OLEAN — Christmas is today, and while the day and season are commercialized to the hilt, the Christian faithful grasp its deeper meaning.
It’s a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Followers seek salvation in his birth, death and resurrection, believing the son of God came as a divine sacrifice and gift for humanity.
“Christmas is only half the story. What do I mean by that?” said Father Anthony Salim of St. Joseph’s Maronite Catholic Church in Olean. “We celebrate the first coming of Christ at his birth, but faithful Christians know that he will come again. So we are Christians who live between the two comings of Christ. Our lives have to reflect that theme that’s very real.”
Faith leaders often use their Christmas sermons, given last night and today, to ascribe meaning to the world’s worst events. They recognize violence here and abroad — a common theme this year is the civil war in Syria and the destruction Aleppo abetted by outside powers, continued racial strife in America, and terrorism — compelling the faithful to pray and work toward a better future.
The Maronite rite originated in the old-world Levant, which comprised modern-day Syria, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern states. Salim said about two-thirds of St. Joseph’s congregation of approximately 150 share that general ancestry, giving them additional perspective to world issues.
“We need to think about the whole immigration problem, even more than that, the problem in the Middle East that’s forcing this immigration problem,” Salim said. “I guess, secondarily, this has always been a theme for so many centuries: world peace and countering the violence of evil people.
“If we’re truly believers in the two comings of Christ, that really ought to spark hope in us and not despair. God, through Jesus, promises to give us that hope. … But my focus to find a feeling of hope would be worldwide and not necessarily limited to the Middle East. I think all of us would share in that.”
Christmas messages sometimes have unique stylings.
This year, the Rev. Kim Rossi of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Olean channeled music to fit her homily.
“It sets rhythm and tone and beat. Music seems to permeate the way our lives flow,” Rossi said. “… There are songs and things that have meaning to us — songs that we relate to our first love or songs that we danced to at our weddings — all of these things that become so integral and a part of our lives.”
Such is the case with Christmas music, she said, noting it can liven moods in the darkest times.
As an example, she cited a tale about American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.
“What they found in the midst of having to live in the horror of being prisoners of war is that they actually sang Christmas carols,” Rossi said. “It was those kinds of messages and those words and those meanings that kept them feeling hopeful in the most hopeless situation.”
This Christmas season at Olean’s St. Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church, Father Greg Dobson has sprinkled some humor and pop culture into his sermons. His favored theme now relates to the “What’s in your wallet?” Capital One credit card commercials. Today, it’s “What’s in your heart?”
He also detailed the Academy Award-nominated film “Brooklyn.”
“It’s a classic love story about a girl from Ireland coming to Brooklyn and falling in love, but it addresses issues on a deeper level. It was beautifully acted and an exceptional story,” Dobson said. “It deals with homesickness. Christmas brings a certain homesickness that is not just about ‘I miss Mommy’ or ‘I miss the town.’ It’s missing something deeper about life.
“The scholarly writers for centuries have talked about this sort of thing — a longing for union with God.”
Dobson, too, lamented violence in the world. He recalled an old Irish phrase: “’Tis never a Christmas when everything’s right.”
Christians must find “hope and strength and joy” in “things that are unattractive,” he said.
(Contact City Editor Kelsey Boudin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)