How often do we find ourselves caught up in the maddening pace of of the holidays doing everything we can to create the "perfect" Christmas for ourselves and our loved ones? Year after year we begin sometimes even before the Thanksgiving turkey has even cooled to insure that we won't miss a thing. Christmas cards need to go in the mail, (which ones are prettiest? --and don't forget to pick the right stamps!) the Christmas list must be written, (and fulfilled!) there are decorations to hang and a tree to be lit. Of course, it just wouldn't be Christmas without cookies, so we probably should bake about eight different kinds...five dozen of each ought to do it.
The to-do list seems endless. We want the right stocking stuffers and need some new clothes; there are parties, relatives, and don't forget the eggnog! Did I mention that some of us have volunteer commitments and full-time jobs while all of this is going on? If you are anything like me, it's hard not to become completely exhausted by the time Christmas day arrives. And yet, for all the gifts, the food and trappings, was Christmas really perfect?
Let me digress to a day that took place earlier this year before the Christmas rush began. I asked my parish priest one day how a person goes about tapping into that abundant grace that all of heaven has to offer. In other words, how does one become virtuous?
"Two things," he said. First, it's a matter of habit. If you practice virtue, you will become virtuous." (So far so good.)
"Second, you have to want it."
His words burned straight into my soul and have stayed with me ever since. Why? Because I and others like me probably have a lot of miles to go between where we are now and "virtue."
Even with the realization that "formation" is not just for the professionally religious, this virtue thing is pretty daunting. How does one become prudent and charitable? How do you keep the love of God in your heart day in and day out? And, just as in the answer to the old riddle, "How do get to Carnegie Hall?" the answer is, "Practice."
What this all has to do with Christmas is not clear quite yet, but we will get there, I promise.
Around this time of year there are a lot of low-budget Christmas movies shown on television, especially on the women's channels. They are always kind of schlocky, the girl always marries her sweetheart and everyone lives happily every after. Some of the stories have supernatural characters, like angels or elves with special powers to grant wishes, and all are dressed as ordinary folks, but magical things seem to happen whenever they are around. So I began to think, wouldn't it be great if you had a magical phone that texted you every time you were about to say the wrong thing or do something you shouldn't? Wouldn't it make a funny movie if, just when the leading lady was about to tell somebody off, she heard, "Bing!" and sees a text message. Sender "H.S." says, "Do you really want to do that?" So she stops and bites her tongue instead.
Fast forward to the next scene in our would-be Christmas flick. Our gal starts to boil when a stranger cuts the waiting line at the department store. "Bing!" It's H.S. just checking in again. She goes home and her kids act annoying. "Bing!" The dog is barking. "Bing!" Pretty soon it's "Bing! ... Bing! ... Bing!"
Of course the story is one of internal transformation, not unlike Dickens' A Christmas Carol or so many other tales involving mercy and redemption. What happens in this imaginary movie is that our primary character learns compassion. Pretty soon her special phone rings less and less, and little by little, the people that she loves start to love her back. The climax comes when she commits a terrible wrong, unintentionally of course, but is mercifully forgiven by those whom she loves. As the credits roll, the cell-phone is passed to a stranger who seems to be having a terrible, very bad day. Fade to black..The End.
In the real world my friend's bathroom has a sign that reads, "The Most Important Things in Life Aren't Things." The quote is attributed to a young motivational speaker named Anthony J. D'Angelo. So, if the most important things aren't things, what are? Are they people? Kind of, but not exactly. It is how we treat people that is important. And that includes ourselves.
So when Christmastime rolls around, we all start thinking about how great our house, our table, and our clothes need to look. We want to give the best presents (because that makes us look good) and we want to get the best presents (because that makes us feel good). But no matter what kind of show we put on at Christmas, it cannot magically transform us, not even for a day. The fact is, while we're sipping our eggnog and roasting our prime-ribs, we are still the frustrated, complaining people we are the other 364 days of the year. We just seem to hide it a little more for appearances sake.
What does the real perfect Christmas look like? What do you think would bring us contentment as we celebrate the birth of Christ? Do you know? What if, starting today, we began planning for our next "perfect" Christmas 365 days from now? What if we made a promise to ourselves and to God that we would show more mercy to the people around us each and every day? Could we make that a habit? Could we maybe just forget about ourselves and be the light that the next person needs? If we practiced compassion, understanding, and mercy each and every day, we would have much about which to rejoice when next Christmas rolls around. Our hearts would be thankful that the one who loved us showed us the way to love others, and that he showed us how to be loved in return.
To all my friends and family, I hope you have a very merry next Christmas and a blessed New Year!