The meaning of Christmas

Ocean State Stories asked Christian faith leaders to reflect on the meaning of Christmas. Here’s what they said.

— The Reverend Dr. Chris Abhulime, founding pastor of The King’s Tabernacle Church, a Pentecostal non-denominational church in Johnston:

The Rev. Chris Abhulime, pastor of The King’s Tabernacle

“Christmas is a global phenomenon with religious and spiritual underpinnings. Although rooted in the Christian tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas has undoubtedly morphed into a worldwide festivity that transcends ecclesiastical affiliations, philosophical differences, creed, class, culture, politics, and geography.

“Unlike celebrations such as Independence Day that unite people within a specific geographical location, Christmas unites the world in a celebration. It is the one time of the year when the world is galvanized joyfully around a common idea.

“Theologically, it is a season of deep reflection on God’s provision for the salvation of mankind, and a period of personal recommitment to the Christian faith. It is a season of giving and receiving of love; but the greatest love-gift from God into man’s soul is Christ the Lord. The interminable love of God was demonstrated by the birth of The Christ; “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The giving and receiving of gifts, the expressions of goodwill to one another, the festive ornaments, the decorations, and the unwrapping presents make Christmas a unique time of the year. 

“It is this uniqueness that unites the world every December. Amid the merriment and excitement around Christmas, we must pause to remember those who are away from home, and those in dire situations who are unable to join in the global festivities. My hope is that the season reminds us of our common humanity and catalyzes a deeper appreciation of our commonality not only during Christmas but throughout the year.”

— Sister Genevieve-Marie Vigil, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, Middletown:

Sister Genevieve-Marie Vigil – Submitted photo

“Christmas is the Great Celebration of God’s abounding imagination.

“Who would have imagined that the Creator of the marvels that the Webb telescope is revealing would enter into human history as a man?

“Who would have imaged that the God made man would be born to a virgin?

“Who would imagine that a carpenter of integrity would trust in the impossible of a virgin bearing a child?

“Who would have imaged that the child would be born in an area of the Roman Empire, that was considered with disdain?

“Who would have imaged that the pregnant mother would give birth to God made man in in the shelter for animals?

“Who would have imagined that shepherds and kings would find common ground in being witnesses to the Great Imagination of God?

“How do we now imagine the gift of God’s Presence among us as one who shares our hopes, our loves, our struggles, our pain and our history?

“Can we trust the Great Loving Imagination of God in our lives and with all the impossibilities that surround us?

“May the Christmas gifts of peace and hope stir our imagination to love the world as does the Child of Bethlehem.”

— The Reverend Marcel Taillon, pastor of Roman Catholic Saint Thomas More Parish in Narragansett:

The Rev. Marcel Taillon – Submitted photo

“Well, thanks be to God Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is God.  We are preparing to celebrate His birth, the first coming.   find that with all that is going on in the world it is even more important to enter into the true meaning of Christmas.

“Jesus came into the world sent by the Father because there was a human need for redemption, forgiveness and love.

“I think it is poignant that God chose the ‘Holy Land’  for the conception, birth, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We think of the world that Jesus was born into was not unlike our own with wars, divisions and economic hardship.

“I like to remind people of Herod slaughtering the baby boys in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus and the Holy Family fleeing across the border to Egypt to reach safety form a cruel and despotic ruler. This too is part of the Christmas story that does not make it on the front of Christmas cards but is very much part of it. In some strange way this and parts of the beginnings of the life of Jesus and his family’s struggles are more meaningful than ever. I might even call it a hope-filled consolation for the days in which we find ourselves.  God entered into these experiences for us and remains with us today in all our struggles.

“I encourage people during Advent to pray, repent, spend more time in prayer and reflection than usual.  Make sure preparations and parties are rooted in an interior acknowledgement of the birth of Jesus. I find that the gift of joy encountering Christ in Scripture and especially the Real Presence in the Mass draws one into interior peace and then we go out into the world.

