Practice the ancient custom of the Oplatek this Christmas


Polish Catholics have a 1000-year-old Christmas tradition that I would like to recommend to you. The “oplatek,” or Christmas wafer is a large, rectangular flat wafer made in the same fashion as the bread used for Communion hosts. It is usually decorated with some Christmas scene impressed upon it. When families gather for their Christmas meal, the father of the family breaks a piece and passes it around the family members, with each breaking a piece and offering prayers for the family and wishes for one another in the Christmas season and in the coming year. Having learned the custom as a young priest from Polish parishioners, I introduced it in my own family’s celebrations with great effect. We practiced a variation on the custom, asking each person present to spend a few moments with each other person, exchanging pieces of the wafer and asking forgiveness for any wrongs in the past year and offering some specific expression of gratitude to the other person. I realize that Christmas gatherings can be raucous, and many words spoken, but it is rarer for those words to be filled with such meaning as we experienced by the gift of this Christmas custom.
The most significant feast of the year is the commemoration of the Resurrection at Easter. It is that mystery of God’s grace and the Lord Jesus’ conquest of sin and death that forms the foundational mystery of the Christian faith and church. It is that Paschal mystery that we touch in every celebration of the Eucharist.
Nonetheless, the beautiful feast of Christmas has its own importance and grace to impart. If Easter focuses on the gift of eternal life, Christmas is the embrace of creation and of the mystery of what it means to be human. After all, this is the feast of the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) After millennia of alienation from God, from one another, and from creation itself, God heals the rift between heaven and earth by the most amazing and surprising gift, that of God’s beloved Son: “Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance…” (Phil. 2:7)
The Christmas nativity scenes that find pride of place in our homes and churches speak of this truth through imagery. Our beloved Christmas songs do likewise in poetry and beauty. Christ the Lord was born to Mary in the humblest of circumstances. In fact, the circumstances of his family were quite difficult. Poor and vulnerable, they lived in a land conquered and oppressed by cruel foreigners. Those same oppressors drove them from their home for the census even as Mary approached the moment of giving birth. As we all know, there “was no room at the inn.” With all the challenges, Mary gave birth in love and joy to God’s Son. The animals around him foretell the truth that he will redeem all of creation in his trusting self-offering. His heralds will not be the great and powerful, but the humble shepherds who remind us of the loving care that the Good Shepherd will offer to his flock. The Magi reveal that his grace will be for all people. And maybe most important of all, Jesus has a family, a loving, holy family.
Instinctively, we recognize the joy and miracle of new life in the birth of every child. This child reveals to us the holiness and beauty of the human heart, made in the image and likeness of God. We hope that by his grace, we may know eternal life, but his birth reminds us not to “stand looking at the heavens” (Acts 1:11) but to see the invitation to live his love and grace here and now.
I encourage you to consider practicing the great custom of the Christmas wafer this year. Put down the devices, turn off the TV, and spend a few moments that honor the holiness of human relationships and the renewal and grace made possible by the birth of Jesus. “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11)