December 21, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.

The best way to be

While Christmas may morph culturally into a season in which more goods are bought, sold and exchanged, the original meaning is that of a divine gift to us to assure of what we most need
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’ ” (Jn 1:46). The persuasive power of personal witness! Indeed, Nazareth never seemed to enjoy a very good reputation. Yet it is the site of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26). Jesus was conceived there (Lk 1:38). Mary and Joseph were Galilean Jews. Whether either was born in that obscure town or some other nearby, they settled down and raised Jesus there (Mt 2:22-23, Lk 2:39) after all the events sacred and sordid, following the birth of Jesus. Three decades later Jesus would begin his public ministry in Nazareth, only to be expelled from the synagogue by his own townspeople (Lk 4:29). Those of us who may be tempted to despondency over the pejorative influence of ambient paganism these days should take heart. Jesus passes through the hostile crowd (cf. Lk 4:30) and proceeds to walk tall, to rebuke demons and unclean spirits, and to evangelize the region (cf. Lk 2:31-37ff). So can we.

Has it happened to you yet? Are you noticing anything different this year? At least some people I’ve been running into — figuratively, of course — have been going out of their way lately to be nice. I’ve seen it while traveling, in supermarkets and retail stores, which are as crowded as ever despite the online options. Can’t say the same for traffic, at least not in Albany, where every other driver appears to be in a rush, but maybe that’s just me getting older and slower. But I am seeing more and more random acts of kindness around as we catapult into “the holidays.” Could it be that the Christmas Spirit, the Gospel of joy and peace is catching on?

I never make a secret of my love for Advent, even as I have sympathy for all the work family members must do to prepare for loved ones to enjoy festivities as the year winds down. Actually, we Christians may be ahead of the game. New Year for us started Dec. 3, the First Sunday of Advent. Who says it’s “the Church” which must keep up with “the times,” while the world goes into a frenzy?

Maybe you’ve asked yourself this question, how can one stand up and lead, let alone manage to keep steady and sober, in times like ours with so much cultural upheaval and division, anxiety and uncertainty. I have only one answer and that is to walk tall, like Jesus does. Have confidence in doing what we do, living lives that treat others as we want to be treated ourselves, with kindness, respect and that courtesy which may not always seem to be so common.

A priest friend of mine is fond of saying that Good Friday shows the LOVE of God, Easter shows the POWER of God, but Christmas shows the TENDERNESS of God. Another friend adds that PENTECOST shows the generosity of God. My favorite mantra is to see every time and season as “an occasion of grace.” Yes, we know that the Evil One is a great spoiler and his schadenfreude in turning every blessing into a potential curse, the so-called occasions of sin that tempt us into making obsessions and addictions out of even life’s simplest pleasures. No, we do not have to turn our possessions, sexuality, food and drink into gods, but often the temptation is there, and not just from the devil. We can goad one another on and use blessings as bribes to gain attention and advantage when really the only one in the long run whose approval matters is God our creator and best friend. And heaven is not to be embezzled. Jesus purchased it for us with his own blood, his own love. All we need to do is to hang on to him, the only one that can lift us up out of the quicksands of our failures, disappointments and jaded ambitions.

Another good friend of mine loves to anticipate Christmas all year long and even tries to live for it. The reason? People seem at Christmastime to be the way they ought to be all the time. Living every day like it’s Christmas is the best way to be. We know that this time can be very stressful for some of us, especially if we have loved ones who are not well or are estranged from us, or if around this time, recently or years ago, we have lost a friend or a dear family member. All good reasons why keeping the “Mass” in ChristMAS makes sense.

Consider that the “Angels We Have Heard on High” are very much with us as they are with those who have, as we say, “gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” Living or deceased, if we are focused on Jesus Christ, the reason for the season, we are all connected more deeply and reliably than we may realize. Jesus is the one who our deceased in heaven behold in the face and Jesus is the one whom we welcome into the depths of our being when we receive him at Mass. There is only one Jesus, and we are united in him, body, blood, soul and divinity. This is the reality of our faith, the Mystical Body of Christ, the joy that announces “Peace on Earth” to all of good will who are open to receive him. He is to whose glory we are invited to hearken, of whom “The Herald Angels Sing.” These evangelizing messengers are real. We who “Hear the Angel Voices” can bear that message to one another. Jesus advises us not to hide our light under a basket but to announce it to the world, to rise up and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.”

The list of the evangelizing carols of Christmas goes on, reminding us that Christmas is all about joy and the best way to be human is to act like human beings, to BE what we are in God’s eyes, beloved children made in God’s image and likeness, commissioned to bear in our hearts and reflect in the world what is in the heart and mind of God. Becoming “like God,” in this sense: one who blesses the world and all that is in it, all that leads to beatitude, to true happiness. 

Alien strains in our current culture may muffle the angelic voices with the noise and cacophony of egoism and exploitation. It is another species of human trafficking, when we are tempted by Satan to see others as obstacles to our advancement or success, pawns to be used and discarded on our way to fame or fortune, if we are fool enough to believe that the diabolical temptations that Jesus himself rejected would do us any more good than him. Literally, snake oil spewed like venom from the Father of Lies. Let’s stand up straight, walk tall and be children of the light that the Lord summons us to be, not to crawl on the ground, seething with gossip and resentment for things we are duped to believe we lack. 

To put it bluntly, while Christmas may morph culturally into a season in which more goods are bought, sold and exchanged — a wholly commercial affair — the original meaning is that of a divine gift to us to assure of what we most need. It is the knowledge and conviction that God loves us enough to take on all that is broken in our humanity, to heal us and lift us up in his arms and, ultimately, to carry us away to heaven as he blasts through the doors of death. “For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible …” (1 Cor 15:52). If you are looking for any star to wish upon, He is surely THE One.

Now others of good faith may not share that faith in Whom we hope with the certainty of faith. In every heart that is truly human, however, is a desire for the peace we all eventually learn the world cannot give. And one language we are all capable of speaking as human beings is the language of tenderness. Yes, it takes an act of the will because it is, like all love, freely chosen. It is the one way in which we can be sure we are truly human because we are being truly God-like. When we have this peace in our hearts and show it to the world, the reality of the Incarnation is on full display, here and now. Christmas is no longer some event of the past, nor is it just about the artifacts of Christmas to be stowed away in boxes the day after the tree comes down. It is a reality eternally present in this time and all time, where we allow ourselves to be our best, what God knows we truly are.

Speaking of the prophetic message which we now testify to, the Scriptures remind us that “It was revealed to (the prophets) that they were serving not themselves but you with regard to the things that have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you (through) the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels longed to look”  (1 Peter 1:12). This is the child of Bethlehem, born again in our hearts, the true star leading the wise of all ages. In his divine presence, received into our hearts with faith, we find the best way to be, the way to be perfectly human.


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