The Saints Teach Us About Christmas
Lessons from Francis, Joseph, Nicholas and Thérèse
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus our Savior at Christmas, the saints can teach us so much. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the first one who comes to mind — but what about other saints who can provide us with special inspiration for this holy feast day?
St. Joseph has a pivotal place at Jesus’ birth.
“Christmas is a great reminder of St. Joseph and what he was doing before the birth of Christ,” said Rick Sarkisian, author of Not Your Average Joe and producer of Joseph: The Man Closest to Christ (Ignatius, DVD). “He was essentially knocking on doors trying to find a place for the Christ Child. That’s something he’s still doing today — knocking on the doors of our hearts. He’s seeking out a place for his son to dwell within us.”
St. Joseph’s role at Christmas and throughout his life with the Holy Family (whose feast day the Church celebrates on Dec. 30 this year) is certainly one of protection. “He was the protector of Mary, who was about to give birth to the Savior, and he continued to protect them, as a husband and father. He’s a real reminder of our role as a protector of those we know and live with, and those we don’t know very well, protecting [them] not just from physical harm, but the impurities that cascade down on us like heavy rain” from the culture, Sarkisian said.
One way to honor St. Joseph is to help someone in need. Since St. Joseph is also a patron saint of housing, Sarkisian suggests offering a nine-day novena to St. Joseph for those in need of shelter, entrusting them to him.
Saint of Giving
Another saint who teaches us about celebrating Christmas is the fourth-century bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas.
“St. Nicholas is the first of the saints you can consider a philanthropist,” explained Father Joseph Marquis, pastor of Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Livonia, Michigan, and founder of the St. Nicholas Institute (StNicholasInstitute.org). Father Marquis has portrayed the cultural representation of St. Nicholas — Santa — for more than 45 years. He also portrays the beloved saint.
The most famous expression of Nicholas’ generosity was when he saved a destitute family. In order to help them, under the cover of night, Nicholas threw three bags of gold coins into the family’s quarters.
“St. Nicholas is a person who focused on the needs of others without drawing attention to himself,” observed Father Marquis. With his “self-effacing love,” St. Nicholas is “very much an icon of Jesus Christ,” added Father Marquis. St. Nicholas “lived the theological virtues to a very heroic degree in life. He embodied the Gospel. Like St. Francis, he took the Scriptures to heart, and he became a living image of Jesus Christ.”
As people gather around crèches in their churches or homes, they would do well to know that St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene in the small town of Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve 1223. All the details are in a biography called First Life, Book One. It was written by Thomas of Celano, a friar of his order, in 1229 at the request of Pope Gregory IX.
“[C]hiefly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion so occupy his memory that he would scarce ponder over anything else,” wrote Celano.
Francis used his memories from his Holy Land trip to construct the crèche. He asked a friend to assemble the materials and explained, “For I would make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes his infant hardships, how he lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.”
The friars and townspeople assembled around the scene, illuminating the night with candles. As Celano wrote, “There, Simplicity was honored, Poverty exalted, Humility commended; and of Greccio, there was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem.”
Mass was said on the altar that was made over the manger.
Francis, who was a deacon, read the Gospel and preached the sermon, calling Jesus “the Child of Bethlehem.”
Then he picked up the image of Jesus asleep in the manger.
The Baby awakened in his arms, according to eyewitnesses.
“Nor was this vision incongruous; for the Child Jesus had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many in whom, by the working of his grace, he was raised up again through his servant Francis and imprinted on a diligent memory.”
In addition, more miracles happened. When sick animals in the region ate some of the hay, they were cured. “Moreover,” wrote Celano, “women in long and grievous labor were safely delivered by putting some of the hay on themselves, and a crowd of persons of either sex suffering from various ailments gained their long-wished-for health at that same place.” As a result, “over the manger, an altar was reared, and a church dedicated, to the end that … men might thenceforth, for the healing of soul and body, eat the flesh of the spotless and undefiled Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Little Flower’s Miracle
A Christmas miracle of another sort happened to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her miracle taught her the valuable lesson of selflessness.
In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, Thérèse tells the story. “A miracle on a small scale was needed to give me strength of character all at once, and God worked this long-desired miracle on Christmas Day, 1886,” she revealed. “On that blessed night, the sweet Infant Jesus, scarce an hour old, filled the darkness of my soul with floods of light. By becoming weak and little, for love of me, he made me strong and brave; he put his own weapons into my hands, so that I went from victory to victory, beginning, if I may say so, ‘to run as a giant.’”
She received “this inestimable grace of complete conversion” when she was 14, leaving behind the “extreme sensitiveness” that had made her “almost unbearable.”
This all unfolded as she and her sister Celine were returning from midnight Mass. Most children had outgrown the old French custom of receiving shoe-filled presents on Christmas Eve by that age, but the Little Flower’s sisters enjoyed indulging the “baby” of the family. Her father liked to watch her enjoyment, too.
“But the time had come when Our Lord wished to free me from childhood’s failings, and even withdraw me from its innocent pleasures,” Thérèse recalled. “On this occasion, instead of indulging me as he generally did, Papa seemed vexed, and on my way upstairs, I heard him say: ‘Really, all this is too babyish for a big girl like Thérèse, and I hope it is the last year it will happen.’ His words cut me to the quick. Céline, knowing how sensitive I was, whispered: ‘Don’t go downstairs just yet — wait a little; you would cry too much if you looked at your presents before Papa.’” But Thérèse was no longer the same.
“Choking back my tears, I ran down to the dining room, and, though my heart beat fast, I picked up my shoes and gaily pulled out all the things, looking as happy as a queen,” she wrote. “Papa laughed and did not show any trace of displeasure. …
“In an instant, Our Lord, satisfied with my goodwill, accomplished the work I had not been able to do during all these years. … Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took possession of me, and from that time I was perfectly happy,” she explained. She became sensitive to others, rather than focusing on herself, after that Christmas experience, for “Jesus had changed her heart.”
Bringing the Lessons Home
In the Diocese of Phoenix, John and Rebecca Even and their two daughters and son remember the season’s true reason.
In the spirit of St. Francis, at the beginning of Advent, the family puts out their crèche, but without Baby Jesus. The Child is added to the Nativity scene on his birthday.
In the spirit of Joseph and Nicholas, the Evens always adopt a family for Christmas. Rebecca and John “don’t give gifts to each other, but use the money to purchase gifts for the adopted family.” Then the family “wraps them and delivers them,” as Rebecca explained. They also focus on the full 12 days of Christmas, with the aid of a resource Rebecca created. “Looking for a way to teach my children more about the faith and Christmastime,” explained Rebecca, she re-wrote the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas carol as Our Father Gave to Us the 12 Days of Christmas, replacing the secular gifts with spiritual ones. She created an illustrated book, a song on iTunes and developed a family ornament project (12DaysofChristmas.gift).
In the spirit of Thérèse, selflessness extends throughout the year in the Even home, through volunteering at the André House of Hospitality in Phoenix, which serves meals to the homeless.
In addition, the children are involved in St. Vincent de Paul drives for food, blankets and the like.
What has the family learned from the examples of these Christmas saints? Rebecca sums it up this way: “As we give, we receive. We’re serving, but we’re actually the ones gifted. It’s the best part.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.