Monday, November 29, 2004

MH - The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name

I’m sure most of you have noticed that “Merry Christmas” is out. “Happy Holidays” is in. Good luck if you’re looking for a Christmas card that actually says “Merry Christmas.” There are some: religious-themed cards, of course, and cards with old-fashioned retro designs. And maybe that’s appropriate, for the phrase “Merry Christmas” is increasingly becoming an item of nostalgia, a thing of the past.

The cards sent out by businesses, the banners hung from city lampposts, the signs plastered in department stores, the greetings on the telephone or from strangers on the street; all mouth the same phrases – “Happy Holidays,” or perhaps “Season’s Greetings.” Radio stations play nonstop Christmas music, including versions of “The Little Drummer Boy” that change “Baby Jesu” to “little baby” (Michael Bolton), and renditions of “Silent Night” that omit the phrase “Christ the Savior is born” in favor of reprising “Sleep in heavenly peace” (Stevie Nicks). (They also refer to instrumental versions of “What Child Is This?” as “Greensleeves,” and while this might be technically correct, it still grates on the nerves.) A few years ago one of our daily newspapers even ran the banner “Happy Holidays” on the front page of its December 25 edition.

It all suggests an awareness of something out there – an event of some kind, a celebration of something significant – but as to what that something actually is, well, it’s just not the kind of thing you talk about in polite company.

Now, this is hardly a news flash to most of you. People everywhere have written about it. There’s even a website devoted to the restoration of “Merry Christmas.” (Thanks to John Miller at NRO for first pointing this out.) We’ve all gotten used to seeing the Nativity replaced as a symbol of Christmas by Santa Claus and the Christmas tree. But now there’s nothing unique about a Christmas tree - we have Easter trees, Halloween trees, trees for every holiday. And it seems like even old Santa is being elbowed aside nowadays, replaced by innocuous, neutral symbols of winter like snowmen and snowflakes. Don’t get me wrong – I like snowmen as well as anyone. We had snowflakes and snowmen on our Christmas cards last year. But you still have to wonder. (We’re probably a lot more comfortable with the idea of celebrating the solstice than we are with Christmas, anyway. Have you sent out your solstice cards yet?)

Why has Christmas become so politically incorrect? Is it an innocent fear of offending non-Christians? In the past non-Christian meant Jewish, and as far as I know, Jews didn’t take umbrage at the phrase. They understood this was primarily a Christian country, and the phrase “Merry Christmas” meant no offense. But while this may have been where the practice started, our multicultural, everything-is-equally-valid society has now taken it far beyond that.

Christmas is all about love, the love of God for His creation (“For God so loved the world”), and while we like to sing songs and write poems about love in the abstract, it’s something we’re not very comfortable thinking about in reality. For us, Christmas is all about the Love that dares not speak its name.

Someone, I think it was Bishop Sheen, once said that the reason men hate God can be traced to one line in the Creed: “By the power of the Holy Spirit, He became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” It was, after all, the reason for the rebellion of Satan and the other fallen angels – the idea that God would humble Himself by becoming a man. And that we would humble ourselves before a baby. This is, after all, a society that has turned the killing of unborn babies into something of an art form.

A few years ago Joan Osborne sang a song that asked the question “What if God was one of us?” But He was, He is, and He always will be, in the person of Jesus Christ, the second part of the Trinity. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t get around this fact.

The Incarnation testifies to the innate dignity of man, which is another concept we’re not comfortable thinking about nowadays, not when we’re so busy treating ourselves and each other as objects of pleasure, of gratification, of scorn.

No wonder Christmas is on the outs nowadays. Tsk, tsk. If only God had known where this all would lead.

The real problem is that Christmas isn’t just an isolated event, an annual occasion celebrated with presents and food before we return to our normal lives. This is the message of the birth of Christ: that He came to heal the contrite of heart, to save sinners, to plead for us at the right hand of the Father. Christmas sets in motion a whole chain of events that leads inevitably and inexorably to the shadow of the Cross, to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the culmination of the story of salvation. And here we get to the heart of the matter.

During the consecration of the Precious Blood in the Mass, the priest speaks the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is the cup of My Blood, the Blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” We know that the original Latin phrase pro multis is more accurately translated as “for the multitudes” rather than “for all” (thanks, Fr. Z!) but the message is clear: although not all will accept the salvation won by Christ’s sacrifice, the offer is extended to all. Whether they want to admit it or not.

And this doesn’t go over well with us. Not at all. We don’t want to depend on anyone or anything else. We are the generation that can do it all. We want to be in complete control of our lives, with nobody to tell us yes or no. The idea that Jesus died for our sins means we actually need salvation in the first place. It acknowledges the existence of outdated concepts like sin - it suggests that there are such things as right and wrong, when everyone knows these are just relative terms, rules that are nothing more than someone else’s attempt to put artificial constraints on them.

Quite a blow to the ego, isn’t it? How galling to be told that we can’t do it all ourselves. How demeaning to suggest that it’s not all about us. How humiliating to admit that we must be weak in order to be strong (remember Jesse Ventura’s comments about religion being for weaklings?)

Gee. The very thought is enough to make you lose faith in yourself.

Christmas is unique. It’s the only birthday party where the honoree gives us a gift – the gift of salvation. And like other gift-giving occasions, we can always exchange this gift for something we think we’d rather have instead. But in this case, the exchange is an unequal one, and we have to make up the difference by coughing up a little more – our souls, for instance.

So the next time you see someone during this Christmas season, wish them a hearty and heart-felt Merry Christmas! And don’t be afraid of offending them. After all, you’re only sharing the story of salvation and whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, this story was told for them, too.

But if they don’t hear it from you, if you’re too ashamed to say the words out loud, then where will they hear it?

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