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   /   Ministry & Liturgy - Volume 38 -2011   /   October Issue   /   An Adult Christmas

Jake Empereur


An Adult Christmas

Most people celebrate the Christmas of their children. This is natural because they participate in their children's lives in so many other ways as they are growing up. Those who are not parents celebrate the same Christmas because they follow what society presents as it responds to children's desires and expectations and to the stores full of toys and Christmas decorations. This is the Christmas of the very colorful and engaging stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with the singing angels, the surprised shepherds, the manger surrounded with animals, the reluctant innkeeper, and the magi on camels weighed down with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is the Christmas of the Christian greeting cards, of much of the preaching in the churches, of the Christmas pageants and dramatizations, of the storytelling in television shows, of the popular songs, of the popular religious practices such as the posada, and finally of the birthday parties for Jesus. These are celebrations without much reflection except for such superficial connections as "Jesus loves the poor because he was born in a manager." Usually, there is little that can be considered adult contemplation.

Although one can justify these stories as a suitable way of engaging children in the celebration of Christmas, this is not the Christmas intended by Matthew and Luke, who put together these stories of the birth of Christ (also called the infancy narratives). Their intent was for the reader to see the birth stories as the gospel in miniature. These stories are not simply fanciful legends purely constructed by the human imagination, as some have maintained. Rather, the stories of the annunciation, the magi, the shepherds, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt, and Christ Jesus in the temple are ways of speaking about the whole of the gospel, including the birth of Christ, as something more than what may have happened thousands of years ago — that is, as having meaning for today and for all ages.

The fact that there are inconsistencies, even contradictions, between Matthew and Luke does not call into question what the stories mean but only that each evangelist presented his version to communicate something deeper. Are the stories true? Yes, but in the way a poem is true. Are they strict history? No more than a poem is. Take for instance Francis Thompson's famous poem The Hound of Heaven, in which God is in pursuit of a human person who continually resists until finally giving in. God is depicted as a hound, a large dog, chasing the author of the poem until he can no longer resist and accepts God into his life. The first verse goes like this:

I fled Him, down the nights and down
the days;
I fled Him, down the arches
of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist
of tears
I hid from Him, and under running
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed,
followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet —
"All things betray thee,
who betrayest Me."

(In Nicholson & Lee, The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse [1917])

So, is God a large, long-eared hunting dog? Of course not. Is God pursuing us by continually offering us the grace of being in communion with him? Yes, in the same way that St. Augustine of Hippo said: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee" (Confessions I, 1). Is the poem literally, physically true? No. Is it humanly true? By all means. The poem is profoundly true in that it states colorfully something about the relations between God and ourselves.

Matthew and Luke instinctively felt that the Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels, was incomplete, beginning as it does with the public ministry of Jesus and his time in the desert. So, they took Old Testament material and wove it into their stories of Jesus's birth, which they thought was a better beginning. They wanted to elaborate on why the incarnation of Christ is such an awesome event, something that is lacking in the Gospel of Mark. The point is that our faith is not based on the historical character of these narratives — that is, on whether there were puzzled shepherds, angels singing glory to God to music not yet composed, or dazzling Eastern kings. The primary motivation of these two evangelists is not scientific but theological and spiritual. We need to use these narratives in such a way that the glory of God begins to shine through — that is, so that they are a source of prayer and open to a faith that saves us. The value of these narratives is not as historical essays. They were composed to make Jesus's origin intelligible against the background of the fulfillment of the Old Testament. At a time in the early church when Christians were establishing their identity over and above the Jewish faith, these narratives show the intimate connection between Jesus's birth and what had preceded in Israel. It is in the infancy narratives that the Old Testament and the Gospels meet most directly. Whereas in St. Paul, who wrote before the Gospels were composed, Jesus's identity is most closely tied to the resurrection, in the infancy narratives, Jesus's identity is tied to his beginnings, whatever may have been the facts surrounding his birth and early years.

