If Christmas is anything, it is a revolution of the heart against the tit-for-tat of this world, against the demands of this world for balancing the scales and righting every wrong with a hard justice. Ultimately, if this world is saved, it will be mercy, not justice, that saves it.
I. When the Outlandish Is the Only Thing That Makes Sense
Christmas is such nonsense. Literally. For thirty-two years I enjoyed the food, the singing, the pageantry, and especially the lights, but I never believed the story plausible. For me, the story of Christmas Day made no sense. And worse, it was a slander and insult to Judaism, the one religion that had for centuries carefully and sensibly cleansed itself of pagan sentiment. But somehow that silliest of pagan myths, of a god becoming human, infected this most hermetically-sealed and protected faith. What a sacrilegious—indeed, ludicrous—notion that the Ineffable, the Incomprehensible, the Infinite, and the Eternal should descend, even condescend, to be human! How could That whose name dare not be uttered for fear that the naming would limit what is limitless become a mere human: frail, aching, lost?
And then, unexpectedly, my view changed. Because, unexpectedly, I became a father. What had seemed to me absurd and bizarre became absurdly obvious and natural. My son Isaac was born in March 1984, and within a few months, he got sick. Nothing serious, but to a new parent every sniffle seems certain death. I came home from work one day to find my wife Sharon huddled up on a chair, rocking Isaac, both of them crying inconsolably, tears silently streaming down their cheeks. She did not want to let him go, yet somehow I took him in my arms and tried to calm him, but nothing I said or did made any difference. We spent hours poring over medical books to find ways to help him; I called the doctor’s office frantically, but all his advice was of no use. We gave him medicine and we walked him and stroked him and stayed up half the night wondering if he would live another day. We were frightened and lost and did not know what else to do. Then I did what most other parents would do: I started to pray—praying he would start feeling better, but nothing changed. Then again like any other parent, even some of the sanest atheists among us, my desperate prayer changed to bargaining: Let me suffer in his stead. Let it be me and not him: “Dammit, dammit, g–dammit, just let it be me. Stop the little boy crying.” But nothing changed. Then even more desperately I screamed in my thoughts: “Even if he cannot feel better, at least, at least, dammit, let me share in his suffering; let me at least be able to join in his misery.” Again, nothing changed.
Later that night, as Isaac fell into an exhausted slumber, it occurred to me that my wanting to trade places with my child and to share in his suffering was normal and predictable, even though I am far from an exemplary father. It seems a universal impulse shared by most humans and many mammals to willingly offer their own lives for their offspring. And that universal impulse has seemed to me ever since to be an immutable cosmic truth. It is a reality so obvious it remained hidden for millennia. And while at that time I still did not yet believe god existed, I was absolutely certain after that fearful night that if there were a God, He should be at least as good as me and my species. That He should be even more inclined, more determined, that His creation should never suffer alone, should never endure anything horrible that He did not also partake of. And by His participating in it, elevating, purifying, and sacramentalizing the suffering.
II. Three’s a Crowd: Poor, Old Joe
It isn’t fair. At all. Perhaps because he is my namesake or maybe because I am now as old as he was then, I think Joseph gets a raw deal in the Christmas story. It’s all about the baby and the mother—and even the shepherds and the visiting Wise Men get more attention. Heck, even those smelly, noisy animals and that rude innkeeper get more attention! Poor old, tired, worried Joe. I suspect that even Mary, so young and vibrant and certain of herself, probably wondered if her old, decrepit husband could really last much longer under the stress and strain of the long journey from Nazareth… and the burdens of late-life fatherhood.
He is always in the background, he is always silent; he is always just there. But as I grow into that role more and more myself, unable to keep up with a young child and uncomfortable to be at the center of things, I begin to suspect this is the way Joe wanted it to be. He feels himself pulled centrifugally further and further to the outer edges of the story, but it is not that he is being shunted aside. Rather, he understands that he cannot be at the center and still also be at their side. It is at the periphery he remains, and it is at the periphery he finds his center. It is one of the daily miracles of life and love, after all, that there is no one center and that everyone is always at a center of a loving family no matter how peripheral or distant they are in mind and space and time.
III. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”?
