Reflections of the Meaning and Lesson of Christmas

by Bishop Thomas G. Doran

In his weekly column, Bishop Doran gives us a timely reminder that we need to stop in the midst of our Christmas preparations and realize who is born on Christmas Day. He says that when we do that we "move closer not only to the meaning of Christmas but to the traditions regarding its celebration."
The Observer
Diocese of Rockford, December 15, 2006

For a long time now many people have written in this or a similar vein — that it is too bad that the Christmas season has become as much a celebration of exuberant consumerism as it is the celebration of the Incarnation. It strikes many as odd that the coming of Christ as a poor and humble child should somehow become an occasion for profligate consumption and, frequently, self-indulgence.

We wonder why it has come to this, and so we resolve that next year it will be different. But it will not be different unless we, ourselves, become different. Instead, it is likely that out of habit and momentum we will be more caught up than ever in the frenzy, until at last we mercifully reach the point we can no longer shop lest we drop. And so we give it all up as a bad job. Then a time of great anticipation and joy becomes for us an occasion fraught with frustration and disappointment. Merry Christmas, indeed!

Actually, these feelings about trying to escape the consumer binge do credit to those who experience them. It is, to be sure, important to keep in mind “the reason for the season.”

When we do that, we move closer not only to the meaning of Christmas but to the traditions regarding its celebration. Christmas giving goes back to a time when Christians gave one another small gifts in celebration and in imitation of God’s great gift to us, which is the incarnation of Christ.

We do not like to think in theological terms in this age when we are so preoccupied with other questions, but God could have made known His salvation in any way He chose. Think about it: He could have come bounding from the heavens as a magnificent, awesome, kingly figure. Instead, He chose to be born of a humble couple in straitened circumstances, far from home and out of money — and, indeed, out of luck because there was no room for them in the travelers’ lodge. And so, as a result of mean circumstances to which he submitted, he was born in a stable. The simplicity of that birth has given Christians ever since pause to realize that God chose to communicate the great mystery of His love and mercy by sending us the least threatening divine presence we can imagine — a small child totally dependent on his parents.

This was the beginning of a great problem for those who wanted a Wonder Counselor, Lord Mighty God, Father of the World to Come, Prince of Peace, King of All. The Jews had longed for a Messiah who would be a prophet like Moses, only greater. They longed for a savior who would lead his people to military and material victory over all their enemies, subjugate those enemies, and give the chosen ones wealth and power in their world.

It is only with difficulty and over time that some of them eventually came to grips with the fact that Jesus, born in the stable at Bethlehem, fulfills every prophesy made about the Messias in the Old Testament, and yet did so in a way totally unexpected by the wise and the prudent of the generation to which he was born.

Today we glory in our knowledge (though not, it must be said, in our wisdom) and we are bedazzled by the myth that knowledge is power. It is Christmas that can remind us, if we choose to be reminded, that power is borne of weakness and strength of humility, and that the meek ultimately do and should inherit the earth.

So I say that in the midst of all our Christmas preparations we should take time to realize who is born on Christmas Day. A sign of our subtle inversion of values is the practice that has grown up of celebrating Christmas for children on Dec. 24. Instead of the first Mass for Christmas at midnight, we have the so-called Santa Claus Masses at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, so that the children do not have to be bothered with thinking about Jesus and his birth on Christmas Day itself. This, of course, is a great convenience for parents and I sympathize with them in their acceptance of what basically is an anti-Christmas practice.

We should all realize that Christmas is a time when God in his humility shows us, if not who we are, at least what we should strive to be.

In that spirit we should extend ourselves in yearlong gift-giving, not offering immense gifts and fabulous benisons, but in providing little things that, one by one, make our neighbor’s lives holier, healthier and happier.


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