One of the most beautiful nineteenth century Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I have always been a bit suspicious of its emotional pull: Midwinter in England may experience “snow on snow” but midwinter in the eastern Mediterranean, where Bethlehem is located, is surely far less bleak. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful carol, and the words benefit from being set to a tune by Holst.
I do not normally write personal posts, but my experience of this Yuletide is not only remarkable, but instructive. This midwinter has been bleak, dominated by the declining health of my beloved border collie Clementine and the memory of my beloved black lab Bernie, who died this time last year. Both of them starred in my homemade Christmas cards the past fourteen years, joined seven years ago by their new brother Ambrose, the St. Bernard. Last year, it was very unnatural, mailing the last of the cards after Bernie’s sudden death, his smiling face still adorning one of the pages. Before them, my dog Samantha had starred in the cards. Every year since 1990, much of my Advent was spent with glitter glue, and ribbons, and crepe paper in a variety of colors, glue stick in hand, making these cards while listening to Christmas music. It was quite a production as the list grew to 98 cards last year. But, this year, with Clementine’s decline, I just couldn’t muster the requisite amount of festive cheer to submit to three weeks of glitter glue. I sent standard issue cards, with a note explaining the circumstance.
Clementine, unlike most dogs, has always hated riding in the car. I think this is because she came from a rescue in Tennessee, and was separated from her friends there at about one year old, and driven the ten or so hours to DC. She never recovered. I could not submit her to the drive to Connecticut and so, in this the fifty–third year of my life, for the very first time, I shall not be at the family home in Connecticut. Our traditions are few, especially since my mom died eights years back. My dad and I go to one of the many tree farms on the 23rd, choose and cut one of the trees, and decorate it on Christmas Eve. My mother’s collection of silver and blue ornaments brings back happy memories, and when my Uncle Bob died, he left us his collection of Waterford ornaments, which bring back happy memories of him and his penchant for the ostentatious. Christmas Day we go to Mass and then to dinner at my sister’s house or with the Burelle clan at the “party barn,” a nicely appointed barn near Aunt Gloria’s house, with a big woodstove, four large picnic tables, and the always friendly and fun Burelle family.
This year, I am home for the holidays in suburban Maryland, and it is not the same, not least because it is supposed to be seventy degrees today! I will enjoy Christmas dinner with some of our NCR family, and am deeply grateful to my colleague Tom Roberts and his wife Sal, who will be hosting me for Christmas dinner. Mass at St. Matthew’s is always splendid. So, no pity party here. Besides, the oddness of this Christmas has led to a more than usually intense Advent and, in its own way, more wondrous than usual.
More than any holiday, Christmas remains the most culturally encrusted, sometimes distorted by the commercialization with which it is celebrated here in the U.S., but nonetheless, a central cultural holiday, inexplicable without reference to the birth of Jesus Christ. This year, I am not partaking in almost any of those cultural encrustations and, in a strange way, it is making it a better Christmas, at least a more intensely thoughtful one. Beyond the culture, after all, is the event, the birth of Christ, and what that means. Faith generates culture, but sometimes the culture ends up obscuring the faith. These past four weeks of Advent I have had to focus exclusively on the faith, and a couple of things stand out from the many thoughts and prayers that have come to dominate my heart.
First, Christmas is an event. I once asked the late, great Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete to tell what was the essential difference between Rahner and Ratzinger. He said that while they had great respect for each other, the singular difference was this: For Rahner, the Incarnation is a theological category and for Ratzinger and the Communio school, the Incarnation is an event. I have not stopped pondering that insight since he uttered those words. Ever since the revolution in thought begun with Descartes, the tendency to rationalize everything has been dominant, yielding many good things to be sure, but also crimping our imagination when it comes to matters of faith. Viewing the Incarnation as a theological category yields important insights, but it makes the Incarnation too much a creature of our thought. Understanding it as an event, which leads to a story, seems both more accurate and a surer foundation for the Christian life. Events and stories lead to engagement, not syllogisms, they take byways and side roads, not straight lines, they are open to all of our senses, not merely our intellectual sense. The Virgin gave birth to a son, not a summa. As I have made my walks around the neighborhood this Advent, I keep coming back to this point: The Incarnation was an event, and it is still an event, an on–going event, and we call that event the Church.
The second impression is related to the first: We experience this event as an experience of solidarity. Solidarity has been a dominant theme for me in 2015. I started the year reading and reviewing Meghan Clark’s wonderful book, The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights, in which she detailed the introduction and development of the concept of solidarity in Catholic Social Thought. Then, in June, I worked on the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies' conference “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation about Faith & Solidarity” which explored the ways that solidarity is a kind of antidote to libertarian ideology. This has also been a year of intense friendships, some new and some old, in which solidarity has been especially evident. And, of course, solidarity is one of Pope Francis’ key themes. I remember going to a meeting with some labor friends this autumn and that day, the pope tweeted out “Let us learn solidarity. Without solidarity, our faith is dead.” The Incarnation is fundamentally about God’s solidarity with us, God with us, Emmanuel, especially in what Cardinal Kasper called “humanly impossible situations," in which that solidarity is experienced as mercy. “Christmas joy is about discovering and building solidarity with our families, with our community, with the human beings on the planet and with our Creator,” said Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley in his Christmas message.
A last impression. Yesterday, a friend said I was being unfair to the critics of Pope Francis, that there are many who like this pope but who also think he is making some big mistakes. Point taken, although I suspect this is more common among theologians than prelates, and I was writing about the prelates. But, why do people like Pope Francis so much, even those who disagree with him at times? Surely, it is that he believes the credibility of the Church must be measured by its willingness to imitate the meekness and the mercy of the child born this night. It is not any personality trait, but the manner of his ministry, that attracts. Like Jesus, he afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, he goes to the outcasts and to the poor and to the lonely and to the imprisoned. He is not the first pope to do these things but he is the first pope in my lifetime to make these things central to his ministry. You might say, uniting all three impressions, that Pope Francis perpetuates the event of the Incarnation by demonstrating solidarity in the manner of the Lord Jesus. That, surely, is what a Christian leader should do.
So, that is what I have for you, dear readers, this Christmas Eve. If you drive by my house, you will see no Christmas lights. If you want a nicely wrapped gift, I gave up shopping for Christmas years ago. And, for the best of reasons, caring for my devoted and wonderful beast in her final weeks, I am unmoored from the cultural mores of the holiday. But, the babe is still born in Bethlehem and the event that invites us to, and even demands, a life, not just an ethic but a life of solidarity, that event and that demand are as real and as true and as beautiful as they were in that first bleak midwinter. A blessed Christmas to you all.