Years ago, retailers customarily brought out their Christmas wares and decorations following the Thanksgiving holiday. Nowadays, of course, the captains of commerce begin their assaults on our senses and pocketbooks a month earlier—right after Halloween, which has become a major commercial and pagan religious festival in its own right.
Then there are assorted angry atheists and other secular pecksniffs who police the public square to make sure that it is shorn of even the most trivial symbol of Christian religious observance. Neon Santa Clauses, glow-in-the-dark elves, and blinking reindeer noses are deemed acceptable, but if so much as the hint of a manger makes its way onto the courthouse lawn, you can count on a subpoena from the American Civil Liberties Union. The Christmas card industry has pretty much followed suit: For every expression of religious sentiment, there must be a hundred offering some goopy equivalent of “Have a nice day!”
Finding the Christ Child in the midst of this secular aggression and commercial vulgarity is not an easy thing, but in a sense it was ever thus. Is what we now endure different in kind from what Mary and Joseph encountered on that first Christmas Eve when there was no room in the inn? The Bad Guys have always tried to ruin Christmas. Whether they succeed or not depends on us.
For most of us, Christmas retains an irreducible sweetness that softens all but the most hardened of souls. And even some of those, as Charles Dickens memorably recorded, can be transformed by the grace of the Incarnation. Of course, Ebenezer Scrooge first had to confront the ghosts of his own sinful past, but that, too, is part of the salvific drama, is it not?
Certain theologians will tell you that we tend to over-sentimentalize Christmas and by doing so distract attention from the deeper significance of the Incarnation more properly expressed in the celebration of Easter. They have a point, which is that without the Resurrection, all bets are off. The Christmas story would become just another fairy tale. Fair enough, but we are fleshy creatures. As such, we are irresistibly attracted by the beginning of the story, which draws us into the mystery of salvation through the birth of a child in a barn on a chilly night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. In response to the theologians, one could say that without the Nativity there can be no Resurrection.
Even the Magi, rich and powerful men much occupied by the things of the world, couldn’t resist the lure of a child’s birth. And so, too, with the simpler men of the countryside who watched their flocks by night. All put their business to one side and came to pay homage at the manger. It will be said, of course, that both groups had to be prompted by heavenly signs, a star in the first case and angels in the other. But the important point is that all paid heed.
We, too, have our heavenly signs in the form of the gospels and the sacraments. Most of us—residents of California excepted—do not literally look to the stars for guidance, but the evidence of divine grace is there for all who open their hearts to its possibilities. Miracles, even saints, surround us at every turn, but we have to pause to notice. That eminent Christian theologian, Yogi Berra, said it just right: “It’s amazing what you can see just by lookin’.”
As for the appearance of the heavenly host these days, I don’t know about you, but I’m not counting on it. Still, the revival of popular interest in angels in our time gives one pause. Yes, the renewed fascination is often accompanied by cloying spiritualism and pagan nonsense, but viewed from a deeper perspective, it is as if the angels themselves had come to rebut the materialist orthodoxies of our age.
With due respect to the ceramic cherubs that now populate the pages of every lawn-and-garden catalog, I am far more interested in the better angels of our nature. They can speak to us no less powerfully than the angels who appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem. But as Yogi might say, first you gotta listen.
And so, gentle readers, as the joyful commemoration of our Savior’s birth approaches, despair ye not at the pagan noise and commercial glut that surround you. If you will but look and listen, the Christ Child is still there in His manger waiting for you.
A blessed Christmas to all of you.