I think the reason we love the Christmas season is because it evokes so many memories from our childhood, whether it’s playing board games, decorating the Christmas tree, singing carols, or just the excitement of a visit from Santa that sparks feelings of generosity and thankfulness in everyone. But doesn’t it seem like there was a bit more magic at Christmas time when we were kids? Things were much simpler too, but they were magical in their simplicity.
If you sense a fading of Christmas magic in your adult life, as I have at times, it can always be tested by looking at the traditions that we’ve held on to and continue year after year. And probably the most widespread and important tradition for us as Catholics is the reading of the Nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I remember learning those stories in elementary school and hearing them at Mass on Christmas Eve, and they were always so heart-warming. They were magical; at times I expected the figures in our Nativity scene to come to life.
There is something magical and simple about a child being born as Jesus was, in a humble setting watched over by his parents and, in Luke’s version that we heard this past Christmas, some local shepherds.
But, as I said, the magic and simplicity tend to weaken in potency as we enter our adult years. And I know I’m not the only person to notice it. G.K. Chesterton called it a loss of “elementary wonder.” “A child of seven,” he wrote, “is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” (Orthodoxy) As adults it takes much more than even a dragon to spark our sense of wonder, and even then you might succumb, as I often do, to a certain adult scepticism. It’s as if over time we grow immune to the power of wonder and magic.
Well, an interesting thing has been happening to me over the past few years. I’ve discovered a new, more profound sense of wonder in the same old Nativity stories. And I attribute it, not to a recovery of the childlike reading of Scripture of my past, but to a modern, scientific reading that our Church has adopted wholeheartedly in the last sixty years or so. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.” (CCC, 109) And following this, “The reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current.” (CCC, 110)
Countless volumes have been written as commentary on the Nativity stories by Catholic scholars, and I do not intend to offer a modern interpretation of them here. But this insistence on uncovering what the writers of the Gospels really wanted us to know about the birth of Jesus is both fascinating and challenging. As I listened to Luke’s familiar narrative at Mass on Christmas Eve a few weeks ago, I asked myself these questions: do I really know what Luke is telling us here? Am I familiar with the Church’s methods of interpreting the sacred Scriptures today? Am I missing the whole point of the story out of ignorance?
And suddenly I was struck by a profound sense of wonder at our two thousand year old Scriptural tradition. What an amazing thing the Word of God must be that its revelations are not static but rather perennially dynamic; that the Church, with all its rules and regulations, strict guidelines and careful assessments, does not try to impose limits on our understanding of Jesus and what his birth meant for the world. The Church is always drawing us deeper into the mystery through the tools of our day, tools that may even have been suspect only a few generations ago.
It seems to me that our sense of wonder must grow and develop with us. If we feel that the magic of Christmas has somehow been lost over the years, perhaps it is only a more profound invitation to know the Christ child more intimately, that is, more maturely. And if we accept that invitation and act on it intelligently, the magic of Christmas might return in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service