By Diane Rufino, December 24, 2016
In the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court was asked to consider if the First Amendment prohibited the municipality of Pawtucket, Rhode Island from including a Nativity scene, in its annual Christmas display. The display included a plastic reindeer, a Santa Clause, and a Christmas tree. The Court concluded that the Nativity scene could remain, explaining: “We are satisfied that the city has a secular purpose for including the creche, that the city has not impermissibly advanced religion.” According to the court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, erecting a nativity scene in the public square doesn’t encourage any religious belief and therefore doesn’t erode the Wall of Separation that the government must respect. Noting that the display was erected at a location and at a time corresponding to the start of the holiday “commercial” season, the Court reasoned that the two centuries of use has changed the meaning of the Nativity scene from a religious symbol to a commercial item. “The crèche (Nativity scene) has a legitimate secular purpose within a larger holiday display to celebrate the season and the origins of Christmas which has long been a part of Western culture.” And writing for the dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote: “The crèche has been relegated to the role of a neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes but devoid of any inherent meaning and incapable of enhancing the religious tenor of a display of which it is an integral part.”
The Nativity scene, the symbol of Christmas, has become more of a commercial symbol than a religious system. That was the conclusion of the highest court of the land – back in 1984. It got me thinking of the holiday in general and what it really means. Have we succeeded in divorcing its true meaning? Has the Christmas tree taken the place of the alter? Can it be said that what man has to sell has become more important than what God has given? When the holiday is over, do we act like the merchant who rids his store of Christmas in a day. Or do we keep Christmas in our hearts?
When I was young, my Mom and I spent a lot of time in church. We attended regular weekly and Sunday services at the Methodist Church across the street (Carlton Hill Methodist Church) and additional services at the Catholic Church (St. Joseph’s Church) at the other end of town. There was always a Christmas Eve mass at Carlton Hill and a midnight mass at St. Joe’s. We went to sleep on Christmas Eve reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas and awakening the next morning to celebrate the holiday with our families.
When I finished college and went out on my own, Christmas became the time of year when I could look forward to traveling back home and seeing my family. Christmas mass continued to be a treasured family tradition. Then I started a family of my own. For years, it was work, then law school, being pregnant, having four children and suffering a few miscarriages. Life couldn’t be anymore hectic. Christmas became less of a holiday for me and more of a holiday for my young children. I wanted the holiday to be magical for them, and looking back, unfortunately, that meant “commercial.” I decorated the house with colorful lights and shiny objects and piled presents under the tree to delight them on Christmas Day. I cared more that they got everything their hearts could desire than whether or not they understood the meaning of Christmas. Because of all the last-minute shopping to be done, I rarely made Christmas Eve mass, and because of all the cooking I had to do for Christmas Day dinner, there were no more of the midnight masses that I once loved so much.
I guess what I am saying is that over the years, the Christmas season has become less of a time of rejoicing and more of a test of endurance. And I’m quite sure the fault is mine.
For most people, especially the younger generation, Christmas is the time of year to get new toys, fancy gadgets, the latest in technology, jewelry and new clothes, and in some cases, extra cash. It’s not about a child born to a virgin, spending its first hours of life in a manger and in the humblest of settings… a child born to save us from our sinful nature so that we stand a chance at eternity with our Heavenly Father. It’s a week off from school, time off from work, a convenient time for a winter break, a chance to get away for a vacation, an opportunity to get things, a perfect time to get engaged to a sweetheart, a time to spend lots of money on gifts for family and friends, a time to visit family that you only see once a year. It can be fun. It can be stressful. But I’m sure most people would not describe the Christmas holiday as “religious” and “reflective.”
This year, as I ponder what it is I hope to enjoy during the Christmas holiday, I know I want to start believing in the true magic of Christmas again. As my parents and other family members wish to retreat from the hectic family gatherings and the lavish dinners and parties, I understand that the holiday has perhaps become too overwhelming in many ways. When I was a college student and when I was single, living on my own, I didn’t look forward to traveling back home to see my Mom and Dad because I was excited to see what Christmas gifts they got me. I could have cared less if there was a single gift for me under the tree. I just wanted to spend time with them and be together as a family at that special time of year. I just wanted to have dinner together, be reminded of what it was like to live in the same house again, and wake up, have breakfast together and start the days together. And yes, I looked forward to going to Christmas mass together. I loved to hear the Christmas story. And I couldn’t wait to sing Christmas carols.
