The light of Christ is irrepressible. It is captivating. It is transformative. The secular world fears it, but we, through the gift of faith, know its power.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” The command to repent—to turn away from sin and to embrace God’s commandments—is not one that we hear incorporated into Christmas carols around the manger. And for good reason: the occasion of Christ our Savior’s birth into the world is one of exultant joy. For, in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, the Son of God became the Son of Man so that we, sons and daughters of men, could become sons and daughters of God.
Joy of this magnitude transcends ordinary human experience. If we wish to share in it fully, then we have to prepare for it. This is why the Church gives us the weeks of Advent to ready our hearts to meet the Christ-child. And there is one essential person who arranges this meeting for us: St. John the Baptist.
John stands on the bank of the Jordan River as the living bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Just as we cannot fully understand Jesus without the Old Testament prophecies, we cannot receive Jesus in His fullness without taking to heart John’s command—repent, root out any traces of sin in our lives, and turn toward Jesus Christ with hearts made clean. Only then is there sufficient room for Him in our hearts, which all too often can be closed off like the inn at Bethlehem, made full by sin and selfishness.
Our world has no interest in John the Baptist’s message. Repentance is hard work, and it is often painful. This is why the world has skipped over Advent entirely, jumping from Thanksgiving right to Christmas. The world clamors for a secular Christmas: one that is about receiving and not giving, about indulging ourselves rather than surrendering ourselves to the newborn King.
Secular Christmas achieves this goal by keeping our preparation focused solely on external and material things: buy gifts, bake goodies, wrap gifts, decorate homes. If these things, though good in themselves, prevent us from the internal and spiritual preparation that John announces—and that the material preparations are supposed to signify—the world has won. Christ our light shines in the world’s darkness, but the secular world labors mightily to restrict His light to as small a corner as possible.
But the light of Christ is irrepressible. It is captivating. It is transformative. The secular world fears it, but we, through the gift of faith, know its power.
To be lit on fire by this light at the Nativity, we first have to repent. Sin is an obstacle on our Lord’s path to meet us. To make straight His path, we have to root out sin in our lives. The first step in doing so is to examine our consciences to find how we have failed to be worthy disciples of the Lord. Then, we must take our sins into the darkness of the confessional, where we encounter God’s merciful forgiveness. As we step back into the light, we know Christ is hurrying toward us. And now, without sin’s oppressive burdens weighing us down, we can set out in haste to meet the Lord Jesus in Bethlehem.
The heavenly wisdom preached by John the Baptist is neatly condensed into a popular slogan: no pain, no gain. If we do not challenge ourselves with the painful work of repentance, we will never know the full joy that the Christ-child brings to us. Only then can we transform our cries of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” into “O come let us adore Him.” And only then can we bring healing to our Church and our world, which, to be converted, must see the light of Christ not on a card or tree, but in the authentic witness of Catholic living that John the Baptist calls us to today.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism(Cluny Media).