SCRIPTURE READINGS: ISA 11:1-10; ROM 15:4-9; MT 3:1-12 ]

Christmas is celebrated all over the world by most people regardless of religion. But for many, Christmas can be celebrated without any inkling of who Christ is or even what the celebration is all about. How can this be? How could such a universal festival be celebrated without the subject of the feast, viz., the birth of Christ, being known? Does this mean therefore that this festival is merely reduced to a social festival that has no real significant meaning for them?

No, this is not true. Of course, in some cases, Christmas is nothing else but a time to be merry and to revel. But in many cases, perhaps, more than we think, those who celebrate Christmas without knowing the historical Christ are actually celebrating His birth and His person without explicitly recognizing it. Why do I say this? Because although they might not acknowledge the historical Christ, surely in celebrating Christmas as a time of love, peace and goodwill, a time of giving and forgiving, they have indeed allowed the Spirit of Christ to live in them and operate in them. In that sense, they, in a certain sense can be said to be really celebrating Christmas.

Indeed, this is what the scripture readings of today want to tell us. What is Christmas if not allowing the Spirit of Christ to live in our hearts; to be imbued with the Spirit of Christ in our lives? Yes, even for us as Christians, Christmas is not merely a commemoration of a historical event, but we are celebrating an event that is happening all the time in our lives, some days more intensely, other days less intensely. To allow the Spirit of Christ to live in us is another way of saying that Christmas is not simply about celebrating the birth of Christ 2000 years ago but a real celebration of the birth of Christ in our hearts everyday of our lives and in a special way at Christmas.

Consequently, we need to ask ourselves whether this Spirit that is being given to us is received by us. The urgent question that is posed to us in today’s lesson is simply: Do we share in the Spirit of Christ, that is, the spirit of wisdom, insight, counsel, power, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord; the spirit of peace and right relationships, like the wolf living at peace with the lamb – those qualities listed by the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading. The reality is that unless we have the Spirit of Christ in us, then Christmas would be just another social celebration; it will be a celebration without the Spirit of Christ’s love, peace and joy; but simply a celebration of the world’s spirit of self-indugence, fear, selfishness, oppression and self-centeredness – those sins that the Pharisees and the Sadducees are guilty of in today’s gospel reading. If that is the case, then Christmas is no better than any other social celebration. If we still find ourselves lacking peace and love and joy in our hearts, then it is a clear sign that we have not imbibed the Spirit of Christ yet.

So how can we share in the Spirit of Christ? For us Christians, we are in a privileged position and we should be thankful for this. Why do I say that we are a privileged people? Because those who celebrate Christmas without knowing Christ are those who are groping for happiness and peace in their lives without knowing the direction. For them, it will be by trial and error, searching for someone who can guide them to knowledge of the truth and the way to life. But for us, we need not search anymore in one sense. For us, as the second reading tells us, we have the scriptures, we have people and models who have gone before us, who have paid the price for their search for God and have imparted their roadmap to us and for us to find God. But most of all, we have Jesus Himself who is our way, our truth and our life – He who is born fully of God and of man, who, as the Paul tells us, is the glory of God. By following His example, we who are united with Him in mind and voice will give glory to God as well in Him. For this reason, we Christians can thank God for this beautiful privilege.

But what is the use of having the roadmap to God and to life, if we do not make use of it at all? The fact is that we all know we have the roadmap but we do not refer to it. It is wasted on us. It Is real tragedy. For this reason, we must take heed of the words of John the Baptist. We need to repent. To repent is not simply to confess our sins but to acknowledge the situation we are in. It is to be aware of what we are doing and how we are living – especially the vain ways of living. It means, according to John the Baptist, to realize that we are saved not by our kinship with Abraham or simply because we have been baptized as Christians. No, John the Baptist tells us as he told the Pharisees that God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. That is to say, just because we are Christians do not mean that we are living the Spirit of Christ in us. So repentance is acknowledgement of our folly and awareness of our foolish and ignorant ways of living. So, the confession of sins is not a mere confession with our lips but more importantly with our hearts. It is a confession that we are living the spirit of the world and not the Spirit of God in our lives.

But this is not sufficient. The baptism of repentance of John the Baptist is still incomplete. It is not enough to give up our bad habits or foolish ways of living. Because when we give up something, we create a void within ourselves. And every void must be filled and will be filled again either with good or bad things. So before it is filled again, we must ensure that we will not fill it with worse values in life; but we fill them with the Spirit of Christ. That is why the baptism of repentance of John the Baptist is only to prepare us for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist therefore tells us that he is only baptizing us with water, that is the water of repentance; but someone, namely Jesus, who is coming after him, is more powerful than he is, that he is not even fit to undo the straps of His sandals; He will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire.

This is it. This is the key to the full meaning of Christmas. We are called to repent so that we might appropriate the Spirit of Christ in us. It is Christ who will give us the gifts of the Spirit. These gifts however must not be reduced to those tangible, visible gifts like what we see or might have experienced in the charismatic movements, namely, the gifts of tongues, healing, prophecy etc. Indeed, these gifts are given to some members of the Christian community but not for themselves as such. Rather, these gifts are given for the building of the Body of Christ, the Christian community in love and service. Having those gifts which are meant purely for the service of the community can sometimes make us proud and indignant. That is why these are not the greatest gifts of the Spirit.

But even more important, are the gifts of the spirit of joy, love, peace, truth, wisdom, all those gifts mentioned in the first reading and those fruits that Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians. These gifts do not make us egoistic, competitive or proud. No, they make us truly loving, forgiving, non-judgmental and peaceful people. Such gifts, as Paul tells us in the second reading, help us to treat each other the way Christ treats us. More than that, these are the gifts that really give us the fire of the Spirit – namely, the fire of life. It is faith, hope, love and peace that make life vibrant, dynamic and alive. Only when we live such vibrant lives, we can then claim to have the spirit of Christ in us – filling us with enthusiasm and joy. With such spirited life in us, surely we will also add fire to the lives of others around us, leading them to share the spirit of Christ.

Let us not wait anymore. The time is urgent; life is short. We need to make room for Jesus in our lives; we need to give Him space so that His Spirit may fill us with His love and peace and joy. If not, we will have a sad Christmas, or at most a pleasurable but empty Christmas. The supposed spirit of life that we happen to have at Christmas will just last for the day and then everything will be back to where we started, just like the drunkard person who suffers a hang-over the next day.

No, if we do not want to be the inn that has no place for Jesus when He comes knocking at our doors at Christmas, then let us give ourselves to serious prayer, self-examination and reflection, asking from the Lord His Spirit to purify us and to baptize us unto His death – the death to oneself, one’s ego, cravings and self-centeredness and complacency. For in the process of dying, we will experience the rebirth taking place in us. Christmas then, would not just be on Christmas Day, but has already begun, and is still taking place, especially in a powerful way on Christmas Day. Yes, Christmas for us cannot be a mere single day’s celebration but it must be a reality every moment in our lives. And it is so, if we allow Christ to be reborn again and again in our lives. Thus, for us, every day will be Christmas. Of course, every day can be Christmas only because we celebrate Christmas Day, that day when God’s love becomes real for us in Jesus.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore