It is customary this time of year for the Human Toothache Brigade to break out the ol’ secular-humanist signs and try to dampen Christmas spirit, while oversensitive culture warriors overreact with "War on Christmas!!" hyperventilation. It’s all good fun, but I find myself less and less moved by either side of it.
If uptight, anal-retentive secularists want to get their sphincters in a knot with terrors about the Holiday that Dare Not Speak its Name, I will, as a cheerful countercultural Catholic, enjoy all the more saying "MERRY CHRISTMAS!" out loud and not give a fig about offending anybody, because, well, I’m just happy it’s Christmas. I love Christmas! And, in point of fact, I have never encountered anybody who is offended at the mention of Christmas. I’ve only met jittery shopkeepers and the occasional coworker who have been cowed by the panicky miasma of offensitivity in Seattle culture and who are afraid of giving offense, but who would never take offense. Such people go all melty once you break the ice and they realize it’s okay to say "Christmas."
If that’s the norm here in Seattle, the very heart of the Soviet of Washington, you can bet it’s the norm most places. So whatever the case, I refuse to let panicky offensitivity derail my joy in the Feast of the Incarnation with fear, just as I refuse to let Culture Warriors derail the joy with encoded talk-radio anger where "Merry Christmas" really means, "Take that, you liberal peacenik, granola-eating, non-cigar smoking, blue stater who doesn’t watch FOX News, celebrate the wisdom of the war in Iraq, or uphold Christian values like torture!"
Half the fun of being Catholic in these United States is belonging to a bizarre and exotic sect that freely indulges in uncouth and mysterious rites and uses arcane language that half-terrifies and half-fascinates my countrymen. Saying "Merry Christmas" is among these prerogatives, and I have no intention of changing that to suit either the fearful or the angry. When I say, "Merry Christmas!" I mean just that: I hope the person I am talking to has a Merry Christmas. I’m wishing Merry Christmas because it’s the Feast of the Incarnation and I’m happy that God became man — because, if he hadn’t, everybody on both sides of the culture war would be equally doomed to eternal damnation, which is not a big boast for all us good Christians.
Of course, that’s not to say there’s no War on Christmas. There’s been a War on Christ ever since the anti-Christmas Human Toothache slaughtered the babes of Bethlehem, and other enemies played whack-a-mole with Jesus until they succeeded in running Him through a kangaroo court to a brutal state-sponsored murder that Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Caiaphas could all happily agree on. As St. Paul says, we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities. The thing is, Jesus told us to expect just this, and in the early centuries of the Church, there was no "War on Christmas" handwringing because the Church did not imagine they were living in a culture that was anything but a mortal enemy of the gospel. Today, we live in the illusion that the world is now the friend of the gospel, and so live in perpetual surprise when it is not.
With the Culture War approach to Christmas there comes (on both sides) the recurring notion that God must perform some act of worldly power to show himself as God by winning the Culture War and, concomitantly, the fear (and gloat) that if he does not manifest himself in this way, then the whole Christian picture of things is endangered. So, for instance, we see many Christians panicking about the loss of the elections and wondering why God didn’t help His Party to win. Or you have Carl Sagan demanding that God give chemical formulae for Martian soil composition to Moses centuries ahead of time in order to prove his existence. Similarly, you have people like Richard Dawkins sponsoring the Blasphemy Challenge on the theory that any God worth his salt would smite the high-school sophomores who YouTube themselves saying something smutty about the Holy Spirit and showing off their atheist chops to their peer group of fellow high-school sophomores.
God does nothing like this, so we are to conclude . . . what?
Personally, I conclude that a lot of people need to familiarize themselves with the Temptation Narratives in the Gospel. Because one of the major points of that narrative is that Jesus refuses to do magic tricks, publicity stunts, and appeals to earthly power. He specifically tells us elsewhere in the Gospel that the Kingdom does not come in such a way that people say, "Lo! Here! Lo! There!" So the whole "Do something flashy so people will believe!" thing is pretty firmly denied by our Lord.
