Fr. Cedric Prakash, sj
One of the most meaningful features of the Christmas Season is that of gift-giving! Across the globe, people love to give gifts at Christmas to others – and of course to receive gifts too!
Gifts come in a whole range: from the inexpensive yet lovingly hand-made card to perhaps a gold-crusted diamond purchased from an expensive jewelry store! Santa Claus (a caricature of the saintly Bishop Nicholas who went round caring for the poor and the hungry) comes laden with gifts; Christmas stockings bulge with gifts and one can find gifts below the family Christmas tree.
Children look forward to the Children’s Celebrations during the Christmas week when they will receive gifts- it does not matter if they are just trinkets; or some ‘made-in –China’ stuff; balloons or plastic toys!
Giving gifts at Christmastime perhaps originated from the fact that when the shepherds ran in haste to worship Jesus they probably took with them the best of their flock to present to the new-born King. The little shepherd boy had nothing to offer Jesus; just the music he could play on his drum: that was his gift! The Bible makes no mention of all this (media today rarely reports the good done by the poor and simple folk).
What however takes the cake, are the gifts offered by the Magi (the three Kings): gold, frankincense and myrrh. All these gifts were rich in symbolism: gold of kingship on earth; frankincense as symbol of God; and myrrh to remind one of death and mortality. There perhaps lies the cue as to why gift-giving during Christmas has such a central place.
Gift giving, continues today; but unfortunately the ‘gift’ today is merchandise which has to be purchased by the shops that lure us; by the tinsels and baubles; the advertisements and commercials; the discounts and the sales. The gifts today come with a price-tag; often very expensive! It is no longer the giver that counts but the value put on the materiality of the gift! If the gift is wrapped in an attractive paper and tied with the right ribbons then there is added value to the gift! After all, in a highly commercialized and consumeristic world we are made to believe that branding and presentation is what matters most.
What we all need to realise that the real gifts of Christmas have nothing to do with the material of this world; they are not gaudy or glitzy; they are not sophisticated or expensive. These gifts cannot be ‘purchased’ in a super mall or even in a Christmas bazaar. They are there for the asking: for giving and receiving! They are totally free: one only needs the humility, the transparency and the courage to see them as the real gifts of Christmas.
Christmas is Jesus! The most complete and precious gift of the season; a non-negotiable! There is no Christmas without Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”(Jn3:16). The essence of Christmas is that Jesus comes to us as our Saviour. Sadly we live in a world which has very systematically taken Jesus out of Christmas. We are made to believe that Santa Claus and Christmas trees; the jazzy lighting and the heavy decorations are all that matter. We conveniently forget that Jesus was born in a manger in the midst of stench and squalor. Mary and Joseph did not even have enough of clothing to wrap up their just-born child. Jesus is indeed the greatest gift of Christmas!
Christmas is Joy! The Joy to the world as revealed centuries earlier by the Prophet Isaiah (9:1-7). The angels proclaim this joy on a melodious note, “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk.2:14). The specificity of this joy is that the ones who receive these ‘glad tidings’ first – are the shepherds. It is an extraordinary gift for these poor, simple, ordinary folk – who live a tough life on the periphery of society; people who are marginalized and vulnerable yet are ‘pure of heart.’ It was a totally unexpected gift: but perhaps the best gifts, the most meaningful accolades, are those we never expect! The ways of God are strange: he lifts these ordinary folk with the good news through the angels. Their hearts are filled with joy! The only way they can express this gift is to run in haste and worship Jesus the Saviour. The gift of unbounded joy-beautifully wrapped in simplicity and spontaneity, poverty and magnanimity!
Christmas is Peace! A gift given to all by the angels as they sing “And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased”. A vibrant, living peace: a peace which is not the prerogative of a few, but needs to be shared with all! In the context of what is happening in our world today: it is a gift which we all desperately need! Peace in our hearts’, peace in our families, peace in our neighbourhoods, peace in our countries, peace among warring nations. A peace which silences conflicts and the military-industrial complex. We are all called to be channels of God’s peace: just like the shepherds that first Christmas night. To be bridges, to heal our broken world, to be reconcilers in the midst of divisiveness and fragmentation, to be merciful yet courageous to take a stand, when those around, make hate and violence their primary aim. It is a gift from Jesus “Peace be with you! My peace I leave! My peace I give you!”
Christmas is Tenderness! Mary, the mother of Jesus embraces her newborn with the gift of tenderness. Her tender loving care of her son –is a gift to the world. It is a gift which Pope Francis has been constantly speaking about- “the revolution of tenderness”. In a TED talk on 26 April 2017, Pope Francis said, “And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. Tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Mary epitomizes this tenderness. She is the revolutionary of tenderness. A gift we need to willingly and gladly share today with many.
Christmas is Hospitality! The manger was a warm and welcoming place for Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus! There were surely the animals in the stable but there must have been some poor people there that night too, who looked after the animals. These were the people who made Mary as comfortable as possible, so that she could give birth to Jesus. They would have given of their all – to these strangers who earlier had the terrible experience of being told that there was “no room to stay in the inn.” Later on, the Holy Family had to seek refuge in Egypt to escape the murderous wrath of King Herod! There in Egypt they once again found welcome and hospitality. Our world today has millions of refugees and other forcibly displaced; unfortunately, there is a growing rise of xenophobia, racism, jingoism, bigotry, exclusiveness and discrimination. The Gift of hospitality, the courage to welcome strangers and make them feel at home in our midst is what Christmas is all about!
Christmas is all these gifts and much more! The gifts of love and fellowship; of mercy and reconciliation; of sharing and caring; of justice and solidarity; of dignity and equity; of hope and life. The list is endless. These are gifts which no money can buy! There is no sales- pitch or advertisements. These are gifts of the spirit which have to reflect in our attitudes and essentially be translated into substantial action. They have to be internalized and mainstreamed; joyfully and lovingly shared with others. Christmas is Christmas only when we have the courage to gift Jesus and the values of his Kingdom: Joy, Peace, Tenderness, Hospitality and the rest, unconditionally to those around us!
(Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )