Every Christmas morning, my friend Sean’s parents would load their three sons into the family car and head to a local soup kitchen. Sean and his brothers would help out by putting napkins and flatware on the tables, then a hot meal would be served and gifts distributed to the patrons. Sean’s dad sometimes dressed up as Santa Claus.
On the first day back from Christmas break one year during middle school, Sean’s teacher asked the class what they had done over the holidays. “We served a meal at the soup kitchen in the morning and then we came home and celebrated,” Sean told his class. An awkward silence followed. Sean could tell that kids around the room were staring at him.
“That was the first time it occurred to me that this was not the way most of my friends spent their Christmases,” Sean remembers. “One of my favorite parts about serving was that it wasn’t a big deal. My parents really did a good job of integrating it into our holiday traditions. It was just something we did.”
For many of us, the Advent and Christmas seasons are times when we feel an especially strong pull to reach out toward those who are in need. Why? Maybe one reason is that while Christmas is supposed to be full of joy and togetherness, we realize that there are so many people in the world who are hurting and lonely, and we feel called to close that gap. Sean’s family surely responded to this call in a powerful way.
One thing I love about the Christmas stories found in the Gospels is that they so clearly affirm the season’s tradition of compassion. The stories are chock-full of love, justice, and God’s special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable. Let’s explore these themes by focusing on a few of the Christmas season’s central characters: Mary and Joseph; the Christ-child; and the shepherds and Magi.
Mary and Joseph
It’s impossible to imagine. The Virgin Mary – a devout teenager, not yet married to Joseph – is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will bear the Son of God. At first, she is “greatly troubled” by this unexpected news. Mary, after all, knows the punishment other unwed mothers have faced in her community: execution by stoning.
But, drawing on the deepest well of faith ever known, Mary says yes to God’s plan. She says yes to life.
This time of year, I spend a lot of time thinking about other mothers who are facing unexpected pregnancies, and wonder about the trepidation many of them must be feeling. I pray that our communities of faith can be places of welcome where all parents – single and married, well-off and struggling – feel supported in their choice for life.
Mary found this sort of radical hospitality in Joseph. When he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, his first instinct was to divorce her quietly, protecting her from shame and violence. Then, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, but to care for Mary and her unborn child, he took Mary into his home.
Their journey together took them to Bethlehem and then, in the Gospel of Matthew’s account, into Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. This must not be forgotten: The Holy Family was a refugee family. How relevant and painful it is to reflect on that fact against the backdrop of the world’s current refugee crisis.
On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I went to a prayer service for migrants and refugees at Catholic Charities’ headquarters in Camden. The room was filled with Catholic Charities staff members and recently resettled refugees who had just finished an English class. Some of the refugees have arrived here in the past few months from Syria, welcomed by Catholic Charities and working to build a new life in South Jersey. During the general intercessions, prayers for refugees were read by a handful of the refugees themselves who have become confident English speakers. I have had very few, if any, more powerful experiences of prayer in my life. How might the world be different if every Christian around the world consciously saw the Holy Family in each refugee family?
What can we learn about God from our belief that he came into the world as a baby boy?
God could’ve come to Earth wielding the power of a superhero, but he didn’t. Instead, he came to Earth as the Christ-child, incarnating “transparency, vulnerability, defenselessness,” as the great spiritual writer Fr. Ronald Rolheiser puts it. “Ultimately though that power, helplessness and vulnerability, is the greatest power of all because it, and it alone, can transform hearts,” Rolheiser writes. “You don’t soften hearts by overpowering them. You transform hearts through another kind of persuasion.”
There has been a collective, societal obsession with on political and military power this year – even more than usual, perhaps. Christmas is a reminder that God transforms the world (and invites us to join in the work) with gentleness.
Shepherds and Magi
Both of our Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth include visitors to the manger: shepherds in Luke and Magi in Matthew. Why?
Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that shepherds in first-century Palestine were “among the lowest-esteemed laborers.” That they are Jesus’s very first companions in Luke’s Gospel sets the stage for Christ’s later ministry, during which he consistently accompanied those who were poor and marginalized. As disciples, the way Jesus spent time is a model for how we might spend time; his priorities should be our priorities.
