"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Waiting for the Real (Presents) Presence

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” For many of us, those familiar words conjure up nostalgic memories of Christmases long past: images of blazing fireplaces, the aroma of roasting turkey, joy, laughter, and lots of hot chocolate. But this year our weather has been unseasonably warm, and Jack Frost hasn’t exactly been nipping at our noses. It’s true that there’s no shortage of things to buy, trees waiting to be decorated, and even Christmas carols floating in the air. But despite all that, some might lament that it just doesn’t feel like Christmas.

I get that. There are many reasons our emotions can register low on the ‘festive feeling’ gauge, and weather is just one of them. After all, we’ve come to associate Christmas with happy feelings, with snowflakes and snowmen, Santa and his reindeer, gaily wrapped packages under beautifully decorated Christmas trees, with tinkling bells and sparkling lights. When these things are absent, we can find it hard to get into the ‘mood’ for Christmas. We feel like something is missing, and that should come as no surprise. For, as the Grinch discovered as he sat at the top of Mount Crumpet, Christmas isn’t about all those external trappings; it does mean just a bit more than all those packages, boxes, and bags.

The Truth About Christmas

It’s easy to be drawn in by sparkly, sugar-sweet Hollywood images of Christmas, but deep down we know that that’s not what it’s all about. The magic of Christmas is not found in feel-good movies or tales of Santa and his elves; it’s found in the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Equally important, the joy we experience on this wondrous occasion has nothing to do with fleeting emotions or make-believe fantasies.

The joy of Christmas goes deeper than any picture-perfect, winter wonderland; it’s more than good health and fortune, or feelings of family solidarity and support. It transcends experiences of illness, financial difficulties, and the feelings of loneliness and isolation that so many experience at this time of year. Christmas is no coward; it doesn’t shrink from the reality of daily life. No matter what the circumstances – in fact, precisely because of all these circumstances – Jesus still comes. He isn’t just about good times; He’s about all the times.

View of Bethlehem from the tower of the Church of the Nativity (1862)

Contemplating the First Christmas

Consider for a moment the reality of that first Christmas. Despite Jesus’ Divine nature, He was born at a time and place that few would regard as enviable. The difficulties surrounding His Birth began from the moment of His conception. Mary became pregnant while she was betrothed to Joseph, but well before their marriage had taken place. According to prevailing Jewish law, the penalty for a woman found guilty of fornication was to be dragged outside the gates of the city so she could be stoned to death. Mary must have felt so terribly vulnerable as she contemplated how Joseph would receive her news.

For his part, Joseph must have been deeply humiliated and bitterly hurt when Mary told him she was pregnant. He must have felt so betrayed! But Joseph had too much compassion to abandon her to such a cruel and violent death. Instead, he decided to send her away quietly so no one would guess what had taken place. Had God not sent an angel to appear to him in a dream, Joseph might never have come to believe that the Baby in Mary’s womb was the promised Messiah, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even so, it must have required tremendous faith, trust, and courage for Joseph to set aside his own hopes and dreams to embrace the path that God had prepared for the Holy Family (Mt 1:18-25). And that was just the beginning.

James Tissot (1836-1902) – Saint Joseph Seeks a Lodging in Bethlehem

The times in which they lived were difficult. The Jewish people had been conquered by the Roman Empire in 63 BC, and as such, they were subject to Roman law. When Mary was nearing the end of her pregnancy, she and Joseph were forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in the census decreed by Caesar Augustus. It was an arduous, 148-kilometre journey that would have taken them at least five days. Tradition tells us that Mary road a donkey while Joseph walked by her side. It was a trek that would have been enormously difficult – and extremely dangerous – for someone so advanced in her pregnancy.

Because the Holy Couple were poor, they had few resources. When they arrived in Bethlehem, it was so crowded with visitors there for the census that they couldn’t find a place to stay. Worn out and weary, they must have been so grateful when an innkeeper took pity on them and allowed them to take shelter in the inn’s stable – a cave – with the animals. Snow is rare in Bethlehem, but it is not uncommon for there to be frost at night; we can only hope that the warmth of the animals helped protect them from the cold.

Where were Mary’s hopes and dreams in all of this? Did she imagine when she conceived that her Son, Jesus, would be born in the comfort of their home in Nazareth, with her mother, St. Anne, close by? Did that bone-jarring, uncomfortable journey contribute to the onset of her labour? Whatever Mary might have envisioned for the birth of her Son, God’s plan was radically different. There was no familiar midwife or family member there to comfort and support her as she gave birth to Jesus in that cold, dank cave. Yet after Jesus’ first cries pierced the night, it was only natural that she would have longed to share her joy with the family and friends she loved. What was she thinking as she gazed down at the face of her newborn Child? Did she and Joseph feel a bit alone and isolated that first night? Did they experience those feelings of awe – coupled with a sense of inadequacy – that is so common to all new parents? Perhaps. Yet God arranged things in such a way that there was nothing to distract them from the glory of the coming of Our Lord. Jesus was the only Gift they needed that Christmas; He, alone, is the reason for our hope and joy.

Presents – or Presence?

Jesus could have chosen to come to us as a King, replete with all the trappings due to His Divine status. Instead, He came “without packages, boxes, or bags” so He could be One with us. He came because He loves us and wants to be with us. And He came not just that one day – that first Christmas – but every day, for every person.

Jesus wants to be there in our times of joy as well as our times of sorrow. He wants to share in our successes as well as our disappointments. He came to do the Will of His Father: to bring hope to the downtrodden, healing to the broken-hearted, forgiveness and mercy to the contrite, and Salvation to us all. He invites us to turn to Him so that He can instill within us that peace and joy that is lasting – that peace and joy that cannot be bought at any price.

As we consider the true meaning of the celebration of Jesus’ Birth, we realize that despite the lack of snow, it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. We see it as we light the Advent candles that symbolize the promise of the Light that will come to illuminate the darkness; we recognize it in the call to repent of our sins so we’ll be ready to receive Jesus when He comes; we experience it in this time of waiting that is not a call to ‘busy-ness’, but an invitation to enter with Him into the stillness of that lowly stable. As we reflect on the Scripture passages symbolized in the ornaments hanging from Jesse Trees, we may be surprised to discover that – like the Grinch – our hearts have miraculously grown three sizes. We are transformed as we become more open and receptive to the graces God desires to shower upon us, especially the Gift of Himself.

Free to Choose, Free to Love

But just because Jesus came does not mean we must choose to receive Him. Jesus doesn’t impose His gifts on us; He gives us the freedom to celebrate whichever Christmas we choose to embrace. We can see in ‘X-mas’ only the trappings of a secular season represented by an abundance of presents under the tree – gifts we hope will satisfy our longing for fulfillment and happiness. Or we can open our hearts to the Real Presence of the One who alone can bring us authentic joy and peace. It makes Jesus sad when we reject Him, but He loves us so much that He wouldn’t have it any other way. For where there is no freedom there can be no love, and it’s our hearts He hopes we’ll give Him in return.

This Christmas, we pray that you will choose to make the focus of your celebration the only Gift that is eternal: The Presence of Jesus in your heart. From all of us at Swords of Truth to all of you and yours, we pray that the joy and peace of the Christ Child will fill your hearts and homes with love and laughter during this holy and blessed season. May you all have a very blessed and grace-filled Christmas!!!

Sharon van der Sloot

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