“Daddy, why do people go to church on Christmas?”

The prompt for the question was a security line going into Christmas midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan two years ago. As we lined up on Madison Avenue for an initial screening, people asked many other questions, mostly, “Is this the line for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree?” 

That was only topped by the woman I had encountered while inside the church some days before Christmas. She stood dead center, her back to the altar. “Damn it! I thought you could see the tree from here.” If she only knew what she was missing! 

Mercifully, every day, unsuspecting tourists and commuters do stop and look inside. “Miracles happen,” one priest stationed there has told me about the confessions. There’s no question that the presence of such a striking and nourishing church can make for transformative experiences. But so can the family.

No one needs to be told that we live in confusing times. It’s been suggested that we might all be suffering from some kind of cultural post-traumatic stress disorder.

Except I’m not so sure about the “post” part. This has been a year of high-profile suicides, underscoring not only that worldly success isn’t necessarily the way to happiness, but also the misery that so many people live with, sometimes only thinly concealed. It can all seem a bit overwhelming. 

Almost daily we hear new commentaries or news stories about the prevalence of loneliness. On one hand: Bring them on, so people know they are not alone! On the other: Let’s do something already to fix this — go to the peripheries, as Pope Francis says. 

He who is most in need might go otherwise completely unnoticed. He may be a member of your family, your neighbor you’ve never met, the person in the next cubicle, or the celebrity you’re watching on TV. When you start looking at people and being present, you begin to realize the tremendous power you have.

That father that frigid Christmas Eve began to explain that Christmas is actually about Jesus. What an opportunity! What was probably a vacation for them could prompt something deeper and more enduring. I don’t know if it did, but I still pray it bears fruit. 

That question can be a prompt for us as we celebrate the Christmas season: Why do we go to Church on Christmas? Does the Incarnation change our lives? Are we letting it?

One of the greatest gifts of both the Advent and Christmas seasons is the Nativity scene. Everywhere there is this invitation to consider the Holy Family. From Bethlehem to Nazareth, with a little prayerful imagination, we can come to know them and their lives. 

Every year, the days after Christmas Day are an underappreciated immersion into new life — with the Holy Family playing a starring role. We celebrate St. Stephen the martyr, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, the feast of the Holy Family, and the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on the road to Epiphany. 

"The Adoration of the Magi," about 1480-1490, Georges Trubert.
 (J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM)

Holy Mother Church beckons us to not only look at the Christ Child but insert ourselves into the life of the Holy Family. How we do that, for example, if you grew up without a father in the picture, or with an abusive father? 

Let St. Joseph be a father to you. Let him show you his Son. Joseph adopted Jesus by God’s will, as the Father adopts us. If you’re a single mother, Joseph can be an intercessory partner to you. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus can help complete what feels incomplete and be the opportunity for necessary healing. 

Annually, on the feast of the Holy Family, the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Church, includes an address from St. Pope Paul VI, which emphasizes this pivotal role of the Holy Family in our lives. 

“Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel,” he says. “Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning. And gradually we may even learn to imitate him.”

Nazareth, he explains, is where “we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. Here everything speaks to us, everything has meaning.”

He outlines a model for appreciating that Jesus can speak to us always, in everything (like security lines and a walk back to the hotel after dinner). Are we aware? Are we present?

At one point, Paul gushes, “How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths.”

In the address from his 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Paul commends to us a rare commodity — the silence of Nazareth. “If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. 

He also talks about the power of that relationship passing by the security line outside St. Pat’s: “May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplifying its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings; in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children — and for this there is no substitute.”

The solution to so many of our woes is right before us at this time of year: the Holy Family — sitting under a tree, on an altar, even in the most secular of venues. 


Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus, and editor-at-large of the National Review Online.

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