January 3, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Christmas is a forever gift

Emmanuel means “God is with us," and that divine presence is not confined to a time, a place or a season.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

More than any other time of the year, during Christmastide we exchange presents. Most of that flurry of shopping, boxing, wrapping, sending and receiving happens on or before Christmas Day itself. In the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and a few other countries, a tradition known as Boxing Day is observed the day after Christmas. On Dec. 26, gifts are given to service workers and the less fortunate. I once thought “boxing” referred to re-boxing, since many people that day also find themselves exchanging items which did not match their clothing size or suit their style and color preferences.

After this final flourish of gift management, once all the leftovers are consumed or otherwise dispatched, Christmas is pretty much “over,” conventionally speaking. No one listens anymore to Christmas carols. The holiday trees are trashed — especially those, once vibrantly thriving, that had the misfortune of being cut and thrown up around Thanksgiving. These noble green effigies of hope, radiantly alight in a darkening season, have now wizened to become but faded memories, likely fire hazards, no longer functional. The fake ones can be disassembled and recycled for next year, of course, much like that proverbial fruitcake briefly making the rounds before going back into hibernation. Some panettone may linger another lap but, by and large, the race is over.

With all due regard for those of us who may be exhausted after the holiday rush, I would like to propose that we, indeed all of us, do take a breather to relax, and bask under the light who “shines in the darkness” and surrounds us still, because “the darkness has not overcome it” (cf. Jn 1:5). Those fortunate enough to have friends or resources in warmer climes do head south now to escape the dark and colder winter season in our northern hemisphere. It’s one way to prolong enjoyment of the warmth that light brings. We, like all of nature, thrive on light. Studies affirm that exposure to light can induce healing from various ailments, even ward off depression. In spiritual and psychological terms, we even speak of “shedding light” on situations that vex and confuse us, where we have lost our way or been misguided, gaslighted by false hopes and promises. We long for the daylight of truth and clarity.

It does not take much effort to dispel the darkness. One candle, even a match, can provide enough illumination to keep us from tripping over furniture or objects strewn about the floor in a dark room. Sometimes one small “I’m sorry,” an unexpected text or phone call can rekindle a friendship once vigorous but tattered or shattered by collected disappointments or resentments, maybe just neglected and left languishing to the tares of time.

Recuperation and revival from wounds, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, does not happen overnight. For the light that shines in the darkness to enter the dark corners and crevices of our being, we need to let it sink in. I think here about those sparks and glimmers that may only glow for a moment, like fireflies shortly after dusk of a summer evening, or something you thought you saw. The face of someone you almost dropped from your Christmas list — or from whom you heard, maybe by surprise, the card that arrived the day after Christmas. Maybe a face flashing by briefly in a dream or reverie.

I do not suggest anything necessarily mystical or supernatural, but such brief flickers sometimes seem more than merely coincidental. God uses everything and maybe what we call “chance” is just the logic of a God who is always present, as the name “Emmanuel” proclaims. Rather than let such opportunities pass, we could treat them as graces, intentional offerings from a God who is passionately in love with us all and may want to prompt us to do some of his own work of calling, knocking and, yes, even texting as technology has given us to make contacts so much more convenient and accessible than the “one-horse open sleigh” or the ringing ”bells on bobtail” of romantic folklore.

One year during my Brooklyn ministry, I can recall a New Year’s Eve celebration to which I invited anyone still sober to show up for a Holy Hour, beginning around 10 p.m., in order to prepare for the calendar evolution with prayer and reflection before we uncorked the bottle. The advantage was not to be going into the New Year totally blind, but counting our blessings past, our hopes in the planned celebrations of weddings, birthdays and graduations to come, our prayerful intercessions for others and the graces, yet unwrapped, that God had already planted in our own souls. A moment to contemplate and take notice.

Emmanuel, after all, means “God is with us.” That divine presence is not confined to a time, a place or a season. Christmas is a forever gift, not something that we need to “get over.” A growing inkling from recent upheavals that history may be more cyclical than progressive may deepen our awareness of the patterns of both sin and grace that link us with our forebears more than we had hitherto noticed — or dared to admit. A humble acquaintance with history can instill in us a deepening sense of connectedness with our ancestors. Many saints are among them and still with us in prayer and spiritual communion, especially at the Eucharist where we are all united in the Real Presence of our one Lord.

Recently, I was catching up on some movies which I had not found time to view during the year. A series on the Sherlock Holmes stories was particularly impressive, not only because of the acting and cinematography, but the discovery of how cleverly a mystery plot could be devised in an age prior to any of the stunning technology that is essential to the appeal of modern blockbusters. The pattern is familiar. Clues are planted all over the narrative as it unfolds, often not so obvious until, in a whirlwind of revelations, all of the threads are exposed and tied together in the finale. I am thinking how much of our life’s mysteries are likely to be revealed to us only in God’s time when it will become clearer why we met this or that person or were given some puzzling challenge or were left wondering “why me?” at various times and places when we would have much rather had clear and immediate answers.

I have often been struck by how a certain dilemma I was facing in life may have morphed into a solitary burden that I would deem myself destined to carry alone, only to discover that the isolation and darkness I seemed confined or doomed to were creatures of my own making. Why do I not reach out for help? Why do I make the assumption my worries are so specific to me that no other human being would understand or be able to offer some solace or accompaniment? The realization of my own blindness often comes through the courage and care of a friend, sometimes even a stranger kind enough to share their own story, their own struggle — and in that companion I can see my own search, my own journey reflected, even illuminated by the other’s patience or confidence in entrusting their story to me. Every time I celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, revelations like this happen. No, they do not just “happen,” they are miracles of grace. Yes, even sin can become an occasion of grace if one seeks a blessing from God, not just to be affirmed or absolved, but gently and gracefully to be changed for the better.

That is ultimately the promise and hope of Christmas and why it is so important that we not relegate its celebration only to “an event” in history, only in our rearview mirror, that we “move on” from at the turn of the new year. Jesus is with us still, here and now, and comes to us in Sacrament (where we can always be sure), as well as in our personal encounters, where he shows up, as promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Mt 18:20). If we trust in what our faith invites us to believe, we are never in total darkness. The Light of the World is with us, indeed within us, as Jesus himself proclaims to us: “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). It is not any particular talent, or experience or virtue that ensures this awesome presence, but God’s deepest passion to enter our hearts, minds and souls with the very love that creates and sustains all of creation. We bear that love that never abandons us as we allow him to be our best friend, the king of all creation who seeks the throne of our hearts — where he rightfully belongs — for our sake and for others, toward the salvation of all the world.

 @AlbanyDiocese


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