Delivered in St. Louis, Missouri at the Jesuit Formation Gathering 2010.
Christmas is the most complex season of the church year.
For the past few years at these formation gatherings, Paddy Hough has made us sing a song entitled the Seven Joys of Mary. It has an infuriatingly upbeat melody, several jolly Britishisms, and a list of seven purported joys that Mary experiences. Some of the joys are really stretching the concept of joy. One of them is Jesus being nailed to the Cross.
To hear the song once is to have it etched on your brain forever, and if you’ve not yet heard it then just wait, I’m sure it’s coming sometime in the next few days, perhaps even at this very mass. But what really bothers me about the song is the fact that it’s considered a joy to watch your son being nailed to a cross and even more stupefying is the fact that it’s a Christmas song. Christmas is all about the joy. But here we are with Jesus, still fresh from the womb and we’re already calling his crucifixion a joy. It’s enough to make you schizophrenic.
Whatever holy Englishman came up with those words, though, was onto something. Christmas is the most complex feast on the Christian calendar. Just judging by the liturgical colors one can see that it’s the least stable liturgical season of the year. If you include advent, and for the purposes of this homily I will, if you include the colors of advent we have the purples of pentinence, the blush of gaudete joy, the white of the star of David. And the red, yes, the red of the blood of the martyrs. All of this transpires over a period of a fews weeks. This is not the seemingly unrelenting white of the fifty days of Easter. The Advent and Christmas seasons have a panoply of colors—and of experiences. Elizabeth, once barren, now conceives. Mary, unwed, yet betrothed to Joseph, also conceives. There’s no unalloyed joy in that annunciation. In one gospel passage, John the Baptist leaps for joy and then later on he languishes in prison.
On Christmas day the whole world exults in joy over the birth of a child, then, typically, the next day we Christians remember the blood of the first martyr to die on behalf of our faith. On Christmas day, we remember a child born on an inky dark night pierced by a searing star, then only a few days later we remember the slaughter of a host of children—we wear the color of the blood of martyrs too young to know why they died the vicious death they did.
Christmas is the most complex season on the Christian calendar. The real Christmas story is not only the PG-13 affair we see so often on Christmas cards and in crèches. But the real Christmas also has all of the violence and darkness of rated-R film—
Christ has not been born into a shake-up snow globe. He’s been born into this world of ours, full of inky darkness and complexity. Rather than the pastoral scenes of warmth and intimacy of the manger, we have a much darker reality unfold before us. We place the celebration of the incarnation amidst a miasma of reds, purples and blacks. It’s as if to remind us exactly what sort of world is the setting for such an event as the incarnation. It’s a dark stage on which this drama first begins to unfold and to paraphrase a poem by Mary Karr, Satan spider-like stalks the orb of dark surrounding Eden, looking for a wormhole into paradise.
If there ever was a wormhole into paradise, then it’s the destruction of the holy innocents as the hands of Herod. Feeling threatened by some unknown king to come, Herod cracks open the happy orb of Eden; as soon as the new Adam is born we have a new Cain in Herod who dashes the skulls of the innocents against the rocks of fear and distrust.
This is not the Christmas of fluffy sheep, kindly magi, and lowing cattle. The night of Christmas night is certainly silent but there in the silence is the still small scratching of evil at the doorstep. Silent night indeed. Christmas it would seem is a horror story worthy of Stephen King. It’s no wonder then that the secularization of Christmas replaces such images and stories as these with Santa Claus and Rudolph. The Grinch is about as dark as the secular world is willing to go, and even the Grinch has a miraculous change of heart—his heart grows three sizes and then he’s motivated to return all that he had stolen. No real lasting damage is done.
What Herod stole—the lives of all those children in Judea—cannot be replaced, even had he experienced a change of heart.
What are we to do with the story of the holy innocents? We could just breeze through it—and most do just that, since the story is only heard by those who go to daily mass. We could just disregard since it’s an event from just one of the gospels.
But to do so would be to miss one of the main themes of Matthew’s gospel account of the birth of Christ. Evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing to counteract the good, in the form of God, who so desperately wants to enter our world and make his dwelling with us.
Strangely and perhaps even paradoxically, one of the Christmas messages is about the nature of evil in our world. On the flipside, and this is the good news of Christmas, the good, in the form of God who lives among us is at one and the same time very fragile and very resilient. God comes into our world as a infant—a human infant. One of the most helpless of all God’s creatures. Resilient in that he survives his escape into Egypt—a place not known for it’s hospitality towards the children of Abraham.
As religious men what do we take away from this complex situation? As companions of this fragile and resilient Jesus, what are we to do in the 21st century where God still desperately desires to pitch his tent among us?
In one sense, the holy family offers a model for religious life in the 21st century. Like Mary we are to ponder all of this complexity in our hearts. Like Joseph we are to father forth the good God who loves us. Mary notices everything and ponders all in her heart. Joseph shepherds the young family on what must have been a wild journey into the deserts of Egypt. Mary was no Pollyanna. Joseph was not a man ruled by his fears and anxieties, as was Herod. Our spiritual exercises teach us to contemplate the good alongside the bad. Our spiritual exercises also teach us to follow and pursue consolation—not a silly, postcard happiness—but a freedom from anxiety, a freedom from upsetting doubts.
At the end of this formation gathering we will recommit ourselves to our religious vows, and we could do very well to take Mary, Joseph and Jesus, The young holy family, as our guides and models for religious life in the 21st century. We heard yesterday that we, as Christians, are perpetually running. Paul says he’s run a good race, and we too must run faithfully.
We are on the road to Egypt with the Holy Family. A road that is more unknown than known, more dangerous than it is peaceable. To ignore this would be to ignore the Christmas message—evil exists and good is fragile and resilient.
Thankfully our fragility is made even more resilient in the food we are about to consume. This is not the milk and cookies left out for Santa, but the body and blood of our savior.