The first perspective is the one long taken by the world but in our day slowly subsiding: a certain joy, an increase in human generosity, songs of snowfalls and the ringing of bells, decorations and presents and most things merry. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.” I hope the G.K. was right, but I have a growing uncertainty that he was. It is no longer to be presumed that people will continue on with Christmas celebrations. Today, there are, with increasing regularity, those who are offended by the mere mention of Christmas. No nativity scenes for such as these. Still, there is an humanness to the celebration of Christmas and the spirit it brings, even in its secular version. I hope that spirit does not die out. It is the beginning of wonder and joy. If it is followed, allowed to enter into the heart, it almost touches the mystery.
The second is Christmas for those who believe. It stretches from vague notions of a great wonder come in the form of a baby, to explicit professions of the God-man who will save us from our sins. The image borne in the hearts of most believers is piously idyllic. We can see it in our nativity scenes and Christmas cards, hear it in the carols: O holy night and Angels we have heard on high. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Faith and love have led us to contemplate the splendor of the light coming into the world: we envision the mystery of the Nativity with eyes focused by love. But there is more to Christmas than this. There is something deeper and more profound. As G.K. Chesterton also said, “The fun of Christmas is founded upon the seriousness of Christmas.”
And that leads us to our third: for nine months God has been hidden in the womb of Mary. The glory cloud which Ezekiel the prophet saw depart from the temple has been present in the world, but hidden from it. And now, at last, love has revealed himself. But who would have known without being told? A child is born in a cave in Bethlehem, a name which means “House of Bread.” Our Lord did not come in thunder and excitement. Yes, there were signs for those who had faith but the explicit presence of God was found only implicitly, invisible love lay hidden in the visible form of that baby. And the picture is anything but idyllic. At the time of his birth, the world just continued on as it had been doing: working, sleeping, building, planning, fighting, and even sinning. This was the welcome he received. “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.”
The heavens were filled with amazement and joy, and certainly he was received with tenderness into the arms of his mother. But there was also the loneliness of it all. The quietness of the arrival, the sorrow that Love feels when it is ignored by those for who it longs. There is the unpleasantness of the accommodations. The King of kings put up for the night with the animals, laid to rest in the manger – a feeding trough. Divinity is revealed and made present in a child, and yet hidden in the messiness and imperfection of human existence. Already, even on a joyful day such as this, the glorious and fearful purpose of this life is made felt. The Cross lies hidden in the midst of Christmas.
The world is still going on without paying attention to the love poured out for it in the life of this child. Love came and died and rose for the sake of its beloved, and world seems not to care. “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by man’s decision but of God.” He makes his presence known to those who will receive him. Here at this altar we will lift him up on high, for adoration, revealed in truth, hidden in mystery, under the form of bread.
This Christmas is just like that Christmas. Love is willing to come down in the midst of our weariness, our loneliness, our sorrows, our preoccupations and, yes, our imperfections. He longs to find a place in every heart that will receive him, and he does not care if the accommodations are perfectly suited for his majesty and splendor. And the knowledge of, the encounter with, such a serious love as His, gives warmth, joy, mirth and merriment to hearts such as ours. So rejoice in carols and presents, trees and decorations; Gaze upon the loveliness of the Nativity with the eyes of faith; and peer in wonder before the hiddenness of the mystery of God-with-us.