"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Night lights

Since I was old enough to care about things like the liturgical year, I've often wondered why Christmas gets so much more play among Western Christians than Easter. The Triduum, after all, commemorates the central event of our redemption; if attestations are to be believed, the light shining forth through the risen Christ is even more brilliant than the Christ Child's. As I sit in the darkness of the evening of Christmas Day, which always seems greater than that of other evenings, I believe I have been given the answer. It also explains why people also seem to think that Christmas ends on this evening. Nonetheless, the answer is one of hope.

In his Christmas message, the Pope reminded me of the following:

"God is light", says Saint John, "and in him is no darkness at all" (1 Jn 1:5). In the Book of Genesis we read that when the universe was created, "the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." "God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light." (Gen 1:2-3). The creative Word of God is Light, the source of life. All things were made through the Logos, not one thing had its being but through him (cf. Jn 1:3). That is why all creatures are fundamentally good and bear within themselves the stamp of God, a spark of his light. Nevertheless, when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, the Light himself came into the world: in the words of the Creed, "God from God, Light from Light". In Jesus, God assumed what he was not, while remaining what he was: "omnipotence entered an infant's body and did not cease to govern the universe" (cf. Saint Augustine, Sermo 184, No. 1 on Christmas).

The paradox of which Augustine speaks is a pure delight as well as a great light. In that respect, it is unlike the paradox of God's saving us by letting us torture and execute him before he rises from the tomb. The latter is indeed a great light, perhaps one greater still; yet it reminds us that we ourselves are very much at the heart of the gaping, cosmic wound whose healing was irrevocably begun by the Passover of the Lord. We are threatened and challenged by that, as we should be; and our rejoicing is preceded by mourning. But in the Christ Child, we can perceive the goodness of God in a way that is both totally unthreatening and totally familiar to most of us. For most of us are parents.

Often, when I looked into each of my children's infant faces, I marvelled at the power of their innocence, curiosity, and trust. The soft light thereof almost forced me to praise God as the origin of their life and as the loving Father who had placed that life in my hands. For those children, I was indeed called to be an icon of God the Father. Although I knew how miserably inadequate to the task I was, I felt just a little of what St. Joseph must have felt that first Christmas night in the stable. And so, when I look at a créche—even one of the countless kitschy ones that bombard us—I know why Christmas songs are greater in number, and more known and sung, than Easter hymns. Although that disparity irritates some theological purists, it is inevitable and not to be despised. The light of God quite often dispels our darkness most insistently when we bring a baby home.

But until New Year's Day, which is more a calendar change than a liturgical event, the ensuing week is a work week. Even those who don't have to go to work have to clean up. What we think of as reality, the kind that some prefer drugs to, reasserts itself. The jollity of Christmas, which people seem ever more determined to enforce ever earlier, peters out even before December 25 is over. To me, there is no evening of the year that seems longer and darker than the evening of Christmas Day. I suspect the same is true for many; and even those for whom it isn't true can understand, without benefit of explanation, why the rest of us would find it so. It is as if that darkness in face of which God once said: "Let there be light" is reminding us that it was never quite eliminated. The new big-screen HDTV, for those who can afford such things, can't dispel the darkness. The new halo-helmet for the boy's video game sure can't dispel it. Even babies can't dispel it.

What to do? Well, tonight I shall move my flex-neck desk lamp to my dresser and train its light on the little straw-and-ceramic créche one of my brothers gave me for Christmas. I shall do that for each of the twelve days of Christmas. I shall also irritate my neighbors by not taking down my tree until the evening of Epiphany. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I need my night lights again.
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