When you tell someone you will be spending Christmas in Connecticut, images of Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan leap to mind. For me, of course, Connecticut is still home in a way that Washington never will be, a place where houses are still identified by the family who lived there years ago – “You know, the old Pearl place on Eleventh Section Road” – and where I am known simply, and in a sense most accurately, not as a Catholic journalist or author but as “Claire and Felix’s son.”
Regrettably, we are not having a white Christmas. A blast of warm weather and a ton of rain has struck southern New England and we are having a mud Christmas. Nonetheless, the homes on the Main Street still look lovely, the windows adorned with white candles, wreathes on the doors, no psychedelic Santa displays on the lawns. My Dad asked that we not put up a tree this year because time is short and it takes a lot of work. Reluctantly, I agreed. My late mother had a wonderful collection of blue and silver ornaments and our tree was sublime. I make a note to self: Next year, come up a day or two early so Dad does not feel so rushed. We shall share in my sister’s tree across the street. Christmas shopping was kept to a minimum as we are saving money because my Dad has decided he wants to go to Rome next year.
The relative lack of Christmas preparations has permitted me, quite unexpectedly, to confront the question at the heart of Christmas: Do we believe He came? This autumn, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete died and his last words were “You see, Jesus always comes. He wants to be with us.” Do we believe that? Do we behave as if we believe that? Do we shape our minds to conform our thoughts and our arguments to what they should be if we believe that?
The coming of Christ changes everything – and nothing. There is still injustice in the world. World peace remains a hope, a distant hope, seemingly more distant every year. But, if He came, our perspective on injustice is changed. If He came, we mean something different by peace from what the world means. If He came, the quality of our hope is very, very different. Jesus brings God to earth. He brings Himself. He tells us what we could not figure out on our own and imparts a hope we could not achieve on our own. He promises a peace that passeth all understanding.
If He came, than we can still argue with those with whom we disagree, but we can never see our disputants as enemies. If He came, we can never wash our hands of a troublesome acquaintance. If He came, there is no human need we are permitted to ignore or dismiss. If He came, there is no beauty that does not strike deeper than our eyes, no music that does not strike deeper than our ears. If He came, there is no relationship that can be made to fit into a utilitarian box. If He came, there is no human person upon whom we can look and not see the face of Christ, no matter how disguised by distress or sin. If He came, we remain subject to the full range of human emotions, but those emotions are not definitive, however real, they are also touched by grace, enlightened, lifted up, made holy.
Biblical scholars tell us that the account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke should not be read as an historical account. But, that account is no less real because it may have been inspired by more than facticity. Each and every part of that story has something to tell us, and it resonates with the human heart as few stories have ever resonated. A few years ago, archeologists unearthed bones that they believed belonged to St. Luke. I remember Msgr. Lorenzo saying how this thrilled him because Luke had given us Christmas as we knew it. The story is the entry to inculturation. All the Christmas traditions we indulge, most obviously the crèche, but even the decorations and the gift-giving, all stem from this story. If we had merely a news report of exquisite historical accuracy, it would not inspire and, just so, would not give any evidence of being inspired. The story of Christmas is true in ways that are more important than news accounts and historical specifics. The Christmas traditions that flow from that story are nothing more than our various human attempts to join our own lives to that story. For me, it took a Christmas devoid of many of the traditions I have known to recognize the connection.
The most important traditions perdure. This morning, my dad and I will drive to Boston to visit a friend I like to check in on every Christmas Eve. Tonight, we will go to Mass and hear one of Fr. Larry’s always masterful sermons. Tomorrow, we will not only share my sister’s tree but her table – and she is a great cook – and on the sharing of food we will rekindle the love of family that is such an obvious and central human truth flowing from the Christmas story. The dogs, only two this Christmas, and still disoriented by the loss of their brother Bernie, will get some special treats and patting – Luke made animals a part of his story too. We shall visit other family and old friends in the days ahead.
Whether we make a big fuss over Christmas or not, the criterion for our preparations should be this: Do they make it easier for us to claim that, yes, He did come and still comes into the world? I believe He did. I believe, with Lorenzo, “He wants to be with us.” And, that is today, as it was two thousand years ago, a stunning, earth-shattering revelation. It is grace, pure grace. It is Christmas.
A Blessed Yuletide to you all.