In a country church there was a whitewashed wall. As people came in, they bowed to the wall or blessed themselves passing it. People wondered why, as there was no picture on the wall. If you asked them why they did it the answer was always the same. We do it because our parents and grandparents did it. Then there came a time to repaint the church. The whitewash and a few layers of paint were removed and behold a fresco of the nativity was found. The ritual had remained when the reason was forgotten.
There are many customs and visuals of Christmas; houses are lit up with stars, reindeer, Christmas trees and Santa Claus. Many of these rituals remain even though the reasons may fade away. Perhaps deep in all of us is a nostalgia for a past where the divine mixed with the human and the family of heaven and earth joined rather easily shedding light and hope on the world.
Christmas is a feast full of nostalgia. We sing about peace, but don’t know how to bring it about. We wish each other happiness, but it seems so hard to be happy. We buy one another gifts, but what we need is kindness and feeling. We sing to the Baby Jesus, but in our hearts faith is being extinguished. Life isn’t what we’d want it to be, but we don’t know how to do it any different.
This isn’t just how we feel about Christmas. Life itself is filled with nostalgia. Nothing completely fulfills our desires. There’s no wealth that can offer real peace. There’s no love that fully responds to our deepest desires. There’s no profession that can satisfy all our aspirations. It’s not possible to be loved by everyone.
Nostalgia is not a bad thing. It can have very positive effects. It allows us to discover that our desires go way beyond what we can possess or enjoy right now. It helps us to keep an open mind about what’s even better than what we know up to now. Nostalgia reminds us that our desire for the infinite, for God, resides in our being. The feast of Christmas invites us to discover that mystery, not in some foreign or impossible-to-reach land, but in a new-born child. It’s that simple and unbelievable. We need to come close to God as we come close to a child: calmly and quietly; without solemn pronouncements, but with simple words born of the heart. We meet God when we open to God the best we have in ourselves.
In spite of the frivolous and superficial tone that pervades our society at this time, Christmas comes close to God. It calls for a simple faith and an open heart. We speak today of putting Christ back into Christmas. Perhaps it might be better to say ‘find Christ in Christmas’. I would like to paraphrase one of John B. Keane’s stories of Christmas where he elegantly finds Christ in the everyday of the Christmas season.
John B. Keane was a writer and playwright from Kerry in Ireland. As well as having literary talent he also owned a pub. Many feel that this may be an unfair advantage as he claimed he got all of his ideas from the lads swilling back their pints. In his book called Christmas he talks about ‘the urging’ of Christmas. He tells of a man who in normal circumstances wouldn’t give you the crumbs from his table, but who, when imbued with the spirit of Christmas, phoned his estranged daughter in England and begged her to come home for Christmas. The daughter accepted the invitation, and on both sides all was forgiven. John B. says he wasn’t half as mean afterwards and concludes: ‘So, my friends, take Christmas by the horns – it can work wonders.’
He goes on to say that we shouldn’t be ashamed to be weepy or sentimental about Christmas, because we might not get the chance during the year ahead to show our humanity to the world. That, after all, is what Christmas is for—taking stock of our humanity and dispensing it where it is most needed.
So if we feel the impulse to be forgiving and charitable and loving, we shouldn’t think twice about it or we’ll miss the boat. ‘The milk of human kindness doesn’t come from cows and goats. It comes from that great repository of compassion and hope, namely, the human heart.’
The spirit of Christmas has continued ever since and it cannot be killed. It has survived Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and many other tyrants. It has survived human greed and human jealousy, and every human failing one cares to mention. Nothing lasts like Christmas. Not all the inhumanity, not all the greed, not all the violence will reduce its message by a whit. It’s here to stay and there’s nothing that evil men can do about it—and that’ one great consolation.
Christmas Day 2015