A call went out in mid-December that grabbed our collective attention. No, it was not from Caesar Augustus demanding that we return home to Bethlehem to be counted. It was from The Guardian news website encouraging readers to submit their “underwhelming” Christmas photos for the second year running.
The pitch reads: “Last year, we asked you to share your sad and inattentive Christmas photos. From fallen trees to deflated Santas, your submissions did not disappoint. This year we’d like to (sic) you to do it again. If you have taken a Christmas-related image that fills you with a profound sense of listlessness, then you’ve come to the right place.”
Though it gives a more edgy meaning to “Christmas cheer,” this appeal, of course, is all in the spirit of seasonal fun, and some of the photos are truly entertaining. But such a quest underscores perhaps an unconscious emptiness that can invade our lives even as we prepare for and execute our Christmas plans. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, felt let down — even listless — as the sun sets on Dec. 25? Perhaps it’s disappointment at not receiving the gift for which we had been hoping. Perhaps it’s the much-anticipated family gathering that never quite lives up to the Norman Rockwell-inspired event of our idyllic imaginings. Perhaps it’s the exertions of holiday baking, decorating and hosting that leave us exhausted and looking forward to getting the house back to “normal.” If these are our Christmas goals, it’s no wonder that we end up with the holiday blues, and perhaps motivated to search for an image that reflects them.
If faced with these challenges, what are we to do? Our goal should be not to do away with the rituals and traditions that have come to define Christmas for us, but rather to realign them so that they are in their proper place. We offer gifts to loved ones to express our love for them. We gather with family to celebrate relationships. We bake and decorate to create an atmosphere of joy. But it’s only when we welcome the babe in the manger into our homes and our hearts that our gift-giving, family gatherings and traditions make sense. In welcoming Jesus Christ, the greatest of gifts, more fully into our lives, we must ask ourselves: Are we bringing Christ into the world in our thoughts, words and deeds? Do we recognize that God is here, Emmanuel — God with us? And do we respond seriously and appropriately by being Christ to others?
Just as the Advent that isn’t filled with anticipation and longing leads to the Christmas that is perfunctory, the Christmas that doesn’t point toward the manger (and beyond it, to the cross) leads to great dissatisfaction. It’s easy to get swept in all the wrong directions — directions that dictate that Christmas is a day for secular celebration rather than a religious season. Our intentions aren’t bad; it’s just easy to get caught up in the weeds that our culture is sowing.
As Christians, our task at Christmas is to follow the example of the Blessed Virgin as we relive the moment she welcomed the Christ Child into the world in the humblest of circumstances and in the simplest of fashions. We emulate her by pondering with wonder, love and awe the greatest and most prized gift of Christmas that never lets down, that never disappoints. This season, let us hold this gift ever closer in our hearts, gazing upon him in unrelenting adoration, and singing with the choirs of angels: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young