Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #005. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 25, 2007

Writing on this December’s fourth Tuesday is intimidating, not least because of the most frequently reprinted editorial of all time, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” from the 1897 New York Sun.

I begin by wishing you a merry one, but then get down to business.

Though I’m a layperson, I have studied theology for decades, and the rest of my December words will say what I believe Christmas has meant through the centuries and what it means today.

First, Christmas is shocking. When you see creches in front yards, sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” sit as a proud parent watching your child play Mary or a shepherd — or a donkey — in the pageant, the Christmas story is so familiar that you are shielded from its assault on everything that makes sense.

God a human being? As St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century put it, “How shall I describe this birth to you? The Ancient of Days has become an infant.” This was an affront to ancient intellects, and it should be to ours. A student of mine once wrote on an exam, “If God had wanted to appeal directly to our minds, Mary would have written a book instead of bearing a child.”

Second, Christmas is reassuring. If God became an infant — vulnerable, dependent — that infant also carries the same hope and expectation we sense in any child. My father preached a Christmas sermon called “The Baby Grew Up.” His point was not only that the Mary who rejoiced on Christmas grieved on Good Friday, but that the doctrine of the Incarnation — God became fully human while remaining fully divine — means God knows our story from the inside.

The 1990 Grammy Song of the Year, Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” made popular by Bette Midler, can be interpreted many ways, but the point of its refrain, “God is watching us from a distance,” is not the message of Christmas. God is watching us through the eyes of a baby, up very close and very personal.

Third, Christmas is challenging. My friend Catherine Mowry LaCugna wrote a book called “God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life,” published at the same time as “From a Distance” won its Grammy. In it she says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a teaching not about the abstract nature of God, or about God in isolation from everything other than God, but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other.”

Trinity and Incarnation are the traditional moorings of Christian teaching. They are not weird math or odd biology, but clues to the wonder and challenge of the world and our life.

Catherine died of cancer in 1997, at age 44. She fought the disease hard, but didn’t dwell on the unanswerable: “Why does God allow senseless suffering?” “Why is this happening to me?” Rather, she asked a question only she could answer: “How can I cope with this illness so that I remain faithful to God, myself and others?” The answer she found was in the challenge and the promise of Christmas.

These words from her book are chiseled on Catherine’s tombstone: “We were created for the purpose of glorifying God by living in right relationship as Jesus Christ did, by becoming holy through the power of the Spirit of God, by existing as persons in communion with God and every other creature.”

Earlier I quoted St. John Chrysostom. When we give and receive gifts this season, other words of his remind us of the shock, the reassurance and the challenge of Christmas: “Do not say, ‘I am using what belongs to me.’ You are using what belongs to others. All the wealth of the world belongs to you and to others in common, as do the sun, air, earth and all the rest.”

And “all the rest” is a lot.

As Francis P. Church wrote 110 years ago, responding to the question about Santa from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon (who grew up to be a New York City public school teacher and principal): “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”