We are in the Christmas season, when public celebrating and gift-giving are at a height. At least some of us who are Christians try to remind ourselves amid the secular festivities and commercialism that the gifts we exchange are a reflection of the great gift that God gave us in sending Jesus into the world. The family that gets even that far is way ahead of the game.
But we need to go a lot further. If you think about it, it is not exactly a massive spiritual renewal to rediscover that Christ and Christmas have something to do with one another, as desirable as even that may be. A priest I know remarked recently that, whether it knows it or not, every day the world counts time from Jesus’ birth. The typical way of celebrating Christmas today is therefore not only a decline from the faith but a sheer loss of memory.
The problem is not only a religious one. Here in America we have gone from celebrating the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln—two figures who, humanly speaking, have secured for us great blessings—to the neutered and muted holiday known as Presidents’ Day. Since, as the current administration demonstrates, many presidents are best forgotten, the lost connection with even these secular luminaries means that the holiday is now notable mostly for being a day off work.
Memory loss is loss of humanity. Anyone who has had a friend or relative with Alzheimer’s knows how painful it is to see a living, breathing human being cut off from the human connections that make each of us who we are. Most developed societies today are not far from a kind of collective Alzheimer’s. So far as we know, we are the only species in the universe that notes the passage of time and orients itself within the present and toward the future by remembering the past, the past both of the race and of our individual lives.
The first gospel, St. Matthew’s, begins the life of Jesus with a detailed genealogy that is intended to remind us not only of the long perspectives of salvation history but also of the specific details of Jesus’ birth. Without particular parents and a personal history, He would not have been fully human. Without the line stretching back to the Creation of the world, we can’t understand who He really is.
It may be that the very casualness with which we exchange Christmas presents in affluent societies makes it difficult for us to go beyond the mere nod to the Christ child during the season. Real giving and receiving are not as simple as first appears. In various cultures around the world, an elaborate gift system apportions respect and esteem within the society. When you read in Homer, for example, how some king, years earlier, visited another and gave or received valuable gifts, it is a reminder to all present that deep human roots lie behind every moment.
Yet what does it mean when, beyond all merely human measures, God gives and we receive? Like all Christian dogmas, this one both encompasses all our earthly reflections of divine life and then explodes into meaning quite beyond anything we can fully describe. It puts us at a loss to glimpse even the smallest part of the fact that behind every moment of existence, not simply the moment of Christ’s birth, there lies an incalculable gift that we cannot repay in the least. There’s nothing else even remotely like it.
There is an old custom in Italy, now fast being replaced by American-style Christmas, that children receive gifts in early January from a gnarled little witch called La Befana. I never understood this until someone told me that the name was a corruption of la epifania, the Epiphany, when the Magi appeared and gave Jesus gifts in homage to mark his first public manifestation.
But even that charming reminder still leaves us mostly unenlightened. Indeed, the Christmas story reminds us that the whole world itself is part of the divine gift. When you think about everything that goes right and wrong around the globe, inside families, and in our individual lives every year, it’s difficult to recall that it’s all part of that grace that in a complete sense not even our true dogmas can properly convey. We are every instant the recipients of a gift so large that it would take humility and generosity almost as great to receive it. Amid the quite proper human cheeriness of the season, it would do a lot to raise us and the world to a more humane level if we worked at constantly remembering and reminding one another of just how much we are in danger of forgetting.