Today while being prepped for a long dental procedure, my dentist began talking about preparing for Christmas. Having grown up in an Asian country, he told me that even though a non-Christian he had often visited various Catholic churches at Christmastime, attracted by the lights and decorations. As I settled into the dentist chair I listened to this kind, conscientious man. He talked about life and how he was trying to achieve a sort of perfection, a release from the hold that anger, envy, disappointment, failures in relationships and other daily occurrences can have over us and which can get us down. He admitted that it was a struggle to always be good.
Changing the course of his reflections he asked me, “How are you preparing for Christmas?” I considered telling him about Advent with its dual preparation for Christ’s final coming and for the commemoration of his birth in Bethlehem. Instead I commented on his struggles, adding that we Catholics call those common human negative tendencies the seven capital sins. He mused that the Christmas Season and New Year offer hope for something better to come, the healing of relationships, more control of emotions, freedom from addiction…. I mentioned that God helps us to be the people we desire to become with the strength that we Christians call grace.
Soon my mouth was numb and the dental procedure underway. There was still so much more I wish I could have said. Christmas is bursting with hope, promise, and joy. I wanted to let him in on the reason for our joy at this time of year. I wanted to tell him about the virtues: faith, hope, charity, and prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These seven virtues lead us to those daily victories that make us more and more like Christ.
While he continued his work, I prayed and reflected on the depths of this man’s earnest efforts to achieve goodness. His search reminded me of the concerts our sisters had performed during the Advent Season. The music and the singing were definitely meant to instill hope in people. “Christ our Savior is born!” We sing this refrain every Christmas. Christmas carols, in fact, are bursting with evangelical Good News!
At the concerts of the Daughters of St. Paul Choir held at our Motherhouse in Boston this year, the students of a nearby Japanese school for women were invited. These Christmas concerts often are one of the American experiences that are part of their six-month stay in the US, during which they learn English and immerse themselves in the culture. At each concert at least 20 to 40 of the young women filed into the pews. As I watched them, I wondered if they understood the message being sung. Just how do people from a non-Christian culture understand what Christmas is all about? Do they wonder what we mean by a Savior? Do they feel a need for a Savior?
The older I become, the more the word “Savior” takes on a deeper meaning for me. Every time I participate in the Liturgy, I admit at the very beginning that I am a sinner. I need a Savior. When I celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation I experience almost tangibly the relief which flows from knowing once again the kindness and mercy of my Savior. In the gospel, Jesus assures us, “Without me, you can do nothing.”
My dentist’s honest searching made me touch the helplessness people who don’t know the Savior feel as they strive to grow in goodness.
Together with our “elder brothers in the Lord,” the Jewish people, we are blessed to be able to discover in the Scriptures the story of a merciful God who always saved biblical Israel even after its many moral failures. Psalm 91 ends with God speaking to us: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them, I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.”
Father Robert Barron in his Advent meditations wrote that a drowning person wants to be saved—not taught. He or she is not looking for a teacher or a guru, but a savior.
Jesus is that ultimate Savior. He saves us from the tyranny of bad habits, the stranglehold of our habits of sin.
When someone sincerely wants to be good, he soon realizes that it is not a given that what we desire to be is what we end up being. St. Paul realized this. His experience is echoed in our lives too. He wrote about it in Romans 7: Can you relate to Paul’s words? “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate” (cf. Romans 7:14-20). The good that I want to do, I do not do. During a Lectio Divina at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, Cardinal Thomas Collins spoke of our own personal “Roman’s Seven,” our recurring weaknesses that can lead to discouragement. When we finally admit that we need a Savior to deliver us from the pitfalls of our own bad habits, then we are on the way to experiencing hope more deeply. “With God, I can do all things” is the answer St. Paul found, when he bowed before Jesus.
As you kneel before the manger, I invite you to join me as I open my heart to the Savior hidden in the swaddling clothes. God’s Love lies there, waiting for us to cradle him in our arms, and hold him close to our hearts. Ask him to be your Savior, to deliver you from behaviors and habits you wish you didn’t have, from those dangers that lead you into sin. Let Christmas carols this season reinforce your faith, hope and love. Let us celebrate Jesus’ birth this year with unshakeable faith, exuberant hope, contagious joy, and most of all by reaching out to one another and to the poor and neediest among us.
May the peace which the Infant Jesus promised us enfold you and all you love. If worry, concerns, ill health, strained relationships, or any other problem tries to destroy your Christmas joy, let St. Paul comfort you: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
May Christ give you the most Merry Christmas and Blessed New Year!
Sister Mary Peter, fsp