A Christmas Meditation from Bishop Joseph Perry

“Green and red are more than just holiday colors. Like the feast of Christmas itself these colors carry symbolic significance for our lives of faith.”

Chicago Christmas

A Christmas Meditation

Bishop Joseph Perry
Many are the colors and lights that brighten the Christmas season. From the variety, perhaps, the colors green and red are the most popular. Inside Church we might even call the colors red and green sacred symbols that point to some deeper meaning about our believing lives.

There is a principle frequently stated by worship experts that a symbol that needs explanation is no longer a good symbol. But then it strikes me that green and red are color symbols whose meaning is not terribly obvious to everyone.

Green and red are more than just holiday colors. Like the feast of Christmas itself these colors carry symbolic significance for our lives of faith.

Think for a few moments the important place of holly and wreaths for this season. We can’t imagine Christmas without them. Just a little thought will bring to mind their place as powerful reminders of a great Christian truth so vital to understanding Christmas, namely, the hope stirred up in our hearts with this sacred feast.

There is also the Christmas tree, the Tannenbaum from German custom, alive and green even amidst the snow and ice of winter. Nature allows evergreens to live while everything else dies this time of year. The scents of evergreen and pine are nature’s own incense in this season giving honor to life blessed by God.

Green is the Church’s color-symbol for hope — the Christian’s preoccupation with good things to come. The Church dons her clergy in the color green during the Ordinary Sundays of the year and weekdays lacking a saint’s name’s day or feast day. Hope is, for believers, life’s recipe for living well. With hope, Christians see meaning in life despite periodic setback and failure. With hope we know there’s more to life than what we can see and touch here and now.

Long before greenhouses, holly was as practical a Christmas decoration as any could be. Holly is an evergreen and it is plentiful this time of year. Holly’s usefulness stems not so much from its availability when Christmas occurs on the calendar but rather in the middle of winter’s cold it is still alive symbolizing endurance in difficult times.

Holly is pretty to look at. Its green color is deep, constant and true. But notice it also has thorns on the ends of its leaves. Holly also has red berries in between its leaves. Red is the color-symbol in the Church for blood, suffering and martyrdom.

The great message of Christmas is that Jesus the Son of God. Second Person of the Trinity, Life itself, with no beginning and no end, came to earth and acted in human ways amidst human events when he was born the Son of Mary the Virgin in Bethlehem, some twenty centuries ago.

For centuries since, the Creed we recite at Mass has proclaimed Christianity’s central belief that Jesus the Son of God conceived by the Holy Spirit’s own power became flesh and moved in the dirt and grime of this world. In His coming into the world Jesus did not simply clothe his godliness with the costume of humanity but He became fully a human being. In that fact, He touched you and me and every other person ever to live and has identified with our experience in everything except sin.

Christmas is celebrated year after year because of the influence the birth of Jesus has brought to the world. For this reason that first Christmas clings to us and its magic has drawn you and I to Church this day in star-gazed wonder to delve more deeply into its meaning for our lives today.

The impact of this feast is evident despite the diversions and setbacks – and sometimes in history they have been horrible. Human thinking and living is still warmer, more loving and inclined to peace through respect for others because of Jesus, than it was before the Bethlehem event. Life is not perfect by any means. But when we make mistakes we now are the wiser.

And when we do good we know the source of our inspiration. Jesus Christ is still our norm for the perfection of human behavior. Just as in the case of Christmas holly our existence has been completely transformed into the deep, evergreen of life and endurance without end. But, in the meantime, there are the thorns too. There is found, here and there, bright illumination in life despite the cold and death of winter. Disappointment, heartache, various reversals still make those winters threateningly real for us now as always.

For most of us, I wager, there are the red berries of suffering that hang on the leaves of life alongside the evergreen of hope. There is the blood lost in frustration, spilled in suffering, spent in hard work and struggle, and even loss of life. But the green of hope still remains. It lives, however harsh and brutal life’s winter can be. It is rich and alluring in texture. Always at the edges are the thorns and nearby the red berries. Not all is evergreen with life. Not all is smooth and pretty, we know this.

Christmas is an intensely personal event for each believer, for each person alive with faith in Jesus. That faith comes to each of us as God’s gift of himself, of His divine Son. It was a personalized, individual directed gift. It did not just happen, shoved into unwelcoming hands. It was God’s free, complete, generous gift to us that came as a remarkable surprise. We were caught off guard, hardly ready. But, that coming brought us a new found hope sobered, of course, by the thorns and the red berries of Christ’s own life on this earth.

Faith revived after much reflection on our part involves the virtue of hope with the peace of mind and direction it provides. Life endures despite the cold winters of personal worry or misfortune. Nevertheless, always present are also those thorns of our sinful instincts and selfishness that are as much a part of life as thorns are a part of holly. By living with faith and hope in the midst of bloodshed that we all eventually meet in life, if only through heartbreak or sickness or tragedy, we ourselves here and now become symbols of great faith.

No birth of a child has ever meant so much for so many. This Child too will be punctured by the thorns life dishes out if only to show us the way: The Lord at Bethlehem began a life in love with God sewing others, meeting frustration and rejection, dealing with the human failings and misjudgments of people, suffering, dying and then rising to proclaim again the truth and eternity of God, His presence with us and in us and our own eternity in the life to come.

God has given us hope in the Lord Jesus, born of Mary this day in Bethlehem of Judaea.

So, it is not an accident that while all else dies; holly and the evergreen remain fresh and alive for us as nature’s gifts and as nature’s reminders of certain things important. These are rich symbols that carry meaning for the new found hope bestowed upon us by the birth of this Divine child. With God’s entry into our world life has promise and freshness especially when all else seems to be sorrow and disappointment.

Remember these things the next time you smell the scent of evergreen or pick up the unique leaf of the holly or when your finger is pricked by the thorn and a berry of red blood issues forth.

The meaning of Christmas is found in the pattern and meaning of Christ’s life. Jesus Christ came to call us to the Father’s love. Christians that we are we have to celebrate this feast. What was given to us so long ago lives on only if we allow ourselves to encounter the mystery again, allowing this mystery to shape us, even change us.

Christmas is not so much about a past event as it is about the present — what is going on in us by reason of God’s coming over two thousand years ago. With the Incarnation of the Son of God eternity entered time and human history was opened to absolute fulfillment in God. Time was, so to speak, touched by Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Mary and received from Him new and surprising significance. His coming became a new time of salvation and grace. We want to take something of the holiness of what we do here today back to our homes with which to embrace each other with the mystery of this love we receive from God and his son. Spread the joy of this season through a warm handshake, a special kiss on the forehead or cheek of your child or grandchild, a word of affection and affirmation out of the ordinary to your spouse. Spread the love of God we all know.

We often grumble through the extraordinary things we do to celebrate Christmas, such as the decorating, the cooking, the wrapping and unwrapping, planning the parties and coming to Mass in the middle of the night. But, how else can we once more grasp the hand of God if we don’t do something extraordinary — out of the ordinary? The largesse of the season is inspired by a generous God we have come to know.

It is His Christmas and it is given to us as gift this day!

Chicago Christmas