In a sermon broadcast on the BBC on Dec. 25, 1950, Msgr. Ronald Knox observed that “we make a holiday of Christmas only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them.” In my case, the stairs in question led, not to a nursery, but to the children’s bedroom I shared with my brother at 1 Regester Avenue in the Baltimore suburb of Rodgers Forge. And down the stairs we slid, Christmas morning, to discover what had arrived (or, as we later learned, what had been assembled, often with the aid of my grandfather Weigel) the night before. The day that followed was one unmitigated happiness; and from the distance of more than half a century, I still remember the sweet sadness of Christmas night, brought on by the thought that it was now a full year until Christmas came ‘round again.
Msgr. Knox’s call to a recovered Christmas innocence may well ring more truly today than it did when he preached on the BBC the Christmas before I was born. Western culture, back then, had its cynics; but it was not awash in cynicism and irony, as it is today. And those two cultural markers—cynicism and irony—are grave impediments to receiving the Gospel and embracing friendship with the Lord Jesus as the defining commitment of our lives. Postmodernity proposes cynicism and irony as adult attitudes, signs of maturation beyond nursery innocence. The entire Christmas story, however, tells us that that’s not true.
There is neither cynicism nor irony in Mary’s reception of the angel Gabriel and her acceptance of the divine invitation to become the Theotokos, the “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” There was a question; there may have been fear; there certainly was wonder (all three are captured in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s magnificent painting, The Annunciation, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). But there was neither the cynic’s response (“Are you kidding me?) nor the ironist’s (“What did I do to deserve this?”).
There was neither cynicism or irony in the response of the shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” in the fields around Bethlehem. Here, too, there was innocent wonder, and an implicit act of faith in the divine purposes, however mysterious: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2: 8, 15).
One might have expected cynicism and irony from the Magi, the “sages” from the East. They were, after all, intellectuals; cynicism and irony are trademarks of full-up membership in the academic guild. Perhaps the Magi were untenured. Still, however learned they may have been, we find in them no soured world-weariness, no passion for demythologizing, no relativism, no self-absorption. Rather, the Magi, the first gentiles to acknowledge what Father Edward Oakes described as “infinity dwindled to infancy” seek, find, and pay homage—ignoring, along the way, the deceits of that arch-cynic and ironist, Herod the Great.
And there seems to have been neither cynicism nor irony in St. Joseph, too often the forgotten figure in the Christmas tableau. We may imagine him a virile, fatherly man, a skilled tradesman, a husband in love with the wife of his heart. He, too, responded with deep faith to instructions that might well cause others to lapse into irony, if not downright cynicism: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1.20-21); “”Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him” (Matt 2:13).
To “return to the nursery” at Christmas is not infantile. To “return to the nursery” is to re-experience the wonder of God in his search for us, in history.