“I am sure Pope Francis will be ardent in his appeal for peace all over the world. January First is traditionally the holy day of Mary, the Mother of God. Mary, a poor humble girl from Nazareth, was invited to grace Jesus with his humanity. Jesus is also called the ‘Prince of Peace.’  The Holy Land and all the Middle East and Europe are in need of a new awakening to human fraternity and a cessation of violence especially against the innocent.  I am sure Pope Francis will be consistent with his intervention.

“We have seen a dramatic uptick in requests for food and assistance here in South County.  Blessedly, our parish has never given more to the poor and needy than this year so we can keep up with the demand. 

“We have food drives, hat and coat drives, sock collections and we assisted St. Patrick and Fr. James Ruggieri’s efforts. Serving the poor and helping them fills us with the Advent and Christmas spirit.

“I pray for peace in the hearts of all. I pray the New Year brings a new spirit of thanksgiving for the Incarnation. God is the Lord of Hope. He always loves and forgives. When we encounter this we receive the personal gift of peace.

“I also just hosted a family from Jerusalem that are Catholic. They have five children and are very close and dear to me. They live there and own a pilgrimage travel agency. As you can imagine, all their income has stopped. I was just in the Holy Land with 36 pilgrims returning September 8th. We missed the war by a few weeks. All the pilgrims that over the years have been fundamentally changed all provided to fly the family over for a two-week break from the war area. We held a holy hour for peace at St. Veronica chapel on Sunday, November 19th.

“The father, Fabien, spoke at the beginning of the Holy Hour. It is posted on our website at St. Veronica special events. In addition, they attended Mass [recently] at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas More. Fabien spoke at the end of mass and they sang the Hail Mary in French for peace in Israel.

 “It was deeply moving and their presence made the war real to us. They have since returned to their home, bomb shelters and sirens, but are OK. I think you might want to view these things that might help you feel the spirit of Jesus in you and in them.”

— The Reverend Racquel R. Ray, Barrington Congregational Church, United Church of Christ:

The Rev. Racquel R. Ray – Submitted photo

“A Light Breaking Forth.

“I enjoy marking the dwindling daylight of December days. I observe the sunrise and sunset times and the low angles of sunrays that beam through the southern windows. My afternoon walks are hastened by the chill of shortened days. These are the shortest days of sunshine and longest nights of darkness in our region. These are the days of Advent and lights, soup and hot tea, a turnover in the church liturgical calendar year. There is a shift in the sanctuary; the lectionary resets and altar colors change from green to blue. Something is different. Something is coming.

“There is a pair of kingfishers, halcyon birds, that come and visit our backyard each December at this time. The spring-fed freshwater pond used to be the local ice-skating spot in years gone by. The kingfishers dart and whistle breaking the golden sparkling stillness of the afternoon. They swoop to the water and back to the trees upsetting the backyard rhythm of blue jays and sparrows. They too are different.

“There is a legend of the halcyon birds heralding days of calm free from storms and tempests. And in the case of my backyard during Advent, halcyon days are the days around the winter solstice and Christmas. When the kingfishers visit, the days are their shortest, darkest, and the calmest of the year. The first and second candles of the Advent wreath on my dining room table and on our church altar are getting short as well.

“And then there is a shift. In these days, the morning sunrise is minutes later but the afternoons have shifted. One minute at a time, the afternoons are lengthening. The mornings won’t catch up until January. But, there is hope in the extended afternoon. Hope that the sunshine is returning, and a “light is breaking forth” as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed.

“These same days are wrapped in Christmas preparations. Our packages and Christmas cards are sent to loved ones, friends, colleagues, and congregation members. The Christmas pageant plans are taking shape; script, sheep and shepherds, angels and archangels, manger and magi, Joseph and Mary are ready. We send our end of year gifts and pledges. We volunteer, we share meals, we donate winter coats and mittens. We bring flowers to the cemetery and lay wreaths for remembered veterans. We wait in expectation for the light to break forth in the Nativity as well.

“Isaiah prophesies, ‘Is this not the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke: Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.’

