By David Gibson | Catholic News Service
The Christmas story is vibrant and fast-moving, replete with vivid images of angels celebrating an infant's birth and shepherds going "in haste" to find this newborn child, astonished to discover him "lying in the manger" (Lk 2:16).
Christians happily listen to this story every year. Can you imagine Christmas without it?
Some may think it resembles children's stories in certain ways, and sure, it is a marvelous story for children. But there are compelling reasons for adults to hear it again and again too.
Without the story of the birth in Bethlehem of an infant named Jesus -- without his birth as a real child needing a place to sleep peacefully, as all babies do -- Christianity would be a very different kind of faith.
The familiar scene of Jesus lying in a manger, tended by Mary and Joseph, points beyond itself to remind believers that this child is the Word of God, who "became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (Jn 1:14).
Yes, he is "the Word of God."
Yes, he is the Word "made flesh."
So the story of Christmas proclaims the incarnation of God's Son. It reveals, as the Second Vatican Council said, that the Son of God "born of the Virgin Mary" truly has been "made one of us, like us in all things except sin" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, No. 22).
"The incarnation of the Word in a human family, in Nazareth, by its very newness changed the history of the world," Pope Francis wrote in "The Joy of Love" ("Amoris Laetitia"), his 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family.
"We need to enter into the mystery of Jesus' birth," said the pope. We need, as well, "to contemplate the joy of the shepherds before the manger, the adoration of the Magi and the (Holy Family's) flight into Egypt, in which Jesus shares his people's experience of exile, persecution and humiliation."
It also would be good, Pope Francis continued, "to peer into those 30 long years when Jesus earned his keep by the work of his hands, reciting the traditional prayers and expressions of his people's faith and coming to know that ancestral faith until he made it bear fruit in the mystery of the kingdom."
All of this, said the pope, "is the mystery of Christmas."
Notably, it exudes "the beauty of family life," filling families today with hope.
In fact, a point Pope Francis wanted to emphasize was that "Jesus' own family, so full of grace and wisdom, did not appear unusual or different from others. That is why people found it hard to acknowledge Jesus' wisdom."
Living at St. Joseph's side, Jesus apparently acquired valuable carpentry skills. "During his days in the trade," Jesus the carpenter "doubtless would have been at home in any local 'men's shed,'" Australia's Catholic bishops said in a fall 2016 statement.
The message of the incarnation was not always welcomed by all who considered themselves followers of Jesus. Some were convinced over the course of Christianity's first few centuries that human flesh was unsuitable for God -- that it would debase divinity for God's Word to be made flesh.
Some doubted, therefore, that the Lord could be divine or one in being with God the Father. Early Christians debated such issues, and some battled over Christ's identity.
There were those who found the Incarnation a bitter pill to swallow. They wondered how the divine Word of God could enter this world as fully as the birth of Jesus informs us he did.
For Christianity's early centuries witnessed many who, viewing our physical, earthly world as a place deserving to be fled, did not believe that there is goodness in the world or in the human body -- a goodness that Jesus' birth as a child affirmed.
"The Son of God coming in our flesh and sharing the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures of our life … testifies to the astonishing love of God for all people and to the inestimable worth that he sees in them," Pope Francis wrote in a 2013 letter to an Italian journalist named Eugenio Scalfari.
The utterly charming story of Christmas is treasured by Christians for much more than its charm. It stirs thoughts of the incarnation of the Son of God and stimulates a conversation about incarnate faith -- the faith of believers today who find goodness in the world and in all human life, and set out to bring all that goodness into the light.
So, while the Christmas story is about Jesus, it really is about us too.
As Pope Francis wrote to Scalfari, "Christian faith hinges on the incarnation." Because of the incarnation, moreover, "each one of us is called to make Christ's gaze and love his own."
Christian faith does not profess an "insurmountable separation between Jesus and everyone else," said the pope. Instead, "in him we are all called to be children in the one Father," and thus "brothers and sisters to one another."
Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.
Create your own Christmas family traditions
By Kelly Bothum |Catholic News Service
Sometimes I get stuck on how I think Christmas morning should be -- namely, me well-rested and with a cup of coffee warming my hands as my children cheerfully take turns unwrapping beautifully wrapped presents from under the tree.
In reality, I'm lucky if I can hurdle the wrapping paper and cardboard in my path to consume enough caffeine to make up for the hours spent searching for hidden presents and wrapping gifts without enough tape.
But there's one Christmas moment that always feels good, no matter how bleary-eyed my husband and I are. It's when my kids turn out the lights in the kitchen and sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus in front of a highly flammable chocolate cake.
This is how I know my kids get the reason for the season. They bake the cake on their own and decorate it after Christmas Eve Mass. Even though there's an avalanche of presents coming their way in the morning, they know the real gift is the birth of our Savior.
That's a pretty good reason to eat cake.
Our Jesus cake is one of my favorite Christmas traditions, up there with using my grandmother's china at dinner. For me, it's a moment that's authentically us. It connects us with Jesus by making him totally relatable to a crazy family of five. A baby. A birthday. A party with the people who matter most.
That's why Christmas traditions hold such power. They remind us of God's loving hand in our lives. They strengthen our spiritual ties to faith and each other. They make us feel secure. We need that kind of power more than ever to face the challenges of a secular world.
