Herald of Hope

Some years ago, when most of my sister Anne’s six children were in the lower levels of grade school, my mom purchased for them one of the finest Christmas gifts they ever received. She gave them a Nativity set.

At first, I was taken aback somewhat, because my sister’s family already had a very beautiful Christmas crèche. However, my mom insisted that this Nativity set was different. She instructed me that this set was not simply for display. She noted that this set was specially constructed so that children would be able to play with the figures of the Christmas story. They were fashioned more like dolls than statues, and the intention of the set was to encourage children to use their faith and imagination to dramatize the biblical narrative.

Some weeks after the grandchildren had received this gift, I spoke with my mom and inquired if they actually were enacting the Christmas drama. My mom sounded elated as she recounted the enthusiasm with which the children were engaging the figures of the set to make the story of the Nativity come alive. In fact, she even related how Corinne, the oldest of the granddaughters, had made an alteration in the pieces of the crèche to emphasize an important lesson.

It turned out that Corinne had become very upset when she saw how uncomfortable the manger appeared, with the wooden trough looking creaky and old, and the hay within it visibly bumpy, scratchy and itchy. Blessed with a very sensitive and gentle heart, Corinne spoke up in defense of the care of the Christ child, “Baby Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to show us how precious is each and every child. We cannot just leave him in that miserable manger.” She then then went into her bedroom and returned with a tiny pillow and blanket to comfort the Lord, and she added, “Now, he can sleep in heavenly peace.”

Inspired by the tender love which Corinne extended to the Baby Jesus, my mom then expressed the joy she found in the effects of playing with the gift she had given. “You know how I was hoping that the Nativity set would help the grandkids learn the Christmas story and come know it better. But, my heart overflows, because it is doing more than that. It seems like it is helping them live the Christmas story.”

I must admit the lesson demonstrated by my niece Corinne dramatically altered my earlier reticence regarding my mom’s bestowal of a Nativity play set. Like her, I was moved to believe that celebrating the sacred mystery of Christmas involves much more than simply retelling a laudable story and entertaining some fond memories. Granted, we have a hallowed duty to proclaim the Christmas story. We are bound to solemnly declare with a sense of awe and wonder what often is called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” For, in doing so, we encounter once again the revelation of the immensity of God’s love for us: How God loved us so much that he sent his only son into the world to become one of us so that someday we might become one with him. And it is appropriate — indeed, truly fitting — that we retell that story of grace because it gives birth to hope in our world, a world which too often dwells in darkness — the darkness of hurt and pain, evil and cruelty.

Yet, I would like to suggest that simply retelling the Christmas story — no matter how joyful and hopeful it may be — really is not enough. Because the power of listening to a story can fade. As it is said, hope in itself is still not a plan or strategy. The Gospel must be embraced and put into practice — not just felt.

If we truly want the power of the Christmas story to be more lasting, then we cannot simply tell the story. We must live it. As my mom intended in the special Nativity set, we must inhabit the Christmas story and become its characters and enact what they stood for and what they believed:

  • Like the Blessed Virgin Mary, we must become so faithful to the Word of God that it can become flesh in us — when it becomes the inspiration and source of our every thought and action.
  • Like St. Joseph, we must become a guardian who protects and defends the preciousness and sacredness of life — especially when it is most vulnerable.
  • Like the shepherds in the field, we must be open and receptive to the revelation of the Good News of our God and respond to its fulfillment without delay or procrastination.
  • Like the angel among the multitude of the heavenly host, we must never tire of singing the chorus of “peace on earth” and “good will to all,” and we must refuse to let it be drowned out by the noise of violence and injustice.
  • Like the Magi from the East, we must ever give the greatest of gifts — the very best part of ourselves — in homage to the Lord.

Ultimately, the Christmas story must become our story, too. And if it does, the promise made by St. John the Evangelist in the prologue of his Gospel proclaimed on every Christmas Day will become more and more manifest. For in living Christmas, we will show more fully our acceptance of the “True Light which came into the world,” and it will be this True Light which then will shine through us — emanating a radiant glory — a glory that not even the darkness of the world will be able to overcome.