Christmas Signposts

Christmas 2017

With all due respect to the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I’m jumping ahead just a bit with this post in order to offer a reflection on Christmas.

Christmas. What can one say about Christmas that hasn’t been said “many times, many ways”, as the song reminds us? Then again, maybe one can. After all, we are dealing with two different Christmases in our culture, and have been for quite a long time. 

One is the secular winter holiday, a time devoted to gift-buying and gift-giving. It begins with Black Friday, is filled with a great deal of activity, and ends with the last unwrapped gift – or the last exchange the next day. The other is the Christian holy day, the celebration of the birth of Christ. It begins with Advent, a call to repentance and hope and waiting in patience for the Lord. It ends – not with Christmas Day itself, but with the Christmas season, as we celebrate the coming of Christ to the world right on through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in January.

We may get the impression that there is little in common between the two – the secular holiday and the Christian holy day. Nevertheless, there is. The secular holiday would not exist if it were not for the Christian holy day. The carols we hear, even in stores and on the radio, proclaim the coming of Christ. Nativity sets vie with Santas and reindeer for spots on store shelves and in home decor.  The separation is not as sharp as we may think it is.

In fact, it is possible to look at some traditions that seem, on the surface, to be about the secular holiday, and see in them some hints of the Christian holy day and its meaning. Doing so will help us to look at something which seems so familiar to us – Christmas – and see it with new eyes, as though it really were news to us – Good News.

Let’s turn to two longstanding Christmas television traditions, and see what we might find. The first one is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which first aired in 1964. The second is How The Grinch Stole Christmas (the animated version), which first aired in 1966.

Rudolph, it seems, is born in an idyllic place – Christmastown, near the North Pole, under the benevolent rule of Santa and Mrs. Claus. He soon learns that not everything is idyllic. Reindeer society is, apparently, dominated by males, and status depends solely on having the correct appearance. Donner, Rudolph’s dad, immediately tries to hide Rudolph’s incorrect red nose. Later, even though Rudolph easily outperforms the other young reindeer in his first “jump”, once his red nose is revealed, his performance doesn’t matter. He is mocked and ostracized. His father is shamed and does not defend him. Even Santa is no help. Only Clarice, Rudolph’s first real friend, accepts him, red nose and all.

Rudolph, finding no place in reindeer society, runs away. However, he soon finds others who are also misfits: Herbie the Elf, who wants to be a dentist and was rejected and mocked by the other elves for this; Yukon Cornelius, who seems to have chosen a life of solitary wandering, looking for some big strike of silver or gold, and not fitting in to any society. They wander, threatened by the Snow Monster, who is always lurking in the background. Finally, they come to the Island of Misfit Toys. Here, they hope, is a place that will accept them. But it is here that they learn their real purpose. (It may be no accident that the king of this Island is a Lion.) They cannot stay on the Island; no, they must go back to Santa and find homes for all the Misfit Toys.

After many adventures, they do return to Santa. Herbie is allowed to be a dentist. Santa discovers that Rudolph’s red nose might save the day. Even the Snow Monster, the Bumble, is reformed by the misfit Yukon. All the Misfit Toys find new homes. All seems to be well, as Rudolph and his friends help all the misfits find a place and a purpose. Only Donner shows that not all is well. “I knew it all along!”, he says, his self-centered bluster untouched.

What can we as Christians see here? Note how Rudolph and the others must withdraw from the society they have known to find their true purpose, their true vocation. They must go off into a kind of solitude. There, they are reconciled with their “flaws”, and in fact learn that the same attributes that made them “misfits” actually empower them to being healing and reconciliation.  Think of Jesus, born in Bethlehem. There is no room for him, even in the inn. He is born homeless, a misfit. He reaches out to all who were seen as “misfits” in his day, and offers them healing, forgiveness, and hope. In his crucifixion, Jesus becomes the ultimate “misfit”, rejected by most of his own people, and yet now able to meet anyone, no matter how far away they may feel from others.

