A group of atheists recently bought a billboard in Times Square and asked the provocative question: Who needs Christ at Christmas? They answered their own question with a one-word answer—nobody.
That is an interesting take on the holy day that is named, quite aptly, after Christ himself.
According to the billboard, Christmas can now be about anything you want it to be. For example, they suggested, it can simply be about family, friends, presents, parties and hot chocolate.
Christians obviously do not agree with this, but the atheists bring an important point to the forefront of the public debate. In recent years Christmas has been accompanied by a “war on Christmas,” which is rather strange: What does the world have to fear from the belief that God so loved humanity that he became a child and dwelt among us?
Just this month, in an exclusive interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis spoke with laser-like precision on the essence of Christmas. “It is the encounter with Jesus,” he said.
“God has always sought out his people, led them, looked after them and promised to always be close to them,” he continued. “This is a beautiful thing. Christmas is God’s meeting with his people.”
The appeal of the message of Christmas, even to non-believers, is present all around us. The encounter of Christ with his people sparks an incredible outpouring of joy, of consolation, of generosity and of hope. This can be quite contagious.
The parties, the presents, the gatherings with friends and family, and yes, even the hot chocolate, are wonderful demonstrations of this joy that dwells in our hearts. Nobody throws a party when they are fearful of the future. We don’t give presents if there is no movement of joy and love in our hearts.
These wonderful aspects of Christmas don’t define the holy day, but rather they are a part of Christmas because we know that God is with us and for us; there is reason to rejoice.
We Christians have a great responsibility to let everyone know that Christmas is about the infinite mercy of God, especially because this reality is what unleashes the deepest joy anyone could experience. And for those who don’t share the Christian belief, everyone should be at peace celebrating even the concept that there is hope in such a love.
To Christians, I encourage you to remember, as Pope Francis reminded us in the aforementioned interview, that “Christmas is joy, religious joy, God’s joy, an inner joy of light and peace.” We must be witnesses of such joy, and we must contemplate the great mystery of God, who came to dwell among us.
“With Christ,” he writes in “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), “joy is constantly born anew.”
The Pope used the word joy in his letter more than 50 times, underlining the absolute centrality of joy in the life of a Christian. He invites Christians to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus to Christ.” He urges us to listen intently to God’s voice in our hearts, and to experience the “quiet joy of his love.”
To non-Christians, I urge you to take another look at Christmas. Look at it again with fresh eyes. Look at what we celebrate: let the eyes of your souls go past the presents, the trees, the fat Santa and red-nosed Rudolph, and stop at the center of the manger. Listen to the everlasting message of love and peace, and you will know what Christmas is all about, the God who loves you eternally even if you do not wish to receive that love. It’s a message that benefits us all.
Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, S.T.L.
Archbishop of Denver