by Glen Pearson
There remains a key distinction between the acts of giving and those of sacrifice. Giving relates to generosity and the desire to shower someone we love or respect with symbols of our affection. Sacrifice goes deeper and relates more to something of great personal value than just generosity.
Religions in the past called the slaughtering of animals to appease the gods as “sacrifice” or “offerings,” and it was never a pretty thing. In our modern era, there is still the sense of loss or longing when the term sacrifice is used. As vocabulary.com defines it, “A sacrifice is a loss or something you give up, usually for the sake of a better cause.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it similarly: “To give up something that is valuable to you in order to help another person.”
It’s the idea of giving something out of hopes of bettering someone or something else that sets sacrifice apart from merely giving presents to others over the Christmas season.
The original Christmas story is full of such costly giving. Shepherds leaving flocks untended as they search for something greater, wisemen from the East with their precious and expensive gifts for someone they hoped would change the world, the idea that God was giving is son at Bethlehem so there might be a movement towards peace on earth, and, naturally, Mary the young mother-to-be, forced by political decisions to ride a donkey to a distant place, where should would have to give birth to her child - all these give Christmas a meaning deeper than mere generosity. Their stories involved giving until it hurt, not just out of love, but out of hope that what they were sacrificing would establish a better tomorrow.
Martin Luther King Jr. would put it this way:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The essence of the Christmas season is about that struggle and the lengths we are willing to go for something that transcends us. It’s about us creating a better world for everyone and not just a secure one for ourselves. Everything about the original Christmas story was about people taking risks, stretching the normal parameters of their lives so that something significant could be accomplished.
Every year at the Canada War Cemetery at Holden, in the Netherlands, schoolchildren from nearby Deventer put a candle by each of the graves of the Canadian war dead on Christmas Eve (pictured at the head of this post). It’s a collective remembrance of what was the ultimate cost for their freedom and they saw it naturally as a Christmas observance. Each holiday season should entail our own little acts of heroism and not just a warm hearth, acts of sacrifice and not just security, a betterment of the entire human family and not merely our own loves ones. For some this Christmas this might just prove to be too much, given their own pain and loss, but it ever stands as a call to that part of us that can get outside of ourselves and into the lives of others in need of solace.
“The ultimate test of man's conscience,” wrote Gaylord Nelson, “may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” That’s what the children of Deventer have put into action. Each of us must discover ways to honour Christmas in ways that heal our world.