It’s helpful to have an older brother who’s taller than you. At the age of four Timmy is a year older and can reach things I can’t. One morning, he climbs up on a chair he’s put in the closet we’re not supposed to open, and sees toys on the shelf, new toys, still in their packages. Fun! He yanks down a set of blocks and a bunch of other stuff. Soon I’m busy playing with a new set of beautiful, blond, wooden blocks, putting them one on top of another, and then immediately knocking them down. Fun! All of a sudden, our Mom, seeing that we’ve discovered the Christmas stash early, pulls us into the kitchen. “Time for breakfast, boys. I’m making chocolate chip pancakes.” I love chocolate chip pancakes. Forget the blocks.
A few days later, it’s Christmas morning. I rip the bright, colored paper off a new set of beautiful, blond, wooden blocks. Fun! I start stacking them and knocking them down. Fun! My mother looks to see if I recognize the blocks. I’m clueless. The blocks also come in pretty handy as objects to throw at my brother. Fun! Mom stops that action. Not fun! Pretty soon, I’m sleepy. Time for a nap. As I drift off, I hear my brother asking, “Hey, aren’t these the toys we were playing with before?” “I don’t think so, Timmy,” answers Mom. “Santa brought these in his sleigh last night.” “Wow,” my brother replies.
When we are young, all is accepted as gift. We rarely question why and how all the good things of life appear. We believe whatever we are told. Santa comes down the chimney. Reindeer fly. At the North Pole, elves make the toys. The magic of Christmas is carried in the glow of the Christmas tree lights and the strong scent of pine in the living room. Brightly wrapped packages appear during the night. It’s all so miraculous when seen through the eyes of a little child.
As we mature, we come to realize that God gives even greater gifts at Christmas. We discern and celebrate the reality and meaning of Christ’s birth. His present to us is presence. In a stable is born a baby, the savior of the world. God lies in a manger, is warmed by the breath of oxen and ass, and makes his home among us. This Christmas, once again, the miracle occurs. We are reminded that the life of grace–the reality that God is present in the depths of our hearts and all that we love–is the center of our lives. God becomes one of us, and we are God’s family. God makes his home among us.
Christ’s birth reveals God’s love for us and promises that we will “come to share in the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). In the third century, St. Athanasius proclaimed, “The Son of God became man, so that we might become God.” We become human-unto-God, as was Jesus, and participate in the mystery of creation’s transformation, “so that God may be all in all” (I Cor 15:28).
This Christmas, be present to the reality and meanings of God’s gifts to us. Eat hearty. Party wisely and well. Don’t work too hard. Read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas, a short, remarkable novel of faith and reconciliation. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Laugh and cry watching While You Were Sleeping, the story of an achingly lonely young woman without family, who falls in love with a goofy Irish clan in the week between Christmas and New Years. Listen to “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon, an amazing ballad that poetically retells the historically true event when, for a few fleeting hours, peace broke out in the frozen trenches of France, Christmas Eve 1914. The singing of Christmas carols on both sides of the lines gave the men the inspiration and courage to lay down their guns.
Take a child to see Santa. Give generously to the poor. Sing Christmas Carols and drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. Sled. Sit late in the quiet glow of the tree’s lights and let God be with you.
Most of all, pray. Walk outside at 2:00 AM on a freezing cold, stunningly starlit night, and experience the awesomeness of the universe. Go to Midnight Mass. Read the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. Engage the beautiful rhythms of the Liturgy of the Hours. Sit in still silence, breath and realize life is a miracle and mystery.
Know that Christmas is the time of year when we remember and ponder the birth of our God who loves us so much that he becomes one of us. Vulnerable and wrapped in swaddling clothes, appears the one who saves the world. Realize that Jesus is real and wants to be reborn again in our hearts. The Lord has a mission for us. Worship him these days and listen to that inner voice of your imagination where God communicates. The presence of God confirms for us that St. Ignatius was right: All is gift. Jesus again gifts us with his presence this Christmas. O come, let us adore.