“At Christmastime, we are quick to offer peace to our neighbors, provision to the poor, hats to the homeless, and hospitality to our families. Do we receive the connection between Isaiah’s message and Jesus’ mission to feed, clothe, shelter the least of these among us? The Light that breaks forth in these halcyon days is not merely the sun. The Son, the promised, long-expected Jesus is breaking open the heavens and the virgin womb, connecting creator and creature, lifting creation and cosmos.

“And, in the dwindling darkest days that envelop us, can we observe and deeply receive the hope that Light is merely a breath away? An afternoon walk, an inhale and exhale, a candle, a card, a package, a present, a wink and a nod, are all just an awareness awakening to the growing Light in our darkness. And one minute at a time, one person at a time, may we each call upon the Lord and so readily receive Him as we receive the sunshine of lengthening days.”

— The Reverend Peter Batts, Order of Preachers (Dominican), Providence College:

The Reverend Peter Batts – Submitted photo

“ ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2)

“Today, Christians all over the world celebrate the feast of Christmas, that moment 2,000 years ago when God became one of us, when God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. The world, then as now, was a dark place full of sin, violence of every kind, hatred, and injustice. Jesus was born into poverty, in a stable to be exact. His parents, the teenage virgin Mary and Joseph, his foster father, had no place to stay as they traveled to Bethlehem to register for a census. The birth of the baby Jesus was the most important moment of human history. The grown-up Jesus would go on to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven in our world, a kingdom of peace, justice, and love. He would die on a cross in order to bring salvation to all people, in order to heal us. This kingdom will be fulfilled at the end of history when Jesus will come again.

“The great light which is Jesus Christ still shines and yet our world is still full of darkness, even for those of us who are Christians, disciples of the Incarnate One. We celebrate Christmas as we follow the Great Light which does not eliminate the darkness completely but guides us through it. There is often darkness in our personal lives; there is often brokenness in or families. We seem to be experiencing the darkest moment in our national history since the Civil War. There is polarization and division everywhere! There is war, violence, and massacres all over the world. Children are senselessly killed in Israel, Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine and in places all over the world. Yet, we who are Christians still glimpse Christ our Light, still, through grace, continue to hope.

“At Christmastime, we especially emphasize our call as Christians to share in the Lord Jesus’s project of building up the kingdom of heaven, of bringing to fulfillment the kingdom of peace, justice, and love. Although we ourselves are not the Great Light, we reflect that Light, thereby alleviating the darkness of the world around us. Whether Christian or not, each of us, by our acts of compassion and kindness, contributes to the creation of the Beloved Community, to the sustenance of a world filled with the Light which has shined brightly for the last 2000 years in spite of every attempt to extinguish it.

“May the people who walked in darkness see the Great Light this Christmas and always.”

— Sister M. Therese Antone, Religious Sisters of Mercy, Chancellor, Salve Regina University:

Sister M. Therese Antone – Courtesy of Salve Regina University

“While the major religions of the world pray, worship and celebrate in diverse ways, each acknowledges a creator in the development of life. The creator is called by many different names and heard in many different voices.

“Christians acknowledge the creator’s unbounded love of creation and deliberate choice to participate in the life of creation motivated by this eternal love. The birth of Christ, as portrayed in the gospels, tells us not only of a couple about to give birth desperately in need of a home and their dependence upon strangers for survival; it is the story of God’s unbounded love made real in the person of Jesus Christ.

“Christmas is a call to celebrate the great gift of life, gift of love, and the hope of eternal peace. It is a call to see God in all people and in situations where we do not expect to find grace. It bears the message that the fullness of life is found in generous sharing of love and reverence for all of God’s creation.

“Christmas is a reminder of God’s abiding presence among us.”

— The Right Reverend Michael G. Brunner, Order of Saint Benedict, Abbot, Portsmouth Abbey:

The Right Reverend Michael G. Brunner – Submitted photo

“You may remember a song from the musicale Mame: ‘For I’ve grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder,  Grown a little older.  And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder. I need a little Christmas now.’

