Making Christmas the Season for (True) Receiving

More often than not, when we think of Christmas we think of giving. We see it as a time of charity and generosity of spirit. Charles Dickens in his novel A Christmas Carol depicts this very idea. The cold-hearted and greedy Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a life-changing Christmas Eve when he is visited by three Christmas ghosts who show him the consequences of his actions and where they will ultimately lead him if he doesn’t change. After this wonderful and terrifying encounter, Scrooge gives up his selfish ways. The takeaway from this famous tale: the true spirit of Christmas is one of giving and generosity. 

However, when we take a closer look at the Nativity of Our Lord, I believe that Christmas is not so much about giving but, actually, receiving. Jesus did not come to receive gifts from us. Jesus, the second person of the Blessed Trinity and the Word Incarnate (incarnate meaning in the flesh), came to give us something. In other words, Christmas is about receiving what Christ gives us.

During Advent, we hear Scripture passages telling us to “make straight the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). We are told in the Gospel of Luke that John the Baptist exhorted those who came to him to detach themselves from worldly and material things (see Luke 3:7-18). The theme of repentance rings out during the Advent Mass readings. It is not simply because we should be better people or kinder to others, though these things are good. It is so that we can create space within our souls to receive Love incarnate.

In common translations of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we read, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). But in the Latin Vulgate (the Latin translation of scripture) the words used are, “fides, spes et Caritas, meaning faith, hope, and charity. 

So, why charity instead of love or in Latin, amor? Because those words often imply an emotional or sentimental love whereas charity or Caritas implies action—it implies acting and not merely feeling. While we might equate charity with being generous and giving goods to others, the ultimate meaning of charity entails giving of one’s self rather than one’s things

As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “to love is to will the good of the other, for their own sake” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q26, a.1). This does not mean that we should not feel passion or desire toward those we love. Rather, it means that it is charity that allows us to love those we don’t like or consider our enemies in a way that does not seek anything in return (“for their own sake”). This is one of the differences between sentimental love and charity. 

Another difference between sentimental love and charity is that charity is a theological virtue. Prudence, temperance, justice, and courage make up the four cardinal virtues. These are virtues that man possesses and can develop on his own. We can be more prudent by taking time to think wisely about our choices. We can be more temperate by exercising moderation when it comes to spending money or eating. We can be more just by treating everyone with fairness and dignity. And we can be more courageous by choosing to act the right way even when we’re afraid.

Theological virtues differ because they are attained only as free gifts from God. We do not possess these virtues or develop them on our own. Rather they are given to us by God to the degree we are open to receiving them. 

In Scripture, we learn about how others received the news of Christ’s birth and how those who were open to God’s gifts of faith, hope, and charity exalted God and then shared such gifts with others. During Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, for example, Elizabeth exclaims, “and how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord* should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:43-44). Mary and Elizabeth are both open to receiving—and do receive—the many graces of God. 

We also read about the angels delivering the message of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds in the fields. Love appeared to the shepherds and, in response, “they made known the message that had been told them about this child” and “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them” (Luke 2:10-20). Joy stems from God’s gift of charity. Comfort stems from God’s gift of hope. And belief and conviction stem from God’s gift of faith.

Receiving Jesus is the message of Christmas. Opening our hearts and minds to the heavenly King is what moves us to act in ways that bring His kingdom here on earth. By receiving the gifts of faith, hope, and charity that are lovingly bestowed upon us by our Father in heaven we can then give and do great acts of kindness and generosity.

Every saint that has ever lived was able to do heroic acts because he or she opened themselves to God’s gifts of faith, hope, and charity and freely received them with humility and joy. Even when those acts of faith led to martyrdom, they accepted their deaths joyfully.

The Christian message of Christmas is indeed a joyful one—it is one of receiving. God has descended from His heavenly glory to be with His beloved creation. He has come as an infant King to renew the faith of His people. Love is freely given to us, not just as a feeling but as a person: a child “wrapped in swaddling clothes” that gives the hope of freedom to a people long in bondage and suffering. And when the world receives Christ, the Word of God made flesh, all of creation resounds with unending joy. Gloria in excelsis Deo!

 

Ambrose is a convert to Catholicism and has struggled with sexaholism and mental illness. He has undergraduate degrees in Catholic theology and philosophy and enjoys learning and reading about the lives of the saints.