By Fr. Tim McCauley |
I first noticed it at Starbucks one Saturday in November, that the colors had changed, from monochrome to Christmas Red, on the list of beverages behind the counter. It had begun. As the yearly promotional assault gathers momentum, I feel duty-bound to respond with an early warning system to men and women of good will: please don't hate Christmas. It's not His fault that it's become the least wonderful time of the year for so many people.
First of all let us acknowledge that there is much good at Christmas, even the secularized version. The philanthropy, the desire to be good and do good, is truly admirable. But without the right motivation, it can be exhausting rather than life-giving. We are not generous simply because it is expected and we are bowing to pressure to perform, stretching ourselves beyond our limits. We love others because we are first loved.
At this time of year, when we celebrate the birth of a baby, we actually need a little child to lead us, to point out the obvious truth that many adults fail to see, as the boy did in the tale told by Hans Christian Andersen -- the Emperor Has No Clothes.
For those unfamiliar with the story, two cheating weavers claimed to make uncommonly beautiful clothes, that also possess the strange quality of being invisible to anyone unfit for the office he holds, or incorrigibly stupid. The emperor himself, then all the people, are drawn into this mass delusion of admiring invisible clothes, until one day, during a public procession, a boy had the courage to point at the emperor and expose the lie.
In some ways, our secularized Christmas suffers from similar pretenses. How many of us pretend it's the most wonderful time of the year, even if it isn't true? Admitting that Christmas poses some challenges for us does not make us unfit for office or incorrigibly stupid. I would actually like to defend the average person, all those uncomplicated, regular human beings who want to celebrate Christmas, enjoy life, and love one another. God bless them. But to hell with all the commercial machinery that promulgates a myth of delirious happiness in order to sell more merchandise.
The emperor in our case might be called the robber baron of capitalist materialism and consumerism. In his greed he has hijacked a Christian feast and twisted it into a money-making venture. But he is just a big bully, and together we can stand up to him. We don't have to do what he says just because he is tall and loud and thinks he is important. We can choose to have a simpler Christmas. It is not our sacred duty to overspend, for fear the whole economic structure of society will collapse. Investing in people -- in terms of our time, love and energy -- pays larger dividends, produces more happiness, and contributes more effectively to the long-term welfare of society.
I remember when I was pastor at the Catholic Church in small town in my diocese, my Anglican counterpart explained their planned celebration of a "Blue Christmas" for those feeling alienated from the usual "happy happy" White Christmas. Victor Frankl once wrote that in modern secular culture, we have almost made a religion of "happiness" so that "unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment." Worse, those who are unhappy, instead of finding some meaning and dignity in their suffering, are made to feel ashamed of their unhappiness! How absurd! Sometimes we act like it is a crime to weep, a betrayal of the gospel of optimism to grieve. If this were true, then it would be a sin to be human. Surely, this is not the meaning of Christmas! It is the opposite. That all our sighs and tears, our hopes and dreams, our laughter and joy, has been sanctified because the Son of God became human in all things but sin.
I don't know about the rest of you, but sometimes I want permission to be sad, for very good reasons. I am sad over my broken family, my parents' divorce and the estrangement between the members of the family. More material things won't heal my heart. I want to kneel at the manger and peer at the little infant. Then, in a quiet moment away from the noise and traffic, give me permission to let the tears stream down my cheeks over everything that has been lost. So much love that could have been was not. I need to grieve. That's part of being human. Because we are made by love and for love, and when there is no love, or a lack thereof, we will grieve. But not for long, though it may seem long. I feel a hand on my shoulder from someone standing at the crèche, and a gentle voice assuring me that's it's going to be OK.
I hear the infant cry, and at once hands reach down to pick him up and he is drawn close to his mother's heart, then his father's heart. Many years later, he would teach, "Ask and you shall receive." Every tear is a cry for love, and it will be heard. As children, perhaps there were times when we called out and there was no answer. But now, with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we see a deeper truth. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy." Because Christ has come.
He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. But he also rejoiced during his lifetime. Perhaps he even danced at the wedding feast of Cana, and in such words he once described his ministry, "We played the pipes for you, but you did not dance." As if to say, "I want you to dance, yes I do! I want to see you to leap and dance for joy because you are loved more than you can imagine. I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance!"
So please don't hate Christmas. Try to love instead. Love God and your neighbour as yourself. As yourself. Don't forget that part. If the birth of the Son of God teaches us anything valuable for our times, surely one of the lessons is the reminder that each one of us is a beloved son or daughter of God. Not only is each of us worthy of love, we are in truth loved with an infinite and eternal love. Don't let anyone or anything rob you of this love or distract you from this truth -- not all the promos painted red, all the holly and Santa suits, the canned music, shopping malls and traffic jams. The robber baron may have convinced you that you are just a consumer -- so be quiet, do your duty, shop and consume and go into debt. But there is a much deeper truth. You are not a consumer nor a slave, but a son -- a son or daughter of God. Don't let "Christmas" ruin your Christmas!
In the northern hemisphere, a White Christmas has an almost archetypal appeal: that in one night a drab and dreary world can be made immaculate, as snowflakes like manna falling from heaven cover dirty streets in a glistening blanket of purity. Will it still be a Blue Christmas for some? Then we need to recover a Gold Christmas. (Gold is after all one of the options for liturgical vestments at Christmas time). It is the color of halos and glory, the aura that surrounded the child in the manger, and the saints of heaven. It is also the foretaste of heaven that we give to others when we love them. We overlook their faults, clothe their weakness in the garment of compassion and crown them with a reverence that is their due as sons and daughters of the Most High. Then without even knowing how, we find ourselves with Mary and Joseph and the Child, standing under a starry sky, contemplating the angels singing of the glory of God that has come to earth. That's a Christmas I could learn to love, and truly celebrate.
photo credit: Jules & Jenny Wilsford, St Mary's church, east window detail via photopin (license)