Let’s be defiantly honest: Not everyone is cheerful this time of year. We forget this easily enough: so many lights and so much laughter; so much wine and so many songs to sing: it is sometimes hard to hear and see the pain all around us. But Christmas can be a time of sorrow and regret, and certainly, a time when being alone and feeling lost becomes sharper, clearer, more pressing on our consciousness. Suicide rates go up, and depression and despair take a terrible toll. There is no holiday for those in pain; no holy day to ward off fear and sorrow. Christmas comes to heal and soothe, and it should bring merriment, but it can also pierce like a knife and crush like a hammer those who find themselves apart and alone. Even as I type, hundreds are being killed throughout this murderous world, and thousands more are dying painful deaths from exotic diseases and all-too-common ones like hate and greed. Every year, dozens of children are killed in school rampages—spanning the globe from America to Pakistan—now so commonplace it hardly shocks: a too oft-repeated Slaughter of the Innocents. Children lost forever to their families; lives ended almost before they had begun: a heartbreaking wrenching that brings us back to a darker reality in the midst of Christmastide.
Perhaps the worst myth of Christmas, the truest and most dangerous lie, is that somehow Christmas magically changes human nature and softens human loss. But that is not Christmas. The losses are just as real and just as painful. There is nothing magical about Christmas—at least no more magical than love and sacrifice ever are. Love and sacrifice are in truth more miraculous than magical; they are more a determined defiance to choose life over death, to choose hope even during an abjectly despairing time. So, this day, in the midst of all the singing and laughter and camaraderie, we grieve for all those suffering, even as we happily decorate our houses and prepare for a joyous celebration, offering prayers for those who are suffering unspeakable losses, and we especially remember those whose pain and aloneness worsen this time of year. The first Christmas was not the immediate harbinger of universal joy and world peace, but only the promise that it might someday be so. Christmas doesn’t blot out the darkness; darkness still reigns most everywhere, but love shines on, incandescent and defiant.
IV. The Dark Joy of Despair
I have lived much of my life among people haunted by dark, depressing histories of violence, corruption, and poverty: the Philippines, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and especially Cambodia. I have also lived among wealthier and more progressive societies like Slovenia and, certainly, the United States. And I am always stunned by the contrast: the Filipinos and Egyptians and Cambodians so poor, so desperate, so crowded together… and, so cheerful; while here in the United States and even more so in Slovenia there is so much that is so breathtakingly beautiful, so prosperous… and, so somber. I begin to wonder what is it that prompts such defiant joy in the midst of violence and squalor, and what it is that remains defiantly despairing in the midst of so much abundance?
I suspect that there is something appealing, even seductive, about despair. Some of us are not just drawn to, but actually beckon, a darker interpretation of reality. There is something in the soul that rejoices in bitterness and nothingness. Some embrace a brutal beauty, gazing up at a dark and starry night believing themselves alone, all alone, bravely facing the limitless darkness and emptiness of space—stoically coping or frantically ignoring the cold indifference of existence, accepting the absurdity of every morality and the vacuousness of all emotion. Bravely accepting that everything they sense, and think, and feel, and believe, even whether they believe or disbelieve in God, is just a random, foreordained mix of electro-chemical impulses, personal experiences, and societal conditioning. That there really is no standard for anything and that only cold courage is left—though even that concept of courage is empty and meaningless since it too is merely materially predetermined. There is a certain pleasure in feeling this emptiness, even a certain freedom: being freed from the gravitational pull of this morality or that, completely liberated to do anything or nothing.
But this dark joy has been stolen; it has been violently torn away.
With a quiet whimper and a baby yawn, the darkness splinters:
A baby cry pierces the implacable and brings it to its knees;
A baby grasp draws the universe closer and warms it with laughter and tears.
