Everybody knows certain phrases, songs, scents that evoke memories that grow even more powerful with the years. For me, the strains of Adeste Fideles mingling with the incense and overheated wool coats of Midnight Mass has just that effect. (Adeste Fideles is the Latin opening to the Christmas hymn most Americans know in English as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”)
Each year at Midnight Mass (now held at 8 pm for those who can’t stay awake!) at St. Colman’s Church in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, my mother and I sing the entire Latin verse (sometimes two!) with the congregation that packs this great neo-gothic church with its cold granite pillars, monumental high vault ceilings and thousands of poinsettias decorating the altar and sanctuary. Our family history with this parish goes back more than four decades. I only visit once a year now, but when the first notes of Adeste Fideles boom from the organ, I know I’ve come home again.
The rituals and memories of this season are about deep expressions of faith and belonging to families and communities where, for at least a few brief hours or days, tradition triumphs over the trials and strains of daily life. In all of the myriad ways we express our faith and celebrate these great traditions, we manifest the transcendent part of human nature, the reach toward something divine, eternal. These expressions may have different vocabularies and languages across different cultural and religious traditions, but all celebrate the life of the Creator within us. Through stopping all routine work to enjoy these few days, we gather the strength to move on to meet the challenges ahead.
Because all of humanity owns this season in various ways, we should be glad with the many forms of celebration while certainly being proud of our own traditions. So, for example, I think it’s very important for Christians to wish each other a “Merry Christmas!” while also respecting other traditions through wishing our Jewish friends a “Happy Hannukah” or “Happy Holidays” for those who may have other traditions. Those who say it somehow cheapens Christmas to include good wishes to those of other traditions seem to miss the whole point of the Gospel. Loving our neighbors sometimes means saying, “Happy Kwanzaa!” and meaning it.
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a song about the Christian tradition, but its meaning can extend to all of humanity. Come to celebrate together, come join in the best expressions of our humanity, come work together for joy, for justice, for peace. We do that by being open to each other and respecting the traditions through which each of us becomes more fully human.
Adeste Fideles, laeti triumphantes. Joyful and triumphant, the faithful gather again to renew family ties, affirm faith, enjoy the sense of belonging to a community that is essential for human life to thrive.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Peace to All!