Among my favorite songs of my friend, Joe Mari Chan, is his “Christmas in our Hearts,” rendered unforgettably with his beautiful daughter, Liza. For me it was not only the heartwarming interplay between father and daughter singing of “girls and boys selling lanterns on the street,” and “giving gifts, exchanging cards” that made it so special, but the reference to the heart of Christmas, “the child in the manger.” With that, Joe Mari’s and Liza’s prayer: “May we never forget the love we have for Jesus! May he be the one to guide us as another new year starts. And may the spirit of Christmas be always in our hearts!”
In contrast to this, there was a debate recently on a cable news channel in which the discussion was seriously of a proposition to abolish Christmas. I considered the debate weird, more of a provocative ploy for publicity, rather than a genuine engagement for truth. But the proponent on TV was rather adamant: Christmas is an imposition on non-believers. It should be banned in schools, public places, department stores, and ultimately extirpated from the lives of reasonable people. As secular America proclaims “In God we trust” on each of its paper bills, and yet has banned the crucifix from educational settings, why not also ban “the child in the manger as he sleeps”? “Humbug!” Scrooge would have said!
But I think the loudest protest against such a proposal would come from the department stores. For them, Christmas is not primarily in our hearts, but in the multi-billion global exchange of goods and services that power pumps much of the free-market economic activity of the world towards the end of December. Abolish Christmas, and you abolish Santa Claus! You lose the roly-poly North-Pole based icon of Yuletide giving, dashing from chimney to chimney in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (one of them with a red nose!), to make sure little kids’ wishes come true if they are good, but whose generosity is secretly bankrolled by the wallets of smiling parents throughout the world. You lose the stockings that have to be filled, and the Christmas trees whose bases need to be crowded with gifts. You lose the necessity for buying your husband a new watch or your wife a new pearl bracelet; you lose the warrant for buying your child a new iPad or your niece a new celfon. You lose the urgency of the Season to spend hard-earned money, and the reason for employers to top off their 13th month with a Christmas bonus. Worst, if you are a greetings-card maker, a candy maker, a cookie baker, a shoe maker, a tailor, a jeweler, an appliance retailer, an electronics entrepreneur, you lose the most profitable time in the year.
So, don’t abolish Christmas. But in all the ambivalence of Christmas hustle and bustle, truly loved and roundly hated as it takes over our lives yet again, only so that in this Season we can be spared the embarrassment that the rat race designs should we fall behind, and simplicity not be confused for stinginess or poverty, it is good that Joe Mari and Liza can remember what has been widely forgotten: “the child in the manger as he sleeps.” For so many, Christmas is anything but that. It is the evergreen tree, the glistening balls, the candle-lit parol, the flickering lights, the glistening reds and greens of ribbons and wrapping paper and decor on the wall. But nothing of a stable, of a solicitous Joseph, of a virgin’s birth, of a child in swaddling clothes lain in a manger. In the peaceful face of that tender child, there is a special light. It is a warm light that overpowers the night. Zechariah called it, “the Dawn from on high that breaks upon us” (Lk 1:78). For people living in the cold shadow of death, Isaiah likened it more to the blazing sun vanquishing the darkness, bringing the joy of new life: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing…” (Is. 9:1-2a).
In the manger, light! Have we ever noticed? We don’t appreciate this light, I think, especially as we advance in wisdom and age, unless we have known the night – and the creeping darkness within. Life, once bright, now gloomy. Sad. Life, once conquerable, now overwhelming. In the manger: “…a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They named him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominium is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever” (Is 9:5-6). The light is illumination from within, associated with power that wondrously effects peace; not the power of the bully with the red lights and wailing sirens cocking weapons to kill for courtesy, nor the power of the politician strongman with the guns and goons who buries his opposition with a bulldozer. The light is associated with judgment that effects justice even in us, that “pulls down the mighty from their thrones” and “sends the rich away empty” (Lk 1:51-53). Judgment works out justice for all, even for the least of this child’s sisters and brothers, in the marginalized and excluded. In its discriminating light, from goats it separates sheep (cf. Ma 25:31-46).
That light was the same light that shone from the eyes of the crucified King who broke the darkness of the crucifixion to gaze into our hearts with love.
The light was a word of love, God’s word, spoken from all eternity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….” (Jn 1:1) It was spoken “in the beginning,” spoken in the manger, spoken in his proclamation of his Father’s Kingdom, spoken in healing the sick and raising the dead, spoken on the Cross, a word of enduring love spoken with finality to ourselves in our urgent need of love. It was not a word of love that remained mere word or mere saliva, as if love were mere poetry, or mere intention, or mere romantic sentiment. Instead, “… the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (Jn 1:14). In his crucifixion, in his nativity, in his proclamation of the beatitudes, in his bringing of the Good News even to the poor, in his denunciation of the Pharisees, in his angry overturning the tables of the money changers at the temple, “we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (ibid.). With Joe Mari and Lisa, may the Father’s “love like that starlight on the first Christmas morn lead us back to the manger where Christ the Child was born!”
And in return, “May we never forget the love we have for Jesus!” That love is our considered response to his love for us expressed in the “child in the manger,” or expressed on the Cross, calling forth our love, and transforming our lives. Indeed, may Jesus “be the one to guide us as another new year starts.” May he guide us in the choices we make for our families, in the manner in which we serve our Church, and in how we commit ourselves to pursue and achieve the common good!
“And may the spirit of Christmas be always in our hearts!”