V. In Praise of Pagans
With song and wine and laughter we usher in the Christmas season. I am now officially and legally an old man, and yet Christmas lights still mesmerize me. They are delightfully gaudy to me, although I know some people don’t like them. The reasons vary. The politically correct fear the lights might cause discomfort to other religions and nonbelievers alike, and that we should be more sensitive to their bruised feelings. Strident environmentalists assail the profligate use of energy, while the “esthetic” police are appalled by the tackiness of the displays. Others fear that the lights dangerously mix Church and State—a great fear that pervades the Left in America and rivals in absurdity the old fear of communism on the Right. Other objections are more religious. The Puritans disapproved celebrating Christmas at all; I suppose they thought it degrading to celebrate something holy with things so profane as music, dance, laughter, and lights. Modern-day Puritans, with laudably good intentions, lament the materialistic bent of the holiday, as people spend inordinate amounts of time and money on gift-buying and party-going. And while I sometimes also wonder about Christmas having become too commercialized and materialistic, I mostly just revel in it and do not worry too much that it has become too pagan a celebration. It is, after all, Christmas: a time for irrational and inordinate joy.
We should remember that on that first Christmas woefully ridiculous gifts were given of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. And even if some theologians find symbolic value in those gifts, there is no denying that they were not particularly practical or useful. Well, maybe the gold… but it would be hard to think of sillier gifts for a child than frankincense and myrrh. Instead of soft blankets and warm food, the gifts given were outrageous and they were fun. And sure, there were no strings of electric lights two millennia ago, but hosts of angels heralding the birth? That is pretty ostentatious and over the top.
Part of the genius of ancient Christianity is that it did not try to stamp out pagan delight in the natural world, but only to re-create it in a less violent, more wholesome form: to be less worshipful of nature, but also more respectful of it. In choosing the date of an ancient Roman holiday for Christmas, the Church was more than just clever; it was inspired. Linking Christmas with the ancient celebration of nature reminds us that matter itself is something intrinsically good, not evil. Many so-called “religious” people tend to despise worldly things, but if nothing else the Incarnation refutes both puritanical and nihilistic assertions that life and matter and flesh are bad. The more songs, the better. The more laughter, the better. And the gaudier the lights, the better!
VI. Fear and Love
A close atheist pal of mine, always lovable but only sometimes bright, once damned many religions with a syllogism of sorts: God is to be feared, and God is Love; therefore we must fear Love—thus we are all lost and religion is even more screwed up than most people realize. How, he laughed, can you fear a God of Love? Part of the problem, I replied in my most professorial voice, is that “fear” has gotten a lot of bad press over the last few centuries, and “love” has been dumbed down to a sugary, flowery near nothing. All the good aspects of “fear” and all the fearful aspects of “love” have been lost in the mushy, maudlin sentimentality of the modern age. In some ways I blame Christmas. It is hard to think of fear at all when you look at trees aglow with lights, and it is hard to see anything hard about love when all the images of Christmas tell you over and over again how easy life and love should be.
But explaining the goodness of fear is easy: A healthy fear of fire keeps us from being burnt, just as a healthy fear of hurting someone keeps them safe from being burnt by us in a different way. Other fears are subtler, but also more unnerving. The first time, for example, I looked up and really saw the expanse of the sky with its burning, cold stars, I trembled. And in those rare instances when I get a clearer insight into how much I have done wrong and how much pain I cause, I tremble even more. And just so, love can be as frightful and as stern as it is soothing and gentle, as when it ruthlessly compels us to ignore our own comfort or to risk all we have; then we come to fear it.
One of the oldest notions of God—a distant, cold, implacable incomprehensibility—is comprehensibly fearful and awe-inspiring. But the notion of God we get at Christmas is just as fearsome in a different way: the warm beating heart of a newborn babe. The first time I ever held a baby I feared, really feared, dropping it, imagining it slipping from my hands toward the floor. And even now that I am comfortable and confident holding them, babies still invariably fill me with dread and leave me in awe. And as Christmas approaches I imagine that baby in the manger, both creator and creation, slipping from our hands, falling downward. Are we not all connected enough with life and light to tremble, and fear the mere thought of the universe slipping from our hands to the floor?
VII. Holiday Trees, the War on Christmas, and other Absurdities
I once had a girlfriend who around this time of year asked if we were going to get a “holiday tree.” I emphatically replied in the negative. No, I explained, like every other year we would be getting a Christmas tree instead. She was irked; so was I. Truth be told, when she asked the question, I thought she must be joking. I sarcastically commented that a Christmas tree is no more a “holiday tree” than a Menorah is a “holiday candelabrum.” I found this desire to secularize everything especially humorous in my last foreign assignment in Ljubljana, Slovenia. That beautiful city struggles each year to make Christmas palatable to its many nonbelievers. A few years ago this effort reached a new height of silliness as the city emblazoned the words energy, idea, and life—a secularized Trinity!—at the very center of the Christmas displays, trying hard to show that this season can be celebrated even if you are not comfortable with religious hocus-pocus.
