Rediscovering Christmas Joy

The Christmas trees are lovely. The cookies, delicious. The presents, delightful. The pageants and the parties are, of course, good fun. And if there’s snow, well, the whole night becomes magical.

For as lovely, delicious, delightful, fun and downright magical as the trappings of Christmas can be, however, they remain just that: trappings. They are wonderful extras, the icing on the holiday cake. But they are not the essentials. They are not the reason angels went around Judea 2,000 years ago telling Levitical priests, virgins and shepherds to rejoice (Lk 1:14, 28; 2:10).

By now, it’s a Christmas card truism to say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And yet, truisms are truisms because they are true. Jesus is the reason for the season. He’s the reason for all that is lovely, delicious and delightful about the days and weeks surrounding Dec. 25. He’s the reason Zechariah, Mary and those lowly peasant boys rejoiced, and he should be our reason for rejoicing as well.

Yet, in the midst of the presents and the parties, it’s easy for that reason to get lost. It’s easy for him to get lost. And that’s understandable. The happenings of today have an urgency that the happenings of centuries long past lack.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Jesus’ birth, the passing of time hasn’t changed or diminished the cause we’ve been given for rejoicing. Now, as then, we rejoice because …

1. Jesus brought light to the darkness.

“In the days of Herod … a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.”— Luke 1:5, 2:1

Dissipated kings and despotic emperors, occupying armies and persecution of every sort — racial, political and religious: That was the world the Jews of Jesus’ day knew. And they knew nothing else. Generations had passed since they ruled themselves, with one occupying nation after another harassing and oppressing them. Some found comfort by conspiring with those oppressors, attaining wealth and position at the cost of most everything else (see Mt 9:9). Others found a better comfort in their faith, but religious leaders more interested in the letter of the law than the Giver of the law had made living that faith burdensome as well (see Mt 23).

The Crosiers photo

To that world — a world of poverty and sin, confusion and violence — the Son of God came. He didn’t come to a perfect people doing perfect things. He came into a man-made mess. He immersed himself in it. Then, he illuminated it, bringing light where before there had been only darkness.

The darkness didn’t stop him then, and it doesn’t stop him now. This Christmas, he will again come into our imperfect parishes and imperfect homes. No matter how confused, crazy or chaotic they might be, he’ll still come.

The mess won’t stop him. In fact, it motivates him. He wants to enter into that mess — the mess of our culture and the mess of our lives — and transform both with his love.

And if we let him, he will.

2.  Jesus came for the poor and the lowly.

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them …”— Luke 2:8-9

Jesus wasn’t born in an emperor’s palace. His mother wasn’t a queen (at least not then) and his foster father wasn’t a king. Nor was his birth celebrated with fireworks and toasts by the first-century elite.

The appearance of the angel to shepherds signaled that Christ came for the lowly. Shutterstock photo

Rather, the King of the Universe was born in a stable and slept in a manger. No one would make room for them in their inns or their homes. His mother was a humble village girl and her husband an equally humble carpenter. Those who first learned of his birth were shepherds, an occupation that put those who held it right above prostitutes and lepers on the social ladder of ancient Israel.

On that first Christmas night, only the lowest of the low knelt before Jesus’ crib. Wealth and privilege couldn’t buy their way in. Nor can it today.

This Christmas, the Christ Child again comes for the poor and the lowly. He comes for the weak, the wounded, the confused and the lost. He comes for the spiritually impoverished, the tired and the lonely. He comes for those who are prisoners of their sins, as well as those broken by others’ sins. Essentially, he comes for all of us who recognize our need, our littleness and willingly bow to him.

That means we don’t have to do anything impressive or be anything other than who we are to kneel before him as he comes to us today, in the Eucharist. We simply have to love him and seek to love him better. That’s what he asked then. It’s what he asks now.

