The Little Way of Christmas

Don’t miss the moments of enchantment at family gatherings

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Dr. Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the  President of the Preambula Group.

For families at Christmas time, the Church’s celebration of the birth of Jesus offers three moments of sublime enchantment in this life — that is, if we are paying close enough attention. The first is when we are little children and starstruck by the romantic wonder of Christmas Eve and morning. Assuming your family celebrated Christmas when you were a child, you probably recall the deep sense of marvel that bordered on the edge of mysticism. The lights, the presents, the special foods, the music and the gathering of family all came together to leave a deep impression on the soul.

On the surface, if I may speak on my own behalf, I was definitely excited about the presents, but the deeper significance of the celebration was not lost on me. My eyes were wide open and the apparent magic of it all stirred deep within my soul, leaving lasting impressions and memories I have not forgotten to this day. As soon as the weather turned, it was impossible not to look forward to Christmas from the first weeks of November. When it was over, it was difficult not to be let down.

Photo: Lightstock

The second great moment of enchantment is when, if we are so blessed, we get to create the same experience for our own children. Part of the draw is recreating for them the conditions we remember from Christmases past when we were little; except in the role of parent, one begins to discover the many little acts of love that were behind those childhood memories. All the work! Christmas is quite the production for parents but the key is for parents to recollect themselves enough during Advent to remember what it was like to be a child at Christmas.

Even more, to rise above the laboriousness of the Advent season, parents have to become children (as it were) and maintain the enthusiasm and joy that the run up to the celebration warrants. My mother always became very sick after Christmas — not a good thing. Yet now I know why; she expended a lot of energy to make Christmas wonderful and special for the family. When it was over, she was exhausted and worn down. It is a kind of birthing experience actually, to bear one’s children once again into the mystery and meaning of life. It is essential to a good life as an adult to see Christmas with the eyes of a child — full of wonder and promise.

The third moment is when grandparents get to watch their children replicate the wonder of Christmas for the grandchildren. Christmas joy is not only about the blessing a child receives in the presence of grandparents, but for the grandparents to watch their own children carry on the family traditions and allow childhood to reign continuously across generations. The joy children bring to grandparents is the free and joyful spirit of “littleness.” Children are unpretentious and free to love and express joy and excitement at the simple blessings of life. Somewhat less encumbered by the burden of the Christmas production, grandparents are relieved to hand it over to their children and once again experience through their grandchildren a kind of freedom to relish in the moment of spiritual childhood.

Photo: Lightstock

Christmas is thus all about the child and spiritual childhood. It is about being able to see life through the eyes of a child, to allow God to fill us with wonder and joy at the simple gifts he places under the tree of our life. Every morning we can awake to these gifts, open them up and find the true joy of our existence. Yet we have to have the disposition of a child to experience wonderment at those gifts and not take them for granted. St. Thérèse of Lisieux called spiritual childhood “the little way.”

The little way is the way of love, which we discover in the little acts of goodness we give or receive from others. Joy is not complicated, but so often we miss this profound truth, especially during advent and at Christmas time. Joy is simple. It arises when we have the open eyes and heart of a child to appreciate the little gifts of God that surround us — and just rejoice at them. Children have to show us — or remind us as adults — that spiritual childhood is the Way of Christian discipleship. As adults, we often have to resist the temptation to grumbling and self-martyrdom in the service of family. The call is always to build up family life with a generous and joy-filled attitude, especially during the holidays, which are meant to be “holy” days.

Photo: Lightstock

Christmas teaches us one of the most important lessons of life. To grow up and get “big,” we have to learn how to remain childlike and little. We have to cultivate the sense of life’s wonderment and mystery. No better way exists for doing this than to contemplate the gift of the child born to us in Bethlehem. We have to contemplate the mystery of God’s own infancy. The God of the universe came to us by the little way of childhood. Yet as adults, we tend to make life so complicated and too sophisticated; or we give up on child-like-ness altogether. Jesus entered the world as a little one and grew up in a family. In many other ways, God could have made his entrance into history. He chose this way of human childhood. As a baby, he reveals the deepest mystery of God’s love.

