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The Simplicity of Christmas

By Fr. George H. Shalhoub

It is truly a wonderful time of the year. As we approach the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the question on many minds, especially children is: what kind of gift am I getting for Christmas? And adults agonize over what kind of gifts are we giving? In between these questions, often asked with a sigh, we hear exhaustion from families as they pace the malls of America looking for the perfect gift to give. Gift giving with the right meaning and attitude is wonderful, but this message is often lost in the obligation of holiday, forgetting the “real reason for the season.”

The reality is still the same, Christmas has never changed. It is the birth of our Lord, and always will be. When we exchange gifts with one another, the gifts should be an expression of one’s own gratitude, to God first and then to our loved ones. As a husband, a wife, a parent, a child, you should ask yourself these questions: what shall I offer Christ? What can I offer the Lord for what He has done for us? For when we celebrate Christmas as the birth of our Savior, we receive a gift that lasts not only one day, but continues long after we discard the tree and put away the decorations—it will last a lifetime.

I recall the simplest Christmas celebrations in my life were as a child, in the city of Hama in Syria, where I was born. Christmas Liturgy was celebrated at dawn. My mother would dress us up and send my brother Michael and I to church together, since we were the youngest. We ran joyfully to the church, stepping in every puddle and under every rain gutter, smiling and dancing in the rain, as our mother lovingly prepared the Christmas dinner back at home. At the end of the Liturgy, we remembered the wonderful refrain, “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!” When we returned home, our mother would scold us for getting our church clothes wet, and so we would run to our father who placed in our hands our Christmas gifts-one quarter each. Instead of piles of material things, our parents gave us the gift of remembrance that we are made in the image and likeness of God for glory. As St. Paul tells us, “When Christ, Who is our life, appears then you will also appear with Him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)

We have become too busy as families and as a community to think about these things, because we have all settled on our own meaning and are asking the wrong question: what is in it for me? If we continue to ask this question, we will be lonely, unhappy, and never content. Families must remind their children that when Christ was born He humbled Himself. As we read in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Wise Men came from the East, to see the Child, Mary and Joseph. It was a barn, for animals, yet these kings entered and bowed down to worship the King of Kings, offering Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gift of gold was considered worthy of a King. Frankincense was once of great value throughout the Middle East and from Rome to India. Today, we call it incense and use it for worship. Myrrh was a fragrant plant resin that was used in anointing oil. The gospel recorded that myrrh was used at the burial of Jesus by Nicodemus. The Holy Church reminds us that in baptism, all of us are consecrated as kings, queens, priests, and prophets, and are anointed as such.

The greatest debate of our time, even among other religions is “Who is Jesus?” For us, as Orthodox Christians, Jesus is Lord. Christmas is an affirmation that each one of us is special to God, whether poor or rich, whether healthy or sick. It is meant as a special holy day, where we confess in our Creed every Sunday that the Child born is our Redeemer, our Messiah, the King of Kings, Head of the Church, Emmanuel—always with us, Father Almighty, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Maker of all things, visible and invisible.

Every time we come to church, we come to venerate the Pantocrator — Christ the Almighty. We don’t have to be fanatical Christians to confess that Jesus is Lord, for only the Lord can redeem humanity. Others may confess or acknowledge that Jesus is a prophet or a wise man, but a prophet cannot save us. Only God can save us. Since Christ is our Lord, there will be no more tears, even when we’re sad. And He will always be The Prince of Peace, even though we live in a troubled world. And if Christ is our Lord, our loved ones never die, they are alive with Him, in Heaven. So, at Christmas time, we always ask that He grant us grace above grace, to change our ways and become living beings that reflect the light of Christ, especially the light of the Star that shone over that Child in Bethlehem to lighten the darkness in the world.

Christmas is more than snow, and roasting chestnuts on an open fire, or office parties, or a decorated Christmas tree, as the carols would have us believe. All these things are wonderful, but Christmas is so much more. It is eternal joy. Every year we are adopted once more as children of God, because God became Man. As John 1:14 tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Therefore, we celebrate Christmas at every child’s baptism, at every wedding, at every Eucharist, at every funeral. At these celebrations, even a funeral, we are united in Him and with Him at the manger, and in Heaven as He makes us new creations. The unique truth of Christmas is that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The unique outcome was that this marked the beginning of a new creation, a possible rebirth of humanity. The Baby in the humble manger was revealed as the one Lord and Savior of mankind. Today God, through His Son, enters into our human life that we, believing in Him, become sons and daughter of God!

In the end, the burning question is: what will you offer God, in return for the birth of His Son, Jesus? We may not offer Him gold, frankincense or myrrh. But, as a Child of God, He desires that you offer Him your hearts, to wash them from sin, your ears to hear the angels sing, and your eyes to behold His wonderful mystery. God Bless you all and Merry Christmas!  May the light that shone upon that manger illuminate your lives in the new year.