The above oft-quoted text from Luke’s Gospel sums up the Spirit of Christmas. Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, many readers will be attending church services today. For some denominations attending church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is an annual ritual. For Catholics, Christmas is known as a “holy day of obligation,” which means the Church requires Catholics to attend Mass every December 25 as is required for all Sundays. Many Catholics and other churches also held midnightservices last night.
For Christians, Christmas is a holiday usually associated with “good cheer.” This is a day when many people let down their guard so to speak, and feel a sense of warmth toward others – even strangers.
Although Christmas has its roots in pagan rituals, the fact it is recognized as the birthday of Jesus makes it special for many. But, beyond the gifts given and received, Christmas has much more spiritual depth to it if you look for it.
As he often does, Pope Francis used some harsh comments to challenge people to look for the deeper meaning of Christmas.
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“Christmas is approaching: There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war,” the pope said in a recent homily.
“It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war. ... there is no justification.”
It’s as if Francis is saying war is the opposite of the Christmas message, which is a message of love.
“The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path. There are wars today everywhere, and hate,” Francis said. “We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it.
“God weeps; Jesus weeps.”
Garner scripture scholar, Dennis Keller, 76, who along with his wife, Carol, author a weekly lectionary reflection on the Sunday Mass scripture readings, says our spiritual understanding of Christmas should become more sophisticated as we grow older.
Most often, Keller said, Christmas awareness begins in childhood with Santa Claus and the desire to receive gifts. Later in life, the desire to give should overtake the desire to receive, and finally, at its most selfless, Christmas should become a time “when we see and celebrate Christmas as an extension of our love for God.”
Keller, who holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s in theology, says “giving things is less important than being with and giving of yourself (to others).”
Keller said, “Christmas becomes the presence of God with us, which the Gospel of Matthew calls Emmanuel or God is with us. If you take a look at Christmas, people say: ‘Keep Christ in Christmas.’ No, no, no, no, no. Put Christ in Christmas; how do we encounter and experience Christ now so Christmas becomes a time for us to bring Christ into the world.”
Keller, a former Catholic priest, is a strong admirer of Pope Francis, so it is no surprise they share similar views regarding the true meaning of Christmas.
Francis argues the Christmas story “asks us to risk a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others.”
Keller calls his Christmas vision “the liturgy of Christian service ... when we become Christ to someone else.” In that moment, Keller says grace flows freely from God to us, and to each other.
“When you help somebody. When you smile at somebody and say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to them with more than just a passing bravado, and you’re actually saying it from your heart, something actually happens to you, the sayer, the speaker,” Keller said.
I think it is helpful to ponder the words of St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote: Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”