Here are some ways to create your own Christmas traditions:
-- Make Christmas Eve special.
No matter how much you gussy up your home for Christmas, consider leaving something undone. Wait to put the star on top of the tree. Hang your wreath on the front door on Christmas Eve. If you set out a creche, add baby Jesus just before bed.
Too often, we get caught up in the idea of a perfect holiday. There's a risk of forgetting what we're really getting ready for. The truth is, our Christmas is always perfect because of Jesus -- not the bow or the tree or the presents.
-- Count your blessings -- literally.
Take a twist on the traditional Advent calendar by instead counting up to Christmas. Finding something to be grateful for each day. At our house, we've literally written our blessings on scraps of paper and taped them to our dining room wall.
Two years later, they're still there because I can't bring myself to remove such visible reminders of how much goodness is in our world.
-- Give your children a voice.
It's a little dangerous to keep a hungry family from a homemade Christmas feast. But hearing your children offer their own prayer before a meal is usually worth a few rumbling stomachs. At Christmas, they get the chance after we say our traditional grace.
In the beginning, it was a struggle to hear them ramble while steaming food tempted us from our plates. As they get older, I realize the beauty of hearing what matters to them. Maybe they are thanking God for their Mom-Mom's mashed potatoes or their favorite Ninja Turtle. What I hear is: "Thank you, God, for surrounding me with love."
-- Keep cards in Christmas.
Even in the age of instant connection, there's something special about a Christmas card. It means someone took the time to let you know they are thinking of you. Honor that thought by reading one card aloud each night during the Christmas season. Let your kids take turns picking the cards and share a special memory about the person who sent them.
We hang our Christmas cards by our front door so they are the first thing we see when we come in and the last thing we see when we go out. On those days when life seems extra frazzled, those family pictures and holiday wishes are like a paper hug.
It's those kind of traditions that make the holidays special. They remind us we are part of something larger than ourselves. And isn't that what the family of God is all about?
Bothum is a freelance writer and a mother of three.
A light shines in the darkness
By Effie Caldarola | Catholic News Service
The first reading for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (Is 9:1-6) is one of the prophet Isaiah's most beautiful and consoling.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone."
The juxtaposition of darkness and light is a common literary and biblical theme. In the very beginning of Genesis, God sees that there is "darkness over the abyss," and by the third verse he proclaims, "Let there be light."
"God is light," 1 John 1:5 tells us, "and in him there is no darkness at all."
In a purely physical sense, darkness is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, in the still of night when we most need rest, we embrace the darkness. Scientists tell us that our world suffers now from "light pollution." Very few places on earth are totally free from the glow of artificial light in the nighttime.
But we welcome darkness only because we trust that light is coming. We are confident of the dawn; eager, if we rest well, for the sunrise. In Genesis, God separates the night from the day, as if to give meaning to each by its co-dependence on the other.
In Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "All the Light We Cannot See," the author imagines the life of a blind French girl during World War II. Her inability to see light physically does nothing to diminish the enlightenment of her soul.
But the darkness of which Isaiah speaks is an entirely different kind of blackness than the restfulness of night or a physical inability to see. Isaiah's darkness calls to mind the darkness that can envelop one in the depths of depression -- "the land of gloom," Isaiah terms it.
It is a darkness that has swallowed hope, a darkness where one has forgotten the sun's promise to rise. Walking in darkness is a terrifying metaphor. Imagine traveling over unknown terrain in total blackness, unsure of where your foot might land next.
There are moments in every human life when we are enshrouded by this kind of darkness. Perhaps that's why Isaiah's Christmas reading is so powerfully inspiring and so conducive to quiet prayer.
As Isaiah tells us of the great light that shines in this terrifying, gloomy darkness, he becomes almost ebullient with excitement and hope. Note his descriptions of our coming salvation: "Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace."
His words take on the cadence of finest poetry as he offers us abundant hope: "Every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for fire."
These are words of enormous promise. These are the words we breathe in, we shout, we proclaim as we experience the great light of Christ.
"For a child is born to us," Isaiah exults, "a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests."
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
With presents to wrap, cookies to bake, cards to write and trees to decorate, it's easy to get caught up in the busyness that the Christmas season brings. But the true spirit of the holiday isn't about conquering our to-do lists; it's about giving and receiving.
We've received the greatest gift from God -- our salvation -- in the form of the Christ Child laid in the manger. And so, in gratitude we give back to those we love. But what about giving to those unknown to us?
"Let us remember the poor," Pope Francis said in December 2013 to an audience in St. Peter's Square, "by leaving a place at the dinner table on Christmas Eve."
"The hungry, people who are alone, the homeless, the marginalized, the war weary and especially children" should be remembered yearlong, he said, but especially at Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, who himself was born "homeless" in a stable, to travel-worn and weary parents, who were quite alone.
Besides leaving a place for the poor at the dinner table, families also can start with their parish's "Giving Tree," decorated with ornaments labeled with specific gifts parishioners can buy for those in need. During Christmas vacation, families might select a particular day to volunteer at a local soup kitchen or food bank. Parents can encourage their children to research different charities or nonprofit organizations that the family can donate to in the upcoming year.
Whatever the method, remembering the poor, Pope Francis said, means remembering "Jesus, the Son of God" who is "present in all of them." When we give to those in need, we receive Christ more deeply in our hearts.[[In-content Ad]]