Congratulations to all of you who managed to survive another Christmas season! By now all the gifts have been opened, and many of them have probably been returned. Already I see Christmas trees laying by the side of the road waiting to be hauled away with the rest of the debris from the Christmas celebration. What was at one point to center of the holiday, decorated with lights and ornaments, adorned by piles of beautifully wrapped gifts and admired by everyone young and old, is now relegated to the garbage heap, forlornly laying on its side and waiting for its ultimate fate in the city landfill.
For too many people, Christmas is officially over once the last present has been opened, since after all, opening presents is what the holiday is all about! All the planning, shopping and work culminated in the big blowout on December 25th, and now it’s time to start packing up the decorations. It’s almost as if a big switch is thrown to the “Off” position, and “Joy to the World” has suddenly been replaced with the usual cares and worries of the world.
This is that odd paradox that we witness every year around this time: The great expectations of the holiday being replaced by stress and fatigue. I have even heard people refer to this as the “Stress-mas” season. We laugh, but at the same time we know that there is some truth to that statement.
How can something that should be bringing us so much joy be reduced to a stressful, unhappy annual exercise; a futile attempt to capture some mysterious inner peace that always seems to be lost somewhere between the parties and wrapping paper? Is this really what the Church intended for us to experience during the Nativity Season?
We all know that sadness is a product of the fallen world we live in. But the level of stress and worry that we know today was also felt during that first Christmas nearly 2,000 years ago, but for much different reasons. On the first Christmas Eve there was a pregnant, unwed teenager, traveling several miles away from home. She was forced to deliver her baby in a stable because there was nowhere else for her to stay. The icon of the Holy Nativity shows us this paradigm between joy and sorrow. While the shepherds and Maji seek the new born child to adore and worship Him, Herod is seeking to kill Him. Baby Jesus is depicted in the iconography not as a fat little child laying happily on a bed of straw, but rather wrapped as a corpse, with a stone tomb as His bed.
Joseph had his own worries and concerns, caring for a pregnant woman who was carry a child that he knew was not his. Besides that, we see Herod massacring the Israelite baby boys in hopes of killing the one child that he, Joseph, has been trying so hard to protect. In most of the icons of the Nativity, Joseph is depicted with an old man, representing the doubts that were being planted in his head by Satan regarding the birth of the Christ child. Needless to say, this had to be a very stressful time for everyone.
In our Gospel reading today, the doubts and danger is punctuated by the prophecy quoted by St. Matthew, which seems to paint a rather gloomy picture as well:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15).
St. Matthew interprets this prophesy from Jeremiah as foretelling the murder of the innocents, although its original interpretation related to the children of Israel who were carried off to captivity by the Babylonians. Rachel’s Tomb is located in the town of Ramah near Bethlehem, on the road traditionally claimed to have been the route taken by the Israelites on their way to Babylonia. Rachel, being the wife of Jacob who was known as “Israel” and the father of the twelve tribes, is portrayed as the mother of the Israelite people, lamenting the departure of her “children” as they are being carried off to foreign captivity, thus being “dead” to her and their homeland.
With all the turmoil in the world, we too, may find it very difficult to experience the peace and joy being proclaimed by all the Christmas cards and sales flyers this time of the year. And we may have to ask ourselves, where has this peace and joy of the holiday gone?
Maybe a good place to start is for us to reflect on the lives we lived leading up to the Nativity. What were we doing for the past 40 days during the Nativity Fast? This time of the “Little Lent” is set aside by the Church for us to prepare for the advent of the incarnation of God in the flesh. Have we used the time peacefully, prayerfully and joyfully as it was intended? Or did we join in with the rest of world, getting caught up in the tidal wave of shopping, wrapping and partying? How well we “do” the Nativity Fast will determine how well we “do” the Nativity Feast.
While it may seem that the world is constantly creating obstacles to our joy and happiness this time of the year, we need to remember that ultimately we are the ones in control of our own happiness, and more importantly, God is still on the throne. God’s loving care is evident in the events of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, demonstrated by His heavenly care that continued during the time after Christ’s birth and throughout His whole life. Although there was no room at the inn, God provided a safe place for the Holy Family to stay. God warned the Magi in a dream of Herod’s plot to murder the baby Jesus, and angels provided warnings to Joseph of the impending dangers, ensuring the family’s safety. Even the dire prophesy quoted in our Gospel lesson has a happy outcome. In the verses following the ones read this morning, we witness the hope of the Lord:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Refrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears;
For your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord,
And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope in your future, says the Lord,
That your children shall come back to their own border’” (Jer. 31:16,17).
God, in His infinite love and mercy, will continue to watch over us just as He watched over the Holy Family. Our sorrows are only temporary, and for those who trust in the Lord, their joy will be eternal.
So, what are the lessons that we can take from the entire Nativity narrative that can help us reclaim the peace, joy and happiness we all desire for the holiday? And even more important, what can we do to ensure a less stressful Christmas? It seems that the answer to both of those questions can be found in the Nativity narrative as well as the events leading up to and following the miraculous event.
The best thing we can do is quite simple: Listen to the angels.
Beginning with the Annunciation, we see an angelic message of FAITH. Mary, although she did not understand what was happening, listened to the angel Gabriel when he told her that she was going to have a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. God was asking Mary to step out on faith rather than on her own understanding. Mary’s faith in God allowed her to respond: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Next, we can see the message of JOY that was delivered by an angel to the shepherds who were watching their sheep in the fields.
“Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people’” (Luke 2:10).
This angelic message was so powerful and inspiring that it caused the shepherds to go and find the Christ child. It was a message that caused them to put the joy they felt into action.
The final angelic message is from today’s Gospel reading; it is a message that tells us to TRUSTin God that He will deliver us from all trials and tribulations. In today’s reading Joseph listened to the angels in his dreams, trusted in their message from God and saved the baby Jesus. Just as God cared for His Son, so too will He watch over each of us who have the faith to put our trust in Him.
The examples of faith, joy and trust that we witness during the Nativity Season are all experiences that we can use ourselves to help change our focus from earthly stress to heavenly peace. When coupled with love for God and our neighbor, we can adjust our attitude during this Christmas season, enjoying the blessings that God has in store for us. By listening to the angels, we can learn how to live the true meaning of the Incarnation of God in the Flesh, and worship Him joyfully with peaceful minds and hearts.