Published December 21, 2006
Each year, I promise myself I’m going to overcome my anxieties about Christmas, but then, like a steam roller, the dread flattens me.
First, there are so many pressing obligations: cards to write, presents to wrap, cookies to bake and house to clean, tra la la!
For me, the dread also comes from dwelling on memories of perfect Christmases past, and fretting because the current Christmas will never match up to them.
In my memory, there we all are, gathered around the festively decorated table: my loving parents, my sweet sister, my dear cousins, and my wonderful aunts and uncles.
Oh, how we laughed, played games, ate cookies, and had fun! Oh, how perfect it all was!
Well, not entirely. In truth, my mother was exhausted from all the cooking, my sister and I were squabbling over the toys, the cousins were taking more than their share of the biscotti and the aunts were yelling at the kids.
So, in truth, my childhood Christmases were far from perfect, because they were peopled by human beings, who always fall short of Norman Rockwell portraits of familial bliss.
Still, in my heart of hearts, I believe there was once a perfect Christmas.
It was a day when no cards were sent, no presents were wrapped, no tables were laden with food and there were no expectations at all.
The perfect Christmas happened only once, when Jesus was born in the stable with the animals peering curiously into the manger, wondering perhaps why the baby was snuggled in the hay they usually munched on.
The perfect Christmas feast was enjoyed by the baby who nuzzled at Mary’s breast. The perfect songs were sung by the host of heavenly angels, who hit each note with breathtaking precision.
And the perfect Christmas present was the baby Himself.
What made the first Christmas so perfect was that it centered on a miracle. God wanted to give a human face to His love, and that face was the simple, innocent visage of the tiny baby, who was called the “Light of the World.”
All these years later, Christmas remains a shining reminder of that love.
Strangely, though, many who celebrate this day have no concern with the babe in the manger.
Some folks say they believe in God, but define Him as an impersonal, distant force, and certainly not someone who cares about human beings in any way.
And these people may find themselves decking the halls and giving out presents, even though what they are celebrating is a purely secular version of Christmas.
I would love to assure them that God is a lover, not an impersonal force, and He created the world out of love. And like all lovers, He enjoys cherishing His beloved.
Christmas, I would say, was God’s way of sending a love letter to the world: “For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (John 3:16).
But whom did God address the letter to? Whom did he want to save from perishing?
It may surprise the smug and self-congratulatory among us to hear this, but we are all God’s beloved, and that includes sinners and saints, believers and non-believers.
Jesus died for everyone, even people who today don’t acknowledge Him.
Catholics express their love for Jesus on Christmas Day by receiving the Eucharist. During Mass, Jesus becomes present in a miraculous way on the altar, just as he took flesh and entered the world on that perfect Christmas long ago.
We are made of flesh and blood, and, like Jesus, we enjoy things that taste, feel and sound good. So, Christmas is definitely a time to feast on cookies, sip eggnog and sing carols.
These joys are all part of the giant love story that is Christmas.
And Christmas is also a time to give love and hospitality to those who don’t believe in Jesus, and who may not realize the deep holiness of the day they are celebrating.
Perhaps, through the love we offer them, they may glimpse the real Lover.
This year, I am trying to keep my heart focused on that perfect Christmas long ago, when the Light of lights entered the world.
The cards still must be sent and the cookies baked, and I may still find myself fretting over the to-do lists. But the greatest gift I can give to family and friends is to trust in the love of Jesus Christ.
It is this truth that will set us all free. Merry Christmas!
Artwork in the print edition, “Our Lady of the Wilderness” by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Readers may e-mail Lorraine Murray at email@example.com.