Friday, December 24, 2010

Better to give

The day is here. Whatever you have been doing over recent weeks to prepare for Christmas, now you have to stop, because it is Christmas. You may not have finished – I know I haven’t -- but the day is here, not waiting for what we say or what we do. The day is real of itself, and does not depend upon our permission.

The moment has come. Have you prepared gifts? Pause to think, review the inventory. What are you giving? Something you bought, or something you made? Something you have had yourself for a while – re-gifting something you couldn’t use, or handing on a treasured heirloom. Perhaps some token of a gift that will arrive later, a gift card, or maybe a promise of some action or opportunity in the future, like a trip, or taking the kids for a day. Perhaps you have written a note, signed a card, or even composed a poem or story. Something large or small, heavy or intangible – what will you give to the ones you love?

Odds are, even the youngest among us can point to some gift he is giving to someone. Harder to put your finger on in most cases would be what is behind any given gift; you know, the thought – the thought that counts, as the saying goes. That is what the gift points to, but when asked to explain it, we can only point to the gift.

If the gift is the wrong size, or a color that doesn’t suit, it still is there; it still is a gift. If the gift is a duplicate of something you already have, or something you could never possibly use, nonetheless it is a gift. It would be ridiculous to say something is only a gift if it is that near-mythical thing, “just what I always wanted!”

This concrete reality of gift-giving makes Christmas pre-eminent among all the holidays. It is what people get so excited about – especially the little ones – and it is what makes some people panic. One can reject it outright – we call that being a Scrooge – but it cannot be finessed, or ignored. There is very little room to hide.

Perhaps it is this ubiquitous, unavoidable aspect of Christmas that brings about what sniffing pundits call “the Christmas wars.” One side has stormed the bastions for the elimination of Christmas from all public schools and public squares, and the eradication of the word “Christmas” from all greetings in the marketplace and our common vocabulary. Even faithful Christians now wish one another happiness in some generic “holiday.”

The other side countercharges with “Keep Christ in Christmas” stickers on car and home, and erects nativity scenes in their yards, with a Star of Wonder, Star of Night dangling from the dormer. Commentators seem to suggest that there wouldn’t be any “war” over Christmas if these agitators for religion didn’t insist on touting their personal beliefs out loud and in public; if they just kept their faith properly private, then there would be peace on earth.

I try not to get too agitated by any of this. Sure, I won’t say, Happy Holidays, but that’s hardly aggressive – I think. But recently I have seen some photos “from the front,” if you can call it that – pictures of weapons in this “war on Christmas.” And I have noticed that the one side can get awfully negative – putting up billboards that says Christmas is just a myth; erecting signs that say religion is superstition, and it hardens hearts, so one would be a better person without it. How is it that their use of their “equal time” tries to erase Christmas, but fails to offer anything positive? What are they celebrating, what are they offering?

Today we celebrate something, an event Рthe birth of Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem. It happened; it is real, and concrete. You can almost smell the barnyard. Some snipe that it is foolish to think it happened on December 25th, but even the argument emphasizes that it did happen. When we sing songs about it, display little cr̬che models of it, and commemorate it, we do something positive about something positive.

It took years and years, and many people working together, for us to understand the gift God gave us that first Christmas. Jesus Himself explained it, the Apostles experienced it, and the Holy Spirit inspired us – and still it took an awfully long time, with plenty of trial and error. It seems we never have been good at reading directions!

If the gift is the wrong size, or a color that doesn’t suit, it still is there; it still is a gift. We give gifts – concrete, actual gifts -- on Christmas because, first, God gave us a gift, and second, because in so doing, he made it possible for us to offer Him gifts. It would be ridiculous for someone to say Christ’s birth is not a gift because it is not, “just what he always wanted.” One can argue about how suitable a gift is, but you can’t say it does not exist.

Part of the beauty of this gift is that it does not have to be accepted. A true gift freely offered, it points to “the thought” in the heart of the giver, and to the Giver Himself; but it imposes nothing on us to whom He offers it. Nonetheless, in its concrete reality and existence, it stands, not to be ignored and not to be erased, across the ages of time.

We need not engage in any so-called Christmas wars, but we do need to respond to the reality of what God has done in giving us Jesus. He is the Christ, His Son. To recognize and rejoice in the gift is a response and a positive act that can only be made in freedom.

Just as the response cannot be forced, so neither can it negate the offer. The vocal few who struggle to negate the gift can change neither us who receive Him nor Him who gives. They might just as well try to negate the joy we offer when we wish them Merry Christmas! It is just another gift that they may accept or reject in their freedom, but it is real, and we offer it.

This concrete reality of gift-giving makes Christmas pre-eminent among all the holidays. It is what people get so excited about – especially the little ones – and it is what makes some people panic. One can reject it outright – we call that being a Scrooge – but it cannot be finessed, or ignored. The folks who fight it only emphasize it.

The day is here, not waiting for what we say or what we do. Christmas is real of itself, and does not depend upon our permission. Thank God.

Christ is born. We see Him in the manger. The longer we look at Him, the better we come to know Him, the more we see Him reflected in the eyes of our children, the better we understand who He is. Hope. Peace. Repair of every damage we have done, and bearer of every wound we have suffered. Just what we always wanted.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:14) This Holy Christmas, may every gift you offer be received with joy, and may you have to the full the joy of accepting the Father’s gift to you. For Father DeRosa and Father Nick, for all of us here at Saint Bernadette who work to understand and share with you the depth and breadth and beauty of this gift, I offer you and you loved ones our hope and prayer for a joyous, peaceful, and beautiful Christmas.

Monsignor Smith

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