True Spirit of Christmas

The Good News that Christmas really brings is much more than anything we can celebrate in one day. No reason for a Christian to lament that the Christmas tree dries out so quickly and with it the good feelings generated during the season that may soon seem a mere diversion from sobering realities: taxes, rent and mortgages, the Visa bill — the scale! Is the “Good News” of Christmas just a sentimental fantasy, a temporary suspension of the hard business of living that we only subscribe to for a brief annual fling? Or is the real Christmas story so much more?

To get into the true “Christmas spirit,” we need to listen to the whole story. If we re-read the so-called “infancy narratives” (cf. Matthew 1:1-2:23 and Luke 1:5-2:52), we discover much more than sanitized snippets of Scripture on cards that only evoke visions of stars and angels or images of bathrobed children and fluffy sheep. The whole story also includes reports of refugees seeking asylum (the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt), brutal massacres (the slaughter of the Holy Innocents) and political intrigue (Herod and the Magi) to rival any tabloid headline. Not only is there talk of peace, joy and good tidings, but also fear, rage and a heart-piercing sword (Simeon’s prophecy to Mary). The true Christmas message hits us more like an earthquake than a snowflake and, when it is allowed to take root in our hearts, will not evaporate with the last sweet strains of a Christmas carol.

The seemingly innocuous chant of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” not only struck terror into the hearts of the shepherds, it unleashed a whole chain of events that would not be completed till a violent execution on the Cross. Wherever this Child’s presence was announced, from conception, through birth, to death and beyond, it would produce the most conflictual reactions. Wherever this Gospel continues to be preached, it evokes the same responses in any age. Just look around and see. Live it and experience it!

Whether the “Christmas spirit” remains in us for a lifetime or only a few days depends entirely on what we understand the true Christmas message to be and how we respond to it. And there are only three logical positions: acceptance, indifference or resistance.

Those who hear of it and accept it as a sentence of pardon for all of their sins and a promise for life that would never end, can finally begin to live in freedom and with fear of no one and no thing. They have accepted it as true and find their lives transformed. Those who only “hear” it as something “nice” but unrelated to the “real” world to which they return after “hearing” it, will ultimately value it as little more than an occasion for annual entertainment or correspondence catch-up, not worth the bother of celebrating each day or (minimally) on Sunday. They remain indifferent. Those who hear and recognize in it a challenge to their own (or any earthly) power-base — political, intellectual, “scientific,” material, sexual or any other earth-bound tyranny — will, as most self-deifying despots eventually do — oppose or seek to suppress it.

One way or another, Christmas is inescapably a personal presence — a personal invitation or confrontation, as the case may be.  And, like any invitation, there is no way to respond except personally.  The call to salvation, which is “good news” to those who have ears to hear, can only be addressed in the second person singular. And so, it is fitting to ask, how are you hearing the Gospel (“good news”) of Christmas? Do you understand it as endless forgiveness from anything awful you ever did or thought of doing?  A pledge of divine assistance in all that you do?  A promise that you will live forever?

This is, essentially, what the message of the angel was, through Mary, to every member of the human race.  She said, “yes” to it — a yes that changed the world.  For each and every one of us, a “yes” will change our lives.  This is the truth of it and with an affirmative response will come the true Christmas spirit. Rejoice!