The Enduring Charm of Christmas

Author: Antonio Pernia, SVD
Subject: The paradoxical mysticism of Christmas
Language: English, Spanish
Publisher: Arnoldus Nota, December
Year: 2008

Dear Confreres, It is Christmas – again!

In the comings days we will be reading and reflecting on the same gospel narrative about that night more than 2000 years ago which today we call Christmas. A poor couple making their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, shepherds keeping night watch over their flock, an angel making an announcement and with him a multitude of heavenly host singing and praising God; then after some days wise men from the East coming to adore the child. The same gospel story every year. The same feast of Christmas year after year.

And yet Christmas has never lost its charm. The gospel story continues to warm our hearts. The narrative of that night in Bethlehem does not cease to make us marvel even now.

It is said that Christmas is the feast of surprises, the celebration of the unexpected. It is the night when a poor donkey carries the weight of the expectations of all of humanity, when an ox plays host to the Lord of heaven, when we are told to look for our king not in a royal place but in a decrepit stable. It is the night when shepherds awake at the singing of the angels, when the earth has a star for its guide, when wise men from faraway lands come to offer gifts to a prince they do not know in a village they have trouble finding.

The English writer, G. K. Chesterton, once said that to be able to understand Christmas we need to stand on our head. Because there on that night, in the stable in Bethlehem, everything is upside down. The virgin is mother, and the mother is a virgin. The child is God, and God is a child. In the heart of the earth is heaven. Down is up, and up is down. The angels look down on God who created them, and God looks up to the skies which he had made.

In Bethlehem there was no place for the God who created space for the entire universe. And there where God found no home, everyone feels at home. We were promised a messiah, but we never imagined that God himself would come. We knew that God loved us, but we never dreamt that he loved us so much that he would become one of us. But that is how God loves. That is how God gives. His gifts are never what we expect them to be. They are always greater than what we had hoped for.

All this – that is, the reality of things unimaginable, the possibility of things impossible, the coming of things unexpected – all this is part of the meaning of Christmas. All this is part of the enduring charm of Christmas.

That is why Christmas is celebrated every year. For Christmas is a feast which never becomes stale, never grows old, never fades. It contains a truth which touches the depths of our life, the essence of our being, the foundations of our history. Christmas responds to a human need which does not disappear – that is, the need to know that there is a God who loves us infinitely that he becomes one of us. The knowledge of this truth is what makes Christmas ever real, ever new, ever relevant. Thus Christmas never ceases to grip the heart of every human being – children and adults alike, young and old, past and present.

Our world can be terribly shaken, or even completely destroyed – by international terrorism, global financial crisis, or natural calamity. But as long as there are men and women who allow themselves to be awed by the crib, men and women who allow themselves to marvel at the gospel story of the birth of Jesus, there will always be hope for this world. We can lose everything in this world. But for as long as we do not lose the wonder that the feast of Christmas arouses, we shall be saved.

Dear confreres, in the light of what Chesterton said of Christmas – that is, that to be able to understand Christmas we need to stand on our head – it can be said that we can truly accept the message of Christmas only if we are ready for genuine conversion, for an overturning of our lives. In fact, the first who accepted the message of Christmas were simple and poor shepherds, those who had nothing to lose if the world were to be turned upside down. It is the same with us. We can make the message of Christmas truly our own, we can live out the meaning of Christmas only if we are ready to overturn our mentality and change our life.

Christmas is not primarily a mystery to be understood, nor a truth to be explained. It is a child to be found in haste, a child to be carried in our arms with love. In Steyl, in the room where the Founder died, the statue of the child Jesus is kept which Arnold Janssen tenderly carried during the midnight procession at every Christmas celebration of the community. In a letter to Papua New Guinea on Christmas day of 1902, the Founder refers to this practice and recommends a well prepared celebration of the Church’s feasts:

“Last night we had another beautiful Christmas celebration. Lanterns hung in the corridors, and the whole recreation room, from where we fetched the infant Jesus, was beautifully decorated. The students sang such lovely, clear and moving Christmas carols. […] I feel such festivities are important for unsophisticated peoples who cannot grasp the purely abstract. They must be helped by attractive external spectacles. Through these Christianity comes alive before their eyes and can more easily penetrate their hearts” (Alt, p. 665).

This Christmas, let us allow ourselves to marvel at the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Let us march with the shepherds to Bethlehem, enter the stable with them, and like them, kneel and look and adore. “Puer natus est nobis!. Filius datus est nobis!”. The God of heaven and earth. The God who loves us infinitely. In this Child born of the Virgin Mary.

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