3.  Jesus reminds us that God is faithful.

“He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”— Luke 1:54-55

When Mary prayed those words of her Magnificat, she recalled a promise older than Israel itself. Before David, before Moses, before Jacob, God swore a covenant with Abraham. He promised to make his descendants as numerous as the stars, and from among those descendants to bring forth a king (Gn 12, 15, 22).

Later, other promises followed — promises of the lost tribes of Israel returned, promises of a virgin bearing a son, promises of deliverance and freedom.

Those promises weren’t fulfilled in an instant. Centuries passed. Generations came and went. And when fulfillment finally came, it didn’t look like what the Israelites expected it to look like. Their great King was a humble carpenter; their deliverance was a spiritual deliverance; their freedom from sin.

But the promises were fulfilled just the same. Mary knew that. She celebrated that. And so should we. God never forgets. He never walks away. We’re free to walk away from him, but he is forever faithful. What he’s promised to those who trust in him and walk with him — peace, love, strength, mercy, justice, heavenly friends and a heavenly family — he will deliver.

The babe born on Christmas long ago is proof of that.

4. Jesus came to save us.

“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”— Luke 2:11

In Eden, man fell. Through the sins of our first parents, sanctifying grace — divine sonship — was lost. Life became less than it was meant to be. Man loved less than he was meant to love. Virtue didn’t come easily. Vice did. And God, who once seemed so close, now seemed so much farther away.

The Crosiers photo

But the Fall didn’t seal man’s fate. No sooner did man lose the gift of God’s life in his soul than did God promise to restore it. A woman would come and bear a son who would crush the head of the evil one (see Gn 3:15).

In time, the woman came. And on the first Christmas Eve, so did the Son. That night, he didn’t look like much of a savior. For the most part, he looked like any ordinary babe — tiny, fragile and vulnerable. But he was the Savior nevertheless. And soon enough, he did what he came to do, offering his life for our sins, paying the price we couldn’t pay, then rising to new life so that we could one day rise to new life too.

We celebrate that gift on Easter, but we also celebrate it on Christmas. We celebrate a God who loved us so much that he became a baby, all so that we could find our way back to him. That’s why the angels’ song broke the silence of the shepherd’s watch: Because they knew the long night of man’s separation from God was at an end. They rejoiced in that miracle of love, a miracle that has not diminished with the passing of years, which, in light of our stubborn, sinful, willful ways, seems all the more miraculous now.

And so as choirs of angels sang Hosanna on that first Christmas, we sing it on this Christmas, marveling and rejoicing with them at God’s great mercy.

5. In Jesus, the love of God became visible.

“And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”— Luke 2:12

Before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, no one saw God’s face. No one even spoke God’s name. He was encountered only as a burning bush (Ex 3:1-15) or a still, small voice (1 Kgs 19:12). His love was known: It was there in the writings of prophets such as Hosea, as well as the poetry of the Song of Songs. But better known was his law and his justice — both connected to his love, yet easily mistaken as things apart.

Then, Jesus came. And God had a face. His love had a face. Both were made visible in the child lying in the manger. The God who is love had become incarnate. He could be seen and touched and heard. He could be held in a mother’s arms.

That babe revealed the extent of God’s love for man. He was the promised sign.

He still is the sign. In every Nativity scene, in every church, the Christ Child resting in the manger reminds the world of God’s limitless love. That child was and is the incarnation of God’s light, humility, fidelity and mercy. In pointing the shepherds toward that sign, the angels called the weak and the lowly to love and trust God in return. We are called to do the same.

Fortunately, what God calls us to do, he also gives us the grace to do. At Christmas, those graces abound. They are in the trees and the cookies and the parties, the caroling and the toasting. They are in all the trappings of Christmas that bring people together in love. But more than that, they are in the Holy Mass, where Christ comes once more, in the equally humble guise of bread and wine, bringing his people together to experience a joy that surpasses all others.

This Christmas, receive those graces. And rejoice. For Christ is born.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.