Now we enter the season when church becomes a frivolity of decoration and music, and faith sings the tune of present-trees and benevolence. We make our homes lovely, and delight in the evergreen. All is sweet and beautiful in our imagination of Christmas.
Not so for the first and best one, of course. Then it was all about travels far from home, homelessness, and life-threatening experiences. Today, we gather with family; back then, it was loneliness and separation. Now, we heat our homes cozily, and dream of chestnuts and fireplaces; back then, it was a cold stable and a dirty manger.
In an old poem by Yeats, Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop. He tells her to “live in a heavenly mansion, not in some foul sty.” Her reply? “Fair needs foul!” And: “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.” Love has not pitched its mansion there—it is his. Love is embodied. Love is Christ.
It is both paradoxical and strangely wonderful that we should celebrate Jesus’ birth by surrounding ourselves with all that he did not have. We rejoice in the traditions, and they aid our revelry; we give to see the joy of the season on the faces of strangers and of our children alike.
But toward the preservation of the truth, it would be wise at some point in your Christmas celebration to imagine if it were all Not There. Sit around the tree, and imagine it gone. Then imagine the heat off. Imagine no presents, and dirt beneath your knees, and not so very much for supper, and only the thinnest and scratchiest of clothes and blankets about you. Imagine darkness surrounding you and this nothingness. If you are committed to understanding this holy day—if you are brave—then as you look at your community, your people, or perhaps at one another around the tree that is now in your mind’s eye Not There, you might even imagine that one by one they are also gone. After all, the holy family was a mere two, in a strange place, against the world; imagine just you and one more, whether in heaven or on earth. Just two, and no more.
For a moment, dwell there. And then, if it is so ordained, let love become tangible between you. It is into that nothingness and helplessness that love is born. He pitches his mansion in the place of excrement, the barnyard hay, the dirt of our hearts. He comes there, to that place.
The tension of imagination will exist only for a short while. Eventually you will brush off this silly fantasy. Then the gifts of Christmas will come rushing back in: again there will be trees, lights, carols, candles. The sights and sounds and smells of a Christmas dinner will flood you once more, and bring you back to the usual richness of festivity.
But for that one moment, you will have understood.
And after it, the gifts will no longer be yours to one another; they will now be God’s, to you.
A miraculous Christmas to you all.