Merry Christmas, everybody. Priests are expected to have Easter as their favorite holiday, but I love Christmas. The warm church, the creche, Santas on firetrucks, presents given and received. The window above our high altar depicts the Nativity, and thankfully it’s about as beautiful as these things get. We’re supposed to ponder the Christ Child, of course, but for whatever reason I always end up staring at the cow to the left over by Joseph – she seems like an excellent cow, a cow worthy of being present at the birth of Jesus.
Over the last couple of Christmas seasons, Doan and I have been getting together with friends to watch Hallmark Christmas movies. You can’t help but love them, even in all their awfulness. This might be secular heresy, but I dislike the old classic claymation Christmas movies like Rudolph, but I make up for it with my love of the Grinch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch, of course, is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling green monster with a heart two sizes too small. He lived high above Whoville on Mount Crumpit, with his poor dog Max.
But THE Grinch was not the first grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Celebrating the birth of Jesus was a big deal for a long time. “By the year 500, the church made Christmas a special feast. Commemorating the birth of Jesus spread throughout Europe; and by 600, Augustine of Canterbury baptized ten thousand converts on that holy day. By the sixteenth century, however, with its political, national, and ecclesiastical wars, Christmas was disappearing from many places. The Puritans condemned and abolished Christmas as something pagan and idolatrous. They even tried to make observing it a sin. In 1642 services were banned. No decorations were allowed. Two years later Christmas was declared a time of fast and penance. In 1647 Parliament, that corporate Grinch, totally banned Christmas. Markets were ordered to stay open. Longer work hours were enforced. The little people did not like this at all. There were riots. Ten thousand people demonstrated in Kent.”1
England was not alone in all this grinchiness. Christmas was outlawed in New England until 1850; children were forced to go to school and work hours were enforced.
What was the result of all this? “Folklore defied the Grinches: there were (Christmas morning) reports of cattle and deer on their knees, birds singing in the snow, bees humming in harmony, animals talking. Trees, decked with fruit, promised a new Eden. Breaded wafers and glowing candles hung from branches.”2
It seems that Christmas is a flower which blooms even in the dark. As the prophet said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” The birth of Jesus will not go unnoticed nor can it be suppressed; the people Jesus came to save won’t stand for it.
The birth of our Lord still resonates, still moves us. I think that’s because in the turbulent and majestic and sad and powerful life of Jesus, the thing we can most relate to is His birth. Perhaps not the angels singing and the shepherds visiting, but to the birth of a child, to 8 pound 6 ounce baby Jesus, staring up at us out of His crib.
God so loved the world that He entered our world, despite every reason not to. As my friend Fr. Bret said, “God revealed His face as the boy in the food trough.” Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. The world got to see the glory of the Lord in the face of a newborn. Surely many hearts grew three sizes that day. Surely there was a Roast Beast carved right there, hopefully not from my excellent cow.
I’ve seen what the love of God can do; I’ve seen it because you have shown it to me. You’ve shown me that when there is need, be it a neighbor or a stranger, in situations both suddenly tragic and tragically ongoing, our church family steps up, giving more than anyone could have asked or prayed for. What the grinchy Puritans missed is that God did not give us Jesus to bottle us up, to make sure that no fun was had by anyone at any time, but to make it possible for us to love as He loves, to risk the kind of love that He risks, to be to others what He is to us. That kind of light, the light of Christmas, cannot go unnoticed nor can it be suppressed; the people Jesus came to save won’t stand for it.
1John Kavanough, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/ChristmasA16/theword_embodied.html