Well, the topics are not completely unrelated. I will pull them together at the end.
The first thing I would like to talk about is how time is seemingly going by faster and faster. As cliched as it sounds, it seems like only yesterday that we were ringing in the new year, and the year we were all looking forward to was…2018. I’ve been speaking of this to friends and family because, over the course of the past few weeks – possibly even longer – not only have I noticed that the end of the year has approached quickly, but this is the first time in which it seemed or appeared to me as if time flew by. I’m beginning to understand why older people complain about how there is so much to do but too little time to do it.
This, for me, shows how much of what we see around us is limited, finite, and impermanent. All is passing. And this got me to thinking: people often neglect the things of this world because they act as if these things – and even they themselves – will last forever. Yet, when people are truly taken aback by just how finite, fragile and passing the things of this world are, it is possible become overly-sentimental, and overly-attached to the things of this world, to desire too much the things of this world or to be too sad about their loss. There are some things that we should be extremely sad at their loss, or have a great desire for their acquisition; yet, the amount we desire it, or the amount we mourn its loss, should be proportionate to the extent to which it has the nature of a good, or the extent to which its loss of an evil – no more, no less. A warped understanding of the nature and necessity of the things of this world could lead us to desire something or mourn its loss too much or too little.
Another thing I have been thinking about lately is a conversation that I had with some relatives on Christmas. One of my relatives spoke of a Christmas message from a local Catholic clergyman in which he placed much emphasis on Jesus’ lowliness, Jesus’ humanity. Another relative repudiated this, claiming that an over-emphasis on this point was, in essence, a failed attempt to make Jesus more relatable. Yes, Jesus was a man, but we should never forget what lie just out of view: namely, that Jesus was more than just a man, that He was also God.
To both views I say: YES! There are two sides to the Incarnation. Much to the chagrin of Ancient Greek thought, God is outside of the created world, and is thus unlimited and utterly transcendent, but God in no way remains unconnected or unconcerned with the created world; what is more, to the protestations of Jewish and Islamic thinkers, God is not only involved with His creation, He ENTERS INTO CREATION, without ceasing to be God. Even devout and pious ways of speaking of Christ found among Christians focus in on Jesus’ Divinity to such a degree that they fall into a quasi-Nestorian or quasi-Doceitist view – i.e., Jesus’ humanity was simply a puppet or a vessel for His Divinity, or we can just out-and-out ignore or severely water-down His humanity. Catholic spirituality demands of us that we take seriously the completely scandalous claim that the utterly transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing God became like us in all things but sin. He looked no different than most humans; He acted no differently in His day-to-day life (other than not sinning), and by that we mean He felt happiness, sorrow, pain, sleepiness, hunger, thirst, and distress, He had family members and friends, lived within a certain culture and historical period, and was even tempted by the devil himself, and subjected to religious laws (laws of which He Himself was the author) – as all other humans do. That God would take on such limitations is, for the lack of a better word, mind-blowing. But, what is more, Jesus became man without ceasing to be God, and this is asserted much to the chagrin of many non-Christians and atheists, who may be willing to acknowledge the existence of a historical figure named Jesus, but who are unwilling to acknowledge Him as God. There was more to Jesus than meets the eye. Yet, this feeds into our prior point: in opposition to the warped (though well-intentioned) piety of many Christians, the glory and majesty of God is found precisely where one would not expect it. It is found under the guise of its opposite. During the Christmas season, we acknowledge the lowliness within which God manifested Himself, and in doing so celebrate His majesty, without watering-down either.
On a similar but distinct note, in the days following Christmas, in my conversations with friends and coworkers, I’ve frequently asked them how their Christmas was, and how they chose to celebrate it. Some said that they had very low-key celebrations of Christmas, made up of little more than small get-togethers with a tiny group of family members and friends. One coworker said that she spent most of Christmas at work, and later returned home and spent the rest of the day doing a lot of nothing.
Part of me feels that it is not my place to tell people how to celebrate Christmas. Outside of Mass attendance, the Church mandates no specific way in which to celebrate Christmas. If one chooses to spend time with others or spend time alone, if one chooses to have large parties or smaller social gatherings, it doesn’t matter, so long as it provides an occasion to reflect upon the meaning of the birth of Christ in a spiritually meaningful and fruitful manner. Yet, there is a difference between having non-liturgical – i.e., family-based or folk – celebrations small and having no private celebrations and treating Christmas like any other day. It is easy to fall from the former to the latter. The giving of gifts and the holding of feasts on Christmas is a good thing, a tradition that should be continued; yet, in today’s materialist society, it is easy to take the attention away from Christ, and thus these traditions become less of a celebration of the Incarnation and more of a celebration of self-indulgence. Christmas has thus become, for many, a burden. This is because the feasts and the reminiscing and the gift-giving and the folk practices have been divorced from that which inspired them, and replaced it. It’s difficult, emotionally-draining, and costly to arrange or prepare celebrations, buy gifts, and deal with that one annoying relative. If one can have the day off from work and not have to deal with all the hard work and stress of hosting or preparing for a party, then one has hit the jackpot. One can have a true vacation. But, if you have to work on Christmas, well, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Albeit gift-giving and Christmas parties aren’t a bad thing, and there are some circumstances in which one can obtain a dispensation from one’s religious duties for reasons relating to work. Yet, people become obsessed with gifts, and most people are not working intense jobs that require round-the-clock labor (i.e., military personnel [who, by the way, still have military chaplains] or farmers [who, especially in the world of modern transportation, can often still find a way to get to Church or have a priest come to them]). Thus, if people are placed in situations where they are essentially threatened to lose their source of financial stability for taking time out of work for the sake of their obligations to God, or if they become obsessed with buying gifts (i.e., Black Friday), then is it any wonder that people have no strong sense of religion, or are spiritually lazy, or don’t understand the liturgy, or barely have time to read and study the Bible. People are reduced to workers and buyers, consumers and producers, not as spiritual agents who must foster a relationship with God.
What unites all of this. Either neglecting or clinging too much to the things of this world; allowing a consumerist mentality to distract us from our obligations to God; not seeing the glory of God shine through in the lowliness in which Jesus lived – all of this is a sign of thinking with the mind of man rather than the mind of God. Man, due to sin, has forgotten how to order the things of this world towards God; man thus fails to live out his obligations to God and His fellow man. To save us from this, God initiated His plan of salvation, which reached its epitome in the Incarnation. For those who remain in their sin, it is easy to either deny anything beyond the immediate here and now, the transcendent, especially if it is Divine in nature, or to say that such things have no connection to the things of this world. For the true Christian, though, God’s plan of salvation, the Christmas season in particular, is a sign of God lowing Himself to our level so that we may be taken up into the things of God. We are thus given the ability to use, order, and view the things of this world correctly, neither loving them more than God or allowing them to distract us from God, nor neglecting them, but rather ordering them towards God, so that they can be used by God to point towards Him.