“…my disbelief made no difference to You. You took it into Your love and accepted it like an offering, and tonight the rain soaked through my coat and my clothes and into my skin, and I shivered with the cold, and it was for the first time as though I nearly loved You. I walked under Your windows in the rain and I wanted to wait under them all night only to show that after all I might learn to love and I wasn’t afraid of the desert any longer because You were there.”1
Last week I was driving with my dad and trying to argue that The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is, in fact, a Christmas book. First of all, the story is set in 1946, which is pre-Vatican II, which means that every Catholic would be celebrating the Christmas season until February 2nd. Ergo, it is still Christmas when Maurice catches sight of his former lover’s husband on “that black wet January night.”
Anyway, the novel was still not approved material for recitation on Christmas Eve.
But on a serious note, the above passage captures an easily forgotten, yet all-important aspect of this glorious feast in which we revel for eight days. It is the mystery of the Incarnation, the reality of Emmanuel, which enables all souls to pray, “I wasn’t afraid of the desert any longer because You were there.”
There’s something stunningly beautiful about the traditions surrounding Christmas: carols with the family, the eagerness of children on Christmas morning, familiar foods and lights and movies. And of course, even the most colorful family traditions have nothing on Christ’s grandeur revealed through the Church: the blare of trumpets at Midnight Mass, the thrill of the angels’ Gloria, a baby’s cry at the moment of the Consecration.
But the familiarity and traditional beauty of Christmas should not blind us to “such an odd sort of mercy” that entered the world in Bethlehem. How can we even process God becoming man, God being a material body? What is an appropriate reaction to the Nativity of our Lord, described by William Butler Yeats as “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor?”
Our reaction should be one which heeds the angel’s cry: “Do not be afraid.”
Like most of the country, it’s been miserably cold for the last week.2 The day before Christmas Eve, as I opened the door and cold blasted in my face, I prayed something to the effect of, “How do You love us so much that You want to come into this cold world?”
And sure, it was just me being dramatic about my least favorite kind of weather, but how often does society despair of any goodness in the world? How often do people say that they don’t want to bring children into this dark world, or that the body is a prison and obstacle to happiness in one way or another?
Our Father’s response to the loathing, despair, and self-absorption of broken souls is pure Gift. God Himself enters this bitter earth. He is born in a cave and wails in the cold. How can we fear our poverty when He is poor? How can we hate our bodies when God has one?
In this Christmas octave, the angels and the Christ Child implore you, “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid of your heart, for in Bethlehem God Himself has a heart which beats and will break and is all aflame with love for you.
Do not be afraid of your tears, for God has fingers so that He can wipe away your tears when He sees fit for His glory and your joy.
Do not be afraid of your pain, for that babe has feet that will one day split open, lungs that will fail, a brow that will bleed.
Do not be afraid of your sin, for this God enters into our broken world not to condemn, but to heal and miraculously transfigure our darkest moments into conduits of grace and new beauty.
And do not be afraid of your happiness, for this newborn God who will be giggling in a matter of months comes to bring you abundant joy and peace that cannot be stolen.
He is there in the desert. He is there in your suffering and in your love, no matter how destitute and weak your soul. He is there when the rain soaks through your coat and you shiver in this cold, but good, good world.
Because He is here, “we c[an] all be saints by leaping…by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all.” This Christmas, let us ask the Christ Child for the courage to leap.
1 – All quotations taken from The End of the Affair, unless otherwise noted
2 – But as I was drafting this last night, we experienced a heat wave here in Indy: it was 15 degrees!