The light in the darkness

Picture of John Hodgson CSsR

John Hodgson CSsR

John is the Provincial, Oceania Province

My wonderful aunt Sylv was born on Christmas Day but often felt her birthday got lost in the festivities. If family and friends did remember, they would often package Christmas and her birthday into one card, one gift, and one celebration: “Merry Christmas! Happy Birthday!” Christmas was a bittersweet experience for her, and a frequent saying of hers was, “Don’t expect anything, and you won’t be disappointed.”

Every society needs its festivals to counterbalance the actual hard work of people living within their means. We look for relief and seek out moments of togetherness where joy and laughter are celebrated and not hidden. These are important occasions for family, communities, and societies; important occasions, in fact, for all humanity. We look forward to these festivals.


And despite the consumer industry ramping up the glitz and glamour of Christmas shopping so that we part with our money more willingly, most of us see past that shallow façade. Yes, we are aware that our celebrations often fall short of our expectations, and it feels as though Christmas has lost its soul, but it’s still worthwhile to have expectations of Christmas, even if they are not always fulfilled.

What might we expect of this Christmas festival – either personally, as a community of faith, as a society, and as a world?


On a personal level, I often feel many of us look for some sense of belonging to family, to feel connected in such a way that our life matters, that we are among those who know us and care about us. When we connect, Christmas leaves us on a high. When we don’t connect and don’t feel we belong, Christmas time can feel incredibly lonely.


On every level, Christmas has an implicit expectation of joy, happiness, and festivity. Christmas carries an expectation that we stop, relax, and celebrate the good things in life – family, friendships, and achievements and release the valve of constant pressure built up by stress throughout the year. The Santa suits come out, there is playfulness in the air, and we seek good company and conversation that lifts us up.


As we gather to celebrate Christmas each year, media scripts and family conversations naturally reflect on Christmas in the context of major world events, local tragedies, or personal hardships that have affected our lives. Endless waves of violence and terror unleashed in anger on others, especially children, constantly pound our minds and hearts and deeply affect our spirit.


We look to Christmas to help us discover the light in the darkness, find a better way to peace, and certainly cultivate hope in the despair of conflict. Christmas carries an expectation that its message of peace, hope, and goodwill will somehow permeate the soul, heal the hatred, defuse anger, resolve conflicts, and restore a deeper sense of our common humanity. We grow tired of excuses that perpetuate conflict and resolve little.


Christmas carries some expectation of tradition – that familiar symbols, rituals, and activities associated with Christmas are visible and tangible so that their familiarity acts as a comfort to help us negotiate a whole world of change. We may easily be upset when our traditional Christmas symbols are degraded, hidden, mocked, or forgotten. Every society needs its symbols to remind them of what’s important.


Christmas also has an expectation that we think of others, act kindly towards them, and give generously, not only to family but also to strangers and those in need. We get cranky when we see selfishness and exclusion. No one admires the Christmas scrooge!


All these expectations are healthy so long as we don’t lose our intuition for what humanity really needs and longs. Despite the many faults of secular society in the way it celebrates Christmas, the power of the celebration still shines through and continually points us in one profound direction – nurturing relationships, strengthening bonds, cultivating humility, welcoming inclusion, creating intimacy, healing hurts, reconciling differences and building communion. If we have eyes to see, hearts to feel, and minds to perceive, God is incarnate in every aspect of our Christmas celebrations.


Underneath all our expectations is a profound longing – God’s longing to be with us, and our yearning to be with God. In the complexity of life, Christmas carries in its soul a wonderful tapestry of expectations that create a holy longing for something more – to dwell in God. In the heart of God, the birth of Jesus carries a longing in its DNA that somewhere deep with us, both personally and as a society, we will be touched and transformed by an experience of Love, and that through moments of reflection and contemplation and transcendence, we recognise some profound truth about ourselves: that we are loved by God and are fulfilled in loving God and neighbour; that we are good people; that fundamentally we don’t seek to hurt others and that peace and justice are achievable with good intentions and actions; that in fact, Love heals and overcomes adversity.



One of our most enduring Christmas traditions is creating opportunities for the Christmas story to enter our consciousness and allow it to do what it is meant to do – affect our mood, thoughts, and actions and open us to divine grace.


So how do we feel when we read aloud the story of the birth of Jesus or see it acted out in a children’s nativity play; when a work of art or music reflecting the nativity moves our heart or when we are challenged by a profound sermon or a piece of insightful literature; when we bring out symbols of the nativity and place them around us or when we decorate our home festively with lights and color; when we act on our values of generosity and kindness and reach out to others and see hope emerge from despair?  


In these moments the body, mind, and soul have a wonderful opportunity to enter a time and place of contemplation on a profound mystery – God, the Divine, the Lover, the Creator of all life becomes one of us in a union so deep, so profound, and eternal. And not only becomes one with us, but with absolute humility enters the human experience in the form of a vulnerable newborn to be one of us. 


The Christmas story is a sacred story in every sense. It has the power to lift us beyond the ordinary, taking us into a special experience where we see, feel, and understand something that cannot be conveyed by everyday words. God lives and breathes in this sacred story, showing us that God dwells in every story, sometimes hidden, sometimes magnified, but always present.


The nativity story has been told to children, families, communities, and societies for over 2000 years for the very reason that its power to transform the world cannot be withheld, and its wisdom is needed to guide our very lives. It is our one important task every Christmas season to recall, retell, and contemplate that profound story and unwrap its gift for the world.


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