Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Reflections, 2011

"Adoration of the Wise Men," Murillo, 17th ct.
It’s Christmas Eve in midtown Manhattan. My wife has just returned from picking up some sundries at a local clothing store, where she was mistreated by staff, and actually held by the shoulders and repositioned out of the way, by one fellow on a quest for bargains. “New York is a rough place on Christmas Eve,” she told me on her return, and so it is.

There has certainly been a manic feel in the air over the last week or so. Yesterday I passed a fellow while crossing 57th Street at 6th Avenue. In that strange modern custom whereby people advertise the most intimate details of their lives to total strangers as they yell into their mobile phones, I heard this gentleman shouting, “It’s crazy! Out of control! I just spent $600 on gifts . . .” before he walked out of range.

Again, so it is, crazy and out of control. It is a commonplace observation to note that Christmas has become overly commercialized. But distortions always have something that they are distorted from, so we might well look to see what is the pure impulse that is at the heart of this holiday that has become so identified with heavy expenditure. And here we find something to ponder. For although buying is not at the real heart of the holiday, giving is.

The late Gordon B. Hinckley, then the second counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church, had this to say about the meaning of Christmas:

Christmas means giving. The Father gave his Son, and the Son gave his life. Without giving there is no true Christmas, and without sacrifice there is no true worship. There is more to Christmas than neckties, earrings, toys, and all the tinseled stuff of which we make so much. (“‘What Shall I Do Then with Jesus Which Is Called Christ?’,” December 1983 Ensign, emphasis in original)

The traditional interpretation that Latter-day Saints make is that Jesus was actually born on the ancient equivalent of April 6, 1 bc, and that Jesus was crucified on the same date in 33 ad. So it is that the day of Jesus’ birth marks his Father’s gift to us, and the day of his death marks the gift to all humanity of the Atonement of Christ—and it is the same day.

The world knows little of this. For the world at large, the whole gift-giving-at-Christmas meme begins with the arrival of the Wise Men, the Magi, who came to adore the infant Jesus, and bestowed upon him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This moment has been immortalized in uncounted works of art through the centuries, such as the 17th century work by Murillo shown above.

So what does that all mean for us? What is it that we are to learn from all this collection of gift-giving, giving that is conducted even on a cosmic scale? Perhaps we can learn something from Murillo’s painting, above.

There is Jesus in a manger, attended by his mother Mary and Joseph. There are no supernatural elements in the painting, no nimbus of glory here that says This child is the Savior of the world. (Well, maybe there’s the tiniest hint of a nimbus about baby Jesus’ head. But I’m guessing that no one is really noticing this.)

To someone completely ignorant about Christianity, this looks like quite the curious visit: some extraordinarily well-dressed, well-to-do individuals, heavily guarded (see the pointy spears) and laden with some very serious bling (note the jewel-encrusted gold box at the foot of the manger), who have visited a very ordinary-looking family in the humblest of circumstances. (The place surrounding the manger has collapsed timbers and disordered stonework.)

Now, we who know the account in the New Testament know why these powerful individuals were visiting this family of seeming nobodies. The Wise Men possessed special knowledge that this was Someone Special. And that is what prompted everything: the long and arduous journey, the expensive gifts, the danger.

But let’s consider this. Latter-day Saints, too, possess special knowledge. We know that the people we pass by each day are not nobodies; each one of them is a literal Child of God, with a divine birthright that includes the potential of veritable exaltation to godhood. That’s everybody, including the people who live beneath bridges, or huddle in the cold in doorways and alleys just off the street.

So here’s my thought, my suggestion for acting out the spirit of giving in a Magi-like way: Bring some gift to the homeless tonight or tomorrow. Pizza works very nicely, take-out sandwiches, food of just about any kind, really. Orange juice or simply pure bottled water. In many cases, baby food. Yes, you may well be working outside of your comfort zone to do this. (On the other hand, I’m sure the whole journey-across-the-desert-sands thing was a bit uncomfortable for the original Magi, too.)

Twenty centuries ago, God gave us His Son as the ultimate Christmas present. That baby was honored by some of the greatest people of that generation, even though he was in a smelly stable, born to a poor family. (In a way, for that night at least, Jesus Himself was homeless.) It would be a particularly appropriate way of commemorating that birth to go bring gifts to those whom the world least honors, for each of them is also a Child of God.

As President Hinckley continued:

Christmas means giving—and “the gift without the giver is bare.” Giving of self; giving of substance; giving of heart and mind and strength in assisting those in need and in spreading the cause of His eternal truth—these are of the very essence of the true spirit of Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

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[The image is a reproduction of the painting “Adoration of the Wise Men,” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). The image is in the public domain, and was obtained through Wikipedia.]

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