Dec 23, 2011

Christmas: Magic or Mystery?


Gerard van Honthorst

Have you ever heard the phrase that Christmas is a “magical” time of year or of the “wonder and magic” of this season?  Such a statement may refer to the tinsel and lights, the trees and packages and at least the temporary change in society in which we all seem to be on our best or at least better behavior.  The increase in charitable donations, the desire to do good for others less fortunate, and the gathering of family and friends make this I think a most emotional time of year.  It may seem that such is a magical transformation from what common life may be for many. In fact, sometimes we say after the holidays its back to “normal life.”
However, “magic” may not be the best way to describe this season. For magic implies a certain element of deception. As entertaining as a skilled magician may be, the whole point of his trick is to make you think that something is one way when in fact it is all an illusion.  Some good magicians are indeed masters of illusion.

Pulling a quarter from behind a child’s ear is harmless entertainment but the truth is there was no quarter hiding there.  Making things disappear during an extravagant Las Vegas show with lights, music, smoke and mirrors may seem very real but in fact it isn’t.  No matter how convincing, the truth is it’s all a cover up.  How typical it is to ask, “How did he do that?”  
On a darker note we hear of black magic and sorcery which implies witches and warlocks.  As engrossing as those Harry Potter movies may have been, it’s understandable why some groups were more than slightly bothered by them as adults. While adults get it, children may not be so discerning.  That’s a discussion of its own but black magic and sorcery are historically based.

In the end, magic is a poor description of Christmas but there is indeed much that is mysterious. There is nothing that is deceptive or an illusion making us think that things may not be as they seem and that it’s all just a trick, Santa Claus aside. Christmas is all about a wondrous divine intervention in space and time. A great spiritual mystery.  
In the Eastern Church, the sacraments are referred to as “mysteries.” We in the Roman, western Church, speak of the seven sacraments but we know they are indeed mysterious in the mystical sense. The Spirit works through them in a true and mystical way.

Under the visible signs of bread and wine, for example, Jesus Christ alive and risen becomes present to us in a substantive and real way. We say that it is no longer bread and wine although it appears to be so.  When we genuflect before the tabernacle or bow before receiving holy communion, or I as priest raise up the Eucharist, we do not worship a piece of bread.  Such would be the high of foolishness.  It is Christ alive and present to us in a way that is real but mysterious because we do not fully understand how it can be so.  We take it all on faith.
But the point is, there is no deception or illusion.  They are grounded in a spiritual reality that is present but hidden from our senses and faith is what makes the difference.  Others before us have believed the same and others before them, and others before them. I believe it to be true because the Holy Spirit has revealed it to be so through the Church and in other ways.

For many it may be upsetting that God did not enter the world with more fanfare, a display of power that would shut down enemies and strike fear in the hearts of the good.  He indeed would have gotten much more attention.
Or that as Jesus walked this earth he could have been far more successful if he had hob-nobbed with the learned, the influential, and the powerful.  Rather, he spent his years among the poor and the common everyday folk. He was born into simplicity and poverty.  His band of followers were not exactly the cream of the crop either. 

Yet Christmas reminds us that God is not about fear, power, violence, or dictatorship.  As the first reading for our Mass at Night proclaims, he is: “Wonder-counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace . . .” (Is 9: 4-5).  God came to us in silence and ordinariness so that we would not fear him but find an attraction to him.  He only “asks for our Love” in return as our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI recently said.

Pope Benedict recently commented on the present state of “faith fatigue” in Europe and wonders about the need for Church reform.  He writes:  “The essence of the crisis of the Church in Europe is a crisis of faith . . . if faith does not take on new life, deep conviction and real strength from the encounter with Jesus Christ, then all other reforms will remain ineffective . . .” (Christmas address to the Roman Curia).

In this Christmas season, it may well be good for all of us who have encountered Jesus Christ and his message throughout our lives to ask if I have “faith fatigue.”  It is clear from the Christmas story of the shepherds and the Magi that once they discovered the Christ child, his Mother and Joseph in Bethlehem, they were changed.  In fact, we are told in Matthew’s Gospel, that once the Magi discovered the Christ, “they returned to their own country by another route.” (Mt 2: 12).  It has been said that no one goes back the same way after they have discovered Christ.  Christmas is not a passive event of entertaining magical tricks but an encounter with the living God in the mystery of his love for us and our response to that living love.  

So, as this joyful season of three weeks is upon us can I look beyond the externals and give myself more completely to this God who asks for my love and loyalty? What new road do I need to embark on in order to avoid the temptation of faith fatigue? If my attitude is one of “same old, same old” it may be time to rediscover my faith in the new year ahead.
O God, who have made this most sacred night
radiant with the splendor of the true light,
grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries
of his light on earth, may also delight in his gladness in heaven.
Who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect, Christmas Mass at Night)