We see them everywhere - in flower shops, department stores and grocery stores. The pointsettia came to North America in the early 1800's. Now they are as familiar this time of year as candy canes and carolers. While we pause, during these days in our Christmas celebration, to reflect on the reason for the season, this bright red flower can help us remember of His purpose in coming.
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - The sanctuary of Our Lady of Hope Church literally explodes with color every Christmas. While white is the liturgical color for the season, the red poinsettias frame the paraments, white marble altar and nativity in front with a scarlet hue.
These colorful plants, with bright red top leaves, which are often mistaken for flower petals, were first brought to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. As an amateur botanist, the poinsettia captivated him.
Native to Central America, the Aztecs had used it for centuries in the making of dyes. He began growing them in his greenhouse in Greenville, South Carolina after returning from Mexico and gave them as gifts. By 1836, they were known by his name.
This history lesson, however, does not reveal their Christmas significance. For that we must visit a small parish in Mexico and the story of a little girl several centuries ago. Each year the children brought gifts to the Christ-child on Christmas Eve. Maria, and her brother Pablo, wanted to participate, but were too poor.
On the way to the Mass, Maria was very sad that she had nothing to bring. Seeing some weeds by the side of the path, she picked some, so that their hands would not be empty. She had to bring something to Jesus.
As the children processed to the nativity in front of the altar that evening, Maria and Pablo were teased for bringing weeds to the King of Kings. As they placed the plants around the manger, the green leaves on top changed colors, forming a field of bright red stars. Since that time, this plant was known as "flor de la Nochebuena" or "the flower of the Holy Night."
The story has been re-told over the years with many variations in detail, but the heart of the drama is clear. Christmas is the day when we celebrate the greatest gift ever given to the world. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." [John 3:16] How easy it is for this simple yet most profound message to be lost among the tinsel and presents.
Little Maria, however, reminds us that we have been given this incredible gift and we must respond. She could not bear to come to the Christ Child with empty hands and neither should we. Her small act of love challenges us to have the same heart of devotion, seeing this season as a time of renewal, giving ourselves afresh and anew to the Lord.
Today the world puts away all the reminders of Saint Nick in December 26, but we will still continue to celebrate Christmas, a festive season on the liturgical calendar. The Church continues her vigil, the altar is still arrayed in white, the poinsettias yet occupy a place of prominence, and the invitation persists to bring a gift to Christ this year.
What are we to give? We can skip the trip to Wal-Mart, the proverbial fruitcake, or bidding on eBay for the answer. The solution is always before us and the blood-red leaves of the poinsettia point the way. They remind us each Christmas of the crimson river upon the cross. He shed His blood for our redemption.
At each Mass we are reminded of the great gift God has given us. Beyond His being the baby in a manger, in Christ we have been given a Savior. I remember many years ago seeing a painting of the Nativity that illustrated this point quite powerfully.
Bathed only by the solitary light from an oil lamp, baby Jesus was lying in a hay trough surrounded by Mary, Joseph, and several of the Shepherds. The glow, however, cut across the wooden beams of the stable, casting the shadow of a cross across the child's face. As was prophesied in Holy Scripture, He was the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world.
The journey that began at Christmas ends with a crucifixion followed by resurrection. We are given, through Christ, the gift of life. of abundant life here and eternal life hereafter. Jesus, Himself, speaks of this when He shares the timeless words, "this is my Body, given for you."
Our gift to Him comes through our response. "Yes, Lord, and this is my body given for you." As we partake of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist, we are able to offer ourselves to Him. The gift, however, is not found just in our response, but in our responsibility to live out the commitment. To be Catholic. to be Christian in devotion and daily life, allowing our faith to permeate our week and our wills.
This is the gift He desires from us. It is the same gift He received from our Blessed Mother in her "fiat," in the obedience of St. Joseph, in the "amen" of action and devotion of the Apostles, and in the lives of countless saints throughout the history of the Church.
We can take these coming days to pray, reflect, and respond to His great invitation to a holy life. We can offer our "yes" to Him, a yes that lasts longer than a season.
Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and the CEO/Associate Publisher for the Northern Virginia Local Edition of Catholic Online (http://virginia.catholic.org). He is a former Archbishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Church who laid aside that ministry to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
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