We fight too much about Christmas, arguing about its meaning.
For some, Christmas is for the children, a feast where we let their delight and freshness challenge our cynicism, where the very sentiments we often disdain as adults are meant to soften our hearts, Scrooge converted by the innocence of children.
For others, it’s the opposite: We insist rather that Christmas is an adult feast, something kids don’t ultimately understand, something that celebrates the greatest intellectual mystery of all time, God taking on flesh to bring justice to the earth.
And so some of us send Christmas greetings urging delight, celebration, gifts, lights, and joyous song, while some of us send more stark greetings that say: “May the peace of Christ disturb you!” What is Christmas? Hardened shepherds and power-prone kings finally bending knees and hearts before a helpless baby or a harsh, non-negotiable challenge to clean up our pampered self-centered lives and build some justice in this world?
Christmas is about all of these things, and more. Like a diamond turning in the sun, it gives off many sparkles. Christmas is about the monumental challenge to reform our lives, our adult lives, and become women and men of justice; but it is also about a baby being born, innocent and powerless in the straw, whose vulnerability is God’s invitation and judgement. It is too, as Karl Rahner once said, God giving us permission to be happy. Thus, Christmas is a both something to be delighted in and a peace that should disturb us, something for children and for adults.
What Christmas invites us all to, children and adults alike, is have our hearts softened and tempered by the crib, to let the vulnerability manifested in the way Jesus was born bring us back to a time before hardness of heart, to a place beyond pseudo-sophistication, cynicism, bitterness, wound, selfishness, and greed. Christmas is meant not just to renew our faith and hope, but also to renew our innocence.
The American educator, Allan Bloom, writing from a purely secular perspective, casts light on this in a little story he shares in his famed book, The Closing of the American Mind. He tells how, as a young man taking his first university classes, a professor introduced his course in this way. Looking at his young, 19-20 year-old students, the professor said: “You come here from your small-town, parochial backgrounds and I am going to bathe you in great truth – and set you free.” Bloom, even at 19, wasn’t impressed. He writes that this professor reminded him of a little boy who had solemnly informed him when he was seven years old that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. But, Bloom adds, “he wasn’t bathing me in any great truth, he was showing off.”
Bloom comments that what he learned from that professor was to forever teach in the opposite way. He, Bloom, would start his classes with words to this effect: “You come here having experienced so many things. You’ve seen so much of life that I’m going to try to teach you how to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny again – and then maybe you will have a chance again to be happy!”
This, properly nuanced, captures one of the invitations inside of Christmas. The Christmas crib invites us back to our innocence, though not to the pre-sophisticated naiveté of a child, but to the post-sophisticated and post-cynical joy and innocence of a truly mature adult, to a second-naiveté, a post-liberal, post-bitter, post-wounded, and post-hard-hearted place.
One of my professors in Louvain used to flag this little slogan: If you ask a naive child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say yes. If you ask a bright child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say no. But if you ask even a brighter child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will smile slyly and then say yes.
Christmas is about much deeper things than Santa and the birth of Jesus is not just some delightful fairy tale meant to warm the heart. We measure time by this event. Christmas is about God being born physically and historically into this world and, among many other things, we have some stunning lessons to learn from the manner in which this happened.
As virtually all of our iconography around Christmas makes clear, God is born, not as some superstar whose earthly power, beauty, and muscle dwarf us. No. God is born as helpless, vulnerable, thoroughly under-whelming baby who looks out at us quietly even as we look back at him and he judges us in that way that vulnerability forever judges false strength, transparency judges lies, generosity judges selfishness, innocence judges over-sophistication, and a baby, gently and helplessly and disarmingly, calls forth what’s best in us.
Christmas is meant to bring us back to the crib so that our hearts can feel that freshness that wants to make us start living over again.