I don’t know about you, but Christmas season always takes me by storm. I barely have enough time in my normal life to get all the things done I am responsible for. Pile the Christmas duties on top of that, and I am one big frazzled mess by the 25th finally rolls around. This year has been no exception. In fact, I sort of threw in the towel. My house got decorated in the middle of December. I didn't even bother with Christmas cards. I didn't bake a single Christmas cookie. The presents were wrapped less than 24 hours before they were opened. And you know what? It was okay. In fact, I actually had time to observe and reflect. So, you think I would have come up with a better answer when my little son asked me what we are celebrating at Christmas time.
We were sitting in the crowded Church on Christmas Eve well before the start of Mass. We arrived just in time to sit in the choir loft. Those arriving after us were invited to sit in the hallway, so I was quite grateful for our choir loft seat. This was not our parish church as we were visiting my parents. My little son took in all the unfamiliar sights from the kneelers to the altar. He even perused the hymnal. After a few minutes of observing the crowded church, he looked at me and asked, “What are we celebrating, Mommy?” He was astute enough to realize that something special was going on- this was “special” church.
“We are here to celebrate Jesus’ birthday,” I told him. And that was all I said. He seemed satisfied with the answer but I could tell that he thought this “special church” was a little too much for a birthday celebration. Or maybe he thought that it was weird that Jesus was having his birthday party in church without balloons, presents and cake. Either way, as Mass started, I realized my answer was lacking.
Christmas used to be my favorite holiday. But as I have grown in age and faith, Easter has become my new favorite. This year, as the hustle and bustle hummed around me, I reflected on this change. Why has Easter surpassed Christmas in my favorites? What happened to the magic of Christmas? I think it would be easy for me to point out the obvious: Christmas has been hijacked by consumerism. Christmas is more about preparing for the presents than it is about preparing for the birth of Christ. Retailers use Christmas to sell, sell, sell. And us Americans buy, buy, buy. It’s inescapable. Even if I wanted to return to the true meaning of Christmas and forego the outrageous gift-giving, I can’t. I can’t do that to my kids. As I was venting on this topic to my husband, he politely disagreed with me. He pointed out that Christmas brings joy to our culture. It inspires us to give and find the good in one another. I couldn't argue with him. Although Christmas is consumed by our consumerism, it does bring out the best in us. The atmosphere in our country is pointedly different at Christmastime. So, why is the magic gone for me?
My inadequate response to my little son’s question at Mass on Christmas Eve really got me thinking. Was I truly bitter about the hijacking of Christmas by consumerism, or did I not fully understand what Christmas is all about? Holy week and Easter are about an awesome reality- Jesus’ radical display of love, obedience and faith on the cross. AND it’s about His defeat of death and thus, His gift of life to us. AND, it’s about His gift of the Eucharist. The Easter season of the Church is HOLY. Our identity as Christians is all wrapped up in Easter. Now, Christmas is just Jesus’ birthday. Right? Is that really what we are celebrating?
I am reading A Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser. In his book, Rolheiser explains in depth about the meaning of the incarnation. He speaks of the significance of the incarnation and it’s reality in our world today. I think I have always looked at Jesus’ life on earth from a quasi-historical perspective. He was born, he lived and walked on the earth, he died, he rose from the dead and then he ascended into heaven. What I have failed to focus on is the reality that Jesus still lives here. In my Baptist upbringing, I was taught that when you are saved, Jesus comes to live in your heart. As I have converted to the Catholic faith, I never doubted the truth that Jesus lives in my heart, but I also never connected the significance of this with Christmas or it’s subsequent impact on the world.
You see, at Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation of Christ- the arrival of God into humanity. Sure, it is the birth of Christ, but, more importantly, it is the arrival of Christ into the world- a world in which he still lives. Before the incarnation, God did not exist in the world as he does today in Christ. That fact didn't really occur to me until I started to think about my little son’s question. Christmas is a very significant event in Christianity because it is the arrival of Christ into humanity- a position he has not vacated. That is what we celebrate- Christ’s life intertwined in ours, his life in our hearts.
Just as Christ gave us his complete life on the cross, we are called to do the same. Our lives are spent converting our hearts to the reality of the incarnation- to the reality that Christ lives in our hearts and in the hearts of the rest of humanity. Our response to the incarnation is to live out the Greatest Commandment- Love God with all your mind, heart and soul and then love your neighbor as yourself. This requires us to put our own desires on the back burner and seek the desires of Christ- not only the desires we find in the Christ of our own hearts, but also in the Christ we see in others.
So, Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth. It’s a celebration of Christ’s arrival in humanity- his arrival in our very lives. It’s a celebration of Christ’s presence in our world. So, the question is will we let Christmas infect us? Will we surrender our desires and let Christ pour his love into our souls and then let it flow out to touch others? As we put away our Christmas decorations and roll into the New Year, are we going to truly live the life we celebrate at Christmas or was it just another birthday party?