By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As we come to the halfway point in the Advent season of preparation for the birth of Jesus, let us reflect on giving Him His proper place during this time.
Knights of Columbus’ campaign
Many years ago, the Knights of Columbus began their North American campaign to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” This praiseworthy effort by the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world was obviously begun to be a reminder to all of the real reason for Christmas and its celebration.
When you read the topic of this week’s article, you might have been expecting a condemnation of the “commercialism” or “secularism,” now so often attached to the celebration of Christ’s birth. However, that is not my purpose this week. We can echo the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians: “Our wisdom does not consist in discovering the natures of material realities, rather it concerns Christ alone.” We wish to condemn no one but we do want to remind ourselves, and any others who will listen, of how best to prepare for the reality of the Christmas celebration: the Birth of Jesus.
In our attempt to keep Christ in Christmas and to encourage others to do the same, we can actually take advantage of a great deal of the physical elements that surround us at this time of year and reflect on their origin. In this way, by reminding ourselves of the meaning of many of the practices we see around us, we might delve more deeply into the reality that Christmas celebrates.
The Christmas spirit
There are conversational expressions and Christmas carols that speak of the Christmas spirit. Does this spirit really exist and, if it does, what is it? The spirit of Christmas is not a vague, formless, undefinable reality. It is first of all the Spirit of God, who descended into our midst and through whom the Eternal Word was made Flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
The Holy Spirit forms in us a “spirit” or attitude. When we think of the humility of the Son, coming from the Father, to become Man for us and for our salvation, how can we not be filled with a spirit of gratitude? When we contemplate the Child Jesus, born in a stable, how can we not be filled with a spirit of humility, after His own example? When we realize that Jesus became Man not only for us, but for all who would ever live, how can we not be filled with a spirit of charity towards our neighbor, for whom Jesus was born? When we visualize the poverty in which Jesus chose to be born and the fact that Joseph had to lead Mary to a far off place to give birth to her Child, how can we not be filled with a spirit of special generosity towards the poor and those who are far from home? Indeed, there is “a Christmas spirit,” which is not vague or unapproachable but which is inspired by the Holy Spirit and the work of our salvation begun so long ago.
The use of light at Christmas
One of the most visible aspects of the Christmas season is the extensive use of light. Although electric Christmas lights are only a little over one hundred years old, they are an expression of a very basic Christian concept, that of Jesus, who called Himself the “light of the world.” In Saint John’s Gospel we read: “Jesus spoke to them again, saying: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8:12).
This description that Jesus gives of Himself as “light” is also the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, which referred to the coming Messiah. Isaiah predicted that a great light would shine for those who walked in darkness (Isaiah 9:1-6) and that the Messiah would be the “light of the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). In the Psalms, King David speaks of God enlightening the soul of the virtuous person and giving him strength (Psalm 27:1). Both Zechariah and Simeon, who may be called bridges between the Old Testament and its fulfillment in Jesus, make use of the concept of the Messiah as light and the fulfillment of this prophecy in Jesus.
Our Lord enlightens us with His teaching, and so we do not have to walk in confusion, without guidance as to what is pleasing to God and good for us as well. The teaching of Jesus is there to enlighten all those who do not close their hearts to Him.
Light is also a source of warmth. We are reminded by the Church that even the first stirring of faith within the soul is a gift from God. The power of God’s grace, which Jesus brought us by His Death and Resurrection, enables us to see and recognize Jesus as the light of the world and of our souls, and gives us the strength needed to embrace that light and walk by it.
Gift-giving at Christmas
In the second chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, we read of the announcement of the angel heralding the birth of Jesus: “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11). This announcement tells us of the reality of Christmas; that a Savior has been born for us. This is the great Gift of the Father who sent His Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. We all know that the birth of this Child was announced not only to the Chosen People, to whom His coming had been foretold in a particular way, but also to all the peoples of the earth. This is made clear from the visit of the Magi from the East, who represented the Gentiles, to whom this birth was also directed.
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we read of their arrival at the place of Jesus’ birth: “On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
It is not hard to imagine how gift-giving came to be associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth. Christ is the great gift of the Father to us. His coming was foretold by all the prophets and when He came, He came for all the nations, not only His Chosen People. Those nations were represented by the Magi, who brought gifts, which symbolized His kingship, His priesthood and even His death and burial. The spices offered by the Magi would eventually be used to anoint the same sacred body which was now lying in the manger.
Some practical lessons
Now that we have looked at the origin of so much of what we see around us as we prepare for Christmas, we can draw some practical lessons. This is what we understand as Christian meditation: to look upon a scene, to think about it and then to draw a practical conclusion for our life in God.
The “spirit of Christmas” involves taking on the attitude or mind of Jesus, and so we are reminded by Saint Paul to “put on Christ.” We do this in a special way by our charity. It would be a very praiseworthy practice to prepare for the birth of Jesus by thinking of anyone we have offended and correcting that situation according to the mind of Jesus. Likewise, we may be called to forgive those who have offended us. Is this not the attitude of Jesus, who forgave His enemies and commanded us to do the same? Is there a broken family relationship that we are called to repair in the spirit of the humble Child born in the manger? If any of these examples apply to us, let us do our work now, in the true spirit of Christmas, and not put it off for another Christmas, which may not come for us again upon this earth.
When we look at all the many lights that decorate our homes and neighborhoods once again this year, let us think of Jesus, “the light of the world,” who came to enlighten us with His teaching and warm us with His grace. In thanking Him, we must also tell Him that we are sorry; sorry for the times when we did not conduct ourselves as a light to others by our example of what it means to be His follower. Finally, as we purchase and receive gifts, what have we prepared to give to worthy causes, to the needy and to all those who in their lowliness are most like Jesus?
The Knights of Columbus, by their praiseworthy campaign and by their many good works and acts of charity towards those in need, have certainly done their part in keeping Christ in Christmas. Will we do ours?
10 December 2009