Often the real meaning of Christmas is not well communicated through Christmas cards and carols. In fact, the very imagery of the infancy narratives of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke can distract us. The lovely details of the brightly twinkling star, the exotically dressed wise men, the silent Bethlehem, and the distraught shepherds belong more to lore than to history. We know very little of what actually happened at the birth of Jesus Christ.

But historical factuality does not exhaust the meaning of this feast of Christmas. The truth of the Christian gospel is in the fact of Christ, not in his setting. The event of the birth of Christ is more important than the circumstances. In his God-humanity he shows us the meaning of our lives. He was a truly free person, and he acquired for us the insight of how to use our own freedom and courage to strive for freedom for others. He brings us freedom from personal blocks and biases, freedom for a more profound touching of our depths, freedom from so much that hinders change and vision, freedom to transform the imprisoning worlds of others.

Still, our Christmas trees, cards, and carols with their vivid descriptions of the Christ-happening are wonderful, and we need their heartwarming pictorial beauty so that we can pass from fact to mystery. And mystery is what Christmas is all about: the sacrament of Jesus Christ. In the readings of the Christmas Mass, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the feet of messengers on the mountains bringing the good news that Israel longed for and that we enjoy as the baptized. The comfort of Jerusalem that he foretold is ours now. God has exposed Godself to us in the person of Jesus. Salvation comes not from on high but lives right here with us in our little, often fragmented and messy, worlds. Jesus Christ is a marvelous exchange and the definitive sign of being a human being.

It is Paul in his letter to Titus who tells us what this means for us as Christians. We have been saved, not for what we have done but for what God does for us. We are saved through our putting on Christ in our baptism. The spirit that is lavished on us is Christ's own spirit, and because of that all human values become Christian if we bear witness to the coming of Christ. Because God has become human, our becoming more human is the epiphany of salvation. Christmas means that whenever you accept this life — opening yourself simply, with trust, obediently, and without protest to its ineffable meaning — you share in the glory of Christ. What we discover behind those Christmas card scenes of a babe amidst the oxen and asses; of angelic first noels to shivering shepherds; of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and of Mary and Joseph desperate in their attempts to find lodging is that when we grow in true self-love, we are filling out the person of Christ. When we free ourselves from narrowness and the fear of being threatened by change, we are transformed into Christ.

The fourth Gospel, with that wonderfully poetic opening of the Book of John — "In the beginning was the Word" — speaks of this in less folksy terms than do the other Gospels. God's word came, comes, and will come to make us part of God. The poetry speaks of this word living with God, as a light that shatters the darkness, a word rejected when he entered our world, a word not of human begetting, and yet a word who takes up his dwelling with us in human form.

Christmas's meaning, a meaning shown forth by Christ, is that whenever you are open to fresh experiences, you let this meaning into your life, a meaning that is already present in your innermost depths, and so it rises up from the roots of your nature to find expression. As you listen to the caroling this season, listen to the voices within that speak to you of this meaning. At first they will be voices of confusion: cares, disappointments, secret longings, emptiness, and doubts, all like the instruments of an orchestra trying out their powers independently. But gradually these voices will tune in harmonious accord, and the meaning will emerge. He who is this Word of God will speak from your heart and orchestrate all the other voices to sound the unique mystery that he is, and that you now are.

What Christmas is, is found less in ornately decorated trees and expensive and imaginative gifts than in stories like a Second World War scene in a foreign country, an empty mess hall, a cranked-up record player grinding out "Silent Night," and a lone soldier with his head in his hands, sobbing his heart out. There is much less of Christmas in solemn blessings of brightly lit Christmas cribs and well-trained choirs singing familiar music than in the Milwaukee Jewish businessman who volunteered to tend bar in a night club so that an Italian bartender could spend Christmas evening at home for the first time in nine years and go to Midnight Mass with his family.