So how, then, does the Kingdom come? 1 Kings 19:11-13 tells us of the encounter the despondent Elijah had when God said:
"Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Physicists these days are telling us that most of the matter in the universe is not the big flashy stuff that makes up the visible stars and galaxies. Most of it is dark matter you can’t see, and it is this dark matter that does most of the gravitational heavy-lifting keeping the cosmos together. I think this is an apt metaphor for most of God’s dealings with us. The world has few parting seas or miracles of the sun (which unbelievers, in any case, laugh off even when there are 70,000 eyewitnesses). But it is chockablock with small moments of grace that, to the recipient, stick in the heart with an accumulating power that can change us forever, yet be utterly invisible to the people charged with giving us the evening news and telling us what "the real world" is like.
Penn Gillette was recently a recipient of one such bit of dark matter. And I would bet that all of us, if we are honest, can name similar moments in our lives that were utterly invisible to those around us, yet which left us with the distinct awareness that God had called us by name.
For example, back in my days as a college pagan hedonist, I returned to my dorm from Thanksgiving dinner with my parents with a ruinous case of Weaponized Martian Death Stomach Flu that had no doubt been introduced by communist agents of evil into our homemade sauerkraut. Stomach flu is horrific enough. But stomach flu with sauerkraut . . . There are no words.
I stumbled into my room and pitched forward onto my bed, there to lie motionless in a gathering pool of drool while the hours ticked by. At length, the phone rang and it turned out to be somebody calling from the second floor of Lander Hall, the dorm building next to mine. I was a bit wary of the folks on this floor because it was The Christian Floor, full of Born Again types and Jesus Praisers, while I was, well, not one of these types.
I mumbled something about Martian flu and my fervent wish for the sweet release that only death can bring, and then politely bowed out of whatever social event I was being invited to by my friend who lived on that floor. Then I hung up and lay my head back in the drool pool.
About ten minutes later there was a knock at my door. Shirtless and with the imprint of the creases in my pillow pressed firmly into my face, I heaved my bulk to the door, only to be surprised by the presence of Sandy MacKinnon, a woman I did not know from Eve, standing there with a kind smile on her face.
"I heard you were sick! I brought you this," she said cheerily, and brandished a bottle of Pepto-Bismol that she had run out and bought for me.
I was moved by that act of kindness from a total stranger. I still am, to this very day. No, I was not converted to her faith in Christ on the spot. But it was one of the moments in which the millions of rounds of God’s mercy pierced the defensive armor, and I started to think about Christians as something besides people whose eyes were set just a little too close together. Pepto-Bismol remains for me a sacramental of the love of God. There would be many other dark matter moments, as there are for all of us. But that one sticks out in my memory as a turning point in my life that would eventually lead me to faith in Christ.
The Incarnation of God in Christ is the ultimate Dark Matter Moment, a paradigm of the hidden way in which God has always worked in the world. When Mary visits Elizabeth, there are no signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Just a little flutter below the diaphragm, and Elizabeth’s whole world is changed forever as she realizes just who is standing before her. When our Lord is born, it happens not in DC or LA or NYC, but in something like the broom closet of the Stop ‘n Sleep Motel in Snohomish, Washington, because His parents were down to their last dime and the snow was piling up on their stalled 1978 Ford Pinto when Mary went into labor. The sole attendees of the birth are some parking lot attendants who explain to Mary and Joseph that they were sitting around saying, "Dude! If God is everywhere, then does that mean he’s in my toe right now? Whoa!" when all of a sudden the garage lit up and these angel dudes told them to go to the broom closet of the Stop n’ Sleep Motel on Sixth Street and everything would be explained.
That’s not a story that would ever get coverage on the evening news. But it’s fairly representative of the hidden way in which God is, even at this hour, revealing himself to the hearts of men. Indeed, at this moment, somewhere on earth, Jesus Christ is hidden in plain view before the faces of mortal men and women as a priest again holds up a perfectly dull-looking bit of bread and a cup of seemingly ordinary wine and says, "This is Jesus. This is He who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are we who are called to His Supper."
By that hidden miracle of His Real Presence — and not by flash, earthly power, or magic tricks — does the dark matter of grace conquer the hearts of even his bitterest enemies, not with servile terrors imposed by partisans of some worldly system of fear, but with love and the freedom of the Holy Spirit.