December 11, 2014
Have We Lost the True Meaning of Christmas?
What do you think? Have we lost the true meaning of Christmas?
I get asked that all the time. It’s a fair enough question to ask during Advent.
On the one hand, there’s no denying that distractions abound to keep us from concentrating on Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Savior. One wise pastor observed that, “It’s not so much that we’ve forgotten the genuine significance of Christmas, but that we ignore Advent! We jump right into Christmas at Thanksgiving, instead of patiently waiting for the big feast.”
He may have a point. The theory is that we would start our celebration of Christmas on the evening of December 24, and go for twelve days. Instead, we usually begin Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, and conclude on December 25th! We got it backwards!
Nor is there denying a cultural bias against emphasizing the birth of Jesus, and some silly and bothersome tendencies to “sanitize” the feast of any religious meaning.
However, let’s be positive, shall we? On the other hand ...
For one, while there’s a fury of shopping and buying, it’s usually for other people. Rich Lamb, the veteran radio reporter, related to me an interview he once did with Cardinal John O’Connor for Christmas. Rich asked the Cardinal, “Is there too much consumerism, too much shopping, this season?” The Cardinal wisely replied, “I’m not about to criticize people buying gifts for others!”
So, at least, in all the buying, there’s a sense of selflessness, because it’s all to give away! God the Father gave the first, and best Christmas present: His Son!
Two, the “Christmas spirit” is synonymous with charity, and even the most hardened heart is a bit softer these weeks, with a special concern shown to the poor.
Let me just recall a few events of the last couple weeks:
- Last Saturday, I stopped by a “homeless sleep-in” at Holy Name of Mary at Croton-on-Hudson. At least fifty high school youths spent the night in prayer, collection of clothes and food for the homeless shelter, and slept outside in cardboard boxes in solidarity with those, like Jesus at Bethlehem, with no roof over their head;
- On Monday, more than 1,000 good people gathered for the annual Christmas luncheon raising almost $1 million for the array of services and ministries to the poor sponsored by Catholic Charities;
- Then, this Saturday, I’ll join hundreds of our young adults at K-Mart to buy essentials for families in need, each shopper armed with a personal list of the ages and sizes of the children for gloves, coats, shoes, and other winter clothing.
One may moan that such charity should hardly be limited to Christmas, and he or she would be right ... but let’s at least rejoice that charity is popular during these weeks.
A third reason not to wring our hands and complain that we’ve lost the “true meaning of Christmas” comes in the palpable sense of joy all around us. For at least once each year, it’s not acceptable to be crabby or selfish, lest we be called a “Scrooge!”
If “joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence,” as Leon Bloy proposed, well, God’s sure around these weeks, and let’s bask in it. True, it may at times be superficial, associated with excess of food, drink, or possessions, but there’s still no denying that there’s a deeper sense of joy in our hearts, the kind St. Paul calls a “fruit of the Holy Spirit.” I’ll take it!
Four, never is it more evident to us that we’re called, not to be alone, but to be with others. That’s called solidarity, and it’s on steroids this season. Even the usual question, “Where will you be for Christmas?” implies we’ll be with somebody else, and that’s good. The anonymous, impersonal, “just leave me alone” sentiments so epidemic today fade for awhile. We’re close to God, we’re close to family, friends, and neighbors.
Finally, for just a moment, we all seem to have a sense of the divine, a hint of the beyond, a whiff of the transcendent. Even an atheist has to wonder when he or she hears “Silent Night,” or stands at Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus.” In the age of doubt, skepticism, and agnosticism, those undeniable stirrings of the eternal are welcome and revealing.
Maybe I’m stretching it, but I still detect a refreshing “Christmas spirit” that all the secularism and reductionism cannot erase. It’s a start. We believers hardly stop here, and vigorously and intentionally strive to preserve the high spiritual identity of the season.
But even we rejoice at the “hints” of God, love, joy, sharing, and solidarity that are everywhere these weeks! Maybe we haven’t lost the true meaning of Christmas!
A blessed Advent!