That is what Eucharist is all about. What a wonderful thing to be human, because that is what God is. But this freedom that has been released in us in our self-acceptance reaches beyond us and lures us to share our humanity with others. Jim Strathdee, in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman, paints this challenge in imaginatively visual terms:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and shepherds have
found their way home,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost and lonely one,
To heal the broken soul with love,
To feed the hungry children with warmth
and good food,
To feel the earth below the sky above!
To free the prisoner from all chains,
To make the powerful care,
To rebuild the nations with strength
of good will,
To see God's children everywhere.
To bring hope to every task you do,
To dance at a baby's new birth,
To make music in an old person's heart,
And sing to the colors of the earth!

("I Am the Light of the World," © 1969 Jim Strathdee, Desert Flower Music)

This wonderful Christmas story appeared in Connections, a newsletter for homilists (Weekdays of Advent 2010, Dec. 22]):

The greatest Christmas carol ever sung was not written by Irving Berlin or crooned by Nat King Cole. It is not about Santa's reindeer or dashing through the snow or a little drummer boy. It is not Silent Night or Adeste Fideles or What Child is This?; it is found neither in the chant of medieval monks nor on any recording of the Robert Shaw Chorale. No, the greatest Christmas carol of all time was first sung 2,000 years ago by a pregnant teenager who was visiting her elderly cousin. After Elizabeth welcomed her, the young Mary poured out the song that is today's gospel. The song/prayer is often called the Magnificat, from the opening words of the Latin text.

Sadly, Mary's song is part of few Christmas repertoires — yet it beautifully expresses the extraordinary thing God is doing in the Christmas event. A nobody peasant girl from no place articulates exactly what Christmas is all about.

In the birth of her son, Mary sings, God is about to turn the world and the values of the world upside down: Humility and selflessness are honored. True power and authority are centered in compassion and generosity. Justice and mercy are exalted. The places of honor at God's table are reserved for the poor, the forgotten, the insignificant — and the most influential and powerful, in God's scheme of things, are those who serve them.

Mary's Christmas "carol" anticipates the hard words and images to come.
(In fact, in the 1980s, the ruling military in Guatemala banned the public praying of the Magnificat: the ruling junta considered the words subversive and politically dangerous; the government feared that Mary's song might incite the oppressed poor to riot.)

The Magnificat is not the sentiment of a Hallmark card but a prophecy of liberation; it is not the song of a plastic saint but that of a real woman who has discovered reason to hope in the midst of oppression and suffering.

The young girl from Nazareth has glimpsed the kingdom of God that the child in her womb will proclaim. The simplicity and poverty into which her child is to be born is all part of God's re-creation of humanity, Her son Jesus is the new Adam of a new Genesis.
Mary understands and rejoices in what is to come: God is about to turn the world upside down. Her song is the perfect Christmas carol, the pitch-perfect overture to the Gospel story that began with her yes to God. (Adapted from an essay by John Ortberg in The Christian Century, Dec. 15, 2009)

Yet, Christmas is not only about the serious endeavor of building the just kingdom of God. It is a wonderful feast, and its mood is joy. The mood of Christmas, which I hope can be yours this Christmas and throughout the Christmas season, is better proclaimed than I could do in these words of Howard Thurman:

There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels. Some place for that which in itself is breathless and beautiful. Old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old hurting. Despite all the crassness of life, all the hardness and harsh discords, life is saved by the singing of angels. (The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations [Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1973])

I conclude by sharing with you a poem by the American poet Richard Wilbur. He takes off from the traditional Christmas images to move in four short verses through the whole of Christ's life — birth, passion, death, and resurrection — to give the full meaning of the Christmas story. It is entitled "A Christmas Hymn."

A stable lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbour heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David's city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave His kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
For stony hearts of men:
God's blood upon the spearhead,
God's love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

(New and Collected Poems [New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1988])


Jake Empereur, SJ, is the founding editor of Ministry & Liturgy, first known as Folk Mass and Modern Liturgy. He was a professor of systematic and liturgical theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union for many years. During that time he founded the Institute for Spirituality and Worship and was very much involved in the area of theology and the arts. He has also taught courses in the Enneagram and spiritual direction.

Featured in the October 2011 issue of Ministry & Liturgy