Becoming Flesh at Christmas

I’ve been away from this site for awhile, since I half-completed my post for the fourth Sunday of Christmas, December 23.

I have written in the past about the irony I find singing “Silent Night” at church on Christmas Eve—with a baby crying and kids jumping up and down in the pew.  Christmas is rarely a silent night for families.

But this year I’m thinking about how that affects the whole season. 

As I have said before, my main audience in these reflections is myself: writing these things is a good spiritual discipline, a good way for me to contemplate the face of Christ and try to say something positive, amidst all the negative thoughts that often fill my mind.

But during Christmas, I haven’t been able to do this spiritual discipline, or many others.  I go to daily Mass most of the year; I pray morning prayer more days than not, in the midst of my sloppiness, and my family often prays evening prayer; but Christmas week, my favorite liturgical week of the year, there’s hardly time for all that.  Instead, this year as many years, we were travelling to see family—and the next week we had family visit us.  The week after that, we had a huge plumbing mess to deal with, and some work deadlines. 

I’d like to say I’m the kind of spiritual superman who stays on top of my spiritual life through all of that—and I do try to pray, at least my rosary—but this time of year is often a mess.

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One of the things I hoped to post here during the Christmas season was TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  The Wise Man in the poem says of their journey, “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death,” because the Birth of Christ calls them to conversion, turns their worlds upside down and inside out.

Christmas is like that. 

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I’ve been trying to meditate this last month on how all these family events, some of them my choices (like visiting relatives, mostly), some of them imposed on me (like the plumbing), draw me to Christ. 

Follow me!

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  When I was young, I could go to Mass and take prayer times whenever I wanted.  It’s a lot harder now, with six kids, and a wife, and a job, and a tired old house. 

Of course that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to pray.  Prayer is our source, where we discover the meaning of all those things.  And prayer is our summit, where they all come to fruition.

But there is something rich in those challenges themselves.  I had been thinking already about how much easier it is for me (at least as an intellectual, and a theologian) to feel like a great Christian when I’m praying than when I’m dealing with other people.  I had a lovely retreat in November—and then I came back and discovered that loving the people around me, actually being drawn out of my selfishness, is a lot harder.  It’s the measure of true prayer: if prayer is easy and service is hard, the Bible reminds us a thousand different ways, it’s because our prayer isn’t as real as we think it is.

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This Christmas I’ve been realizing that this is the truth of Christmas, too.  God becomes man.  In fact, long before Peter is an old man, it is the baby Jesus who stretches out his hands, and another dresses him, and carries him where he might not want to go.  At Christmas he takes the form of a slave for us.  God can do anything—the only thing he gains from becoming man is the ability to suffer, the ability to not be able, the ability to be weak and bound and frustrated.  Like me.

For the Christian, that is the path.  In fact, even real prayer is more about being captured and bound and turned from selfishness to service, from ego to love.  But the measure of that prayer is whether we are servants outside of prayer, whether our love can take on suffering flesh, as Christ’s love does.

I haven’t done a very good job of that this Christmas season.  But I hope that somehow, amidst all the time with family, and plumbing and deadlines, the Lord is not hiding from me, but calling me to himself.

What’s the hardest part of your Christian life?

eric.m.johnston

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