Several years ago, just before Christmas, a young mother shared with me how, for her, one of the great joys of motherhood was that she got to see Christmas again through the eyes of her three young children: “It brings back the simple joys I no longer have as an adult, but that I once had as a child. It’s so beautiful to see and experience Christmas through the eyes, the anticipation, the excitement, and the innocence of my own children. It’s like being a child again myself.”
She found the joy of Christmas again, vicariously, through the happiness of her children. Most of us are not so lucky. As we get older, lose our naivete, fill with the angers of mid-life and old age, experience failure, and need more realistically to face death, we become daily more hardened and cynical. When this happens, and it happens to us all as adults, it’s not so easy to experience the simple joy of Christmas. Too much inside of us, and around us, protests. It’s not easy to be an adult and still have the capacity for simple joy.
So what do we do about Christmas? This feast is, after all, about simple joy, about child-likeness, about a baby, despite our sophisticated, adult attempts to somehow connect it and its message to the rawer, more adult, questions of life – injustice, war, wound, unhappiness, anger, alienation, divorce, brokenness, death. Christmas is not Good Friday. That’s another feast, a day with a different meaning. On Good Friday all of us wounded, unhappy adults get our chance to luxuriate somewhat in the brokenness of it all. But that’s not what Christmas is about and we should not try to turn Christmas into Good Friday.
Christmas is not about death, it’s about birth and birth needs to be celebrated in a manner quite other than death. Our children know this. We need, at Christmas, to look into their eyes to see what we should be doing. At Christmas trust the child more than the theologian (especially the theologian on a crusade to deconstruct the simplicity of Christmas and turn this feast into a statement of anger and unrest). Listen to that particular theologian on another day. I suggest that he or she get the podium during Lent. But keep him or her silent at Christmas. Let the children speak then. Better yet, let them scream and shriek with joy as they open gifts and plunge headlong into the Christmas pudding. That is the theological statement that more adequately expresses the meaning of Christmas.
And we, the adults, need to let the joy of our own children be a prophetic statement. Their naive, unbridled joy can be the voice that, as Sirach says, turns the hearts of parents towards their children, not to mention towards what’s still best inside of themselves. If we want to let the feast of Christmas prophetically unsettle us, I suggest we might best do that by first looking at the joy of the very young and then looking into a mirror to see how un-childlike and unhappy we have become.
One of our adult slogans about Christmas says: May the peace of Christ disturb you! However, at Christmas time, where Christ should disturb us most is precisely in our itch to disturb everybody else. Christmas offers us the rare permission to be happy. We should take it.
Karl Rahner (and I do appreciate the irony of quoting a theologian at this point!) once put it this way: In Christmas, God says to the world: “I am there. I am with you. I am your life. I am the gloom of your daily routine. Why will you not bear it? I weep your tears – pour out yours to me, my child. I am your joy. Do not be afraid to be happy, for ever since I wept, joy is the standard of living that is really more suitable than the anxiety and grief of those who think they have no hope. … This reality – the incomprehensible wonder of my Almighty Love – I have sheltered safely in the cold stable of your world. I am there. I no longer go away from this world, even if you do not see me now. I am there. It is Christmas. Light the candles. They have more right to exist than all the darkness. It is Christmas. Christmas that lasts forever.”
We should not be afraid to be happy, to light the candles. They have more right to exist than the darkness. What our children feel at Christmas, however dark and inchoate that knowledge may be in them, is one of the deepest truths of all, God has given us permission to be happy. But now the choice is ours, as W.H. Auden says: It lies within our power of choosing to conceive the child who chooses us. It’s good be have been given permission to be happy.