Every year at this season, certain people start railing against “the War on Christmas” and talking about how we need to put “Christ back in Christmas.” But how exactly is that done?
Christmas is, first and foremost, supposed to be Jesus’ birthday, right?
In the film, “The Bishop’s Wife” (the original 1947 version, with David Niven and Cary Grant), David Niven plays a bishop who is trying to raise money to build a new cathedral, a grand edifice to the greater glory of God. He prays for help and guidance.
His prayers are answered in the form of an angel, played by Cary Grant. But as happens so often when we pray, Niven’s prayers aren’t answered at all like he expected. Instead, the angel fixes what really needs to be fixed in the bishop’s life: his marriage, his friendships, and his re-commitment to the people of his old, impoverished parish, where he started out.
The angel reminds him what Christmas is really about.
And it’s not about raising money to build bigger and better buildings, to sing ever louder praises to God’s glory. God doesn’t need that. He’s God, He doesn’t need His ego stroked, as if He were an insecure human!
It’s about helping His children: the poor, the lonely, the sick at heart, those who need God’s love the most, and depend on each one of us to be God’s instrument and give it to them, in the form of human contact.
Grant is supposed to type up Niven’s sermon for the Christmas services. Instead, he writes a completely new one, which Niven doesn’t discover, until he’s already on the pulpit, delivering it:
“Tonight, I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable; and wise men came with birthday gifts.
“We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.
“But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer; and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe.
“For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled — all, that is, except one.
“And we have even forgotten to hang it up –the stocking for the child born in a manger.
“It’s His birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.
“Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share: loving-kindness; warm hearts; and a stretched-out hand of tolerance.
“All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
(From “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), last accessed from http://joellesstuff.blogspot.com/2009/12/christmas-eve-sermon-from-bishops-wife.html on 12/16/18)
You notice he doesn’t saying anything even about donating to charity? It’s not about just throwing money at the problem. And yes, giving to charity is desperately needed. But it’s not all about money, and blankets for the homeless, and donating your old clothes to the thrift shop, and Toys for Tots, and all those other very worthy causes, even if you are “giving ’til it hurts.” Those are all still only supplying material needs.
What I’m talking about is that “loving-kindness, warm hearts, stretched out hands.” If you really want to give Jesus a birthday present this year, don’t go to a big building and sing a bunch of songs telling Him how great He is (or at least, don’t just do that). That makes you feel good, but He has drawers and closets full of that, already.
If you really want to give Him a birthday present He can use, don’t just throw money in a little red kettle on your way out of the grocery store, either. That’s like sending Him a gift card to Walmart. Does it do some good? Yes. But if you really want to please Him, give Him the gift that keeps on giving, and that only you can give: yourself.
Volunteering: It’s Not Just for Lent Anymore
Volunteer your time and — this is where some people will balk — actually make some human contact, especially with people who get so little of it.
- Work at a soup kitchen, and instead of just ladling out some stew and going home, sit down and talk with some of the homeless. Shake their hands, give them some hugs, EVEN IF they smell, ESPECIALLY IF you find it distasteful, because those are the people most in need of the warmth of human touch.
- Visit the children’s ward at the hospital and read them some stories, or do some magic tricks, or dress up like a clown and give them some much needed laughter. Even if it makes you sad to see their suffering. Especially if it makes you sad. Suck it up. How do you think they feel? That’s why they need you to bring a little light and sunshine into their lives!
- Volunteer at a hospice; sit with someone who’s dying. There are people who have no one to sit with them as they pass, and even if they are unconscious, they can still feel you holding their hand, right until the end.
Is it uncomfortable to be reminded of your own mortality? You betcha! Would you want someone to do the same for you? You betcha! Is it a harder sacrifice than writing out a check for 10% and popping it in the collection basket, because it’s so difficult for you?
That’s what makes it the kind of birthday gift God will truly treasure. Not to mention the poor soul whose crossing you ease, who you can bet will never, ever forget your kindness.
- Get a group together — family, friends, neighbors, church group, girl scout troop, bowling league, be creative — and go caroling at a local nursing home. This is one of my favorites. It is SO rewarding, you have no idea.
In between sets, and after you’re done singing, interact with the residents. Shake or hold their hands. Hug and kiss them. Talk with them. They are so starved for contact, and the milk of human kindness, and they are ALWAYS so grateful, and so moved, when someone thinks enough of them to come spend time with them that way.
Some of them are fortunate enough to have relatives who visit on a regular basis. Many do not. Too many have nobody, and are just warehoused away, sick and in pain, until they die. And with our culture’s obsession with youth and fear of death, we often shy away from such places and treat the elderly like lepers.
“35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
New Year’s Resolutions as Gift Subscriptions
And — here’s a crazy idea — if you really want to give Jesus a birthday present, don’t just give Him a present at Christmas and be done with it. Give Him a subscription. Make a New Year’s Resolution to stick with one of the ideas above, or something similar, throughout the year, on an ongoing basis, and continue giving your time and love to those in need of human contact.
- Sign up with Meals on Wheels, and when you deliver nutritious food to an elderly, home bound person, spend some time visiting with them. Befriend them. Let them know they are not all alone in the world and forgotten. Again, hug them, kiss their cheek, pat their hand, give them some of the human contact they crave.
- Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, and mentor a child who needs to know someone cares about them, who will help them grow straight and tall on the right path, who will set a good example for them, and teach them to go out into the world and do likewise.
- Become a tutor for your local charter school and help students who are struggling. This is another one that I have personally found very rewarding, because it is about so much more than just seeing a student “get it” when they have been struggling with a particular academic concept.
It’s that they so appreciate the fact that a total stranger cares enough about them to spend time with them, week after week, to help them. It really means something to them and moves them. It makes them feel like they matter. And that’s so important for a child’s sense of self-worth.
Just input “Become a tutor for your local charter school” in Google, and it should pop up a web page for a school near you, based on what your browser history shows about your location.
- Volunteer to work at a VA hospital, and give a little back to those who have given so much for us. So many brave military veterans have not only sacrificed their physical health, lost limbs or suffered paralyzing spinal injuries or brain damage in order to keep us safe, but their emotional and mental well being has been severely damaged, sometimes permanently, as well, all in their effort to guarantee our security and make the world a better place. Can you set aside some time each week to give them a hug and help ease their suffering?
God Doesn’t Participate in Boxing Day, so Don’t Give Him a White Elephant
These are just a few ideas. Be creative. When you’re buying a Christmas gift for someone you really love, you put a lot of time and effort and thought into what you’re going to give them, to make sure it’s just right.
Go “shopping”: look around your neighborhood and community and open your eyes to who is in need, and to opportunities to help. There are plenty of existing organizations and areas to volunteer. You may even see a need that isn’t being served yet, and be able to take action to see to it that it gets met. What a difference that would make!
So this year, instead of just rushing off to church, or singing carols, or fighting to put nativity scenes up on the statehouse lawn or sticking “put Christ back in Christmas” bumper stickers on your car, think about what Jesus would really want for His birthday. And then put your hugs where your mouth is.
The miracle is, you’ll find you haven’t just given a gift to God and the person you’ve helped. You’ll find you’ve given yourself such a tremendously rewarding experience it is a gift for you, as well.
May this Christmas bring you peace and joy. But more importantly, may it warm your heart and bring you the kind of love and human connection we all crave, and the desire and ability to share that with others.