I was stumped by the very first question: what do Santa’s helpers learn in school? But the grade seven teacher answered right away: the elf-abet.
I figured the schoolchildren would get a laugh from that, so I asked them the question the next morning. I was about to call on their clever teacher when a grade seven girl put up her hand.
She answered: elf-esteem!
You might think that’s an unusual introduction to my Christmas homily, but Father Paul started his by explaining the theology of Star Wars! Actually, I thought it was a brilliant homily until he got to the part about my falling asleep during the movie. I thought he might have skipped that…
Let’s go back to the student’s answer. It’s quite clever, because modern teachers, whether in North Vancouver or at the North Pole, work hard to teach self-esteem. There are all kinds of lesson plans and ideas to help youngsters, and it’s certainly an important goal.
But teaching children they are special, and helping them value themselves and their gifts only goes so far. What happens to the youth or adult who realizes he or she isn’t very special at all?
And what about the person whose pain, physical or mental, makes it almost impossible to affirm the goodness of their existence?
Or even worse, what happens to the person whose self-esteem is shattered by failure, betrayal or sin?
Christmas, the miracle we celebrate tonight, has an answer to all of these crucial questions.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims a great light. But before he says a word about the light, he speaks about the darkness. The darkness that engulfed ordinary people. Not bad people, but ordinary people, living in a land of deep darkness.
On them light has shone.
Isaiah was writing some eight centuries before the birth of Christ, and his prophetic words applied to his own time. But they apply to us as well, as we can tell from the phrase “from this time onward and forevermore.” His prophecy is a promise we all can claim.
And that promise changes everything about our lives, especially in the dark corners where we can’t see things clearly. The promised light offers the only self-esteem that nothing can take away, because it’s not grounded in what we can do but in who we are.
And who we are has been made known to us, just as “this thing that has taken place” was made known to the shepherds in the fields. We are brothers and sisters of “a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord.”
The consequences of this—God becoming one of us—are almost too hard to grasp. Writing in the fourth century, St. Athanasius said “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
If his words weren’t repeated in the Catholic Catechism, I couldn’t bring myself to believe them. But I do, and an unavoidable conclusion flows from them. Our self-esteem acquires its highest, its richest, and its most indestructible form on this holy night.
The birth of Christ is not good news just for religious people. As the angels told the shepherds, it is “good news of great joy for all the people.”
Listen to what the shepherds say to one another when the angels leave: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Are they convinced? Have they figured it all out? Not likely, given what the shepherds call the event that the angels have announced: “this thing that has taken place.” Many of us also are a bit confused about what it all means, even if we do not doubt what happened.
So let us rush to the stable along with the shepherds. Let us find Mary and Joseph and their child, tonight, and see not a myth or even a mere historical event; with eyes of hope let us see healing for our wounded self-esteem, restoration of the dignity that others have taken away from us or which we have surrendered freely.
Look at the child in the manger and see your brother, your own flesh and blood, God who has brought salvation to you and to all.
Look at the Christ child and see yourself as God wants you to be—“godly” is the word St. Paul uses in our second reading. The grace of God that has appeared in Christ teaches and empowers us “to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.”
Whatever has robbed you of true self-esteem, accept it back as the best Christmas gift of all.
Some of us have found great peace by working with professional counsellors, who can be a real blessing and bring much help to wounded spirits. But we should start with the one who is named Wonderful Counsellor and Prince of Peace. He who breaks the yoke that weighs us down, and shatters the bars that oppress us is the true source of self-esteem.
But our Christmas thoughts must not focus too much on ourselves, important though it is to know how much we are loved by God. Let’s end with a look at the bigger picture. The future of the world depends greatly on our rediscovering our human dignity and worth.
“If man is not made in the image of God, nothing then stands in the way of inhumanity,” the Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote more than thirty years ago.
He continued “There is no good reason why mankind should be perceived as special. Human life is cheapened. We can see this in many of the major issues being debated in our society today: abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, the increase of child abuse and violence of all kinds, pornography ..., the routine torture of political prisoners in many parts of the world, the crime explosion, and the random violence which surrounds us.”
It sounds all too familiar today, and Francis Schaeffer’s somber words are not out of place on Christmas night—because they cry out for the rediscovery of the nobility of our human nature.
So whether you’re worried about the world or about yourself, let the light of Christmas truth shine on your problem. Go now to Bethlehem to find the source of your greatest dignity—God made man, that men might become God.