IT IS THAT TIME OF YEAR
IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR
by Father Michael Massouh
Wonder! You can see it in the eyes. In the eyes of children in particular, but also in the eyes of adults. What is this wonder? Why, with the cynicism and crassness of today’s world, do people suspend reason, and hope that the myths and the fantasies come true.
Wonder? Yes, wonder. The ability to wish, to hope, to realize childhood fantasies, to want to make the world a better place, to want people to treat each other as people — as God’s children.
Wonder. It’s a powerful phenomena. I saw it in the eyes of a grown woman in the choir of a church in Upstate New York. When she marched in with the choir to take her seat in the front of the church, there was a look on her haggard face that this was just another obligatory Christmas Eve service to get through, and get back home to complete the final preparations for her children the next day. It looked like she was unhappy and tired, having put in a full day of unsatisfying work at the office. Singing tonight was just one more chore she had to endure.
She was attractive, blond hair and striking features, but her face looked drained. Her life did not look particularly easy nor plentiful. The blond hair had not been coiffured into some beauty shop sensation. She obviously had not time for the beauty shop nor time to waste on herself. She sat through the early part of the service, sang the appointed hymns, and then waited while the priest made introductory remarks before his sermon.
There was, however, something special in the air that night. The rustling of children anticipating Christmas, coughs and paper shuffling noises from the adults. Candles glowing from every pew. And the priest was joyful. It was his first Christmas Eve service at this church, so very few parishioners had an idea of what he would say or do.
He began with a reading from Scriptures, from Isaiah, and then Luke. But, then he asked all the children to come forward and sit with him as he completed the readings. He then asked the children in turn what they thought about the readings and what they were looking forward to the next day.
As each child responded there was an anticipation, a youthful innocence, a glow that became contagious. Each hardened adult sensed it, and began to smile, to engage in the wonder, yes the wonder of the Christ Child, and the wish to believe that it was indeed true that He was born into the world just as the Scriptures said.
The hardened blond lady in the choir began to engage in the mood of the sermon and the children’s responses. Her eyes became alert, and opened with, yes wonder. As each child answered the priests question, or said something innocent that touched a nerve in the adults, it brought a chuckle or a hearty laugh to the congregation, and a smile to the blond lady’s face. You could see her recall her own childhood, when she possessed the innocence of these children, when she believed, when times were better.
What is there about the story of the Christ child that awakens wonderful thoughts in children and adults? Or, what about the story of Santa Claus?
Now here is a 19th Century account of a traveling St. Nick with flying reindeer. Before the Reverend Clement Moore wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas as a poem to entertain his daughter, St. Nicholas was the beloved Bishop of Myra in third Century Christendom. He was beloved because of his generosity, of helping people unobtrusively. His feast day in the church is celebrated on December 6th and he did bring gifts to people at night without their knowing it. So, there is a connection between Clement Moore’s St Nick filling each stocking and the third Century bishop St. Nicholas leaving gifts unobtrusively in empty shoes.
Now, the St. Nick of Clement Moore has become the Santa Claus of commercial downtown, uptown, and mall North America. He and his many variants, both human and animal, are the subject of TV specials in December. His reindeer are imbued with all sorts of peculiar powers. Even the movies have taken Santa to their hearts or at least to their pocketbooks. Whether Hollywood continues the beneficence or introduces malevolence into the legend, Santa reigns. Occasionally, he may not be mentioned explicitly, but Hollywood releases movies for the Holiday Season whose themes are wonder, fantasy, hope, or a return to childhood innocence. WHY?
Is it because we want to believe in the wonder of miracles? Do we want to hold onto innocence? The grown-up world we inhabit is not a pleasant place. People are uncaring. Economic reality hurts. It is hard. The political system, whether in this country or anywhere in the world, is tarnished and corrupt. It does not help people; on the contrary it demands a great deal — putting up with politicians, taxes, service and perhaps death in the armed forces, and other not so pleasing duties.
So, it’s that time of year when the world falls in love, when it tries to recall a better way, a better time, a better future. Houses, stores, churches, schools, offices are decorated. People go out of their way to act like people should to each other, to capture the innocence of childhood and forget the realities of the harsh world, and to wonder. Families get together, special arrangements are made to gather the clan from as far and near as necessary. It is also a time to take stock of ones life and measure it against enduring standards, to recall friends and good times, and to hope that the world will enjoy peace among all men.
