When to Set Up Christmas Decorations

And More on Funeral Masses, and Confessions

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ROME, NOV. 29, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: What would you consider an appropriate time during Advent to put up Christmas trees, ornaments, lights and other decorations in churches and Christian homes? — B.O., Lewistown, Pennsylvania

A: This question is simple only in appearance because customs surrounding the celebration of Christmas vary widely among different cultures.

From a strictly liturgical standpoint the preparations for receiving the Christ Child intensify from Dec. 17 onward and this is probably a good time to set up the parish crib, except for the image of the child, which is often added just before Midnight Mass in more or less solemn fashion.

Other parishes prefer to set up the crib on Christmas Eve. There are no official rites regarding this widespread custom.

In those places that use the Advent wreath, it is placed on the first Sunday of Advent. The Book of Blessings issued by the U.S. bishops’ conference contains a simple rite for blessing the Advent wreath which may profitably be used.

Dec. 17 or the nearest Sunday might also be a good date to set up Christmas trees and other decorations in Christian homes, but it really depends on local custom and tradition. It is unnecessary, however, to fall under the spell of commercial enterprises which tend to anticipate the Christmas season, sometimes even before Advent begins.

Because some Christmas decorations have often lost their original religious meaning, churches should be rather circumspect about employing them and should do so with great discretion. If used at all, these decorations are best set up on Christmas Eve so as to respect the integrity of the Advent season.

Christmas trees are preferably located outside the sanctuary and church proper, and are best left in vestibules or church grounds. This has been the practice in St. Peter’s Square from the time of Pope John Paul II.

As far as possible, decorations should be religiously themed, leaving plastic reindeer, sugar canes and Santa Clauses in the local shopping mall or at least within the confines of the parish hall for children’s events.

Within the church proper, apart from the crib, Christmas may be evoked by using, for example, traditional poinsettias, holly and other traditional elements according to the culture.

As I mentioned, different cultures celebrate Christmas in various ways.

In some countries, such as Venezuela, many people live the novena before Christmas by attending a special «Cockcrow» Mass celebrated at 5 a.m. each day.

In Mexico, during this same period, family and neighbors often take turns in hosting a «posada,» a procession in which the group goes from house to house singing a traditional song in which St. Joseph and Mary request, and are refused, hospitality until finally they are festively welcomed at the last home, which has prepared snacks and traditional games for all.

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Follow-up: Funeral Masses

A New Zealand reader asked for clarifications regarding our mention of Canon 1184 that «those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith» were not to be given a Church funeral (see Nov. 15).

She asks: «Can you please tell me what motives for cremation might be considered contrary to Christian faith?»

The proviso in this canon is presumably rarely actually invoked. A person would only incur such a prohibition if, before death, he or she requested cremation explicitly and publicly motivated by a denial of some aspect of Christian faith regarding life after death.

Among possible such motivations would be a lack of faith in the survival of the immortal soul and thus requesting cremation to emphasize the definitiveness of death. Another could be the denial of belief in the resurrection of the dead.

More recently, some nominal Catholics who have dabbled in New Age pantheism or believe in doctrines such as reincarnation or migration of souls might request cremation in order to follow these esoteric doctrines or the customs of some Eastern religions.

In all such cases the motivation for seeking cremation is contrary to Catholic doctrine and, if this fact is publicly known, performing a Church funeral could cause scandal or imply that holding to Church doctrine is really not that important.

Since one or two questions arose from our follow-up on confession and Christian initiation (see Nov. 1 and 15) I wish to address the topic one more time.

One reader posed a theological teaser to our statement that «If conditional baptism is foreseen, the confession should be postponed until a suitable time after the celebration, since certainty is required in questions regarding the validity of the sacraments.»

He asked: «However, if the conditional baptism is administered at the Easter Vigil [as is often the case], it will immediately be followed by confirmation and first Communion. It would seem that the candidate should receive a conditional absolution before receiving these sacraments.»

Our reader has a valid point, but I do not think that such a practice is appropriate. Although hearing confessions is allowed during Mass, there is a general law that the sacrament of penance is never combined with the celebration of Mass in such a way that it forms part of the rite itself.

Cases of conditional baptism are relatively rare, and the doubt regarding the previous «baptism» is usually well founded. There is almost nothing regarding this precise theme in theological manuals. Yet I think that the conditional baptism, either because it is the first true baptism, or in virtue of the Church’s intention if the person was already validly baptized, will have the effect of placing the person in the state of grace and able to fruitfully receive the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.

We could consider it as somewhat analogous to a person who returns to the state of grace though an act of perfect contrition. In normal circumstances this is still insufficient to accede to the sacraments until after receiving sacramental absolution. In certain extraordinary circumstances, however, a person may receive some sacraments before confession if there is no possible alternative and confess later at the earliest opportunity.

A Houston reader requested clarification regarding confessing a member of the Eastern Churches: «With respect to confessions of the Eastern Orthodox, can the priest absolve them for the sin of schism if the priest is not receiving the penitent into the Catholic Church? Does it matter whether the individual was baptized by an Orthodox priest or is a Catholic who has left the Catholic Church for an Orthodox Church? There are many Catholics who leave the Catholic Church for Orthodox Churches, and I am curious to know whether they can receive absolution from a Catholic priest while remaining Orthodox.»

We need to consider several points. Sin always involves a personal choice made with full deliberation and knowledge. For this reason it is not reasonable to say that a person who was born and raised in an Eastern Church is personally guilty of the sin of schism.

This is one probable reason why the Church makes no mention of this aspect when granting permission for a Catholic priest to administer the sacraments to them.

The case of a Catholic who has left the Church is in a different position and, except in cases of danger of death, would normally have to be reconciled with the Church before receiving absolution.

For the sake of precision, we would be dealing with a Catholic who has abandoned the Catholic Church, thus breaking communion with the Pope and bishops, and not that of a Latin-rite Catholic who switches rites to one of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

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