I have traveled the world enough to be wary of those well-intentioned but misguided among us who equate equality with sameness, and who think a respectful appreciation of other cultures is the same as thoughtless assimilation. There seems to be a fear that the sharp edges that define and contrast religions and cultures somehow need to be softened and smoothed away. I don’t see it. True respect should compel us to appreciate the best in each religion and every culture, but not to shy away from criticizing those aspects that we find morally reprehensible. I have prayed in synagogues, Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, and myriad churches, and they are not all the same, though all have something that touches a deeper chord. We see the same senseless drive toward sameness even regarding individuals—this irrational and absurd liberal yearning to make everyone the same, insisting that everyone potentially is equally intelligent or talented. But when we say people are equal we only mean that each is infinitely valuable; not that each is equally likely to excel in understanding quantum mechanics or playing piano.
Anyway, that girlfriend did not last long. After much contentious debate two things became clear. One, that she was a true believer in the cosmic battle to ensure political correctness. And two, true believers in any cause have no sense of humor—which applies equally to conservatives, especially their overwrought concern about a modern “plot” to undermine Christmas. There is no sinister “war” against Christmas. Differences in view and sentiment should not lead to a breathless paranoia about the future of Western civilization. Well-meaning people can disagree, and disagreement need not lead to strident condemnations. I see well-intentioned people on both sides, and in the true spirit of Christmas both sides should spend more time trying to find common ground and less on finding ground for battling each other. Even after all these years, I’m still not sure which is sillier: the liberal penchant for trying to make everything and everyone the same, or the conservative impulse to be suspicious of those who disagree or who are different. As someone wise once said, the best and the worst you can say about most people is that they have good intentions. That baby born two millennia ago understood this, and this was perhaps one reason he enjoyed hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes as much as priests and politicians; he didn’t seem to see much difference among them.
VIII. In the Company of Humans
Francis of Assisi was the first to include live animals in a Nativity scene. This animal theme has gained in popularity over the centuries, but I think there is still not enough focus on this supporting cast of beasts. Today those animals are still not much more than background scenery, yet they feel physical pain, many of them feel emotional loss, some can even worry and love and mourn and display remarkable loyalty and heroism. And if, as Paul said, “all creation is groaning,” then it is misguided that humans think only in terms of themselves when thinking of redemption. In the company of people, animals tend to become much better or much worse than they are in their natural habitat—which in itself is a spiritual mystery of sorts. Perhaps the problem has always been that we are caught between those who would moronically worship nature and those who cynically consider nature only as something to be used. We humans may be the crown of creation, the very peak of evolutionary striving, but that should mean we have greater responsibility to all those creatures beneath us. That phrase in Genesis declaring that mankind has “dominion” over the entire world has caused much mischief for thousands of years. To have “dominion” is not to “dominate”; indeed, it is the exact opposite: to be the servant and the protector of our domain. This, I confess, is somewhat ironic because it has taken me many decades to come to appreciate animals, especially dogs. I have lived in an uneasy peace with canines for all my married life, beset upon by a spouse and children who insist they are as valuable as any other members of the family. And while I could never accept that premise, I have learned a certain humility observing creatures who forgive so easily and who never tire of seeking comfort no matter how many times they are rejected.