Wonder. Did you ever wonder about wonder? Why is it so captivating? I remember a lecture that an emeritus professor of mathematics gave. Dr. Elbert Clark was reputed to be one of the first mathematicians to understand the theories and implications of Albert Einstein’s work. He was a legend on the small liberal arts campus, and as juniors some of us decided to invite him to speak to us at a student sponsored dinner. The dinner was a way to repay the faculty who had been so kind to us over the year, being available for endless questions about ourselves and the cosmos, inviting us to their homes or apartments for tea or for dinner, and just being supportive. Each junior was to invite his or her favorite professor and pay for themselves and their guest’s dinner. At this high affair it was felt that it should end with sherry and a talk from one of the faculty. What better choice than Dr. Clarke.
Dr. Clarke was tall and lanky with long white hair. He stooped, perhaps more from a lifetime of leaning over to hear students than from old age. His eyes darted from one person to another. No one, not even the organizers, knew what his topic was going to be. We had asked him to make appropriate remarks for such an occasion. He began by thanking us for the dinner and for the conversations, and then in more of a conversational tone than in a formal lecture style he began to speak of wonder.
Wonder, he said, was the thing that kept him young. As much as he had read and studied, and as much as he had thought about the world, the heavens, the theories of the universe, and about people, he was struck by the wonder of it all. He asked us to maintain always a place for wonder in our lives. There were matters that were still unknown in science and mathematics and about the physical world. As far as human beings were concerned, not much was known at all. And of the things that were known, it was amazing to discover the relationships and interrelationships that existed. The order of the universe, the relationship of elements, the ways of the seasons, the biological adaptations — all of these were wonders, suggesting the unknown, some mystery of life.
Wonderful, being full of wonder. In our day to day world there is very little time to be full of wonder. Being full of wonder is no way to get the daily job and chores done, or to get ahead. So, we suspend our sense of wonder, it’s not realistic, it’s not grown-up. We bury our sense of the unknown, of the mystery of life, to get through the day, the week, the month, and the year. But, at the end of the year when we cannot bear to deny the sense of wonder any longer, we have an acceptable rationale to be young at heart, to be kids again, to be innocent, to engage in fantasy, in mystery. At the beginning of winter, during the shortest days of the year when the nights are the longest, when it is cold and dark, when the tax year ends, when we are at our wits end, we have a reason to celebrate, to unwind, to forget our cares and woes, to suspend the rules of the daily game. And so we watch the Nutcracker, the Christmas stories, the Santa shows, and listen to Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Ahmal and the Night Visitors, and all other stories that promise a sense of adventure, of fantasy, of disbelief, and of caring.
Adults say all this is for the kids. But, I wonder. It is as much for the grown-ups as it is for the kids. At what other time of year can one decorate the house, or the office, or have parties, and exchange gifts without having to explain why one is spending money foolishly? At what other time of year can one be kind to another person without everyone wondering what’s up? At what other time of year are mistakes and slip-ups overlooked?
Yes, there is a sense of wonder, as Dr. Clarke said. that requires exercise. We need wonder like we need food and drink. It is a part of being human. But, where do we look for the wonder? In man-made stories and fantasies? Are they satisfying? I am reminded of St. Paul addressing the Athenians about their monument to an unknown god. The Athenians believed there was an unknown god in addition to all the other ones that they knew. It was St. Paul who pointed out to them that this unknown god was the creator of the universe and the Maker of all things, including the Athenians. And, further that His Son, the Christ, was born of a Virgin, crucified, and rose from the dead. Christ is the reason for the Season.
Speak about wonder? One of His names is Wonderful! Another is Counselor. Think about it, is it not a wonder that God gave us mortals His only begotten Son to teach us about caring for each other and to know that God is Our Father? Have you ever wondered where would we be as modern people if that event had not taken place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago? Still in a state of confusion wondering about which Greek god to appease and attempting to satisfy all of them? We would possess the Ten Commandments to guide us, but no Sermon on the Mount, no parables. How discouraging and hopeless. So, Christ coming into the world has made a positive and hopeful difference.
The stories of Creation, of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are real wonders and mysteries. They are the basis for fantasies of the Christmas season. They are true. Why do we look to man-made stories for inspiration and for indulging our need for wonder? What repels us from looking to the Father as the source of all wonder not just at Christmas time, but throughout the entire year?
Why expect a Santa to fulfill all desires, and to hope that reindeer fly? Why engage in thoughts about a talking snowman or a red nosed reindeer, when the wonders of God are as near as our hearts? When guardian angels and the seraphim and cherubim watch over all of us? Why do we deny the reality of the Christ child, but accept and hope that a Santa visits each house once a year?
It’s that time of year when the world falls in love. Shall we think of falling in love with God and having Christmas throughout the year? Would it not be a better world if we put into practice our suspension of the rules at Christmas time each day of the year? Think about it. It’s that time of year to wonder.