This is the period when the Christian world celebrates Jesus’ birth. Others from different faiths and philosophies join them in the celebration however not fully understanding the significance of it. Indeed some, maybe many, have lost completely the true Spirit of Christmas and there are few of those that even refuse to acknowledge the origin of this holiday.
When I was a little boy, we celebrated Christmas in the Italian tradition. At the beginning of December we used to build a beautiful Nativity scene. I remember setting up a table against the wall in a prominent part of the house and working with the rest of the family to put it all together. We could buy all that we needed. For instance, we used to buy dark blue paper with white stars to somewhat replicate the starry night of Bethlehem. We also used to build the landscape with boxes covered with newspaper dipped in plaster, which mimicked the color and substance of the Jewish hillside. After the plaster dried, we used to cover it with fake grass and white powder for the snow. Then we placed the trees, a well, a pond, one or two small houses representing the inns that were busy the night of Jesus’ birth. Finally all the figurines: the shepherds with their sheep, people in different activities, and then, in a small grotto, Joseph, Mary, a donkey and a cow and, in the middle an empty small crib. Then every day until Christmas, we would gather in the evening as a family before that beautiful Nativity to hear and tell stories of Jesus. On Christmas Eve, after going to bed, my mom would get up and place a small baby Jesus in the crib so that in the morning, we as kids would see the miracle of Christmas.
Christmas wasn’t a time for gift exchange. Traditionally that wasn’t a time for Santa. It was a time to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. It wasn’t about us. It was about Him and what He represented.
The gifts came later. On January 6th it was time for the Magi to arrive: the wise men from the East who, following the bright star, arrived with their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Their figurines were then duly placed the night before in front of the grotto with their beautiful camels and their gifts spread in front of the baby Jesus. We children anticipated the moment when early in the morning we would go into that room and find wonderful toys laid out for us many of which I still remember fondly. It was magic, but the wait made it all worth it especially after understanding more about the true purpose of Christmas.
The written record tells us a humble story with no jingles and bells, with no trees or commercial frivolousness: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the City of Nazareth unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:1-7 KJV)
Have you ever experienced the feeling that when you hold a newborn in your arms, you see and feel the closeness to heaven which is still fresh in the soul of that baby that just came to earth? Mary and Joseph must have felt the same. I call that moment “seeing the face of Christ” and it is one that I cherish everytime I hold a baby in my arms.
A few years ago, two days before Christmas, Anne, a good wife and mother, was told by her husband that he had been unfaithful to her and that he was going to divorce her. She was devastated but for the sake of their children and extended family they decided to pretend that all was well until after the Christmas season. On Christmas day, they went to her brother’s house for Christmas dinner. It was difficult for Anne to pretend that all was normal. Laughter was hollow to her and even painful. After dinner, her niece was trying to calm her baby who was crying. Many of the family members tried to calm the baby down but to no avail. Finally, Anne felt she had to take the baby and help. The baby immediately stopped crying and so she took him to his room. While she was sitting with the baby touching her face intent looking at her, Anne recalled the birth of Jesus and how Mary might have felt holding her firstborn. She thought “I am holding you” but then a very clear voice came to her which said “No, it is I that am holding you.” From then on, Anne felt that all would be alright feeling safe in the spiritual embrace of the only One who can really take care of us.
As I reflect on the life of Jesus, I also see the normalcy of the man as well the power of his divine nature. He grew up strong and faithful. He visited the temple when he was 12 and began to show His true nature to the world. As the family was returning to Nazareth from that visit, Mary and Joseph realized that the child was not with them. They finally found Him in the temple teaching to the High Priests. To His parents who were concerned for His well being, He clearly stated: “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49 KJV) After they returned home the record tells us that Jesus was obedient to his parents and that He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. (See Luke 2:51-52 KJV)
Jesus began His ministry at the age of 30. He prepared Himself by fasting and praying, in fact overcoming temptation at the end of 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert. He visited His cousin John and was baptized to fulfill the order of things. Then He chose a group of those who may have been most ready to follow Him, 12 humble people that had no hesitation in leaving everything behind to be with Him and help with His mission. He taught, but He also served and helped people in need. In fact he taught how important service is in fulfilling the mission of His Father. He taught: “When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: and before shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:31-40 KJV)
Have you ever seen the face of Christ in your neighbour’s face? Have you felt the urge to feed, give drink, clothe, or visit your neighbour knowing that you were exercising the love of Christ?
Upon arrival to the mission office as a newly called missionary, I was given my first assignment and companion. I was to travel by train to Pisa, Italy – the city of the leaning tower -, and meet my companion at the train station for my very first day in the mission field. I had high expectations of preaching the word of God and turning unbelievers into believers. It was the enthusiasm of a 20 some year old young man with no true experience of life. So, after meeting my smiling companion and feeling his enthusiasm as well, I thought we would be immediately engaged in missionary activities, at least in the way I believed what that meant. However, we left our apartment and we took the bus to a Catholic nursery home for assisted living seniors, managed by nuns. I thought we were going to see some older person or one of the nuns who may have been interested in hearing our message. However, I was soon disappointed when a nun came to greet my companion and assigned us to a room where we were to feed those who lived there. I have to confess that my first thought was of displacement. I did not think I understood the reason for me to be there and it was apparent that the nuns were doing a great job. However, something began to happen when I saw the expression of gratitude by that nun who gave us the assignment as she left us to our task with a ‘God bless you for what you do.’ As soon as I took a spoonful of soup and put it in the mouth of a disabled woman who could not speak because of her condition, a spirit of deep humility enwrapped me and I saw my purpose and mission in a very different light. As tears rolled down my cheek, I began to understand the words of Jesus when He said: “…For I was hungered and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in… Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:35-40 KJV)
It took three years for Jesus to accomplish His mission. But that mission would not be complete until the final act, the fulfilling of the very reason for His ministry to Earth. He knew that the willing of His Father was for Him to drink the bitter cup. Only through His eternal Atonement and sacrifice, hope could be restored to the world, to all His children. It was not easy. He asked the Father that the bitter cup could be put away but He also knew and acknowledged that His Father’s will be done. He then submitted Himself to the suffering and terrible pain of His last few hours of His earthly ministry. The intensity of His suffering we will not be able to know to its full extent but we can fully participate to the cleansing effect of that suffering. Jesus of Nazareth underwent pain, suffering, both mental and physical, and eventually death to show us the way, to provide us with eternal hope.
Have we sought the face of Christ in ourselves? Have we found the everlasting hope and drank of the water that quenches our spiritual thirst?
The apostle Paul wrote: “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work…Being enriched in everything to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God. For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God.” (2 Corinthians 9:8,11-12)
That faith, hope and charity may abound in our lives and be at the centre of our thoughts as we live the true meaning of Christmas this year, is my humble prayer.