This past Friday evening I had the chance to join hundreds of people from the Juneau community for the annual Gallery Walk in downtown. This event serves as another great Juneau tradition that brings out the great sense of joy and community — all of which is heightened as the celebration of Christmas is right around the corner. I have found that the slow journey through the crowded streets of downtown during Gallery Walk is an experience filled with greetings, joy and personal encounters.
In my Catholic tradition the birth of Jesus is cause for a heightened level of celebration. After four weeks of preparation during the season of Advent, our Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve. You might think that one church service on Christmas would be more than sufficient to express our joy at the birth of the Savior, but that is not the case. The joyful celebration of the birth of our Savior is so important to us that it is extended over three Holy Masses: at mid-night, dawn, and during the day on Christmas. Each of these has its own distinctive prayers and readings from sacred Scripture, related to the Nativity of our Lord Jesus and our personal encounter with him.
And as if that wasn’t enough, we continue to celebrate Christmas for eight more days in an octave that concludes on New Year’s Day. Then on January 6th (or the Sunday closest to that date) we celebrate Epiphany, the feast of the Three Kings who brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child. Our celebration of the Christmas season concludes a week later with the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
The various beloved customs and traditions of the Christmas season have their origin in the joy of the Christian community at the great event of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, when the Word of God became flesh and dwelled among the human race. Here in the northern hemisphere even nature itself participates in our celebration of the coming of the Son of Justice and the Prince of Peace as the onset of the winter solstice, the shortest and the darkest day the year, heralds the slow lengthening of the days and the coming of the light.
Also close to the solstice this year are the eight days and nights of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. This beautiful and joyful festival commemorates how a one day supply of oil miraculously burned for eight days when the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after being desecrated by a persecuting foreign ruler. And as with the Christmas celebration, the eight days of Hanukkah have their own special songs, foods and customs.
During this special season of joy and celebration, I think we need to be particularly aware of our friends, family and neighbors for whom this season is a sad and difficult time of the year. I am thinking of all of those in our community who have lost friends and loved ones during the year to illness or accident. Or who long for the presence of a husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister who is absent from home because of separation or divorce, deployment overseas or incarceration. For all those in the grip of sorrow or sadness, this festive season underscores the absence of the person they love from their lives.
It is important to remember and be attentive to those in our community who are grieving during this holiday season. In the darkness of loss and separation, each one of us can be the light of understanding, consolation, and kindness. Each of us can help in our own way to dispel the heavy weight of sorrow for those who grieve by our compassionate presence and willingness to listen.
Within the context of Christmas and the Holiday season, this time of the year is filled with social gatherings, the celebration of traditions, the sending of Christmas greetings and the offering of gifts to others. From my perspective, I believe that many in our community would thrive if we made the effort to bring the gifts of faith, hope, and love into the hearts of those people most in need. While these gifts may be difficult to wrap, they are the ones that are most lasting and meaningful.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.