Greetings to all faithful readers and commenters of our wonderful local paper, The Citizen! I’d like to part from politics for a bit and see if I can be a little less like the Grinch and more like Cindy-Lou Who.
Why does Christmas have such an impact on our culture? Some may chalk it up to being a mere cultural tradition that had a religious origin but has since transcended religion to become a general celebration of winter, family, gifts, and Santa Claus. I know for me growing up, that’s mainly what it was.
But as an adult convert to Christianity and then Catholicism, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to delve into those origins and discover the true meaning, and appeal, of the Christmas season.
It starts with the simple question: what is the meaning of life? I would say the meaning or purpose of life is to achieve happiness, somewhat along the lines of what our Founding Fathers were getting at when they talked of enshrining the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.
How can we be happy, then? Though many have tried and many more will try again, we cannot, alas, be happy through materialism. Acquiring things may provide a brief burst of joy, but as any truly rich person will tell you, and as portrayed often in entertainment, wealth is ultimately a hollow pursuit. It is at best a means to an end, but never an end itself.
Lately, social media likes and popularity has presented itself as another form of happiness, but it too has turned out not only to be an empty promise, but a dangerous one as well, especially for young people and young women in particular. No, sir. Social media may have its limited place, but it is not a source of true happiness.
True satisfaction and fulfillment comes in doing good for others, and abandoning the desire to do good for oneself. Ancient religions often agree on this concept of “dying to self,” but one is not meant to simply resist personal longings, but to care deeply for others by actually DOING things that help others, whether they be your immediate family, your neighbor, or your worst enemy (that last one is especially prominent in Christianity).
And one of the best ways to help others is to try and do good for God himself, for he is the ultimate source of all good and love. When you follow his will and attempt to offer good things to him, because of who he is, you naturally end up doing good for others, for God delights when we help each other.
Pretty simple, right? But there is a catch. We are often very unable to do good for others because our capacity and will to do so are harmed when we sin. Another way to put it is this: when we sin, we actually think we are doing a good for ourselves, but it is a false good and results in harm to our spirits and sometimes to the soul and bodies of others (esp. in the case of serious sins, i.e., gossip, theft, murder).
So, how do we free ourselves from the lure and distraction of sin? The best way is to replace that false-good for self with true good for others, but to do that, we need to be freed from the burden and consequences of sin. And this is where that child in a manger 2000 years ago comes into the picture.
Jesus is God-made-man. He became man…well, first he became a baby so that he could perform the most radical act of self-giving and “good” for the sake of humanity. He was born so that he could die for our sins.
Only his perfect offering, only the death of God-made-man could pay the debt incurred by our sins. If we are meek and humble and accept this greatest of all gifts, we can not only obtain forgiveness and release from our sins, but we can have access to the grace of God to know and do good. This wonderful conveyance of the power of God to humanity is one of the chief benefits of Jesus uniting God and man in himself.
Whereas before the two were separated by a spiritual chasm that was only partially filled by the Law of the Old Testament, now we have a person who fills the gap with himself and his perfect act of self-sacrifice.
This is why we celebrate Christmas. It is the time when the appearance of God as a child is made truly manifest. Some scholars wonder if Mary knew who Jesus was when he was born, but the scriptures are crystal clear about this. She knew from the moment of his virginal conception that this child of hers was the Son of God. She knew it when the angels and shepherds came to wonder in awe at the newborn babe. And she knew it when the wisemen came and worshiped him, and gave Mary and Joseph the treasure they needed to escape Bethlehem for Egypt.
King Herod, personifying the materialist, greedy side of humanity, was threatened by this child and wanted him dead. He was proud and arrogant in the presence of divine intervention and was thus the opposite of the humble and meek shepherds, the glorious angels, and the three wise men from the East.
If we could all accept this great gift and let the love and forgiveness of Jesus come into our hearts, heal our self-inflicted wounds, and guide us in our thoughts and ways, we would have little need for all of our political wranglings and fights. The world would be a much more peaceful, joyful place.
But this kind of joy does not come from government policy or a charismatic political figure. It can only come from within your heart when it is filled with the love of God.
This is something I strive for, but often fail at. So forgive me if my words hurt or wound in some way. And please join me in meditating on that babe in the feeding trough of some livestock in a backward hinterland of the Roman Empire. He is here to bring us peace and joy, like every baby does when he/she is born. It is truly a wonderful sight to behold.
May God bless you all.
Peachtree City, Ga.