In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?
Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.
Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.
Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”
Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?
The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.
The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas -- is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.
Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.
The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.
So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas? Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?
He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”