At our most recent Spirit Breakfast Cafe a boy from the parish came over to where I was eating. “Fr. Tom, this is for you,” he said, handing me a candy cane. I thanked him and said I was going to save it until after all the Christmas Masses were done, then I could really enjoy it, really savor it.
He said, with just a hint of something sinister, “Do you want to know a secret?” Of course everyone likes a good secret, especially one about candy canes, so I asked him to share his secret. “Well, just so you know,” he said, “it lasts a lot longer if you leave the wrapper on and suck on it that way.” But, I protested, you wouldn’t be able to taste the peppermint. To which he replied, “Come on, Fr. Tom, you kind of know how it tastes anyway.”
I wonder if buried in that child’s logic and creativity, there isn’t something slightly true about how we approach Christmas; about how we anticipate it, lionize it, maybe even how we protect what we celebrate: this divine Incarnation, this wonder of God becoming human, this mystery of heaven touching earth.
We kind of know what it’s about – what it tastes like. We like the sentimentality, the music, the stories, the TV specials, the decorations, the memorable moments, the special foods. But in a way that’s all wrapping. None of that brings us much closer to the nitty gritty of what it means for God to be born among us. The wrapping – the stuff we associate with Christmas, the sentimentality — might very well distract us, prevent us, protect us from the more demanding aspect of Christmas, the reality of Christmas.
The sentimentality might prevent us, protect us from considering the challenge, the necessary risk that comes if we dig deeper to consider and come to understand whether it matters, why it matters, what difference it makes that God became human, that God became one of us.
The sentimentality might prevent us, protect us from considering the real questions: Does it matter in anyway in my living, day to day – in our living, day to day – that heaven touched earth, that God touched us, that God is among us.
The sentimentality might even distort our consideration of this story we hear each year, allowing us to wrap it with a rosy hue; allowing it to become just another comforting, smile-inducing, sentimental holiday tale — a churchy version of It’s a Wonderful Life or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol. All of those stories have a rather harsh, dark dimension if we look closely, but nothing to compare with our story. Despite what we may see in most of our nativity scenes, there is nothing placid or peaceful about our story.
It’s story of a grueling journey dictated by an oppressive regime, presuming to count people who didn’t count, who didn’t matter in the least. A young woman, a man – confused, frightened, exhausted, albeit remarkably faithful and determined – left to seek shelter and give birth in the squalor of a barn. Ultimately, left running as refugees, the ruthless foreshadowing of the trauma to come; the wood of the manger always leading to the wood of the cross, the wonder of the Incarnation to the glory of the Resurrection.
We do ourselves a disservice if we allow that story to be distorted; if we allow gentle carols and warm lights delude us of its stone cold reality.
We do ourselves a disservice if we allow all the trappings of this holy night protect us from exploring the challenge and the promise, the possibility and the wonder of what’s inside the wrapper.
We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to celebrate the potential of God becoming human, of drawing us back to a better way, guiding us toward a different way of being. The potential of a God who we cannot confine to the cradle or the cross or the grave, who we strive to recognize and regard in the most unlikely places, in the most unlikely people.
We do ourselves, and our world, a disservice if we fail to remove the wrapping of Christmas, getting into the depths of what this is about. Because in God becoming human we realize the sacredness of our own humanity, the sacredness of all humanity. In taking off the wrapper, getting into the depths of this mystery, we realize that we matter to God, that all creation matters to God. And once we’ve tasted that, once we begin to tackle that remarkable awareness, how can our lives, day to day, be the same, how can life in any manner be the same, how can the world not change?
On his way out of Mass Christmas morning during which I shared the story of our encounter in the homily that’s become this posting, the boy shouted, “Enjoy the candy cane, Father.” And I’m going to take off the wrapper. TL