There is a book of religious doctrine out there - the Korahn, I think - which has a very interesting idea to go along with its reading. It is said that every doctrine written therein has seven meanings. The first is the most literal - for example, "And the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). So Jonah was swallowed by a fish and waited around inside for three days. Literal, face value interpretation. The second level is slightly more symbolic - say, the Lord prepared a trial for Jonah to endure. The third level more so - the Lord prepares trials for his children, which they must endure to become more like Him. And so on and so forth, until the seventh level, which, according to tradition, is known only to God.
One of my religion professors brought up an idea rather like this about Christmas. This season, too, has different levels. Three, as it happens - a number closely associated with this holiday, especially in the three gifts of the Magi. So, in honor of the season, consider these three kinds of gifts, of three levels, of Christmas.
The first kind of gifts are the secular ones. There's nothing wrong with that, by the way. Secularism, while often overplayed in the modern world, isn't always a bad thing. What I mean in this case is the gift that you go to a store, website, or retailers to purchase for someone near and dear to you for a holiday or special occasion. It could be anything - clothing, toys, books, electronics, home appliances, beauty supplies, you name it. Secular simply means it goes into wrapping paper and under the tree. Secular gifts are a great thing. I have gotten one for each person in my immediate family. My mom has been frantic trying to hunt them all down for the kids and my father. We have received countless tokens and treats of the season from neighbors and friends in the past weeks. These gifts are our ways of showing others that we love them and are grateful for their influence in our lives. It's how we give aid to those who we don't know, but who happen to need a guardian angel or Christmas elf - which, in turn, happens to be us. It's our way of participating in the season of giving.
The second kind of gift one from our Heavenly Father - that is, the Christ child. There are all kinds of gifts that go with this one - gold, frankinsense, and myrrh, to name a few, as well as bright stars, angel carols, and visits from neighboring shepherds. It's the perfect nativity - shepherds, wisemen, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger. This is the second level of the Christmas season. Perhaps less noticible than the secular side sometimes, its spirit still penetrates our holiday celebrations with the sweetness of new birth.
It goes deeper still, however. There is a third level, a third gift. This level is the most important, but often the most overlooked of the three. It does not celebrate holiday sales and brightly colored presents. It does not celebrate a baby in a manger, or even a redeemer on a cross. Not a child Christ, or a dead Christ - but a living one. This level is one of remembering that at this time over two thousand years ago, our loving Heavenly Father gave to us the greatest gift the world has ever known. It is bearing in mind the great suffering that Jesus Christ took upon himself for our own sinful sakes, and bearing in our hearts the joy of knowing that we can be healed at his hand. It is celebrating that a baby was born - a baby that would make it possible for all of us to return to our Heavenly Father. It is a time of feeling of our Heavenly Father's incomprehensible love for us, and refining our desires to match his. And even though Eastertide is yet to come, this is a season to rejoice in the knowledge that our savior lives. Those are, in my opinion, the sweetest words human tongue can utter. Our savior lives!
I now most humbly descend from my little soapbox. You can come to your own conclusions about Christ and about faith. But I hope that my words have at least brought to your remembrance the true origins of this season. An unfriendly town, a shabby stable, a less than adequate manger, and a baby - a baby who would someday be the greatest gift the world has every received. May we give thanks for that gift this day and always.
Happy Holidays, my friends! 'Til next we meet...