Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas! The Mystery of the Gift

Basilica di San Francesco, Lower Church, Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), La Natività. This image often confuses people because of the two women in the bottom-center holding the Infant, since there is no mention of women attending the Blessed Virgin, which provides the crucial hint we need to understanding the image: they are allegorical figures, not literal. The woman in green, holding the red cloth (it's supposed to be red) symbolizes Mary's hope, and because she so fervently hoped for the coming of the Messiah to free Israel, her hope gave birth to love for the Messiah, which aided her in receiving the Angel's message that she would bear the Christ Child. The woman in white symbolizes Mary's faith, purity and innocence (from sin). As we know, the "swaddling clothes" the Infant Jesus is wrapped within foreshadows His Death and Burial (because Mary all ready knew He was born to die). The "bowl" between the two women probably--although I could be wrong about this one--foreshadows the Chalice at the Last Supper (the "Holy Grail") and Christ shedding His Blood for Humanity (in the right side of the image, there is a small gold tree, which reminds us of the Tree of the Cross).  Mary, in the center of the panel holding Jesus, is wrapped in blue because blue is the color of wisdom, and she has turned her new Motherhood into instant Discipleship in contemplating the Word made Flesh. Her reclining position foreshadows how Mary, like Christ lying upon the Cross, will offer herself in suffering for the redemption of Israel. The ox and donkey remind us that Christ has been born in a smelly, dirty animal-shelter, but they symbolize our own animal passions and sins, which is what makes the Nativity timeless: Christ is always being born within us (the stable/manger/cave being a symbol for our soul). Each time someone comes to Christ, the Nativity has taken place within their soul; each time we overcome a sin, we have cleaned up the stable for Christ, making it come to more closely resemble the new tomb Christ was laid in after His Death, because no one else (the devil) has been in there. The flock of sheep and rams in the bottom, right-hand corner symbolize Christ's flock and how He will call Himself the Good Shepherd, and identify with the lowly shepherds who have gathered there to adore Him and hear the Angel's Good News. St Joseph, in the bottom, left-hand corner, seems cast off to the side; that's hardly the case. We are like St Joseph: seemingly removed from what is taking place, we are still called to contemplate--in our own way--what is taking place, and our own role as we, too, are involved in the Nativity, each time we our converted or our prayers for the conversions for others takes place.
On this eve of Christmas, I wish you the very warmest blessings! Like everything in Christian culture, Christmas receives a lot of bashing: it's so commercial, it's only about gift-receiving, you get so busy you can't really enjoy it, etc. As we know, a lot of that has to do with our own selves, but that stems from our failure of "entering into the Mystery" Christ wants to share with us. Many think the gift-giving at Christmas symbolizes the gifts the Wise Men bring Christ (the Feast of the Epiphany, which we will celebrate Sunday, January 6, and contains its own mysteries), but we are wiser in considering that Christ IS THE GIFT. Without Christ coming to earth and taking on flesh, we would not be able to hope for salvation, we would knot know the Way of Life (and when we see those who are lost, we can appreciate that we know the Way) and--among countless other blessings--we wouldn't even be able to know ourselves. Recognizing that Christ is the Gift, also helps us to remember that WE, TOO, ARE A GIFT to others: our family, our co-workers, neighbors, and every single human being on earth. Likewise, they are gifts to us, which brings us to the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas.
A later Nativity, also by Giotto.
It's happened to you at least once: you got a gift you absolutely hate. Without saying it, many of those who criticize Christmas, are criticizing this very thing, receiving a gift they don't want and didn't ask for. As Christians, we can understand how this reflects a part of Christmas if we are willing to enter into the Mystery of Salvation: Christ gives us gifts we don't want, and they usually take the form of Crosses. No one wants to suffer, the same way no one probably wants that heavy-as-a-brick fruitcake, or that horrid sweater. Culture says, that person shouldn't give that gift; Christ says, accept all I send you. Why? Gratitude. Just watching TV should alert us all to what a rare and exceptional virtue Gratitude has become, and all the ills that would be eradicated with such a simple When we are faithful in small matters, we will be faithful in greater ones, and none of us are made perfect but through the Cross. Why is that important? Being cleansed of our sins, it's easier for us to live with ourselves (if you know someone who makes terrible decisions, or generally lives a life of sin, you know how miserable they from their own doing), it makes the world a better place and--you not only go to heaven--but consider this: heaven becomes an even better place because you are there in all the glory God destined for you and you alone.
By Rembrandt, the Angel Appearing to the Shepherds in the field.
There are also the Christmas gifts we did ask for and receive that forms part of the Mystery of Christmas: Israel had been praying for generations for the Messiah to come, and finally, finally He did come. When you receive the gift you asked for, remember all the prayers you have said that God answered, regardless of how long God took in answering it, or still hasn't answered, but will; again, practice gratitude, not for the thing, but that your hope was rewarded. This brings us to the "exchange" that takes place during Christmas. As is said at every Sunday Mass before the Offering is taken up, "At every Mass, there is an exchange: God offers me His Son, what will I offer God?" Of course, the Church wants you to offer money, because that's part of their mission, but at Christmas, there is something God specifically wants you to offer Him: your sins.
Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt, 1646. One of the complaints people lodge against Christmas is that they are depressed, or there is nothing merry about it. More often than not, this sadly reflects what is--or is not--in that person's heart, because Love is the first gift to always be given at Christmas, but either we cannot receive it, we don't want it or we don't want to give it, which dissipates our ability to experience joy at Christmas. Most of us know, there is a big difference between joy and fun, and people will often mistake the emotion (fun) for the spiritual gift (joy). There have been three people in my life I have known who had the spiritual gift of joy, and each in a different way. Joy is a direct result of the Holy Spirit, it's not something we can summon within our self or force upon others. On the other hand, just because we don't have joy doesn't mean we are devoid of love; it's a Gift that is given at God's discretion to those who He deems He wants to give it to. The Gift of Joy is something we can pray for, but because it is a Fruit of the Spirit, it is one that often must be waited for with great diligence.
When you die, God wants your soul to be presented to Him as pure and humbly as Mary offers the Christ Child to the Shepherds: in total purity, love and forgiveness, without a single spot of sin. How do we offer our sins? By resolving to do better on those areas we know temptation usually gets the better of us, but also to give Jesus our sins through exercising the virtue opposite of our sin: if we tend to get angry or hold grudges against people, you can give Him that blotch on your soul by forgiving, which is one of the greatest of Christmas Mysteries: becoming God in the Newborn Child. You don't have to say anything to that person(s), just tell God what incident(s) you offer to Him, and that you want to forgive that person, as God has forgiven you for your own sins, and when Satan tempts you into holding onto that grudge, humbly offer it to God again, and again, and as many times as it takes to get rid of it.
Which brings us to the last point,...
Only you get to experience this Christmas.
This Christmas, with all its particulars and intimate details, has been created for you and you alone by God to provide for all you need right now; next Christmas will be different, and the next Christmas, but this Christmas is to provide what you need at this point in your journey. There may be things you want, but you don't need, or there are things don't want, but do need and only God knows what you need, and He will provide for you, just as shelter was provided for Joseph and Mary when there was no room at the inn. But you must be open to receiving the Gift He wants to give you, all the gifts, not just some of them. With that, I pray God, in His infinite goodness and abundance, will bless you with that Gift of Wisdom, the greatest gift for which we mere mortals can hope. May the richness of Christ's blessings be upon you today and all time!
Merry Christmas!
The Fine Art Diner