This year, as we’ve journeyed through Advent, I’ve tried a little experiment. I’ve kept track of how often I’ve heard about “the holidays,” “holiday sales” and “holiday gift-giving” … and how little I’ve heard about the heart and meaning of the season: Christmas.
Try it yourself. Listen to the radio. Watch a little television. Read the magazine and newspaper ads. You’ll still find the word “Christmas,” but it seems less and less a part of our public festivities. And this despite the fact that the great majority of Americans still describe themselves as Christians, and tens of millions still actively practice their faith.
Christians — in other words, followers of Jesus Christ — celebrate December 25 not as just another secular holiday, but as the birthday of the messiah; the birthday, in the words of St. Leo the Great, of life itself.
We live in a special time of joy every Advent and Christmas, and it has very little to do with holiday sales. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel — “God with us.” Sharing presents with friends and family is a wonderful tradition that springs eagerly from our Christmas joy. But the noise of mere things should never drown out the quiet voice of God’s love made flesh in the birth of Jesus. Bethlehem, for each of us individually and the world as a whole, is the beginning of something entirely new and utterly beautiful if we ask God for the purity of heart to possess it.
The world we know today is not so different from the world of the first Christmas.
For Mary, there was nothing sweet or easy about being pregnant and unmarried in the rough hills of Galilee. She had her faith in God, but whether she had the understanding of her local relatives and friends is another matter. Women of her day could be, and sometimes were, stoned for perceived adultery. The accepting love of her cousin Elizabeth may not have been widely shared.
Nor would Mary’s story have been easy for her betrothed. No matter how great his faith, no matter how good his heart, Joseph still probably struggled with very human temptations to doubt. In fact, Eastern Christianity captures Joseph’s confusion powerfully in many of its icons of the Nativity. The icons often portray Joseph apart from the manger scene, with his back to the mother and child, deep in thought.
Yet, the reality is this: God loved us enough to send us — through the faith of Mary and Joseph — his only Son. He loved us enough to take on our poverty, our indignities and fears, our hopes, joys, sufferings and failures — and to speak to us as one of us. He became man to show men and women how much God loves them. He was born for that purpose. He lived for that purpose. He died and rose again for that purpose.
Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Jesus is Yeshua, which means “God saves.” When Jesus later preaches in his public ministry that “I am the way, the truth and the and life,” he is only restating the miracle that begins in Bethlehem. Our redeemer is born in a stable; he is born to deliver us from sin and restore us to eternal life. This was the meaning of the birth on that first Christmas.
It’s never too late to invite the Christ Child into our hearts. Surely this tired and complicated world never needed him more. May God grant all of us the gift of welcoming Christ into our hearts this Christmas and throughout the coming year.
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