Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, in which we remember that God became man for our sake, in the humility of being born a baby, in the poverty of a small stable, in the tiny town of Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago.
We celebrate Christmas because the Incarnation of Jesus changes everything about being human. Because Christ has come, we can share in the divine nature of God, we can live forever, we can love as God loves.
We celebrate Christmas because through Christ’s Incarnation—and his passion, death, and resurrection—we can be set free from the chains of sin and death, and adopted into the life of eternal Trinity.
We celebrate Christmas with traditions that are familiar and beautiful. We worship God at Holy Mass. We gather with our families to feast and exchange gifts. We sing familiar songs, and celebrate the warmth and conviviality of life in Christian love and friendship.
For some people, the experience of Christmas can begin to feel stagnant—simply the commemoration of what has been, set apart from the reality of what is now. And for some people, of course, Christmas can be a difficult celebration. At Christmas, we often remember those loved ones who have gone before us: parents and spouses who have passed away. We gather with those we love, and for those who have lost the ones they love, Christmas can come with a stark sense of being alone.
But for most of us, Christmas often evokes a familiarity, a joyful optimism, a sense of warmth, recollection, and nostalgia.
We can, however, risk complacency in the comfortable familiarity of Christmas. We risk losing the profundity of the Incarnation in the sentimentality of the season. And we risk losing the radical meaning of the Incarnation in the familiarity of our holiday traditions.
We do not celebrate Christmas merely to remember what God has done in history, and to remember the joy of Christmas celebrations of the past. We celebrate Christmas because God wants to enter our lives and hearts anew—in new ways, ever deeper, ever more profound ways.
Four hundred and fifty years ago, St. Charles Borromeo preached that “each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us…. The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.”
Christ is prepared to come again, into our hearts, to fill us with the riches of his grace, and to call us to a deeper response to the challenge of Christian discipleship. This Christmas, as we celebrate in familiar ways, we should also pray for, and seek out, the unfamiliar: new promptings by the Holy Spirit, new calls to missionary discipleship, new kinds of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
And to prepare us to encounter Christ in a new way, we should commit, at Christmas, to remove the obstacles to his presence. We should confess our sins with heartfelt contrition and gratitude as we examine our habits, choices, and consciences. We should consider the obstacles in our lives to unbounded charity. As we celebrate Christmas, we should ask the Lord to reveal to us what we might change in order to let Christ “come again” into our lives.
And we should ask the Lord to reveal what we might do to prepare for his final coming, his return to the earth in glory, which will come without expectation, and which will come whether or not we have sufficiently prepared.
Christmas is the memory of his coming, the reality of his coming here and now, and the anticipation of his future coming—his return to this world—in glory and exaltation.
TS Eliot wrote:
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium…
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
The beginning—remembering and celebrating the Incarnation—should remind us of the end—that Christ will return in glory, and in judgment. And it should remind us of the present—that Christ wishes to come now to us, to draw us into his life, and to prepare us for eternity.
As we celebrate Christmas—the entire holy season of Christmas—let us rejoice in the comfort and familiarity of our traditions. But let us ask the Lord, who desires to come into our hearts—to make all things, even Christmas, beautifully and profoundly new.