There are many “red-nosed reindeers” and “dentist elves” among us now. They are the ones who do not fit in to society. Their appearance is wrong. They have attributes that seem “worthless” to society. Yet, they are the ones who, like Christ, can reach out to others like them and offer hope, welcome and love. And, they discover this calling by pulling back, finding a quiet, solitary space, and seeking God’s will for them. Perhaps you are also a red-nosed reindeer?  A misfit, in some way? Do you have that quiet, solitary space somewhere? What have you learned about your calling? How can you help reach out to misfits? Could the “misfit” actually hold the key to how society could be, should be, if we all knew and understood the full meaning of Christmas?

Then there is the Grinch. When we meet him early on in the story, we discover that he is alone (except for his dog Max), brooding, and angry. He hates the Whos who live in the valley down below, but cannot get them out of his mind. Their Christmas joy becomes an insult to him. He is, in other words, how many people would picture a hermit: someone who hates people and withdraws from all human company.

Though the Grinch lives far from Whoville, his thoughts are dominated by the Whos. Their Christmas joy is offensive to him, and so he decides to ruin Christmas for them this year. He steals all their Christmas gifts and foods, and resolves to dump them off the side of the mountain. He waits, believing that the Whos will weep without all their goods. However, they welcome Christmas in song anyway. This so baffles the Grinch that he has to stop and ponder it. It becomes a moment of grace for him. He begins to understand that Christmas might be more than he imagined (though the story never actually says what that “more” might be!).  He returns to Whoville, restores all he had stolen, and even shares the Christmas feast with the Whos.

This is where the story ends, but here is where it really gets interesting to me. What does the Grinch do now? Does he return to his home, no longer resentful, reconciled to the Whos, loving them – in short, does he become a real hermit in the Christian sense? Or, since he no longer hates the Whos, does he choose to live among them? The Grinch is now free to choose, and free to discern his true calling.

Think of the people Jesus encountered who had separated themselves from others – if not physically, then emotionally – out of fear or anger or shame. To them, Jesus reveals a God who reaches out, who welcomes the lost son or daughter, who offers inner healing and reconciliation. Some, like the tax collector Matthew, accepted this. Others, like some Pharisees, did not.

Think of your own lives. Have you pulled away from others out of hurt, or anger? Do you find yourself brooding about them, obsessed with them, even if you are rarely with them physically? Do you find that to be a kind of prison? Does the joy that they may feel seem insulting to you? Jesus comes to disarm these and other traps we can slide into. He shows us that true human life is not about rivalry. It’s not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s joy does not take joy from me. In fact, when we are in Christ, your joy increases mine, and vice versa. There is always more.

One more message from the Grinch story. How do we perceive those who have taken a step or two “back” from the world and now live as monks, nuns or hermits? Do we see them as wasting their time, or being involved in some self-serving illusion? Do our feelings about them mirror, in some small way, the Grinch’s feelings about the Whos?

If so, then come to see such people as signposts of grace. They cannot brag about their performance – all they do, the money they make, the careers they have. They cannot even brag about how busy they are (even though they are busy enough with daily life). No, they point to our radical dependence on God in a radical way. They reveal to all that we all depend on grace. They proclaim by their lives that God is truly sufficient. We can go so far as to say this: we can measure how well we really believe in grace by how we react to hermits or monks or nuns. (Assuming, of course, that they are living out their calling in an authentically Christian way.) We can measure how much we believe in prayer by how we react to those called to devote themselves to prayer in an unusual way.

Anyone who answers the call to Christian solitude and prayer knows themselves to be reformed Grinches. Like the Grinch, they all had their sins and temptations. But the love of God has changed – and is changing – them. All they do is motivated by love for God and love for all of God’s people – at least, when they are at their best. Such people see themselves also in Rudolph and the other misfits. They are called upon to embrace a “misfit” life for the sake of all “misfits” everywhere. They remind us that, in a society wounded by sin, anyone who embraces the Lord will be a misfit. But they also remind us that the Lord is already gathering his people, like Rudolph  and his friends did, into a new society where all find their place – the Mystical Body of Christ.  As Clarice sang, there is always tomorrow for God’s dream for us to come true. Whenever anyone says yes to God now, this Christmas dream happens, once again, in our hearts.

Don’t be afraid, or ashamed, if you find yourself a misfit. Or if you find that you need to be alone every now and then to center yourself in God once again. Times like these open you, me, and all of us to the fullness of the Christmas message.  May this Christmas be a time of grace, welcome, blessing, and healing for you and all those you love – and for all of creation.