Ten thoughts for a brighter Christmas
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate. And it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
Filipinos celebrate Christmas as early as September. They also end their celebrations late into January’s Feast of the Child Jesus. Most, in fact, do not relish ending the hold of the Christmas spirit in their lives. No doubt, they love the fun and merrymaking that come with it. They look forward to family reunions and bonding moments with friends, relatives and classmates, even with neighbors. They decidedly experience a high in seeing the Christmas lights and decorations, in hearing or singing the carols, basking in the glow of the holidays, complete with all the hype of Christmas sloganeering and all types of food or beverage money can buy plus the company they choose to keep.
But I think we need to ask if, in reality, we get only the trimmings and miss the Christmas train.
That, I submit, is why we owe it to ourselves to do some soul-searching on the way we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. Allow me to share a few thoughts.
One, Christmas is God embracing us in his Son born on that day. He certainly was comfortably and gloriously ensconced in heaven. No comfort zone is lovelier, better, happier or more blessed; of that we can be certain. But the point is, He let it go for our sakes. He exchanged the infinite glory, majesty, and joy of heaven for the doubtlessly poorer, cheaper, and stained lights of human nature, of the human world, of our human lives. If Christmas is our God embracing us and our world, the question is: Are we embracing him and his kingdom?
Two, God’s embrace of us required not only his letting go of heaven. It required, especially, his self-emptying, his kenosis (Phil 2:7). I think we need to ask if we do not tend to take Christmas in the exact opposite direction—that is, with heads and hearts full of ourselves and seeking to fill them even more with things that are other than God or God’s. Don’t we stuff ourselves with so many material or psychological commodities, seeking even to be filled up spiritually as we get a boost from giving gifts of varying kinds? On the other hand, do we know we can spend Christmas self-emptying—such as, in choosing to listen more than being listened to, in forgiving rather than getting even, in spending precious time with people who have no one but ourselves, in turning off the artificial gadgets in our life to have enough time to pray or be still in silence before God?
Three, Christmas is God finding us worth embracing, worth loving. In a world that is fast becoming a haven for haters and hate-filled messages and ideologies, where depression is a massive disease more lethal than cancer or AIDS, Christmas confronts our self-hating motivations and suicidal thoughts with the God who says, “You are worth more than all the treasures of the universe because I gave up heaven for you. Do not put yourself down. You are infinitely precious to me.”
Four, Christmas is God’s walking the path of humility. In contrast, we compete in life in order to buttress our pride by emerging as winners. We stand for the pride of our own selves or of our kind: Pinoy Pride, Male Pride, Gay Pride, Feminist Pride, etc. True, we extol humility by our words but our actions say winning is everything. In the Philippines’ sponsorship of SEA Games 2019 the theme chosen was, “WE WIN AS ONE”. And yet only the Philippines, barring some extraordinary circumstances, will probably be hailed as over-all CHAMPION. We still want the “bragging rights” for ourselves. How different is the way of God’s Son on Christmas.
Five, Christmas highlights the obedience of God’s Son to the Father. God could have chosen the way of power and glory to save humanity, but he chose to send his Son instead to proclaim and put into action his saving plan. We know and set great store by obedience. We want our children to obey us; we want our laws obeyed in society; even criminals insist on people of their kind obeying their unwritten rules. It is about time we followed the lead of the prime Child of Christmas—be also obedient to our Father in heaven.
Six, Christmas reminds us that even God became poor. We often gaze with awe and misty eyes at the Christmas cribs in the belens we make or place in prominent spots of our homes and churches. We often miss the fact of Jesus’ real poverty. When I first saw the exact spot where Jesus was to have been born, now preserved in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I was shocked. I told myself that I have come from a Third World country where poverty is often taken for granted as our hallmark. But to realize that Jesus the Savior was actually born in a cave and, in the Gospel writer’s words, “lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12) is a statement louder than the best oration. He not only embraces us humans at Christmas; he particularly embraces the poor among us. Must we still call into question the Church’s Preferential Love for the Poor? Was it not the Savior who first demonstrated it in the harsh realism of the Christmas narratives?
Seven, Christmas casts the shadow of the Cross on the child Jesus. The stigma of being unknown. The pain of being an unwelcome nobody. The words of the Gospel sting but ring familiar to a lot of those who suffer: “She (Mary) wrapped him (baby Jesus) in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn” (Lk 2:7). Then these: “He came to his own, but his own did not accept him” (Jn 1:11). The words “no room” anticipates the rejection that will lead him to the Cross. “No room” for Jesus should not be found anywhere near our homes and hearts this Christmas and beyond.
Eight, Christmas is God GIVING himself to us, and we didn’t even notice. It is again John the evangelist who opens our eyes to this God who loves and shows it by giving his most precious gift—his Son. “For God so loved the world that he GAVE his only-begotten Son so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). This is the real root of every gift-giving not only at every Christmas but every day of our life. When we face circumstances that challenge us: a sibling struggling financially asking for help; an acquaintance who met an accident and in a hospital, with no family or friends to keep him company; a colleague wrongly accused of corruption, needing a moral booster; a parent suffering from dementia, etc. Every situation is an invitation to imitate the generosity of God at Christmas. It is a happy fact of life that giving does not have to involve only money or material things. There had been so much hype about the difficulty of giving one’s time. But every giving takes some form of pain; and yet there is no greater wonder than being able to give oneself in ways that only need and hearts can know or dictate.
Nine, Christmas is the birth of PEACE into our strife-driven world. Isaiah prophesied the birth of a boy to be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Father of the future age, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). Tall order for human messiahs these names sound to be. We look at Jesus and how he started being who he is at home when he unites the Holy Family in their common adherence to doing God’s will, with his disciples whom he united despite huge differences in personality, education, temperament, social and political status and this unity is palpable in their common mission to proclaim the kingdom. When there is tension and conflict in our homes, workplaces, friends’ circles, communities, Christmas urges us to become bringers of the presence of the Prince of Peace. Naturally we do not fail to remember that nothing succeeds, not even peacemaking, without his help. It struck me to hear in an interview the purported leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines suggesting that the Philippine president have the experience of Saul of Tarsus of being struck by lightning (Acts 9:2-6ff) so he may be converted to terms of peace acceptable to the left. He forgot to include his/their own conversion as likewise necessary not only for his camp to adjust to the just conditions for the resumption of peace talks but also for all to realize that peace outside of God’s terms and help is as possible as the proverbial crow turning white. Peace must begin with the self before peace may be shared with others.
Ten, Christmas is the GLORY and the JOY of God’s heaven shining through toward earth. At the birth of the Savior angels are heard singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of good will” (Lk 2:14). The angels remind us that glory belong to God and should be first given to God who converts it into the light of joy that lives among human beings at peace with Him and with one another. The angels likewise foretell Jesus’ firm teaching that it is the “heart” that matters because we can only express its storehouse of good or evil (Mt 15:19). Christmas teaches us that our hearts must be the dwelling-place and nurturer of God’s glory in his new-born Son because the heart is where the truth of his saving love is told and the falsehood of Satan’s blasphemies exposed. To assert with the song “This Christmas I give you my heart” will not in God lead to the following line “The very next day you gave it away”. God never gives away our hearts when we give them to him; rather he unites them with his. That is the true spirit of Christmas—our human hearts resting in God’s, and shining forth in the little boy born for us. He is little but not even the whole universe can contain him.
Receiving this little boy who lives in the hearts of the humble and the poor into our our own hearts and daily lives expands our inner universes to accommodate the peace and joy this world cannot give nor take away from us.