IX. Too Much Justice
Justice is a reliable servant but cruel master. I am reminded of this every day here in the United States. There are few examples in history of people who have been able to transcend this diabolic thirst for justice, but one was Nelson Mandela, who died four years ago this month. For twenty-seven years—nearly a third of his lifetime—Mandela was imprisoned. Justice demanded that those who did this be punished; justice demanded that he not rest until all those who had stolen the best years of his life paid the full measure for their crime. But there was something about Mandela that saved him from slaking his thirst for justice, or South Africa would still be bleeding. Justice is such a laudable virtue, it is often forgotten that it is also a powerful engine for evil. From Alexander and Genghis Khan to Hitler and bin Laden, it is often the demand for justice that causes untold suffering in the world. Most of those who commit evil deeds do not wake up in the morning and say to themselves: Today, I am going to do great evil. Far more often they wake up and say: Today, I am going to right the wrongs done against me or against my people or against my country or against my religion. When your goal is so noble a thing as justice you can justify any act. Justice, untempered by mercy, is a cold tyranny. And then I am reminded that that baby born two thousand years ago had the same attitude as Mandela: There is a higher standard than mere justice. Because justice, as Gandhi once famously put it, inevitably leads to an eyeless, toothless, and heartless world. The child in the manger did not grow up embittered by his poverty or hateful of the rich and powerful. He did not scream from the cross for justice, but instead wept for his killers. If Christmas is anything, it is a revolution of the heart against the tit-for-tat of this world, against the demands of this world for balancing the scales and righting every wrong with a hard justice. Ultimately, if this world is saved, it will be mercy, not justice, that saves it.
X. Four Family Xmas Stories
In Morocco, the Christmas of 1996, we had this wonderfully clueless Labrador named Edgar. Edgar never really had to be housebroken; he knew instinctively that urinating was an outdoor activity. But he got a little confused the day we brought home a huge Christmas tree. He was so excited he immediately baptized it as we all stood there in shock and amazement. The rest of the family roared with laughter, but I only roared with fury, and no amount of Christmas cheer could assuage my anger. The poor dog never made that mistake again. Then there was that time a few years earlier, Christmas 1992 in Virginia, when my daughter Alessia was only six years old, and she was begging us to start decorating for Christmas while it was still November. Never being very good at saying no to anyone, but especially children, I got out an old German-made metal device with four candles. When lit, the candles heated a fan that moved three angels which in turn rang two bells. Alessia was delighted and so was I—always great to have a pretext to start Christmas early. But as I leaned back on the kitchen counter I felt a stinging, as if a bee was attacking me. And then it felt like a hundred bees swarming over my entire back. Then Alessia screamed: “Daddy, Stop, Drop, and Roll!!” What on earth, I wondered, was wrong with that child and then I realized, “Oh damn, I’m on fire!” Dutifully, as Alessia continued her chant, now joined by her mother, I fell to the ground and rolled about until the fire was extinguished. It hurt like hell, but it was hard for the nurses and doctors in the emergency ward to hide their delight: They proudly announced that I was the first casualty of that Christmas season! At home later Alessia made me feel like it was all worth it when she came up to me, patted my hand and said she was sorry that I had gotten hurt. She even expressed sorrow that my favorite shirt had been burnt. I told her it was alright and that I could get another shirt. At this she immediately brightened, and her true purpose for pretending to console me became clear. She smiled broadly and asked expectantly: “Well, Daddy, can I take the burnt shirt to school tomorrow to show all my friends?”
Another Christmas, perhaps 1968 or so, when I was a teenager living in New Jersey, my brother and I struggled to figure out a new way to decorate our house with Christmas lights. I’m not sure half a century later who thought of it, but we realized that our community was about half Jewish and half Catholic and that maybe we could outrage or at least irritate both groups by constructing a huge Star of David out of colored lights and having it shine down on a Nativity scene. No neighbors ever complained, but it always made Christmas a little more enjoyable believing that maybe we had upset some of our neighbors. We no longer decorate to irritate or upset others, but we have always made our decorations as inclusive as possible, even though some might be offended or fear a dilution or distortion of what Christmas is all about. We include a miniature Koran and several different Stars of David as tree ornaments, and we include a palm tree in our Nativity scene, since it plays such a prominent role in the Koranic version of the Christmas story. We also include Buddhist, Hindu, and secular ornaments as well, believing that Christmas never can be diluted or twisted by embracing even those who don’t believe.
