We are now in the final days of Advent. These last days are a good time to fully prepare ourselves for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas. If we have not taken the time to enter into prayerful quiet, now is a good time to do so. If we do not enter into the preparation of Advent, there is a good chance we will miss the true joy of Christmas, because we will not have taken the time to prepare our hearts fully for the coming of Our Savior. A couple of weeks ago, my parish priest asked us a question in order to help us prepare for Christmas. He asked, “What are we going to give Jesus for His birthday?” Ever since Father spoke these words, they have been on my mind. What am I going to give Jesus for His birthday?
Whose birthday is it anyway?
To be honest, it is such a simple question, that it is often lost on us; this includes me. Often, we end up making this one of the busiest and most material times of the year. As parents, my husband and I have tried to cut back on the material and busy sides of Advent and Christmas. We spent one too many Christmases with family and friends watching kids tear into far too many gifts only to cast them aside. The desire for more, more, more was all over their faces. More of what, exactly? Things that can never in principle make them truly happy? We realized early on that we cannot hope to teach our daughter holiness if Christmas is seen as an accumulation of large quantities of stuff. We cut back to three gifts from us, which represent the gifts of the Magi. All other gifts are from grandparents and other family. Even then, it has been difficult to maintain temperance in this regard because my husband and I are rather counter-cultural in this approach.
Our reason for this refocus is because it is very easy in our culture to focus on the material aspects of Christmas. We are inundated with the idea that buying the “perfect” gift will achieve happiness for our loved ones or ourselves. Advertising campaigns have even switched to telling us that we “deserve to buy ourselves the perfect gift this Christmas.” We hear this on the radio, see it on TV, and we are bombarded whenever we walk into a store this time of year. I notice a tendency in my own daughter to want stuff and lots of it. Of course, hours or days later she will cast aside this item she had to have since it has served its temporary purpose. I have been asking God how to temperately celebrate His birth in a manner that is a balance between merriment, cheer, self-emptying love, virtuous living, and a focus on Him. Then came Father’s question to all of us, to me.
In the Latin Rite, we can easily forget that Advent is a penitential season. It is not as strict as Lent and often the penitential aspects are not mentioned, but for all intents and purposes, Advent is penitential. We are told to prepare for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas and in the Parousia. If Christ came again in the Second Coming at this very moment, would we be prepared? We are called to constantly prepare our hearts for His coming. This is a call to grow in holiness, to deepen our prayer lives, frequent the sacraments, and to consider those areas where vice rules over virtue. The Catholic understanding is not that we have to be merely “good people”. That idea comes from the post-modern heresy of moral therapeutic deism. We are called to be saints, not “good people”. In Lent, we consider something to give up to grow in holiness to prepare for the great mysteries of Holy Week. In that same vein: What is it we are going to give Our Lord and Savior at Christmas?
Perhaps like me, there is a struggle to trust God in all things. This can be even more difficult in periods of intense suffering, loss, or illness. Many of us struggle with a great desire to maintain a false sense of control over our lives. This only serves to create anxiety, pride, and disillusionment within us and the people around us. The supernatural virtue of charity—a great gift from God—requires our trust. When we truly love God, then we turn to Him in trust. When we marry, we trust our spouse with our well-being and our good, why do we not give the same love, devotion, and trust to Our Savior? If this is an area of difficulty, now is the time to kneel down next to the Manger of Our Lord and offer Him the gift of our trust in Him. In order to progress in the spiritual life, we must entrust ourselves entirely to God.
The gift of prayer.
We cannot grow in deeper communion with the Triune God if we do not pray outside of the Mass. While the graces that flow from the Mass are unlimited, the life of a Christian disciple extends beyond the walls of our local parish. We are called to enter into deep relationship with Jesus Christ, who then draws us into the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity. This can only be fully accomplished by perseverance in prayer. Prayer requires perseverance. Our sinful, fallen state makes it difficult to steady ourselves and enter into fruitful prayer. In reality, the only way to become better at prayer is to first realize that all prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit. God helps us to progress at His pace. Second, we will never become good at prayer if we don’t do it on a regular basis. We have to be willing to fight the battle against distractions, temptations, and disordered priorities. Prayer is a process and it is one in which Christ is our guide. This Christmas, let us come before Our Savior and give Him the gift of prayer and a deeper relationship with Him. His greatest desire is to draw us into communion with Him, so that we may be filled entirely with His love.
The relinquishing of our vices.
Every single one of us has particular vices that need to be cut out. The only way to overcome these vices is to ask God firmly to show us how to grow in virtue. We must abandon our will to God, so that we can overcome these deeply rooted and habitual sins. For some it may be a quick temper, a default setting of pride, overeating, an overuse of social media, materialism and consumerism, a lack of gratitude and envious heart, pornography or other tendencies towards lust, a non-existent prayer life, or any other number of sins. I chose the seven deadly sins as examples because they weigh us down and keep us from fully living the spiritual life. Anyone, including myself, who has battled pride knows how heavy it is to carry. The pruning away of our vices is not only reserved for Lent, and, let’s face it, giving up chocolate seldom helps us enter deeper into holiness unless we are truly addicted to chocolate. Christmas is a good time to place our struggles with sin at the feet of Our Savior. He desires to free us from the burden of sin and He can only help us if we truly ask it of Him and relinquish our grip on those sins we hold dear.
A good practice to pick up in order to be more successful in overcoming sin, is to begin frequent Confession. We are experts at self-delusion and Confession reveals our weakness and our great need for a Savior. It is in Confession that Christ reaches down and heals that weakness and brokenness within us so that we may persevere in holiness. The improvements will seem miniscule in the beginning, but the more we seek to truly know ourselves through the eyes of Christ, the more we will work to overcome sin. Once a year is not nearly enough for Confession if we are truly committed to becoming a saint. All of the saints make use of this Sacrament as frequently as possible.
Christmas is a time of immense joy. It is one of the great Solemnities of the year and it is when we come face-to-face with the great mystery of the Incarnation. As we celebrate with our families through the giving of gifts, delicious meals, and overall merriment, let us not forget to give a birthday gift to Our Savior. The greatest gift we receive this Christmas dwells in the Holy Eucharist we will receive at Mass. There is always a danger to focus too much on the lesser goods and not on the Ultimate Good of Christmas, which is the birth of Our Savior and the gift of salvation.
The joy of Christmas does not come wrapped in bright colored paper and bows. Material gifts can only provide temporary feelings of contentment or happiness. This is always fleeting and subjective. In the words of C.S. Lewis, these are “pleasant inns” for the journey, but they are not the source of true joy. Christmas is an objective joy that is experienced through a real encounter with the Christ child lying in the Manager; the same Christ who nourishes us with His body and blood at every Mass. It is a lasting and eternal joy. This joy rests solely in the God-man who was first placed in the wood of a Manger and later nailed to the wood of a Cross. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and conquers death by offering us eternal life. Let’s not forget whose birthday we are celebrating at Christmas and that the gift He desires most is nothing short of our entire being. If we give ourselves to Him, then He will fill us with His infinite love.