The celebration of the Holy Mass on Christmas usually begins with the incensing of the Christmas crèche – the sacred image of the birth of Christ. The incensing of the baby Jesus and the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds and animals serves to remind us of the sacredness of what the nativity scene represents, the greatest Christmas gift ever given – God’s gift of himself to the whole world, the birth of Emmanuel – God with us!
A number of years ago, I had the great privilege of being able to spend two weeks in the Holy Land. Although not on Christmas day itself, our group was able to visit Bethlehem and the very spot where the baby Jesus was born and where God himself was first gazed upon by human eyes.
I vividly remember kneeling there with such amazement, with such a clear awareness that each Christmas after that, as I would knee before and incense a parish nativity scene, I would be brought back to that very spot where this actually happened, knowing that this is not a fairy tale story, that it is not some myth made up to quench our thirst for meaning, but that this actually happened and this was the spot where it happened.
Not being able to be in Bethlehem that Holy Night, our group spent the night in Galilee where Christ so often taught his many disciples. We spent the night in a cave that archeologists say has been there since the time of Christ. We spent the night surrounded by the light of only a few small candles, singing carols, reading the passages in sacred scripture that recalled the Lord’s coming.
On that night, thinking of the great mystery of the Lord’s incarnation and of his dwelling among us, the reality was, that gathered in the Jewish town – Advent came to an end. I mean to say here that not only the advent season that we celebrate each year, but the true advent, the waiting and expectation of the Jewish people for God to send a redeemer, to send the one promised by Moses and the prophets, the descendant of King David.
The Jewish people were waiting with eager expectation for this single event. For the day when God would fulfill his plan by sending the Messiah that he promised generations earlier.
It is sort of weird thinking that Christmas makes me think of something Jewish, but it does, and quite frankly for a very good reason. The four week period of preparation for Christmas that we Catholics call Advent is meant to remind us of Israel’s long wait for a Savior, it is meant to provide us an opportunity to relive Israel’s journey of faith in which generations awaited the coming of the promised savior, the Christ, the one who would be sent by God to save them from their sins.
The great gift of Christmas is the profound reality that God has come to dwell among us, that he has robed himself not with royal garments, but with our humanity. He came to be one of us. But that great gift, the gift of God himself, was not recognized and in many cases is still not recognized even today. Perhaps a question for us to ask ourselves is this, “do we really understand Christmas? Do we really understand what it means that God himself came into the world as one like us?
Many of us have never or may never experience a radical form of poverty, but I think what the true message of Christmas reveals to us is our spiritual poverty, our total dependence upon Almighty God. He responds to that total dependence by lavishing upon us the greatest spiritual gift – He sends His only Son to redeem and sanctify us, to show us the way of truth and life, He gives us the gift of Himself to fulfill that total and utter dependence upon Him.
A question that we are faced with this Christmas then is this: Are we able to appreciate what it is that we have been given? Are we able to understand what the gift of Christmas truly is? It is more than the baby Jesus in the manger, it is more than that sacred image of what we gaze upon in the nativity scene – it is the greatest gift ever given!
The figure of the innocent and humble Christ child symbolizes that God does not send his son to judge, but to offer his forgiveness and love, and to invite us to participate in a relationship with him, to have him be a part of our lives, not only on Christmas and Easter, but every day and for all of eternity.
What is it about this child that is so tremendous and spectacular? Not even his mother, blessed of all mothers as she was, could entirely comprehend what our heavenly Father was going to do in the life of this child. Within just a few decades, this child, now wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, surrounded by shepherds, worshiped by angels and adored by kings will stand at the center of the conflict between good and evil. He will bear all the sins of the world upon his shoulders as he carries the cross to the place where he will be crucified to show us the depths of his love. It is for this reason that he came into the world.