Sorry the Christmas posts are late, but the illustrious editor spent WAY too much time playing with grandchildren over the holiday….
From THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, Chapter 11 (Orbis Books, 2012)
Every time it happens, I catch my breath. Westbound flights to California pass over the Grand Canyon in silence. Beneath us stretches a marvelous sculpture of brilliant red rock, carved over centuries by the Colorado River. J. B. Priestley called it “all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in stone and magic light.”
Seven million years of geological history lie exposed beneath the plane, and the pilot never mentions it. Passengers on Flight 1183 to San Diego or 1719 to Santa Ana doze, read magazines or work on their laptops. “Hey!” I’d shout if security wouldn’t arrest me. “There are only seven natural wonders of the world, and you’re missing one of them!”
Are we equally oblivious to Christmas when it rolls around again? Some things are so important that once a year, we must make a conscious effort to remember them. The themes of attention, trust and celebration are so frail they tend to get swamped in seasonal busy-ness. But they are so powerful they can sustain us through the rest of the year.
A certain amnesia is healthy for humans: the mind simply can’t hold all the details, phone numbers, passwords, jingles, events, etc. that threaten to clog and stall it. It’s as natural to erase the mental clutter as to clean out the garage.
But the hazard of this natural forgetfulness is that it works against our remembering how we’ve negotiated difficult passages before: through illness, job loss, divorce, grief or moving—so we can do it again. Christmas, like the weekly Eucharist, recalls our survival stories.
During Advent, the themes like those of music, begin to build gently, then reach a climax in Christmas. First comes our transition from ordinary time. Isaiah sounds the alert:
“A voice cries out: In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (40:3). Notice the placement of the colon. The good news comes first to the desert where it’s most needed. There, all is bleak and empty, unless you’ve got a long extension cord and a lot of water. It’s a wasteland without borders where nothing works the way it does in cozy civilization.
We’re always in one wilderness or another: in one year, it’s drought, dismal economy and widespread joblessness. Another year, it might be poor health or the death of a friend. Yet the advice remains the same: always look for the water sources. One year we’re sustained by kind people; another, by the hope of recovery.
Furthermore, Isaiah continues, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The purpose of a highway is to keep moving, not to get snagged or stuck in the desert. The prophet recalls our high calling as God’s construction crew, with lots of work to do. We are not to get sucked into anxiety or worry about what we can’t control anyway. The desert plays its part in awakening us, but we don’t want to stall there.
Where are we getting bogged down, building roadblocks to God? For some people, it’s depression or a hurt they can’t release. For others, a debilitating illness. Even innocent victims of crime can feel responsible, and guilt or shame drains energy. When we’re trapped in terrible circumstances, we can remember the Jews in the Nazi camps. Some went to the ovens angry and bitter; others went singing the psalms. When the problem is unavoidable, which response do we choose?
Each year Christmas reminds us: whatever it is that threatens to sap our strength, we needn’t get trapped in that vortex. We are beloved of God, centers of freedom and fidelity.
Throughout the Genesis account of creation, one refrain sounds over and over: “and God saw that it was good.” The word “good” refers to the stars and sea, the land and plants, the rivers and animals. But as the account reaches its crescendo, the creation of human beings, it shifts to the Hebrew word “tov.” This means blessed, growing towards completeness. While flowers and fish have reached their natural perfection—they can’t get any better by making retreats or taking classes—humans are still in process. We always have the potential to grow into what God envisioned at our conceptions.