How Do We Make the Christmas Liturgy Fruitful?
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako
I will be sharing the following ideas with the Chaldean Bishops and Priests in Iraq, who will have their annual spiritual and cultural meeting on 6-8 December 2021, in preparation for Christmas Celebration, wishing to help them thinking and enriching their group discussions during the meeting. I also hope to benefit our priests abroad, while getting ready for their celebration as well.
Christmas liturgy is rich in terms of its symbols and meanings. Hence, it must be prepared seriously in order to change the faithful who will participate in it, so that their hearts become a “crib in which Jesus will born and dwell”, since our faith as children of God is to believe that He is “Our Father”.
Lord Jesus “Our Star” enlighten us
As everything in life requires preparation in order to highlight the importance of the celebrated occasion, the focus of our reflection in this special meeting preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ should be on: How to make the liturgy of Christmas celebration fruitful? The Feast of Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a great feast in which (Christ) is the focal point. There is a sacramental relationship between liturgy and the mystery of Christ. So, prayers and all “Christmas-related” things are full of mysteries, (Origen of Alexandria, Sermon on Leviticus 3/ 8).
Christian theology confirms that the universe was created in Christ form: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1/ 3). This explains the sacramental look at the universe and hence there is nothing in the world isolated from the whole,
As pastors, we should answer the following question: How do we make our liturgy alive and fruitful with its theology, spirituality, literary genres and genuine traditions? How can we lead our community to Christ in a way to understand to the level of “saturation” the meanings of Christmas liturgy, which enables them to born into a new life?
My question aims to motivate faithful in order to keep the meanings of liturgical prayer alive, and help them to participate in this event “mentally and spiritually” to experience God’s grace and salvation. Since, the hope and joy brought by Christmas creates eagerness to welcome the rest of liturgical seasons, especially the season of Resurrection – Easter.
The liturgy is a divine action and a religious experience acquired through prayers, Bible readings, recitation of psalms, poetic texts, and understanding of related symbols and movements. All the above, helps the faithful to feel the presence of the Lord among them even though on another level. Yet, the liturgy helps them to mature spiritually and humanely in their ascending march towards the divine (eternal) life.
The Liturgy of Faith and Renewal
The Church should look for new ways of liturgical creativity, ways that may open new horizons for the Church and the faithful, so as to make the liturgy dynamic and fruitful, rather than being restricted to static “rigid” rites. This pursuance is a sign of the Church that lives its loyalty to Christ and to human beings in all aspects, by being responsible for its people, who are part of it. Actually, the duty of the Church is to think of the current situation of its community and be inventive in creating pastoral guidance that helps illuminating and inspiring its people to make their celebration “thriving” and their prayers fruitful. This was confirmed by Pope Francis in his general audience on Wednesday 10 November 2021 when he said: “We Christians are not people who go backwards”.
Yet, do our Churches feel this urgent pastoral duty? in order to work in this direction. Especially that most of the texts of our liturgies are traced back to the 6th and 7th Centuries. Additionally, some of these prayers are not appropriate for the present time at all, in terms of (time length, social frame, thoughts and language), so the question facing the Church as a “mother and teacher” is: How to preserve this “authentic” heritage carefully, revive it again and translate it into the current culture? Probably, by using new methods, an understandable contemporary language and maintaining the “connection” with the roots (our ancestors of the past Centuries), since the mission, richness and beauty of our Church is that, it brings together the past, the present, and the future.
It is a “MUST” that liturgy should be renewed “at every age” according to the official standards of the Church, keeping in mind the following two points:
- Church openness to the current culture, people’s conditions, challenges of novelty data and the social media in this digital world.
- That bishops and priests leading our dioceses and parishes respectively, should have a delicate but powerful prophetic, theological and pastoral sense.
