Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 24, 2007
Christmas invites us to the crib of innocence
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
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 sentiments we often disdain as adults are meant to soften our hearts.
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's taking on flesh to bring justice to the earth.
So some of us send Christmas greetings urging delight, celebration, gifts, lights and joyous song, while others 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-centred 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 judgment.
It is too, as Karl Rahner once said, God giving us permission to be happy. Thus, Christmas is 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 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 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.
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. 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.
God is born as a helpless, vulnerable, thoroughly under-whelming baby who looks out at us quietly even as we look back at him.
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.
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