“We do need Christmas, and thank God Christmas is here now. Just as Easter looks immediately forward to eternal life, Christmas looks first to life in this world. Although He is the eternal God from God, we celebrate the birth of Jesus as a human baby, God come to us, God with us, God one of us, a God who experiences what we experience… birth, growth, puberty, temptation, misunderstanding, fatigue, pain. We celebrate the birth of a man who grew into a healer, literally and figuratively, physically and spiritually.

“Advent, now over, recalls the time before Christ, the longing for a healer to set things right, the anxious waiting, the trusting that God would do just as he said he would. And God did…in His own surprising way. And now we celebrate.

“We always give this greeting to each other, to friends and strangers alike…Merry Christmas. Merry is an old word. It means fundamentally “happy.” The greeting means Happy Christmas. Happiness is what every sane human being seeks, even the worst sinner, who thinks that his sin will bring him happiness. Christmas is the time of Christ, our time. It is the time since 1 AD, but the happiness we wish each other is for now, today, and the future.

“We know our eternal happiness rests in Jesus Christ. But not everyone knows or believes that. Our mercantile society believes happiness rests in material prosperity, symbolized by many and expensive gifts and lavish food which are so heavily promoted at Christmas time. Christmas may be just another holiday, but in wishing someone Merry Christmas …even someone who takes umbrage at the religious aspect of Christmas… is simply wishing that person deep happiness.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. God meets us where we are, all of us. That’s the way Jesus and the Apostles preached, to people as and where they were. So to the unbelievers, unappreciative of a Merry Christmas, just tell them you wish them happiness. No strings attached. You don’t want anything from them, just want true happiness for them. That ought to make them stop and think. And that pause is where God can enter.

“God can and does enter pauses. We might think of that as we sing or hear “Silent Night.” If we make too much noise or are surrounded by too much noise and business, there’s little possibility for God to get a word in. As we go through the busyness of life year by year, it’s easy for us to develop a sort of deafness and insensitivity to God and our faith.

“As we begin a new year, a new age as it were, after Christmas, ask yourself…Do you want to be happy, truly and deeply happy ? Are you truly and deeply happy ? Only you can answer that, but I’m pretty sure that no matter how happy you are, that there is room for improvement, since perfect happiness is not found in this world or this life.The way to deepen happiness is by deepening faith in the Source of Happiness, and so deepening a relationship with God. Now if you are happy and seeking happiness, would you not like those whom you love also to be happy? Christmas is also an invitation for those who have lost touch with the faith and the Church. We may become distant from God, but God stays close to us; that’s the fundamental meaning of Christmas… God with us, waiting for the moment, the opportunity to get through to us. Christmas may be the moment for you or someone you love.

“The wise men, the Magi, responded to an invitation God put into the stars. They were wise enough to read it and respond. God puts many invitations in our lives. He does not delete us from his mailing list if we don’t respond. He keeps trying. That’s because God really does love each and every one of us, even in our worst, weakest or most indifferent moments, however long those may last.

“Whatever way God is calling you and inviting you to come closer, to be happier, may you hear, listen and respond, and that therefore you become happier on your life’s journey. And above all, may you arrive at the destination of perfect happiness that God has designed just for you.”

— The Reverend Patrick J. Greene, Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Barrington:

The Reverend Patrick J. Greene – Submitted photo

“When I think about the meaning of Christmas I am always reminded of what St. Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation. St. Athanasius talks about the incarnation, the belief that in God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, in terms of a king visiting a city. He writes that the entire city is honored and lifted up by that visit. That honor and privilege is not just for the elite and the rulers, but all who call that city home, and it extends beyond just the time of the kings visit.

“In terms of the incarnation that means that all of humanity was lifted up by God choosing to become one of us. On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ, God entering into human flesh. That means that all of humanity, all people across time and location have been honored and lifted up by this royal visit. All people, this tells us, are deserving of love and respect because our God chose to take on our mortal flesh. We celebrate this wonderful gift both in the spectacular worship of Christmas but also by loving our neighbors as we ourselves have been loved.”

Editor’s note: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from Ocean State Stories!