25 December 2006


It has become a sad cliché to say that the true meaning of Christmas has been lost in the commercialism and retail free-for-all that now dominates the season. But perhaps we may ease our minds with the reflection that as long as the cliché is heard each winter, and as long as we still feel its force, the true meaning of Christmas is not entirely lost. And after all, what drives our annual spending spree? It is simply the desire to give gifts to those we love (or perhaps to those whom we know we ought to love), which strikes me as good and wholesome, however out of hand the practice may have become. And further, it is this tradition of gift giving that points us back to Christmas’ true meaning, to the greatest Gift ever given.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there is a particular icon that hangs in most Orthodox churches, if it is not actually painted to cover the entire ceiling of the apse behind the altar. It is called “the Virgin of the Sign,” and it is a depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her pregnancy. But the striking thing about this depiction of the Virgin is that there is a kind of window to her womb, and there we see Christ the unborn child, robed with his hand raised in blessing, and surrounding the Christ child is not amniotic fluid and uterine flesh, but the deep blue of space, speckled with stars and planets. This icon is itself a window into the deepest truth of Christmas: the Son of Mary is God the Son. As St. Augustine said, “The One whom the universe could not contain is contained in the Virgin’s womb.” Contained in the Virgin’s womb and born for us on that first Christmas morning, “God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.” That is the gift God has given to us – Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, and all our Christmas gift giving is only the dim reflection of that true Gift, and all our loves the pale shadow of the One who is Love Himself. And so by our giving to and loving one another, and especially when we give to and love those most in need, we participate in that one great Gift – which is not just for Christmas but for everyday.
But what will we give to the God who on the first Christmas gave us himself in Jesus Christ? Christina Rossetti’s carol (“In the bleak mid-winter”) says it best:
What shall I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man, I would do my part -
Yet what shall I give him?
Give him my heart!

Merry Christmas, and God bless us all.

Fr. Patrick S. Allen

Hendersonville Star-News, Christmas 2005.


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