On this holy eve, I wanted to offer a few reflections on how the feast of Christmas lights the world and our hearts. Christmas lights the world by warming, by dazzling, and by conquering the darkness.
Christmas warms us. A coldness creeps over the world these days, and it is more than wintry weather. Jesus prophesied that in the end times, “Because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold (Mt 24:12).” Certainly in a general way (we are in the first post-Christian era of the world) and perhaps in a specific way (only God knows), we are in the end times. Nations that have never known the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ’s birth need to be warmed by Christmas; nations that have been evangelized and have lately rejected the Truth that came to birth on Christmas need to discover its warmth anew. Christ came to set fire on the Earth; the lights of Christmas celebrate the first kindling of that fire: the light of the stable, the warmth of oxen’s breath and hay and steaming sheeps and swaddling clothes and a mother’s lap. Carl Sandburg wrote that each baby is God’s vote that the world should go on. In a vetoing and despairing world that slaughters its infants, Jesus is the Babe who shines a fire of hope that cannot and will not die.
Christmas dazzles us. Lights can blind or brilliantly illuminate. One Christmas in the seminary, the dorm Christmas tree was ablaze with so many white lights that it was literally tough to look at. Secular society does a thorough job of yanking our eyes away from the glory of Christmas, through the glitter of money, gifts, busyness; relentless ads, holiday Muzak, free shipping, Black Friday; endless activities. My wife recently saw the Rockettes’ “holiday” program on TV: it managed to avoid any mention of Christ’s birth until the last 10 minutes, then strangely and abruptly shifted gears into a re-telling of the Christmas story followed by carols. There is a wearisomeness and sterility to the elaborate ploys by which secular culture stages a Christmasless Christmas: is anyone actually that much into candy canes, Santa, snowflakes, elves, and red-and-green? Is anyone truly fooled into “paying no attention to the man behind the curtain?”
Yet Christmas dazzles also, by illuminating and overwhelming hearts that are open. Liturgically, the greatest glory and pomp “should” be reserved for Easter. But we can’t help but pull out all of the stops for Christmas. GLORY is the sounding note. There’s glorious verse set to glorious music, such as:
Mild He lays His glory by! Born that man no more may die! Born to raise the sons of Earth! Born to give them second birth! Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Lights blaze; pipe organs roar; tables creak under the weight of feasts; crèches, candles, holly, ivy, trumpets, flutes, art and costumes and song and dance from every tribe and nation crowd us. Kings spring to their feet at the “Hallelujah” chorus; shepherds, magi, and pilgrims fall to their knees. “Too much is not enough” when it comes to celebrate the Word made flesh, the marriage of God and man.
Through all of the glory, the light also breaks through the illusions to show the things that really matter. Christ in a stable, poor and completely vulnerable, outshines the wealthy and powerful. Mary the Ark of the Covenant, holding in her womb, in her arms, and at her breast the Lord of All, reveals how one humble “Yes” shatters the endless “No” of the powers of darkness. God’s generosity in giving all that He has – that is, Himself – calls forth a similar generosity in ourselves.
Finally, Christmas overcomes the darkness. This Advent, I used for reflection a dense but moving book by Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., Advent of the Heart: Season Sermons and Prison Writings. Like his compatriot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fr. Delp was imprisoned and ultimately hanged by the Nazis for his resistance to their regime. Some of his reflections on hope, waiting, and confidence that the Light of Christ will overcome the darkness were written while he was handcuffed in prison, on scraps of paper smuggled out by friends, so they carry particular force. Could he have had any idea that his words from prison would still be inspiring people today?
Delp emphasizes Advent as a time of hope, a virtue particularly relevant for those resisting the Nazi regime, but also for so many in today’s world of atheistic or Islamic totalitarian regimes. He confronts the shrug-of-the-shoulder, hands-thrown-up, “what can I do?” attitude that so silenced the voices and shackled the hands of his fellow Germans and continues to shackle so many of us today. It was Delp’s deep faith in the power of the Word made flesh that fueled his faith in the power of the words and deeds of Christians when done in faith and in justice. God became flesh in Jesus, and He continues to become flesh in us, the Body of Christ. “The Father spoke one Word, and in that one Word, He said everything” – and changed everything. He spoke Light into darkness, and He continues to do so through the children of the Light. This Christmas, we can continue to be lights as Fr. Delp was – Christmas lights, that warm, dazzle, and overcome the darkness.