Christmas Day at Missisippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Is 52:7-10, Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18 ]

Wouldn't it be a relief to skip all the hassle and busyness of the Christmas season? In a short story titled “Skipping Christmas”1 attorney-novelist, John Grisham, writes a comedy about how one couple, appropriately called the Kranks, planned to skip the turmoil of the season by going on a Caribbean cruise. But they discover it isn't so easy. When they turned away Boy Scouts selling Christmas trees, “The boys walk away looking at their feet as wounded children will do.” Gossip roared through the neighborhood: “Did you hear? The Kranks are skipping Christmas! … Can you do that?” they asked. Mr. Krank replies, “It's a free country.”

The Kranks might have gotten away with their daring plan had it not been for an unexpected phone call from their daughter announcing that she was coming home for Christmas, and bringing her fiance. In desperation, her parents turn to neighbors for help to prepare a party for her homecoming. Friends rise to the occasion, sacrificing their own Christmas Eve plans to save the Kranks from embarrassment. Receiving so much kindness, they have a change of heart, saying, “Skipping Christmas! What a ridiculous idea.”

But is the desire to avoid the turmoil of the Christmas season, writing letters, buying gifts, traveling in winter, hosting parties, decorating trees and lighting up houses, is skipping all of that really so crazy? Wouldn't it be nice to skip what weighs us down at this season, and enjoy the simplicity of that first wonderful Christmas over two thousand years ago?

Well, that first Christmas wasn't really so simple or easy. The burdens, the sorrows, the anguish and troubles of life today were all present from the time Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant to their laborious journey to Bethlehem, and to their even more desperate flight to Egypt. In winter Israel is not like the Bahamas. It gets cold,2 with an occasional icy rain. Imagine walking from Dubuque to Madison, WI, in cold, wet weather! Joseph and Mary had no paved roads for their journey, just some mucky trails that sucked at their soiled sandals. Perhaps they had a donkey to carry food, extra clothing, blankets and a tent. But there were no hot baths along that five to six day journey. Traveling and preparing for the first Christmas was not simple at all. It was really hard, especially for a woman at the very end of her nine month pregnancy.

Bethlehem was the home of Joseph's ancestors all the way back to King David. Yet no relatives welcomed this road weary couple when they arrived. What a sad homecoming! No warm greetings, no festive meals, no fireplaces or soft beds. Nothing but a dark, damp, dreary cave. It didn't get better. In fact, it got worse when an angel warned Joseph that the Child's life was in danger. Yes, that first Christmas was very hard. When we are worn out from the burdens of the season, then we are actually sharing more fully in what the Holy Family experienced on that first Christmas.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph weren't able to skip a troubled first Christmas. The hardships they so nobly bore can help us in the hardships and tragedies of life that we experience. “Skipping Christmas! What a ridiculous idea.” But what about keeping the festivities while skipping the Christ in Christmas, wishing people a Merry Holiday, and buying holiday trees? Taking Christ out of Christmas. What a ridiculous idea!

In a beloved children's story titled, The Little Prince, the goldened haired boy from another planet says that what is most important is invisible. The universe is enchanted because it is a tabernacle for the invisible God. If we could see what is invisible we would be overwhelmed with happiness at the sight of all those going to heaven even as we speak; and we would also be struck with dreadful fear at the sight of anyone falling into hell, willfully rejecting everything true, good and beautiful. But, on this day was born a Child who is able to see what we cannot yet see, one who came to tell us about the invisible world that is hidden from our eyes.

When I think about the mystery of this Child's future crucifixion, who was born to save us by dying for us, I ask myself, “Why such a cruel death for one who is so infinitely good and innocent?” The answer came to me one day as I was praying the Stations of the Cross. Jesus could have saved us by one drop of blood, but that would not have revealed to us how terrible sin is. The crucifixion reveals two invisible mysteries. First how offensive sin really is. Only the crucifixion comes close to letting us see what we do when we sin. Second, it reveals how much God loves us, enough to die for us by such a dreadful death to forgive our sins. The tragedies and joys we experience in life continue to reflect those two invisible mysteries of sin and love. This we know because Jesus, who sees what is invisible, has revealed it, so that we may choose to love.

Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus!

1. John Grisham, Skipping Christmas, Doubleday, NY, 2001.

2. Remember Peter trying to warm himself at a courtyard fire during the Passover when Jesus was on trial: Mk 14:67, Luke 22:55.