Christmas Day 2014
Fr. Patrick Allen
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
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The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
There’s a 17th-century English Christmas carol – more of a hymn, really – that one doesn’t often hear, which is just as well really, called “Let all that are to mirth inclin’d.” Sometimes you hear it as “All ye that are to mirth inlin’d.” And you can hear in it the English Puritan critique of the celebration of Christmas. When the Puritans came in to their ascendancy they would actually outlaw the celebration of Christmas, both in England and New England as well. The first stanza goes like this:
Let all that are to mirth inclin’d,
Consider well, and bear in mind,
What our good God for us has done,
In sending his beloved Son.
You can hear their concern that the mirth, merriment, and revelry of a traditional Christmas celebration might detract from the sober meditation on the true theological import of our Lord’s Incarnation.
But of course the critique expressed in the carol has the truth of the matter the wrong way around. It is not that mirth detracts from Christmas, but that Christmas, understood and entered into aright, produces mirth, which goes along with that fruit of the Holy Spirit which is joy.
“All that are to mirth inclin’d.” I hope on Christmas morning that’s all of us – that filled with the joy and fun (two different things) of faith and family and friends and – yes! – toys and treats and wrapping paper and carols, all of it: the whole kit-and-kaboodle of Christmas – that all of us leave melancholy and cynicism behind and are, as the carol says, “to mirth inclined.”
Because as we have heard again in today’s Gospel, The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Because this day, the birth of this Child, ought to change us – ought to fill us with joy to the point of laughter. As the Sussex carol – another and much better old English carol – has it:
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King’s birth.
The birth of Jesus is good news, glad tidings. Mirth, merriment, laughter – if we’re doing Christmas right, that ought to be the result. Which is not to say that life’s griefs and sorrows – yours and mine personally or the world’s in general – have magically disappeared, but rather that the Word was made flesh in this Christmas Child, and so Eternal Joy and Love, “true rapture, noblest mirth” have entered in to this world “fast bound by sin and nature’s night,” and grief and sorrow are being swallowed up, transformed and redeemed from the inside. Joy has entered in.
Someone on the Facebook brought to my attention the other day an article by a theologian who (and to be fair, otherwise does very fine work) claimed very bluntly, and I thought somewhat condescendingly, that she did not “do ‘Christmas’” with its parties and wreaths and tacky lights, but rather observed “the Nativity of our Lord.” Well, I don’t suppose she hung a stocking, but had she, she would have gotten a well-deserved lump of coal.
Because the Nativity of Our Lord is a big, happy, mirthful mess. It calls forth at the same time silent awe and loudest praise, because heaven and earth are joined together in this little child, and the world is turned upside down. The Nativity is profoundly, richly, messily earthy rather than starkly and sedately spiritual: the child was born on the floor of a barn, after all; there were poor rustic shepherds imposing themselves on the just-delivered Mother and Child; myriads of shiny angels singing loudly. There was nothing particularly tasteful about it, but rather the Word became flesh, and the joy of the Lord exploding among us, and exploding the bounds of good taste.
This was brought home to me in a new and happy way this Advent. There is currently exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. a massive exhibit of Renaissance and Baroque depictions of our Lady called “Picturing Mary.” I haven’t been able to go and see it in person (yet!), but I’ve enjoyed looking at the catalogue online and reading about it.
The masterpieces exhibited cover all the themes of the Church’s Marian art and devotion we expect: Our Lady presents her Divine Son for our adoration, she gazes loving and adoringly at him in his manger, she nurses him. But in two of the works – a 14th century bas-relief sculpture and a 15th century painting – Jesus is held in his Mother’s lap, head thrown back and mouth wide with toddler giggles, and seems to be, as one observer put it, “fighting a losing battle against an onslaught of motherly tickles.” They are both, he said, “in an ecstasy of whimsy.”
These works capture and drive home in a wonderful way the reality of God’s all-the-way down, radically complete assumption of our true flesh-and-blood humanity to himself in Jesus Christ, the son of Mary who is God the Son. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and she tickled him. God takes on our human nature, heals and elevates it, so that all of our good things, even a Mother-and-Child tickle fight, can become “places where we encounter the Lord and his love.”
Gabriel Torreta*, a Dominican friar, pondered these rare depictions of our Lord and had this to say:
[They enable] the beholder to experience in a dim but real way the splendor of Christ’s perfect joy that is constantly hidden in plain sight in the Gospel texts. We can laugh with the giggling, writhing Christ-child because we know that this be-tickled body is the same body that he will offer freely out of love to go hungry, to walk all up and down Israel, to preach the good news, to heal the sick and the blind, to suffer injustice, to be scourged, to be crucified, to die. The same body that is Jesus’ on the cross is on display in these two lovely images; the same humanity is what makes both possible. And in the resurrection, this same body, this same humanity, has risen from the dead and has become all humanity’s path to heaven.
So let us rejoice. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. May the glad tidings of Jesus’ birth melt our hearts with joy and even laughter. And filled with joy of our Lord’s Nativity, of Christmas, may we all be more and more “to mirth inclin’d.”
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*This entire homily inspired by Torreta, here: http://www.dominicanablog.com/2014/12/10/did-the-virgin-mary-tickle-the-baby-jesus/
Also Jody Bottum here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/12/14206/