The enduring rewards of Christmas
Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life
"Only one scoop of oats per horse," my father said sternly. He knew that if left on my own I would founder the horses. I loved to watch them gobble up the grain and munch on the hay, and was disciplined only by the amount of food I was allowed to give them. There was only one exception to this well thought out routine, and that was on Christmas Eve. Then, I was allowed to give double portions to each of the animals, because, as the tradition maintained, their forebears had given up their humble beds for the baby Jesus.
As I matured, my understanding of Christmas did not. By the time college was over, Christmas had lost all spiritual significance for me. And with this loss came an extreme and guilt-ridden dislike for the whole season. The worst year was one when I went through a drugstore in a building where I worked and picked up anything at hand to give to my parents and to my sister and her family. It took about 10 minutes, and there was no unselfishness in it. Subsequent Christmases were a little better, but mostly they were a dutiful fulfilling of family and social obligations.
Then, one year I rediscovered Christmas in its full religious and spiritual meaning. The joy of the season burst forth. I found gift-giving a sheer delight, and even enjoyed the commercials and advertisements, which opened up many ideas for me in my search for gifts for my loved ones. I found stores brimming with merchandise, and was grateful that there was so much from which to choose. The parties I had considered a bore were becoming opportunities for giving and receiving happiness, and avenues for expressing genuine love.
That Christmas season, and all since, have literally sung of Isaiah's prophecy, as Handel's "Messiah" has wonderfully filled my ears and heart. "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6). I am still in awe that this prophetic vision was fulfilled centuries later in such a humble way, that few at the time recognized that the birth of Jesus was fulfilled prophecy.
Mary Baker Eddy, a devoted Bible student and founder of Christian Science, wrote a Christmas sermon based on this text. It includes this statement concerning Jesus: "He who dated time, the Christian era, and spanned eternity, was the meekest man on earth" ("Miscellaneous Writings," pg. 163). In the man Jesus, authority and might were expressed in the gentleness and humility of meekness. This profound message of Christmas is immediately helpful in both large and small ways.
It takes humility to face honestly our deepest feelings and admit that a cynical decrying of the commercialism of Christmas may be, as it was in my case, a cover-up for lack of faith and understanding of what this magnificent celebration is saying worldwide. Another aspect of meekness - not being easily provoked or irritated - can accompany us on every shopping trip and define our disposition through all the extra interactions of the season. Refusing to let pride or self-will trap us into excessive buying or party preparations is a humble, but powerful, celebration of the spirit of Christmas.
Of course, there are times throughout the season when Christmas is best celebrated only in prayer and meditation. There is much joy when such a decision for solitude is made unselfishly. It's good to avoid, however, a selfish sense of turning inward.
One holiday season, my father was facing a crisis of faith. The year before, two family members had passed on during the Christmas season. He decided that this year there would be no Christmas observance. We spent the day as any other day, and I remember little about it. What I do remember is his saying to my sister and me that he'd been wrong and that he would never do that again. I remember the glorious celebration the next year, and the renewed joy of rewarding even those animals whose progenitors had given up their beds for Jesus.
As we make the sacrifices willingly and gracefully that the holidays often demand of us, we may find future generations being rewarded by our example. Someday the whole world will find the government prophesied by Isaiah and fully lived by the meekest man on earth.