This Christmas, don’t just do something, stand there

Because nothing says Christmas quite as much as an annoying 17-year-old pop singer flirting with a scantily clad superstar two and a half times his age singing "All I Want for Christmas"...right?

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.

If this doesn't blow your mind, what will?

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.

About John Jalsevac

I am a PhD student in philosophy.
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2 Responses to This Christmas, don’t just do something, stand there

  1. JB says:

    We’re “religious fundamentalist extremists (i.e. Christians)”? I thought we were just your regular, run-of-the-mill Catholics who spend a moment or two actually reflecting upon on faith.

  2. Annette Jalsevac says:

    Perfectly beautiful commentary. Yes, yes, and absolutely!

    My own youthful Christmases were, at least to my rosy recollection, abundant with surprises, laughter, music, lights, shopping, wrapping (no gift bags back then), and the once-a-year opportunity to go church at midnight and come home to a feast and the unwrapping of many presents. Sometimes there were arguments and moments of chaos, but over all Christmas-time was indeed magical.

    In 2011, having just entered my 51st year of life on this planet, I find myself alone at home on Christmas Eve while my son is spending the holidays with his father in Ottawa. My father is in a nursing home, unable to speak anymore and my mother, God bless her, is fine to be with as long as one can let go of the need to try and tell her anything because she has become almost completely deaf.

    For the last few weeks I have been too sickly to undertake any of the traditional preparations for Christmas, including shopping for presents or even decorating a tree. Dealing with what seemed to be pneumonia, I was too weak to get stressed about my failure to comply with even an iota of Martha Stewart preparedness. My 9-year old son did not whined or whimper even once, and with the help of my mother, happily adorned his bedroom with whatever Christmas decorations he could find, including two very Charlie Brown Christmas trees. Last night we watched the classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and this morning before he left for Ottawa I decided it was time for Justin to experience the Seinfeld season 9, “Festivus” episode. Although I wouldn’t attend Christmas mass with him this year, I was feeling slightly more positive about having done my job.

    So, for the year 2011 I attended Christmas Eve mass without family or friends for the first time in my life. And it was a joy for me. Tonight I stopped and I watched and I prayed and I was imbued with a profound awareness that I was far from alone! I was worshipping Baby Jesus in a church that was overflowing with my fellow “Body of Christ” families, some of whom even bothered to wear dresses and suits, while I sheepishly tried not to get noticed in my cords and Converse high-tops. When I received the Body of Christ in my mouth I let Him sit on my tongue for much longer than usual, trying to take in the awesome reality that Jesus was at that moment as truly present in me as when He was an unborn child in Mary’s womb. I pondered the angelic hosts who were also with me to adore the Christ child, and I thought of my deceased brother Jim who always loved Christmas and how he was mystically united with me still through this miracle of the Catholic mass. I was not alone.

    As I lay on my bed typing a ridiculously long comment to my nephew John’s Blog, I feel grateful for the illness that prevented me from attending Christmas parties, buying gifts and decorating. I know that my son is in good hands with his father this Christmas and I am content in my peace-filled apartment where the only noise I hear is the gentle hum of my air purifier. This year, my inability to participate in the activities my culture promotes (and which admittedly, I was looking forward to), has caused me to actually think a lot about Jesus during the “holidays” … go figure.

    Alas, on Boxing Day the extended Jalsevac clan will hit my small town of Collingwood, Ontario, somehow cramming into my mother’s apartment. My quiet serenity will vanish amid the silly banter, philosophical musings, calling out of names for those receiving gifts, singing of carols and the inevitable verbal repetitions which we’ll all engage in, each time a bit slower and louder, as we try to tell my mother something important. Something that will have about a 20% chance of being understood. Hmmmm……except for the hearing-impaired mother, this day will remind me of my childhood Christmases. I can’t wait.

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