For most of us Christmas is a cozy time. We get together with family and friends to sip on hot drinks, eat sweet foods, exchange gifts we mostly don’t need, sing happy songs, and share fond memories. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; Jesus did come as the Prince of Peace, and He does indeed bring joy to the world. But this sanitized, sugary-sweet version of Christmas has contributed, at least in part, to the Christ-less Christmas we often see in shop windows. We human beings like things that are comfortable, and if given half the chance we’ll focus on that and leave the hard stuff for someone else to deal with.
The first Christmas was anything but cozy. The stable was surely more cold than snug. The Child was probably swaddled in something more like feed sacks than a soft, warm Taggie. Mary was a virgin, but nobody knew that, including Joseph until the angel set him straight. To the world they were just another down-on-their luck couple who didn’t have the discipline to wait for the wedding. And things didn’t get any better once the child was born. First, some strangers sleeping in a local field showed up to see what the ruckus was about, and before they knew it the whole family had to flee into another country as refugees seeking political asylum.
When you think about it, Mary and Joseph must have been two of the bravest people in history. The angel’s first words to both of them are so telling, “Be not afraid!” This must have meant something, in fact they must have passed them on to Jesus themselves, for He used them many times: when walking on the sea, when calling the first disciples, and even at His own resurrection. So if we learn anything from the Christmas story let it be courage; the courage of the unwed mother who became Queen of the Universe, of the day laborer who became the foster-father of God, and of the Baby in the hay trough who was, and is, Divine.
Christmas is a feast day for the stout of heart. It’s a call for us not just to bake cookies (though my mom's are the best) and sip on cider, but a call to be strong, to proclaim our faith more boldly, and to show our willingness to make real sacrifices for our relationship with God, just as Mary and Joseph did. They left their home, everything they knew to keep our Lord safe. Most of us have a hard enough time just getting to Mass on Sunday. But Advent, the time between now and Christmas, can be a good time to take stock of our spiritual lives and try to start things new.
Lots of people decide to read something during Advent. Lots of churches put out special little devotionals for each day, and there are even apps out there to give you something to reflect upon. But most of us know the Christmas story pretty well. I’m going to challenge you to do something different this year. Between now and Christmas, read the life of a saint whom you don’t know much about. It could be an old saint, or it could be a relatively new saint whom you’ve heard of but don’t know very well. Saints lives are extremely helpful because they show us what the gospel looks like when it’s lived out in real life. I need to see that, and so do you.
I was reading just the other day something on St. Theophane Venard. He was a missionary to China in the 1800s who was canonized by John Paul II. He also suffered a particularly cruel and difficult martyrdom (the Chinese and the Japanese in the nineteenth century had nothing on the ancient Romans for sick ways to torture and kill people). Anyhow, in a letter to his father just before his martyrdom he wrote:
A slight sabre-cut will separate my head from my body, like the spring flower which the Master of the garden gathers for His pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time: some a little sooner, some a little later...Father and son may we meet in Paradise. I, poor little moth, go first. Adieu.
This obviously was not written by a man timid in his faith. He didn’t think twice about moving to another country to spread the gospel, or even about going to his death for the faith. Most of us never have to do anything like that, but that doesn't mean there aren't occasions presented to us to stand up for the Faith in our everyday lives. For instance, when you go out to eat, either as a family or with your non-Catholic friends, do you stop to pray before the meal? If not, why? Because you might make them feel uncomfortable? Because the conversation would just get too awkward? Chances are your parents or grandparents left whatever country they came from at least in part because of the Faith, and you’re too timid to make the Sign of the Cross in public? The Faith isn’t passed on by people like that; the Faith is passed on by those willing not only to make the Sign of the Cross in public, but to be nailed to it there too. It's a hard reality, but one that is most worthy of consideration.
Sure, it’s way easier for us as Catholics to promote the Gospel simply in the confines of our Churches, rather than actually live it on the streets. It's easier to put up fancy Facebook statuses and send out tweets featuring our favorite bible verses, but do not hesitate to stand for what is true and holy and good in society. This extends everywhere. In political life, restaurant life, bed-time story life and break room coffee maker life. We must be brave, willing to set aside our fear and set out into unchartered waters.
The mentality that says we need to “not look so pious” for fear that we will “look too pious” to family, friends and strangers is a mentality we don't need. The world needs our example, the world needs to see us kneel in front of the most Blessed Sacrament. The world needs to see the Sign of the Cross in public. Our friends and family need to know that we pray before our meals, even, and maybe especially, if they don't themselves. This isn't to shove it in their faces, it’s simply to be clear about who we are both for our own good, and the good of the world.
So read the life of a saint this season. By reading their life and witness we then can allow their example to grow better into our own. And return to those tried and true practices which time has shown keep the Faith alive even in the midst of great difficulty this Advent season. Go back to confession, hit Mass during the week as well as on Sunday, and thumb that rosary as you drive or go for your morning run. Sometimes, maybe, just pop the earbuds in but leave the iPod off. That way you might get a chance not to just tell God what you’re thinking, but to hear better from him just what He’s after from you, and how better you might do that this Christmas and into the New Year.
Jon Leonetti is a Catholic radio host and speaker, providing keynote presentations and parish missions in churches, schools and conferences across the country. You can find more information on Jon at his website: www.jdleonetti.com