Translation alone is not enough, so we must return to it constantly because languages develop, and circumstances change! For example, the peace hymn of the current mass states: “correct priests, and salute the kings”, while the political systems in the world have changed, and most of the countries are led today by presidents rather than kings.
a. Spiritual preparation: The following are essential things in preparing ourselves for Christmas
- 1. Fasting for one or more days
- Spiritual exercise (for youth, families…)
- A collective repentance liturgy with individual confession
b. Liturgical preparation
Mass celebration in all its aspects should be prepared carefully to reduce movement at the altar as much as we can, because it confuses the worshipers.
Church Decorations: Candles on the altar, while it is preferable to put flowers under the altar. It is also desirable to place the crib and the Christmas tree (represents the tree of life according to Mesopotamian tradition) on the sides rather than in the middle (main royal altar).
Also, to celebrate a special mass for children to enjoy receiving gifts from Santa Claus and their parents, looking at them as the children of Bethlehem!!
Note: According to our tradition, we used to light a symbolic fire during the vigil mass in Christmas, it is preferable to do that before the mass, as some officials attend the celebration.
Celebrant will wear a white vestment and deacons with white stole.
Bible Readings: These texts are divine teaching in their content and beauty, it means that they are like an announcement / prophecy (oracle), which requires the reader of the text (deacon) to create an interaction between the text and the participants, as if he/she is a partner in this announcement, rather than reading it tightly and quickly. The faithful should feel that this word of God is addressed to him / her personally.
Reading the Gospel, the priest raises the Gospel respectfully and blesses the audience, then sings it carefully. Chanting helps attract the attention.
Homily: Should be short (10 minutes) and well-prepared in terms of combining the religious occasion with the daily life of faithful.
Psalms: Are prayers that call out to God. It should be chanted: they are supplication, praise and thanksgiving for the joy of obtaining forgiveness, blessing and salvation. Hence the expression “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord Hallelujah” (Psalm 150/ 6).
Poetic Hymns ܥܘܢܝ̈ܬܵܐ-ܬܸܫܒܚ̈ܬܵܐ: Expressive poetic texts, rich and fascinating in their images and vocabulary, chanted according to their own tunes. These hymns include verses of thanks for God’s grace and salvation, and requests for blessing, forgiveness, mercy, peace, and eternal life.
Prayers: should be rehearsed and recited carefully, with an audible voice and praying face, as well as performing the movements correctly and respectfully, especially the sign of the cross, raising sacraments, giving the sacrifice and blessings…etc.
Hymns: short and in harmony with the Mass. The choir should follow the priest’s prayer!
I would like to point out the importance of taking into consideration the non-Christian viewers who follow the celebration on television, in order to help them understand the ceremonies and convey their deep meanings.
Practical Suggestions for Christmas Rituals
For our faith, Christmas presents a fundamental theological message that enables bishop and the priest to benefit from the elements and persons of the celebration:
Sample Prayer of Petitions for Christmas
The reader: Let us thank God and praise Him for His numerous gifts, especially the birth of Christ, and pray together with confidence, saying: Lord hear our prayer.
- For peace in our beloved country, Iraq and the whole world, we pray to the Lord.
- For accepting willingly all the opportunities that providence gives us and invest them for our own good and for the good of humanity, we pray to the Lord.
- For our thoughts, feelings, and actions to be guided by the love of God and fraternity, we pray to the Lord.
- For this Christmas and 2022 New Year to be a very powerful “kickoff” for the Iraqi Church (or wherever Chaldeans reside) to realize its mission in serving and guiding people in the current circumstances to reflect Gods’ presence, love and forgiveness, we pray to the Lord.
- For religious leaders, Pope Francis, Patriarch Louis and the Metropolitan… bishops, priests and deacons. Also, for the nation leaders (the President and the prime minister) that they promote life, peace and justice by working together wisely, guided by your grace and light, for the common good, peace and joy, we pray to the Lord.
- For those who are unemployed to find jobs, hungry to be fed, sick to be healed, afflicted to be consoled and enjoy salvation, we pray to the Lord.
- For all those who departed in Christ, that you pardon them mercifully to be included among the righteous and saints, we pray to the Lord.
- For our own needs and intentions, that we now recall in the silence of our hearts, we pray to the Lord.
Questions to be Discussed within Groups