Christmas should be about giving and not getting. When we ask our children and even our spouses ‘What do you want for Christmas?’, we are asking a question that breeds selfishness. What we should be asking (in order to breed selflessness) is this: “What are you going to give?” After all, isn’t Christmas the celebration of God’s great gift-giving? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” (John 3:16)
Christmas should be a simple holiday. It shouldn’t be the commercial nightmare it has become. How many times have we racked our brains trying to figure out what to get someone? How many times have we traveled from store to store simply because we want to find something the recipient doesn’t already have? How many times do we concede that the gift isn’t really all that good and they probably won’t care for it, but hey, at least we got them something? How many times have we just given up and put cash in a card? And how many times do we end up going over budget and then fight with our spouses or stress out because too much money was put on credit cards?
Christmas is not so much about enjoying time off from school and work as it is spending time with family. Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as it is opening our hearts. It’s not as much about giving gifts as it is giving of ourselves.
In 1949, President Harry Truman gave these remarks during the tree-lighting ceremony at the White House: “We miss the purport of Christ’s birth if we do not accept it as a living link which joins us together in spirit as children of the ever-living and true God. In love alone – the love of God and the love of man – will be found the solution of all the ills which afflict the world today. Slowly, sometimes painfully, but always with increasing purpose, emerges the great message of Christianity — love of our fellowmen. In such a dedication, we shall find the message of the Child of Bethlehem, the real meaning of Christmas.”
Just as when we partake of the Eucharist, we acknowledge the sacrifice and the promise of Jesus’ crucifixion, Christmas should be a time for us to rededicate ourselves to the principles he taught.
Because He came to earth, we have a perfect example to follow. As we strive to become more like Him, we will have joy and happiness in our lives and peace each day of the year. It is His example which, if followed, stirs within us more kindness and love, more respect and concern for others.
Because He came, there is meaning to our mortal existence.
Because He came, we know how to reach out to those in trouble or distress, wherever they may be.
Because He came, death has lost its sting, the grave its victory. We will live again because He came.
Because He came and paid for our sins, we have the opportunity to gain eternal life.
Because He came, we are gathered tonight to worship Him, in bonds of brotherhood and love.
We miss the spirit of Christmas if we consider the birth of baby Jesus as a age-old, far-off event unrelated to our spiritual health and also to the problems we suffer in our communities, in our country, and in the world in general. We miss the spirit of Christmas if we do not spend time loving our family and receiving their love so that we know how to love others.
Even if a person lacks faith, the Christmas birth can still hold a special message of love and goodness. While believers ultimately celebrate that Jesus came into the world, in fulfillment of scripture, to save us of our sin, the simple truth is that we honor the birth of Jesus because of what he would become and what he would sacrifice on our behalf. His lowly birth should remind us of the potential in each newborn baby. We can’t know of each child’s potential, but as the birth of Jesus reminds us, the potential is there. We also can’t know to what degree a child’s love will affect us, but again, we know that the love between parents and children is amongst the strongest and unconditioned. We need to love and nurture our children. All children are special; they are gifts from God. The love we give is returned to us many-fold. Nothing in life is more important than investing in our children, showing them love, and giving them a sense of worth.
I hope this Christmas that you have taken time to read the Christmas story and to appreciate it. “Christmas is a gift of love wrapped in human flesh and tied securely with the strong promises of God. It is more than words can tell, for it is a matter for the heart to receive, believe and understand.”
Here is the Christmas Story, as told by Matthew and Luke:
Matthew 1: 1-17: This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.
Luke 1: 5-80: There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. They had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
It came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, his job was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord, according to the custom of the priest’s office. While the whole multitude of the people were praying while he burned the incense, there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar. When Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him: “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. Thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall turn to the Lord their God. He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zacharias said unto the angel: “Whereby shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years?”
And the angel answered unto him, saying: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. Behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.”
And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak unto them and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.
And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. Soon after, his wife Elizabeth conceived, and hid herself for five months, saying: “The Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came in unto her, and said: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” When she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
The angel said unto her: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Then said Mary unto the angel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? The angel answered and said unto her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. The holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age. This is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda. She entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary, the babe leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. She spoke, with a loud voice, saying: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as I heard your voice, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”
And Mary said: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. His mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.”
And Mary abode with her about three months, and then returned to her own house. Elizabeth then went into labor and she brought forth a son. Her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her and they rejoiced with her.
It came to pass, that on the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. But his mother answered and said: “No; he shall be called John.” They said unto her: “There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.”
Then fear came on all that dwelt round about them, for all throughout all the hill country of Judaea, there were rumors. They asked: “What manner of child shall this be?” For they heard the hand of the Lord was with him.
His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. He has spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us. He will remember his holy covenant, that oath which he swore to our father Abraham, and perform the mercy promised to our fathers. He will grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, and in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our life. The child shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for he shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God.’
Matthew 1: 18-24: Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth.
Luke 2: 1-22: It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (This taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.). And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. So it was, that while they were there, she went into labor. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds in the field kept watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. The angel said unto them: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”
They came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known everything that was told to them by the shepherds concerning the child. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord….
Matthew 2: 1-21: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.