he left us the sure hope of rising ourselves, as it were an inheritance for his children after him. He will be the Prince of peace in eternity. May he, the blessed God, graciously grant us this. Amen” (Sermons IV, p. 12).

Updated on December 15 2019