Christmas is for Gratitude
“In the center and around the throne were four living beings…Day after day and night after night they keep on saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty…’ Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne…the elders fall down and worship...and they lay their crowns before the throne and say, ‘You are worthy, O Lord our God’” (Rev. 4:6-11).
What can we say, just two days before Christmas? We’ve all been waiting, preparing, for the Midnight Christ Mass, when we carry the Christ child to the Nativity scene and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” It may be best to be quiet, to not say anything at all, but to wait. We ought to be hushed, like the shepherds on the hill. How else will we hear the angels singing, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”? Yet, we have to ask, with what must we fill that quiet? In these remaining hours, what should beat in the quiet of our hearts?
Our Gospel reading brings us again to John the Baptist. It is a sort of echo from last week. Calling from the wilderness, the prophet preaches the baptism of repentance. The prophecy rings out: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low” (Luke 3:1-6). But what is repentance after all?
Too often, we misunderstand repentance. We label as repentance something that is actually selfish, self-righteous, and fear-driven. We think in our hearts: “I’ve sinned. Sin brings punishment, and I really don’t want to be punished.” So we make an effort to avoid sin in order to be left alone and cozy. Is that repentance? Far from it, that is merely selfishness. The kind of repentance John the Baptist calls for is entirely different.
At other times, we suppose repentance means trying to atone for our sin in order to merit points in heaven. We figure our actions, as ends in themselves, make us righteous and beyond criticism. We suppose: “I’m not that type of guy…I deserve a good reward.” This may be commendable in some corner of the world, but it is certainly not Christian.
So what is repentance? What does the Church call us to? Repentance is a life of cherishing God. “My soul is crushed with longing after your ordinances” (Psalm 119:20). “At night my soul longs for you. Indeed, my spirit within me seeks you diligently” (Isaiah 26:9). “Whom have I in heaven but you? And besides you, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25). True repentance is tapping into the joy of union with God. It means reaching out, deliberately and repeatedly, towards the haven in your heart where God sits.
Sin injures the relationship. It smears mud on the innocence and beauty. We’ve all experienced a time when we’ve hurt a loved one. We had something precious, a friendship that seemed to transcend everything ordinary. But we betrayed our friend. One wrong look, one rash word, and the glass shattered. It’s no different with God. A life of repentance is a life of turning away from all those decisions that harms the love affair. Repentance is not about self-flagellation or narcissism. The repentance of the saints stems from a recognition of what sin is. They weep because they see sin as everything that keeps them from loving their lover. However, repentance does not end with sin. It ends in adoration.
Repentance means gratitude. So easily, our hearts turn to the gutter of grumbling, criticism, and pessimism. Our task is to fill our hearts with whatever is true, noble, pure, lovely and admirable. It means becoming like the little children, and this is what Christmas is all about.
There are two days before Christmas. How can we prepare? Cultivate gratitude.
What will we see at the Christ Mass? We will see a lifeless statue of an infant, being placed on a lifeless crèche? Will we see a trite ritual of bowing and muttering, and rush back to our presents at home? Will Christ be born to grumbling and indifference? Or will we have hearts softened enough to recognize the Son of God born in the flesh? Will our ears be still enough to hear the angels singing this Christmas as they did the first Christmas, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those of good will”? Will there be gratitude in our hearts, so that we can cherish the beauty of Christmas?
C. S. Lewis one suggested that there are two types of thankfulness. There is the kind that says, “How good of God to give me this.” Then there’s the kind that leaves you on your knees marveling. Imagine a sunray. You feel its warmth and the pleasure it brings you, but then your heart marvels at the source of the sunray. You wonder, he writes, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” God has given us so much. It’s our choice how to respond. We can think about how much brighter we wish the sunray were, or, perhaps, grumble that it isn’t a different shade. We can be indifferent to it and miss the opportunity entirely. Or we can fall down in adoration.
This is our time to repent. It is our opportunity to lift up our souls from drudgery and monotony, and keep them fixed on God.
“In the center and around the throne were four living beings…Day after day and night after night they keep on saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty…’” (Rev. 4:6-11).
Christmas is a season for gratitude. May our Lord help us to get up and join in with the angels and saints, in our hearts saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.