Finally! It’s the “most wonderful time of the year”. Thanksgiving is over, Black Friday has passed, and now we are well into Advent, the first month of the Christian year. We barely had time to catch our breath after turkey and fixin’s, and now we’re moving forward, filled with the Christmas spirit. But what is the “Christmas Spirit”?
When I was a child – for me the Christmas spirit was defined by the feelings created by the many wonders that appeared at that time of year. There were the bell ringers of the Salvation Army, which we still have today, located on so many corners downtown. Shop owners placed what would now be considered antiquated loud speakers just outside their stores in order to send Christmas carols and popular music, sung by such folks as Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Andy Williams, out into the frosty air. I must confess, I much preferred that holiday music to what we’re hearing today.
The shop windows were filled with toys and gifts to delight the eyes of any child, and our local Woolworth’s turned into a festival of Christmas decorations, bulbs, lights, ribbons and bows. The Peter Pan bakery started carrying marzipan rainbow cakes, chocolate covered Christmas tree cookies, and gingerbread cookie Santas. There were men at the curbside selling Christmas trees, and, as parents do today at their local mall, best of all, Dad would take me into New York City to visit Santa at both Macy’s and Gimbals. The excitement and joy I felt back then was what, I would probably have defined as the Christmas spirit. All of us probably have memories of our own – and as adults some of us have been able to share this experience of childhood wonder with children and grandchildren.
Such excitement, such joy and anticipation isn’t far from what we are meant to be feeling now as we move forward in the Advent season. Of course, as we’ve grown older, all that eagerness we felt when we were children, waiting for Santa to come and leave presents behind, has faded. We tend to become somewhat overwhelmed by the shopping, the planning, the baking, wrapping, and mailing that Christmas demands of us, and yet – we are encouraged to be filled with the Christmas spirit. So the question arises again, for us who are no longer children, what is the “Christmas spirit”?
Charles Dickens would have us believe there are three spirits, our memories of the past, our reality in the present, and our hope for the future. But while such spirits do often enter our thoughts at this time of year, they aren’t really the spirts we, as Jesus friends and followers, are meant to experience at this time.
If we give it some thought, the next thing we may believe answers the question as to what constitutes the Christmas spirit is based on the name of the season itself. According to the dictionary, Advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. So we conclude that we need to be looking forward to the birth of Jesus, of our Savior, as He came into the world as a little child. To look forward to the coming of the Christ Child can never be wrong, but the Christmas spirit is more complex than the contradictory looking forward to an event which happened over two thousand years ago.
It is Luke, from whose Gospel our second reading came today, who helps us to understand how, as Jesus friends and followers, we can find and embrace the true Christmas spirit.
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…and John cries out too all those who will listen, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”.
What wonderful words. We’ve heard them every Advent, they’ve been sung in oratorios and on Broadway (Godspell), but like the term “Christmas spirit”, do we really know what they mean? How are we supposed to do as John the Baptist instructs us?
The derivation of the word “prepare” helps us to better understand what we are being called to do. Not only does the word point to the Latin prepare, to bring order, to get ready, but it also refers us to parere, to bear, to bring forth. Preparing doesn’t just have to do with getting ready for a birth; it has to do with the very act of birthing, with bringing forth something that has not been before: something new. And then the next question is, does giving birth have anything to do with that elusive “way of the Lord”?
This is where we think we understand, and we immediately call up images in our minds of the infant Jesus in the manger, surrounded by the animals, angel choirs, His holy parents; images we see in crèches and Christmas pageants. Advent, we reason, is all about Jesus’ birth. But as awe inspiring and amazing as this event has proved to be over the centuries, it has happened; it is over!
There is another key word in John’s proclamation to us: “Repent”; see again; things are not what they seem to be. John is, of course, referring to the passage from Isaiah: paths made straight, mountains brought low, valleys filled. Whatever we are to be and do in birthing involves radical upheaval – the world as we know it turned topsy-turvy; reality as we have seen it, upside down. This will be the outcome of the days ahead, the days to which Advent is the beginning, days which now are now only blurry images of cross and empty tomb – images that will begin to develop in the months that lie ahead.
If we put John’s two words together – “prepare,” I.e. give birth to, and “repent,” see anew - a very startling light may come on in our minds and hearts, a realization that the birth for which we are asked to prepare this Advent is our own. As God planted the Jesus in Mary His mother, God has also planted a divine Spirit in each of us. We are the baptized.
Incredible as it may seem to us - our life’s work is to allow that which is within each of us to grow, to nourish it with prayer, to allow it to swell and fill us with God’s grace and love, to, in a way, give birth to all that it produces – works of charity, kindness, generousity, and love. Now we begin to understand the true meaning of “Christmas Spirit”.
With God as sower, God who has filled us with this great gift, we can humbly identify with Mary and the baby. From the waters of baptism we emerged, cast forever in Christ’s image, marked as His own forever, empowered again and again to give over our control to God’s will. We are not to be wrapped in swaddling clothes, nor does God promise us a cushy, easy life, or worldly riches. We are to “put on forever the beauty of the glory from God”. We are to wear robes of righteousness and crowns of glory - and in all that we do to fulfill God’s holy purpose.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
This too, is part of the Christmas Spirit, and we who carry this Spirit within us, must allow it to transform us. When we show forth the Holy Spirit within us – then we can fill our valleys of despair, level our mountains of pride, make straight our paths of deceit, and smooth the roughness of our self-centeredness. As we think joyously about Jesus’ birth and the salvation it has brought us, we are to, through God’s gift to us, spread that joy to others. We are to be the bearers and bringers of the Good News and the ones who through our living in the Spirit spread joy and love so that “all flesh shall see the glory of God”.
This is what Advent is about; this is what our life is about, this is the true Christmas Spirit.
Let us pray:
Breathe into us, Holy Spirit, that our thoughts may all be holy. Move in us, Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy. Attract our hearts, Holy Spirit, that we may love only what is holy. Strengthen us, Holy Spirit, that we may defend all that is holy. Protect us, Holy Spirit, that we may always be holy, the bearers, and bringers of Your Grace and Love throughout the world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.