A Christmas Reflection

Praying with the liturgical calendar can bear much fruit. Taking the time to ponder the purposes and mysteries behind the historical events of the Nativity and all that followed gives us a chance to consider anew how our own lives are affected by the very real presence of Christ. Christmas, the Incarnation of the Light of the World, is celebrated on December 25, and then immediately following, we celebrate St. Stephen, the first martyr. When we read the account of Stephen’s witness and death in Acts, it is striking how dark our world is. That a mob would allow their anger to overwhelm them enough that they would choose to brutally kill someone in this fashion is hard to understand. There is a very specific juxtaposition here between the darkness of sin and the purity, innocence, and beauty of Christ.

If you have ever been outside on a winter evening when it is snowing, you know how very still the world can be. There is a hush over everything as the snow blankets the ground, almost as if the sky were tucking everyone and everything into bed for the night. Despite the cold air, the snow on the ground and the low-hanging snowy clouds above make a kind of insulation that adds to the sense of comfort, warmth, and peace. It is no wonder that this kind of weather is often associated with the birth of the Lord. Moreover, the snowfall brings to mind not only peace, stillness, and comfort, but also rejuvenation, purity, and perfection. A child who sees a yard covered in a fresh snowfall knows how different the landscape is. The yard is now a fresh white sheet of paper that begs to be drawn upon! Making tracks, creating snow angels, building a snowman . . . all of this is a magical participation in creating a new world that never existed before. The old yard has been replaced and made into something new and beautiful.

So how do we welcome this spirit of hope, new-birth, comfort, joy, peace, light and love into our hearts in the Christmas season? For adults who are faithful believers, this can be particularly perplexing as we travel through the seasons of the Church. Both Christmas and Easter invite us to renew our commitment to our faith and to follow the Lord more closely. We may be familiar with language like “welcome the Lord Jesus into your heart,” or “make room for the Lord in your life.” Sometimes it is not easy to see how to practically apply these ideas.

Reflecting upon it, let us turn back to the direct contrast between the darkness of the sinful world and the light of the most pure and perfect child, the Incarnate Lord. The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary take us on a journey from the joy and mystery of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to his parents presenting him in the Temple. If you are familiar with the Old Testament, this scene will bring to mind the presentation of Samuel by Hannah to Eli in the Temple (see 1 Sam. 1:24–28). Hannah’s generosity and gratitude should not be understated in this scene. For a mother who has waited and prayed for a child for so many years to be able to offer back to God all that she has is an immense act of trust and love. Mary and Joseph, similarly, now have this most precious gift in their own son. They too, present him to God and offer him back to his Father.

Interestingly, the next Joyful Mystery is the scene where Jesus has remained behind in the Temple to discuss with the scholars of the law. His words to his mother are, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49) Here he is, still a child, and yet already aware that his life is to be totally obedient to the Father’s will. This is in imitation of the witness of his own parents, who demonstrated their willingness to give everything they had to God at the Presentation.

If we desire to participate in this Spirit of trust, surrender, and obedience, we must pray the same words that Samuel prays: “Speak [Lord], for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:10) Christ teaches us, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (Jn. 6:38) Our Lady says so simply, “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38) Finally, we have Jesus’ words in his prayer to the Father in the Garden before his Passion: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk. 22:42)

If we can echo this prayer, “not my will but yours,” and “speak, for your servant is listening,” on a daily basis, what kind of peace can we expect? Certainly, a joyful one! This year has been full of hardship for so many. We continue to learn of more friends and family whose sorrows are serious and for whom we must pray. All the more, when our burdens are great and our struggles real, do we need to turn with our hands open and upturned to the Lord, offering to him what little we may have left to give, and asking in return that He give us what we truly need. He alone can see how he is reshaping us into more perfect vessels. Enduring in trials can seem nearly impossible at times. This is why we need not only the daily prayer, but even, perhaps, the moment-by-moment prayer of surrender: “Show us, LORD, your mercy; grant us your salvation. I will listen for what God, the LORD, has to say; surely he will speak of peace.” (Ps. 85:8–9)

We can also have realistic expectations from the world. St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents are part of this fruitful Octave of Christmas. The martyrdom of young children is another stark reminder of the cruelty and darkness that can build a home in the hearts of men when they choose their own will over the will of the Father. We need the prayer of “be it done unto me according to your word,” not only for our own peace and joy, but to build the habit that can uproot the darkest sins. Satan’s pride that brought him to desire the same power and knowledge of God could not bear to be lesser.1 We are constantly tempted to assert our own power, our own will, our own desires, over and above the invitation to a filial relationship with the Father. We are called to be children, and to enter into our prayer with the same meekness and humility demonstrated by Our Lady and Our Lord. Sin will not be able to maintain its grasp on a heart that is humbled and contrite (see Psalm 51:19).

St. Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, reflected on this in his collection of homilies published as Christ is Passing By:

All this may have a divine meaning, for God does not impose a blind obedience on us. He wants us to obey intelligently, and we have to feel responsible for helping others with the intelligence we do have. But let’s be sincere with ourselves: let’s examine, in every case, whether it is love for the truth which moves us or selfishness and attachment to our own judgment. When our ideas separate us from other people, when they weaken our communion, our unity with our brothers, it is a sure sign that we are not doing what God wants.

Let’s not forget: we need humility if we are to obey. Look again at the example Christ gives us: he obeys Joseph and Mary. God has come to the world to obey, and to obey creatures. Admittedly they are two very perfect creatures: Holy Mary, our mother, greater than whom God alone; and that most chaste man Joseph. But they are only creatures, and yet Jesus, who is God, obeyed them. We have to love God so as to love his will and desire to respond to his calls.2

If we are to take up the “spirit of Christmas” and “welcome the Lord into our hearts,” we must be ready to go from the Nativity to the Presentation, and place our hearts and our lives in the Lord’s hands. May the Holy Spirit come to our assistance and guide us, and help us to pray as we ought. May he assist us in truly seeking to know, accept, and do the will of the Father each day. St. Paul quotes Isaiah and says, “‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” (1 Cor. 2:9–10) May the joy, peace, and beauty of God’s love for us, made manifest in the Word becoming flesh, be with us all in a new way this Christmas season. The world waits with hungry anticipation for our witness: that others will know that God still calls his children, and we are still listening to his Word.

  1. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 391–395.
  2. Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, 17.
Alissa Thorell About Alissa Thorell

Alissa Thorell holds an MTS in Theology, Biotechnology, and Ethics from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies. She also holds a BA in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Besides teaching for Catholic Distance University, Professor Thorell is also a curriculum reviewer for the Subcommittee on the Catechism at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.