Almost Holy: Confessions of a Bad Catholic

All I want for Christmas

I don’t really know what I want for Christmas.

Sure, I want to have my Christmas cards done by my traditional (but never-heeded) deadline of December 10th. I’d like to be able to wave my hand and find my bedroom and office— which, as always, look as if they’ve been bomb-struck—looking somewhat sane. And, of course, a bit more security in terms of my professional situation would be nice…

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

They say this time of year is blessed and special but the older we get it becomes harder to see that amidst our frenzied gift-buying, the drama, or the pain of loss or loneliness that the holidays often bring hauntingly back. These days, with evergreen gracing the shopping malls in August, Christmas (or the half-year marketing behemoth that’s risen in its place) can feel so drawn-out that the uniqueness of the season easily wears thin, almost to the point of numbness.


How ironic that three decades after John Lennon gave voice to one of the modern age’s great carols when he sang “War is Over,” there are some who feel that the answer is now a “War Over Christmas.” Forgive me, but I doubt that stamping Jesus’ name all over big-box stores would mean that people will stop trampling each other to grab those discounted laptops and Playstation 3s.

Back to what I want for Christmas…

Now that I think about it, there’s a big part of me that just wants it to feel like Christmas again. I know, I know—I sound like Charlie Brown, sore and downhearted at the sight of an endless sea of aluminum trees. But stick with me on this one.

Could it be that our first experiences of Christmas as kids were the ones where we best understood the event we were actually supposed to be celebrating? The supposed reason for all the commerce, office-party booze and politics? In those younger days one holy night was magic, simple, innocent, pure, sincere. Despite getting older and, allegedly, wiser, more often than not the purity of Christmas has faded for us as we get sucked up into the season’s emphasis on all the little things that push Christ’s birth into the background.

Expect the Unexpected

Is there a “true meaning” of Christmas? Of course. Can you find it at Macy’s? Contrary to popular belief, you just might be able to …. But you’ll miss it if you’re only looking at the shelves.

Just as He showed up in the most unlikely of places over 2,000 years ago, Jesus has a strange ability to reveal himself in those moments and forms that most of us would least expect. Blink, and you could miss him. As my favorite carol put it:

To actually live Christmas means we have to expect the unexpected, because that’s the place where, as Pope Benedict put it last weekend, “God comes.”

He came down to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all
and his shelter was a stable
and his cradle was a stall
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

To actually live Christmas means to expect the unexpected, because that’s the place where, as Pope Benedict put it last weekend, “God comes.” From its very beginning in a cold stable, because there was no room at the inn, the Christian journey has been one that can only be effectively lived “outside”—outside the comfortable confines of the “inns” of satisfaction, power, riches, our biases and plans. But also “outside” in the sense that it marks our relationship with God as well as the people we meet.

For us to truly say that “God comes” into our lives and into our world, He first must come into the human heart.

There’s no way around that. Without it, we’re lost, and no amount of weighty documents, lavish rituals, or cheery superficialities can compensate for the lack of it.

Back to Brown

Returning to the Charlie Brown analogy, remember the aluminum trees, and remember the tree he ended up picking—hidden away, the one they didn’t want to show, a tree in such a rotten state that its branches kept falling off anytime it was touched. Charlie Brown’s little tree had one upside that the manufactured perfection of the others couldn’t match: it was alive, it was real. And its reality, its vulnerability, is what gave him the hope to truly experience Christmas.

This came to mind the other day as I was sitting in a coffeeshop, in a vain attempt to shut off the effects of the terminal condition I call “Writer’s Brain.” Flipping through the iPod, I delved a little further into Sufjan Stevens’ just-released Songs for Christmas—a collection of the annual holiday EPs he’s made for friends over recent years.

Known for his forays into the spiritual realm—BH profiled Stevens earlier this year—out of curiosity, I clicked onto his rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” an old hymn that I never really had any great affection for.

This version, however, overwhelmed me. If I weren’t in public, I would’ve lost my composure (as it was, it took all I could muster to keep me from doing so anyway). Sure, the musical craftsmanship was impeccable, but what moved me so much was how Stevens had infused a sleepy, churchy standard with a language that is universally understood. Like Charlie Brown’s tree, it too was alive and real.

In that moment, an artist known for working outside the “inn” of conventional religiosity offered a more powerful testimony of faith than almost anything you’d find proclaimed in the most elaborate houses of God.

Stumbling across such perfection, power, and purity in the most unexpected of situations really shouldn’t surprise us though. It’s just the Birthday Boy continually being reborn.