Christmas: Awaking Wonder
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Christmas is just around the corner, but we are distracted. A gift is prepared in Bethlehem, but we are too busy to notice. Christ is coming, but we are hardly ready. In her wisdom and compassion, the Church reminds us today of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, “repent.” Of what do we need to repent? It is the biggest problem in our life. It is the sole reason Advent exists, to heal us from it. It is summed up in one word: insensitivity.
St. John Climacus says some piercing words about Insensitivity. In his treatise, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, he personifies insensitivity as a lady boasting of power:
“Those who are under my sway,” she says, “at prayer they are stony, hard, and blinded. In front of the altar they feel nothing. They receive the Holy Gift as if it were ordinary bread. I am the mother of Laughter, the nurse of Sleep, the friend of the Full Stomach…”
The scriptures call this vice ‘hardness of heart’ or ‘spiritual dullness.’ Ezekiel explains Sodom’s fall because the people were full of “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease” (Ez. 16:49). Christ describes the generation of his time:
“The heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15).
Insensitivity is the pillar of all sins, and Christmas exists to kill it.
We live in a disenchanted world. I have heard some people say that the gift giving at this time of the year distracts us from the true meaning of Christmas. I could not disagree more. I remember being a child and gazing at the Christmas tree. Its lights and ornaments sparkled at night and cast a sort of mystery over the room. The pile of presents shining beneath enhanced that mystery. What would we get on Christmas morning? The whole season was pregnant with the enchantment of anticipation.
Then we grow up. We have our own credit cards. We can buy little trinkets and toys any time in the year. The glow of the Christmas lights loses it shine. The presents get boring. Christmas becomes one more occasion for business and hassle. Is this not our whole story?
Lady Insensitivity casts her shadows on everything. When we show up to Mass, we find ourselves bored and inattentive. Heaven and earth are merging, the angels and saints rejoicing, but we have lost the art of seeing. We come up and take the Eucharist as though eating a cracker. God hands himself to us, but we have lost the taste. When we kneel down to pray in God’s presence, we prefer thinking about our grocery list. When we go out on a walk, we stare down at our feet and miss the splendor of trees and clouds. We have lost our ability to see beauty, and so we have lost God.
This is why Christ was born in a manger. Divinity pierced into our world. God shattered the barrier between heaven and earth, allowing earth the chance of saturating in heaven. God has incarnated into creation, in order that we might cherish creation. What can we bring into Christmas: hearts of gratitude and wonder. The 12 days of Christmas, and the season of Christmastide that stretches out till the second of February, this is a season for rejoicing.
We have to repent – repent from insensitivity. The Church asks us to fast through these four weeks of Advent to help us to be grateful. While stuffing our senses all day long, we lose sight of our dependence on God. Chomping on potato chips and guzzling up hamburgers have a way of making us self-satisfied. Our TV series and Smartphone apps have a way of intoxicating us. We no longer enjoy them when they become addictions. We most certainly do not enjoy God. Trapped in our own self-concerns and man-made world, we grow lazy and forgetful. Lady Insensitivity sets up her thrown.
Advent comes along to wake us up. The American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said it so well:
"Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting -- a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing."
When this is our attitude, we begin to discover wonder for God in all creation.
“My soul is crushed with longing after your ordinances…Whom have I in heaven but you? Besides you, I desire nothing” (Ps. 119:20, 73:25).
This spirit of awe pervades the lives of the saints and is available to all who reach out.
Christmas arrives to waken sensitivity. We are brought through the desert with John, crying through Advent, “Repent!” We are asked to fast, to sharpen our senses for perceiving God. We are asked to be quiet, to learn to listen like those shepherds in the field. At the end of the road, we find Christmas, and are invited to such a feast. May God give us hearts open to cherish life through the twelve days of Christmas, and into the New Year ahead.