Most of us are aware that the word “Christmas” is a contraction of the words “Christ’s Mass”. But it wasn’t until I read “Kristen Lavransdatter” that I became more aware of its origins and historical usage. I’ll get to that in a minute because you’re probably wondering who or what is “Kristen Lavransdatter”.
I wish I could tell you the whole story but you’re better off with the book. “Kristen” is a trilogy of historical novels set in newly-Christianized Scandavia in the Middle Ages. Its Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, with “Kristen” being part of the body of work that earned her that award.
Undset was a solid atheist when she began writing “Kristen”, but converted to Catholicism soon after its completion. Upon reading the book, one can easily see how the author’s attention to detail in recreating a newly-Catholic Scandanvia of the 12th century probably factored into her falling in love with Catholicism, a faith she later warmly embraced and sharply defended.
One of those details was how Christians of the Middle Ages marked time by the feast days of the saints. Like today, we honor the saints with a Mass in their name, but rather than say the “Feast of St. Michael” or whoever the saint of the day was, Christians of the Middle Ages (at least in many places - mostly in northern Europe) would refer to the day as “St. Michael’s Mass”.
In the colloquial, this would be contracted to “Michaelmas”, “Andrewmas”, “Bartholomewmas”, etc., and “Christmas”. But in addition to naming the day for the saint, Christians of that time and place would also refer to those days to relate the other days such as “three days before Michaelmas”, or “two days after Andrewmas.”
It’s fascinating to imagine how Christians once lived in a world so imbued with an awareness of the faith that they marked ordinary life in terms of liturgical time. Of course within the Church we still do, but Christmas is pretty much the only day in secular life by which we still mark time, and usually only in terms of “shopping days until”.
Today one often hears the slogan “Keep Christ in Christmas”. It has become a mantra for Christians fighting the creeping secularism that has usurped the sacred season: nativity scenes are banned - or at least forced to co-exist with winter solstice displays, and everything and anything “Christmas” is increasingly replaced with “holiday”, etc.
However, perhaps one of the reasons why we are losing the Christmas culture-war is because we can’t keep “Christ in Christmas” without keeping the “mas” in as well. And as we know, most Christians - other than Catholics - long ago dropped the “mas”, not just from “Christ’s Mass”, but from worship of God altogether.
But before we Catholics get too righteous about that, consider that a recent Georgetown CARA poll reported that only 22% of people (in the U.S.) who identify themselves as Catholics attend Mass “regularly” with “regularly” defined as “at least once a month”!
This is ground we’ve covered before in this column, but let’s review. Because God is God, he is to be worshipped. And the Mass is the supreme act of worship. This is so because Jesus himself commanded us to DO THIS. And the THIS, the making of Jesus present on the altar - body, blood, soul, and divinity - only happens at the Catholic Mass. It does not happen anywhere else.
Anything else is not worship, at least not the worship that God commands. It might be prayer, it might be praise, but it is not worship. It might be fulfilling, friendly, wonderful, joyful, spiritual, and uplifting, but it is not worship.
This is why we lie to ourselves when we say “Keep Christ in Christmas” and don’t go to Mass where he is once again enfleshed through the words and action of his priests. In the Mass, every Mass, Christ comes in the flesh to the world as he did in the manger.
To not go to Mass - where he truly is - on the very day when we celebrate the coming in history of the WORD MADE FLESH is....well, that’s why we are losing. No Mass. No Christ. Then no Christ’s Mass.
Non-Catholic Christians, who today are centuries away from the initial protestant ruptures which demolished the Mass as the summit of worship, and who may be genuinely unaware of its significance, may, by the mercy of God, be held less culpable for their absenteeism at the Table of the Lord.
But what of us Catholics, who, by virtue of our baptism and our path to him through the sacraments, have everything placed before us? Our place is set, the invitation issued. God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - awaits....and waits.