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Have Yourself a Jarring Little Christmas

December 22, 2021


Ebenezer Scrooge was impervious to change. With a crusty visage spotted with age, the cantankerous Scrooge spat at charity, scowled at children, and scoffed at any goodwill within arm’s reach. “If I could work my will,” Scrooge fumed, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Scrooge, according to his creator Charles Dickens, “was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone . . . a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Little could engender kindness and wonder in this unforgiving miser—little except for time with ghosts over the witching hours of Christmas Eve. Before Christmas Day would dawn, the fortress that is Scrooge would be leveled. He would find himself cowering at a graveside before a black-robed spectre. “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life,” he begged. “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!” The “old sinner” knelt at the edge of redemption. Amazed and afraid, Scrooge was a transformed man.

Horatio had seen it all. Primped and polished, handsome and bright, he stood next to his dear, disheveled friend Hamlet trying to speak some sense into him. Unusually excitable, Hamlet (the Prince of Denmark) was jabbering feverishly—talking, then holding back, bringing Horatio into his confidence, then demanding he make an oath. Grimacing at behavior unbefitting a prince, Horatio coughed, “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.” But Horatio didn’t know. Hamlet had seen something and learned something that upended his world. The ghost of his deceased father, the King of Denmark, revealed to Hamlet his own murder at the hands of Hamlet’s uncle. Which shocked more? The ghost or the ghost’s truth? “O day and night,” fussed the unconvinced Horatio, “this is wondrous strange!” But Hamlet upbraided his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Thereafter, notwithstanding Hamlet’s odd behavior and grisly demise, Horatio would faithfully stand by his friend’s side. Amazed and afraid, Horatio was a changed man.

To be sure, these changes were not inevitable. After all, Scrooge and Horatio both had their preferred way of looking at the world. It was comfortable and familiar, not easily stirred. Both had asserted control over the facts of their life. The world operated in a predictable fashion as it should; anything that upset that predictability would begin as an annoyance but soon crescendo to a threat. In truth, Scrooge’s comfortable wealth and Horatio’s enlightened order didn’t provide pleasure so much as safety. But these men weren’t created for comfort and safety. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds, they were (like all of us), “made for greatness.” And it wasn’t until the inconvenience of ghostly visitors or rattled friends that both figures rose to (or were jarred into) their ultimate calling—Scrooge the dispenser of graces, Horatio the keeper of Hamlet’s tale.

As we enter the Christmas season, it is tempting to strive for little more than comfort and safety. It is easy to worship at the altar of a “predictable” (or, as Bishop Barron calls it, a “domesticated”) Christianity. It is “reasonable,” we rationalize, to have a tepid faith. Oh, we believe, but Christmas is time to relax, unwind, have a drink or two, and simply get to Mass at the appointed time. “Yes,” we tell ourselves, “there were shepherds tending sheep, a star over Bethlehem, and no room at the inn. And of course, there were hosts of singing angels, traveling wise men, and cattle lowing. And indeed, the Christ-child was born, and—oh, wait! Pass the eggnog! I think Home Alone 2 is about to begin!” This is no way to celebrate Christmas.

This is a season to be shaken and disturbed, to wonder and to marvel. When the story of God-made-man is properly considered—the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah on earth who will teach us, redeem us, and usher in the New Jerusalem—it is inconceivable that it could ever be blandly domesticated. Truly considered, Christmas is shocking. Just try to wrap your mind around it: the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Author of All deigned to assume flesh, enter history, and walk the earth with you and me for you and me. G.K. Chesterton marvels, “A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of cattle.”

Our reasonable minds have forgotten the miraculous wonder that transcends reason. Too often, like Scrooge and Horatio, we already have things figured out. We are safe and comfortable—why, then, upset a good thing? Chesterton tells us that the critic of our faith “condemns . . . something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true.” Think about that: even the critic is shocked enough about the claims of our faith that he is moved to condemn it. Nowadays, we don’t have the energy or interest to praise or condemn; we are just blithely sleepwalking through a God-haunted landscape.

In the CATHOLICISM series, Bishop Barron points to an oft-overlooked verse from the Gospel of Mark: “They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32). As Bishop Barron would explain, “One might be intrigued by a religious teacher, one might be captivated by a spiritual leader, but amazed and afraid? Then we recall that in the Old Testament, awe and fear are two standard responses to God.”

This dazzles me. Consider something you encounter that is so mysterious, so otherworldly, so fundamentally strange that it is downright frightening. It is not a fear that repels but an honest reckoning with the wondrous, a marveling at the ineffable nature of a God who loved us into existence. That is our faith. That is the story of Christmas. Fearsome and amazing. It took a windswept graveside and a reeling friend to jar, respectively, Scrooge and Horatio from their spiritual slumber.

This Christmas, what will it take for you and me?