For those of us who share — or try to share — Athanasius’s faith in the Incarnation of the Word, the world on Christmas Day can look like a highly charged place. If God’s action is not remote and distant, or localized in a special place, but abroad in the universe through the mysterious union of God and humanity, the whole crazy, kitschy apparatus of Christmas becomes a little easier to appreciate.
So by this view the ultimately Godless event would be something like the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints dismantling the hapless Minnesota Vikings 42-20. It’s low in cosmic significance and high in probability.
Natural and inevitable desires become a matrix into which the clumsy, inefficient reality of organic life gets plugged. The consequences of this development are ultimately more spiritual than political, as we risk becoming estranged and cut off from the physical world we have learned to use with such remarkable dexterity.
This is not to say, as politicians like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have recently suggested, that churches can step in to replace the social safety net. But in their own small, often invisible ways, local churches do something that I am tempted to call radical in our segmented, individualistic society: They ask us to bear with one another.
The denial of death and guilt has become useful to us, even necessary. Ash Wednesday stands out, then, as a brutally frank reminder of things we have halfway persuaded ourselves aren’t true — that our lives are brief and that we need grace. It’s a reminder people seem to crave. I’ve made empty churches echo with the news that God embraces and forgives, but when the day comes to be marked with the sign of mourning and repentance, the pews are suddenly full.
But public acts of penitence and the need to escape the snares of daily living weren’t always thought of as so trivial. For me at least, a show like “Celebrity Rehab” — along with its other charms — demonstrates just how far we’ve gone to recast many of the insights of the ancient Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions into the modern, secular terms of recovery.
While Mary’s circumstances are unique, her restoration to respectability is part of a larger trend. The gold-hearted prostitute of legend fit in rather well with a long scholarly tradition that located the followers of Jesus and the first Christian communities in the underclass of the Roman world. Christianity thrived, historians once argued, among the oppressed: slaves, landless laborers, women and people with disabilities. Lately this image of a lumpenproletariat church has been dramatically gentrified.
A colleague of mine, writing about the process whereby adults are received into the Catholic Church, reports that most people go through it for their spouse or spouse-to-be. But she has met others who have started inquiring about the church out of their battle with an addiction, or because they read a novel by Graham Greene at an impressionable age. People discover yearnings that they never learned a vocabulary to express; or they might need a new beginning, or a way to identify with something outside of themselves. Whatever you may think of those motives, they are perennial. Whatever you may think of the church, it has a ritual in which they can be given a place.
A child who grows up singing “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Away in a Manger” may be forgiven for imagining that nothing could be more delightful than to be born in a stable.
(Note: I wrote this column for The Daily in November 2011. It is no longer extant, so I am republishing it here). Black Friday kicked off the “holiday season” last week. The pumpkin-flavored pastries and beverages have already given way to eggnog and gingerbread, while lite-music radio will be in full Noel mode until Christmas. […]