Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Crying Shame: the Irony is Lost on Some

Irony is a delightful juxtaposition of one’s expectations and the reality of what actually occurs. Usually the two parts of the juxtaposition are opposites. To quote Alanis Morissette, it’s “ten thousand spoons, when all you need was a knife.” Understanding the opposition is the key to unlocking the irony of the situation. If one doesn’t see the opposition, the irony is lost. Paradox is a sort of irony, in that the reality is opposite of the seemingly logical conclusion. As Christians, we believe fundamentally in a paradox, namely that God became Man. This hypostatic union confounds our most basic common sense. It is a divine paradox, a “stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (I Corinthians 1:23).

At Christmas, Catholics everywhere come to witness this very paradox, at a celebration of nothing less than the Lord’s Death and Resurrection. To be blunt, the birth of the eternal God-Man, the Omnipotent becoming a little baby, is celebrated in the context of his bloody Crucifixion. If that isn’t confusing and ironic, what is? St. Thomas Becket discusses this very topic at length in the eternal words penned by T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral... it's worth the read. For Becket, the paradox of death and birth is the core of sanctification and the Christian mystery. So also for St. Athanasius, who wrote in De Incarnatione, “God became man, so that man might become God” (quoted in CCC 460). He was speaking about the divine life which God offers to us through Jesus, the God-man. Anything less than the paradox of the God-man quickly slides into heresy; and heresy is ultimately unfulfilling because it is false.

All of this is really rich for those who know and believe it. But what about those who don’t? Christmas is a time when family and friends who have fallen out of “practice” to return to church, sometimes after a long absence. For parish liturgy to work for these folks, they will need some education to understand the opposites that make up the paradox. Eternal God, per omnia saecula saeculorum, needs to be thoroughly divine, serene, unchanging, timeless, and perhaps even severe. It should seem categorically impossible that God the Creator should come down and enter his own creation. Simultaneously, the Infant Christ needs to be very much a real, live, pooping, and crying baby, with parents facing challenges of foreign oppression, an annoying census, a ruling power hell-bent on killing babies, and no place to stay except some lousy barn with a bunch of animals. In other words, the circumstances of Jesus’s birth must in some way connect with our own human experience, and simultaneously “this little babe, so few days old, come to rifle Satan’s fold,” must wield all of the forces of heaven ("New Heaven, New War" Richard Southwell, SJ).

Now I shall ruffle some feathers: Solemnity and tradition do not necessarily reveal their own secrets, especially for the newbie and the unchurched. In particular, the paradox of the God-man – the central mystery of Christmas – doesn’t teach itself. The weakest demographic in this regard are those who know enough to come at Christmas and Easter, but not enough to come back each Sunday. In other words, the irony of Christmas is lost on some, and it’s not necessarily their fault. Pastors, organists, choirs, altar servers, and cantors all bear the responsibility to be both apostles and teachers, making the richness of our Catholic tradition – and its object – known and loved. It is our job to make present the fullness of the divine paradox, to allow the delicious irony of God-made-man to ooze into the nooks and crannies of our little souls and stretch them until God’s greatness can dwell there. What could be better? So, don’t be shy to hold the baby, and to adore God; to laugh, and to listen in silence; to forgive, and to forge new beginnings in the still-hot embers of yesteryear. If someone at your Christmas celebration is clueless and alone, introduce them to the divine Host. And, from all of us at NLM—dare I say it while it is still Advent—a very Merry Christmas!

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