And then there was a time even earlier. The Christmas of 1963 in New Jersey. No store-bought gifts that year; we were struggling to just pay the mortgage on our first house, and my father was struggling with a new job as a teacher after having been in the military for more than thirty years. We still were enjoying the Christmas season because my two elder sisters, Maryann and Ursula, kept morale high by helping us all make gifts for each other out of paper and ribbon and such. My third sister, Susan, the youngest in the family I don’t recall being worried at all because she knew then—as she still believes now at sixty-four years of age!—that Santa Claus always brings enough gifts for everyone. But my really favorite gift came early that Christmas morning, right after midnight. We had all piled into the car to go to Midnight Mass, and as the crowds surged and the incense burned, I got dizzy. Before the service was half over I could no longer see; I was barely conscious, and my head throbbed. As I started to faint, my father grabbed me, rushed me home, and put me into bed. I had never seen my father worried before, and I didn’t understand what the fuss was. I was eleven years old, strong, healthy, invincible. Why that silly look of worry, I wondered? He bent down as I lay there and kissed my forehead and silently left the room, his shoulders sagging. What was going on? I was eleven years old! I was a boy! An American boy! Kissing was for girls. Kissing was something you tolerated from your mother, but I never recalled getting one from my father. It has been more than half a century since that day and that kiss still burns soothingly on my brow.
XI. Cold, Tired, and Scared
I love Nativity scenes—but I also find them irritating. Our house is resplendent with more than half a dozen from Asia, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East; all colorful and joyful; they brighten up every dark corner of our house and dark recess of our minds. But, like I said, they also can infuriate me. They are too clean, too bright, too warm and nuzzling. That serene smile on every Mary, the glowing eyes of every Joseph, the bubbly, happy baby, sometimes are just too much. That wasn’t the way it possibly could have been. Sometimes I wish for a real manger scene, with the donkey braying and the sheep bleating and even the camels spitting. I can see the tired old man wondering what he had gotten himself into and the young girl frightened for her young babe and herself. All of them shivering in the cold and the dark. And the sound of the animals so loud and dissonant that the baby keeps waking in tears, and the mother tries vainly to soothe him back to sleep. And then the shepherds arrive, smelly, sly, ignorant, wanting to see this strange phenomenon they are drawn to beyond their comprehension. And the mother now worried about how to cope with a crying infant and so many unexpected guests—she was a Jewish mother after all! I like this starker nativity scene because it is more like what we all go through and certainly what the poor and discarded experience every day. I like the thought that every broken person, every young scared and scarred mother, every confused and weary father, every destitute and despairing family, can identify with and appreciate that small family of three searching desperately for shelter 2000 years ago. No more than refugees—internally displaced people as we bureaucratically describe them today—struggling just to get to tomorrow, with no thought of grander or sweeter days ahead. For so many of the poor and broken to embrace life and joy under such circumstances is itself a daily miracle that humbles me. And so maybe in a deeper sense and at the risk of contradicting myself, the “cleaned-up” Nativity scene gets it exactly right: Underneath all the dirt and noise there is a serene smile of a young mother despite the worries, there are warm glowing eyes of an old father despite his exhaustion, and there is a babe bursting with life and joy despite being hungry and cold. They may have been a “holy family,” but they were also a “wholly human family.”
XII. Christmas Defiance
Here is a completely different way to look at Christmas: as an act of stunning cosmic insubordination—that most dangerous of virtues. What many scientifically-minded people find most distressing about Christmas is that the whole idea conflicts with law and order: It violates the laws of nature, it ignores the rules of history and culture, and it laughs in the face of established authority. I sympathize a little. Insubordination is not the most dangerous virtue only because it strikes at the very core of established values; it is also dangerous because it can so easily be misunderstood and misapplied. It can be a pretext to hide cowardice, or to avoid responsibility and discipline, or to simply do whatever we choose.
I was reminded of the sacred importance of insubordination a few days ago when I sat down and re-watched one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Joyeux Noel,” about that first Christmas of World War I, now over a century ago. Although historically incorrect in certain ways, the film conveys certain truths. Already sickened by the carnage of that war and beginning to doubt the platitudes of their leaders who kept preaching a “holy crusade” against the evil enemy, the common soldiers—French, Scottish, and German—ignore the rules of war, defy their commanders, and shake off the false discipline of their training. They start to have snowball fights, they play football matches, and they stunningly realize that they all sing, albeit in different languages, “Silent Night.” The sheer terror that these common soldiers struck in the hearts of their rulers by tossing a few friendly snowballs is both amusing and disturbing. The generals were as unnerved by those snowballs as Herod and Pilate had been two thousand years ago when confronted with a divine insubordination that defied logic and nature.
This essay first appeared here in December 2017.
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