To say that my almost-five-year-old was excited for Christmas to come is an extreme understatement. At the table at every meal afterward he said things like, “Is tomorrow Christmas?” No. “The day AFTER tomorrow??” At one point he was literally jumping up and down shouting “I can’t wait for Jesus’ birthday!!”
I, on the other hand, have historically had philosophical trouble with the shift from Advent to Christmas. As I said in a previous column, Advent fits in nicely with longing for the Second Coming and a time when all things would be set straight. It is also a beautiful opportunity to reflect on the coming of Jesus every time the priest raises the bread above his head and pronounces the words of Consecration. This looking toward the future is what we are still doing in this valley of tears, and the Eucharist is a daily or weekly staple for the faithful. But preparing for Jesus to come as a baby? This is harder not only because of our family situation but because it makes my brain hurt in that “Back to the Future” kind of way. I know how to prepare for the actual birth of a child. But how do you prepare for a child to be born 2,000 years ago? How do you celebrate that?
I think my bouncy preschooler has yet again taught his amateur-theologian mother another important lesson: Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. (Isn’t that worth three years of grad school tuition?) No, seriously, I think sometimes we adults forget that at the heart of all the rich traditions and family gatherings that we are essentially celebrating the most important birthday that mankind will ever celebrate. What do we do on birthdays? One thing we do implicitly is reflect on the importance of that person in our lives. The other is to give gifts to the person of honor. We should do no less for our Blessed Lord.
Although I can identify with Ancient Israel in darkness, waiting for the Messiah, I really have no idea how much better I have it than they did. Can you possibly imagine a world without the thumbprint of his humanity upon it? Before Jesus became man, we were still fully under the curse of Original Sin. As the Book of Ecclesiastes put it, all was vanity. You labored to feed your family, but at the end of the day, what good did it do? Even if you made a decent living, at the end of it all you died. But Jesus came and took on our flesh and worked as a carpenter for thirty years. Now our work has been redeemed and death is vanquished.
Before Jesus, we had been subject to a Law that we could not keep. The Old Testament is a chronicle of man breaking promises to God. Now Jesus has given us a stricter law of love on our hearts, but he has also given the means to fulfill that law: grace. Before Jesus there were holy men and women, but now the possibility is open to every single one of us to ascend the mountain of sanctity.
Before Jesus, all we had was the distorted type of Adam. As Vatican II tells us, “Jesus Christ reveals man to himself” (GS 24). That is, when we look at him, we see what a human is supposed to be. It is true that we will never be even close to equal to God. But in Jesus’ perfect human nature we see what man is capable of, and even more incredibly, he invites us into his own divine nature to the point that it has been said that God became man that man might become God. This outrageous reality can become so normal to us that we forget what a unique and undeserved privilege it is to participate in the life of God himself.
Jesus Christ is the center of humanity and of all human history. Everything before Jesus was preparing us for his coming, and all the time since we are living in the age of grace in which the benefits of his first coming are being applied. Simply put, Christmas changed everything.
Now on to gifts. What do you get the Guy Who Made Everything for his birthday? He longs for the one thing that he has decided to not lay claim to: our hearts. The truth is, that even after all the things I listed above, there are some who choose to live as if God had never entered human history. There are many more that see Jesus as a cute folk tale to share with kids, but have never considered that he might make a difference in their lives. Heck, let’s be honest. Every time we sin we are choosing in some way to deny Jesus. In a very practical way, “giving Jesus my heart” this Christmas season can mean a trip to the confessional. In doing so, we can allow Jesus to be the Savior he was born to be. Or perhaps there is an area of our lives that we are not allowing him to be Lord over. Maybe there is one Church teaching that we struggle with, that we have put aside instead of seeking to have it clarified. To seek to understand and obey would be a huge gift to Jesus this Christmas.
So this Christmas season, as we slowly work our way through the birthday cake we always bake for the Savior (and which he never eats), I will deliberately call to mind the incalculable impact he has had on my life. As we work our way through disposing of the cardboard and plastic packaging from which our many gifts were liberated, I will try to offer Jesus the only gift on his list: me.
Copyright 2009 Libby DuPont