Christmas isn’t quite what it used to be, is it? And I’m not referring the usual laundry list of grievances that makes us religious fundamentalist extremists (i.e. Christians) seriously ponder setting up a utopian commune on a deserted Mediterranean island: the war on Christmas, the kitschy music, the consumerist madness, the widespread ignorance about even the most basic facts behind the feast.
Forget about all that for now. All I mean is, if you’re old enough to be reading this, somehow Christmas has lost much of the effortless magic with which it was surrounded years ago…in your childhood.
You know what I mean. As a child, it seemed so easy to get swept up into the rich mystery of Christmas: the presents, the smells, the music, the lights glistening on the snow, the tinsel on the tree, the strange guests, the parties, the good food. All these things spoke to you, and without thinking about it you gave yourself into the power of their enchantment.
But now things are a lot more…complicated. As a child all you had to do was receive gifts: now you have to worry about buying them for a dozen different people, some of whom you may not even like, and about whose tastes in gifts you are blissfully ignorant. And, of course, gone are the three week or month-long breaks from school and responsibility, with which to kick about stuffing your face full of chocolate and watching It’s a Wonderful Life reruns. Then there’s the ever-tight budget, not to mention all the work: the baking, the decorating, the cleaning, the shopping.
It used to be that all you had to do was enjoy the fruits of these things: to eat the food, to marvel at the beautiful decorations, and to open the gifts. But now it’s almost as if you’ve learned the secrets of the magician’s tricks, and though you still watch him perform, it is with the cynical eyes of one who knows how it’s all done. Though his skillful theatrics retain much of their power to charm, it can never again be the quite same as it was before.
Or can it?
What if I told you that Christmas can be not only as good as it once was, but better? More mysterious? More magical? More enthralling?
G.K. Chesterton once famously said, “If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time.”
Our problem is that we have only looked at Christmas the first 999 times. We have seen it out of the corner of our eye, walking past it like that painting that has hung on the wall of your parents’ hallway since you were a child, seeing but not seeing: until one day you stop, turn, and gaze upon it, and are surprised to find that the painting is beautiful, but you had simply never taken the time to notice.
If Christmas has become commonplace, if it seems overly familiar, if it seems worn down and threadbare, it is not because Christmas has lost any of its charm, it is simply because we have not looked at it for that ever dangerous 1,000th time. We have given sway to custom, and it has robbed us of our vision.
Reality is an endless font of mystery. If we saw for an instant the full grandeur which the humblest rock, or plant, or tree is infused, it would blow our minds. What about this great mystery of Christmas then? This feast of the Incarnation? This celebration of the day the man-God was born into the world in a humble stable in the practically unknown town of Bethlehem in Judea. How much more ought this to excite our imaginations, to overawe our awareness? This is the mystery of mysteries, the miracle of miracles.
But just like that beautiful painting hanging in your parents’ hallway, you simply cannot know how beautiful this mystery is, unless you take the time to turn towards it and look.
But as Christmas approaches many of us, instead of slowing down our usual pace, and even stopping altogether simply to look and wonder, move more and more frenetically. Ironically, some of us even do this in the hope of recapturing the experience of childhood: as if by buying, or receiving, more presents, by attending more parties, by singing more Christmas carols, by putting up more decorations, we might recapture some of that sense of mystery of the child. But this is a vain hope.
Why? Because none of these things, of themselves, have the power to impart the mystery and joy of Christmas. They are not Christmas. If they have any of the brightness of Christmas to them, it is only because they are they are reflecting the rays of light shooting from the central mystery of Christmas – the nativity. As a child we may have been satisfied by all these shiny and glittering things, but such trinkets will not satisfy the adult mind. The adult mind does not want reflections, it wants to possess the source of the light itself – the Son. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11)
So, do you want to recapture your childhood experience of Christmas? Then, this Christmas, as someone once famously said, don’t just do something, stand there. Stop your frantic and restless searching for happiness from things that cannot give it to you. Instead, stop, and look. Withdraw from the hubbub and the parties and everything else, and spend some time in quiet prayer and reflection. And think, really think, about the fact that we are celebrating the Incarnation of God in the form of a tiny baby child in Bethlehem.
If that won’t blow your mind, nothing will.
And the amazing thing is, once you do this, you will suddenly find that many of the more superficial trappings of Christmas – the parties, the presents, the food – no longer disappoint the way they did before. Why? Because you will no longer be demanding more from them than they can possibly give. You will be enjoying them in their proper place – as ways of expressing our joy at the advent of the Christ child, as manifestations of the Christmas mystery, but not the Christmas mystery itself. And in this way you will enter your second childhood – the childhood of the mystic who shares in the greatest joke God ever played on mankind: of pouring his divinity into the form of a tiny, helpless baby in Bethlehem.