December 25, 2021
“It is a time for joy.”
The words echoed from the timeless hymn, even while today prompting disbelief, scorn. The world is ravaged by pandemic disease, starvation, violent political extremism. Refugees freeze in cruel camps. Russian divisions are massed on the Ukraine border. In the U.S., attempts to fight the latest covid surge collide with ignorance and propaganda. Civil war is not unimaginable.
But the Season returned. The past few weeks have seen the decorative lights go on at homes, businesses, churches, brilliant reds and greens, soft whites and blues. They’re laid out by people, not only Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, Hindus, who stand up to the indifference, cynicism, hostility that confront the confluence of ideas and emotions for centuries called the spirit of the Season. People sent greeting cards. Airports and highways were jammed. A few lonely journalists reflected on the happiness of their Christmas memories.
We managed to gather our family from distant states for a few days around Christmas, the first time in three years. Those hectic hours were filled with hugs, meals, gift-giving. We tramped around downtown, looked in the shops, and snapped photos of the beautiful trees in the Hyatt Regency lobby, donated by businesses and decorated by schoolkids. We were careful to wear masks.
Even for those who take pleasure in giving, December has been transformed by commercial huckstering into a retail torture chamber. Then, when exhausted by shopping, millions watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” either warmed or baffled by the mawkish lessons it tries to teach. A few weeks ago The Washington Post ran a piece about Karolyn Grimes, the now-81-year-old lady who played George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu and spoke the immortal line, “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” She endured stunning personal tragedy, yet perseveres.
The “Wonderful Life” sentiments echo the words of priests, rabbis, and ministers: suffering is not our permanent condition; redemption and joy, the gifts of Christmas, are promised to every man and woman. The story of the Christ child born in a freezing stable draws snickers and laughter yet resonates today as it has through centuries.
The words about joy came from an elderly priest at an early morning Mass as he surveyed the poinsettas and fir trees set up around the altars. A couple of dozen folks sat in the nearly empty church on that dark, freezing morning. He spoke wearily, hinting of many Christmases past and the experience of many trials and tragedies, his own, but also of the human experience. We know that the bleeding crowd is always with us, as Christ said when the apostles wanted to give to the poor the coins they had collected.
The listeners sat in silence that morning, they didn’t have to be there. They know joy is not always with us, it is elusive, mysterious, yet transcendent. Those who endure the cacophony of the shopping season appreciate that all of us, even those who have little or nothing, are swept up. The memories of Christmas magic remain indelible: the anticipation, the tree, the lights, the bright colors, the special treats, the greetings, the grandeur and wonder of Christmas eve and Christmas morning. Those are the things we have always passed to the children, the children who now are the old-timers, the middle-aged, the parents of the youngest.
We do that today only by herculean effort. The cynics are louder because the reminders of the world’s failures are more explicit, more vivid, thanks to the unstoppable march of technology and self-awareness. The world is not the place of the Christmas message; at this moment in 2021 we see neither peace nor goodwill. We are turned inward, oblivious to the march of history through certain other late-December moments, to name only a few, those in 1861-1865, 1914-1917, and 1939-1945, when this country and the world suffered vast spasms of cruelty and unspeakable suffering.
Yet through those times men and women found within their souls the strength, the courage, the willingness to sacrifice and deny themselves, to mark the mysterious season of Christmas for the sake of the children, the elderly, the men and women at war far from home. From them and countless others before them we learn of and then witness the Christmas message.
So today in the face of the chaos of the packed shopping mall parking lots, the blaring nonstop commercial messages, the canned 24-hour broadcasts of carols, we can, if we try, understand that there still is a Christmas message, told in the Gospel of Luke: “And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem—because he was of the house and lineage of David—to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child.
“While they were there the days of her confinement were completed. She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.” (Luke 2:4-7).
Herein begins the message that foretold the vast shuddering of the history of the world caused by the birth of the Christian religion, even while animating the mystery (virgin birth? shepherds? angels?). But remaining is the lasting faith that called believers through the sweep of the centuries, the millennia, through cataclysms of suffering and reaffirmation that bring us to this moment, a moment of joy, Christmas, for men and women, and boys and girls, in our time.