Glen Argan: Birth of Christ offers a ‘new normal’

  • December 19, 2020

In a famous fifth-century sermon, St. Leo the Great preached that Christmas is a time for rejoicing. “Sadness should have no place in the birthday of life.”

Christmas was still a new liturgical feast at that time, unencumbered by the heavy weight of consumerism which has distorted its meaning today. No frantic gift buying, no long waits in crowded airports, no flurry of social events. Its meaning was pure.

In 2020, some believe the pandemic threatens to steal Christmas. Christmas-related spending — gifts, travel and entertainment — is predicted to drop from $1,593 a person to $1,104 in Canada, mostly due to a sharp decrease in travel. Canadians will not only be celebrating Christmas differently, many more than usual will spend the day alone.

When I was 22, I went to graduate school for two years in a distant part of the country. In the first months, I made many new friends, not only through the university, but also through my curling club. As Christmas neared, I received several invitations to Christmas dinner. I chose to spend a delightful evening with the family of a fellow curler.

The next Christmas was different. I was no longer new in town and people likely assumed that I had somewhere to spend Christmas. Alas, not a single invitation came my way. I spent Christmas Day alone in the house I shared with other students, all of whom had gone home. It was just the cat and me. I don’t think I have ever felt lonelier than on that day.

That experience has not left me. Until I married, I drove long distances in the bitter Prairie winter to spend Christmas with my parents in Regina. My mother annually invited to dinner people who would otherwise spend the day alone. Since Nora and I married, we have done the same whenever possible.

I was estranged from the Church when I had my solitary Christmas, but after returning to the Christian life, I began to experience the rejoicing which St. Leo said is integral to Christmas. Later, I thought more of Mary and Joseph for whom the birth of the Messiah brought estrangement from their tightly knit community.

Mary accepted to become the Mother of God knowing that as an unmarried pregnant woman she could face death by stoning. She gave birth to her son in a humble stable far from the support of her family. At least, she now had Joseph as her husband,

Joseph too would have faced disbelief and ridicule when he chose Mary as his bride since she was with child … and not by him. When King Herod got word that a future king had been born, the Holy Family fled into exile for several years in a strange land.

In comparison with the turmoil that Christmas brought to Mary and Joseph, my solitary Christmas was a mosquito bite.

Of the Incarnation, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “When God suddenly appears in Christ, the ground is taken from under us; this is something to which we can only respond with ever greater humility and renunciation, more and more simply and vulnerably, increasingly unveiling our nakedness and poverty.”

This, we can hope, will become the New Normal for celebrating Christmas. It may seem like an outlandish hope, that Christmas will become a festival of humility and renunciation. I am not sure that I want to buy into that myself. But this year’s pandemic-stricken Christmas gives us an opportunity to move in that direction.

Most Canadians likely do not want Christmas to be the season of “unveiling our nakedness and poverty” and to do so with rejoicing. Still, many are unhappy with the annual orgy of consumerism. Such discontent provides a small opening for suggesting that the birth of the Son of God should be the central focus of our celebration.

In his homily of long age, St. Leo urged Christians: “Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh.” Those urgings should be just as compelling today. Personal desolation is one prospect of the crisis of the pandemic. Better that we seize the opportunity it offers — to throw off our old nature and come to birth in Christ.

(Argan lives in Edmonton.)

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