While the Magi aren’t poor or vulnerable the same way the shepherds are, they come from outside the Jewish community, and reveal how the love of God made flesh in Christ embraces all people. The boundaries we build up to separate groups based on race, religion, class, age, ability, and more are not of God. Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, cuts to the heart of this idea in his book Tattoos on the Heart. “No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it,” he writes. “Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”
If our Christmas season in 2016 is filled with radical hospitality, respect for the dignity of life at every stage, and kinship with the marginalized, our celebration will surely look a lot like the very first Christmas. Or, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” May every heart prepare Him room! Merry Christmas!
Recently, my sister-in-law texted me a photo of my niece, who’s 18 months old, covering her gaping mouth in pure wonder at the sight of a chintzy Christmas-light display in a big-box store. It reminded me of the uniquely wonderful time of year this is for young kids.
But you don’t have to watch TV for more than a minute these days to be reminded that our culture’s focus on buying and getting stuff can undermine Christmas’ meaning. Here are three other S-words that might be good to keep in mind while introducing Christmas to toddlers: story, simplicity, and sharing.
In the wonderful “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, Charlie Brown, frustrated by the commercialism of the season, wonders, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Linus knows, and he stands in front of the gang and recites from Luke’s nativity story. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
There are few stories more awesome and meaningful. As a family, spend some time with the Christmas story – and take advantage of the great tangible symbols of the season, like an Advent wreath and a kid-friendly, hands-on nativity scene.
The photo of my niece reminded me that it doesn’t take much to excite a little one! Here’s another example of this truth: Over Thanksgiving weekend, family friends with two kids – two years and five months old – stayed with my wife and me for a couple days. The two year-old’s current favorite activity involves crayons. She doesn’t color with them, though. She just removes the paper, bit by bit, and throws it away. That’s it. On Christmas, I imagine she’ll enjoy playing with the box a toy comes in more than the toy itself.
In an article I read recently, blogger Joshua Becker described his family’s Christmas gift-exchange practice. He and his wife give their children three gifts: one thing they want, one thing they need, and an experience to share with the family. By establishing those expectations early, their kids aren’t disappointed at this seemingly small pile under the tree, and it has allowed them to shift their focus from stuff to friends, family, and faith.
Back to Charlie Brown and Peanuts for a second. In a classic strip, Violet approaches Charlie Brown with a piece of paper in hand. “This is my ‘git’ list, Charlie Brown,” she says. “These are all the things I figure I’m gonna ‘git’ for Christmas from my two grampas and two grammas and eight uncles and aunts!”
Charlie Brown replies, “Where’s your ‘give’ list?”
“My what?” asks Violet,
“I knew it!” harrumphs Charlie Brown as he walks away.
Violet has no conception of giving, but it’s probably not her fault. Her doting, well-minded family sees her as a recipient with nothing to contribute herself. But Christmas is a great time to work on building habits of generosity and thoughtfulness. Participate in a food drive together (dropping cans in a box is always fun), or make some homemade Christmas cards for loved ones.
With the three S’s of story, simplicity, and sharing, you can help young children learn what Christmas is all about.
Matthew’s Gospel is the only one with Magi. (He never numbers them, but there are three gifts, so one Magus carrying each gift made sense to composer/clergyman John Henry Hopkins, Jr., whose greatest hit you’ll definitely sing at Mass this Sunday.)
Whenever one of the four has a unique story, it invites us to pay special attention. Why does Matthew include these Greek Zoroastrians?
Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community of Jewish-Christians – folks from Jewish families who were among the first followers of Christ. Matthew wants to emphasize that while Jesus was Jewish, and spent his ministry with the Jewish people, his salvation and message peace are for everyone. This includes the Magi, travelers from a distant land and foreign faith tradition.
One of my favorite teachers liked to say that if he were the Son of God, he wouldn’t have come to Earth the way Jesus did. Instead, he’d wear a “Son of God” sash and ride on an enormous float in the Rose Parade, zapping people he didn’t like. This description has always reminded me of this clip from the movie “Bruce Almighty”:
Bruce thinks it’s no use being all-powerful if you don’t take advantage of the perks. But God’s ways are not our ways.
My teacher was making a point about the nature of God’s power. Sometimes, we pray as if God is like Bruce in the clip: a sort of cosmic puppet master who snaps his fingers and makes things happen. We want God to take the illness away, to spin the hurricane out to sea, to freeze the gunman’s feet to the ground as he approaches the school.
Certainly miracles happen. But most of the time, God uses his power in a different, less flashy way. Christmas is the perfect example of the “weak power” of God.