The divine love for humanity is completely free, uninhibited, generous, wide open and full of wonderment. It is enchanted, romantic and ecstatic. As a culture, we hang onto to these elements of the Christmas season and continue to celebrate them year after year because they speak to the deepest longings of the human heart. To love as a child and to be loved as a child of God — this is the mystery of human existence and the salvation we celebrate at Christmas. The Christ child is a revelation of our path to God. We have to be children of our Heavenly Father, that is, we have to be childlike in our relationship with our Father. This is the little way of Christmas and the meaning of following Jesus in our lives.

COMING UP: Transforming quarantine into retreat

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This bruising Lent, in which “fasting” has assumed unprecedented new forms, seems likely to be followed by an Eastertide of further spiritual disruption. What is God’s purpose in all this? I would be reluctant to speculate. But at the very least, the dislocations we experience – whether aggravating inconvenience, grave illness, economic and financial loss, or Eucharistic deprivation – call us to a more profound realization of our dependence on the divine life given us in Baptism: the grace that enables us to live in solidarity with others and to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

If we cooperate with that grace rather than “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), it can enable us to transform quarantine, lockdown, and the interruption of normal life into an extended retreat, a time to deepen our appreciation of the riches of Catholic faith. Dioceses, Catholic centers, and parishes are offering many online opportunities for prayer, thereby maintaining the public worship of the Church. Here are other resources that can help redeem the rest of Lent and the upcoming Easter season.

* Shortly before the Wuhan virus sent America and much of the world reeling, I began watching Anthony Esolen’s Catholic Courses video-lectures on the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve long admired Tony Esolen’s Dante translation and his lucid explanation of the medieval Christian worldview from which Dante wrote; and there was something fitting about watching Esolen accompany Dante and Virgil through hell during a hellish Lent. Professor Esolen’s explication of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise (also available from Catholic Courses) are just as appropriate these days, however. For the entire Comedy is a journey of conversion that leads to the vision of God; and that is precisely the itinerary the Church invites us to travel during Lent, as the Forty days prepare us to meet the Risen Lord at Easter and experience the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

* Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was arguably the greatest papal homilist since Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The March and April sermons in Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Cluny Media), help put the trials of this Lent and Eastertide into proper Christian focus.

* I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Two chapters (“The Crucified Messiah” and “Jesus and God”) in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press) make apt Lenten reading in plague time. The fifth chapter of that small book, “The Challenge of Easter,” neatly summarizes Dr. Wright’s far longer and more complex argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) and makes a powerful case for the historical reality of the Easter events. Like Wright, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s reflections on the empty tomb and the impact of meeting the Risen One in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press) underscore the bottom of the bottom line of Christianity: no Resurrection, no Church.

* Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is the greatest audio-visual presentation of the faith ever created. If you’ve never watched it, why not now?  If you have, this may be the time to continue with Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The New Evangelization (an exploration of how to put Catholic faith into action) and Catholicism: The Pivotal Players (portraits of seminal figures in Catholic history who did just that – St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo).

* Pope St. John Paul II’s centenary is the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of Easter: an anniversary worth celebrating, whatever the circumstances. The first 75 years of this life of extraordinary consequence for the Church and the world are relived in the documentary film, Witness to Hope – The Life of John Paul II. Liberating a Continent, produced by the Knights of Columbus, is a stirring video evocation of John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism – and a reminder, in this difficult moment, of the history-bending power of courage and solidarity.

* The Dominican House of Studies in Washington and its Thomistic Institute are intellectually energizing centers of the New Evangelization. The good friars are not downing tools because of a pandemic; rather, they’re ramping up. Go to thomisticinstitute.org to register for a series of online “Quarantine Lectures” and an online Holy Week retreat. At the same home page, you’ll find Aquinas 101, 52 brief videos that make one of Catholicism’s greatest thinkers accessible to everyone, free and online, through brilliant teaching and striking animation.

And may the divine assistance remain with us, always.