On Thursday I was out for the day finishing my Christmas shopping. If you remember it was an unseasonably mild day, close to 60 degrees. Throughout the day I heard people remarking on the temperature and many of them said because of the days’ mildness, “it doesn’t feel like Christmas.” That statement got me thinking, because I have heard it before. Sometimes, because particular events affect our preconceived notions about what we should feel like at Christmas, we say, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.” In fact I found myself thinking that it did not feel like Christmas as I was preoccupied checking football scores right up until the beginning of the 4:00 Mass on Christmas Eve. And after that game I am sure it doesn’t feel like Christmas for Jet fans. In a more serious way, I am mindful of some of the people I sent Christmas cards to in the last few weeks. We sent special Christmas cards to the families of those who last a loved one this year. Certainly people who have experienced a loss or are going through an illness or other difficulties may be saying it doesn’t feel like Christmas, because surrounding events have made this year less joyful for them. What then is Christmas supposed to feel like if the weather or more importantly the events of our lives can inhibited us from feeling what want to feel? What does Christmas feel like?
Prior to the procession to the altar at the beginning of Mass, I picked up some of the straw or hay from our manager. I did so because the hay and straw of the manager feel like Christmas. The straw is simple. It is one of the simplest things we can encounter in life, dried up grass, yet I could sit outside a peacefully play with a straw in my fingers, letting my thoughts wander. It was in this simplicity that mine and your savior comes to us. It is to simple and routine human existence that God is born. It was in a simple stable, to a simple man and women, in a simpler time, that the Messiah enters human history. So maybe it does not feel like Christmas because we have lost our sense of simplicity, our lives have become too complicated. We have so many technological things that are designed to make our lives simpler yet they seem to complicate them even more. The other day, Volkswagen announced that it would be turning off its email server during non-business hours so their employees would be free from the expectation of answering email 24 hours a day. Thank you, Volkswagen, for simplifying the lives of your employees. Christmas feels like a simple piece of hay, stray from a stable and if we wish for it to feel like Christmas we need to make our lives less complicated.
This straw also holds warmth. For the animals that rest in the hay, the heat of their bodies warms the straw and holds the warmth within it so the animals themselves may be kept warm. Christmas feels warm. Not the unseasonable warmth of the other day or the warmth created by a fireplace. But the warmth of love that abides within humanity. Christmas feels warm because of the loving presence of God who so loved the world he gave his only Son. To feel Christmas, we must allow ourselves to be the dwelling place of love as Mary herself does. It is our coldness to the stranger, the poor and marginalized that makes it feel less like Christmas. When cool indifference, judgmental temperaments and a lack of charity in word and deed exist in our world it cannot feel like Christmas, which celebrates the warmth of God’s love.
The straw and hay of the manger also feel rough and may even irritate the skin. One would not expect to get as good a night’s sleep on a pile of hay as you would on your adjustable sleep comfort mattress. Christmas feels rough like this hay. Not rough because of the family tensions that sometimes exist during the holidays. Nor is it the irritation that comes from the pressures we feel to get everything done at Christmas. Christmas feels rough and irritating because it calls us to be alert to the mystery unfolding. Mary and Joseph do not yet understand what the presence of the Shepherds or the others means but they are alert to them paying attention to what is happening because of the presence of this child. Our lives can become routine and lack feeling. We can become complacent about our discipleship. We accept temptation and a failure to sin as a part of life with no motivation to change. We are dull to the mystery that surrounds us. The roughness of the manger hay of Christmas calls us to an alertness that comes when we step outside of the false comfort zones we create.
What does Christmas feel like? It feels like simple, warm and rough straw. And it also feels like the new born child laying in that straw – and that child feels vulnerable. We know the vulnerability of a child and how scary it is to be that vulnerable. We are frightened by what our children are exposed to. We feel vulnerable ourselves when we hold that child. We may drop the baby or not be able to meet its needs. Christmas feels vulnerable because God himself takes on that vulnerability. And it cannot feel like Christmas if we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable; for it is only in vulnerability that we can truly receive the love, the wisdom and the hope that the birth of our Lord offers.
In our celebration of Christmas we pray that the vulnerable new born child may inspire us to live simply, abide in the warmth of love, and be awakened to the mystery of God’s presence.