Each year, as we move toward Christmas, a friend of mine puts together a list of his favorite Christmas songs. Every year it's the usual mix of Silent Night, The Shepherds' Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem things like that. But every year he also includes Dr. Elmo's great Christmas classic, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.
The lyrics go like this:
Grandma got run over by a reindeer,
Walking home from our house, Christmas Eve;
You can say you don't believe in Santa,
But as for me and Grandpa we believe.
I finally asked him why he puts this song on his list. He said, "For the pagans. A little belief is better than none at all."
I haven't been able to get this song out of my head partly because it's so goofy, but also because it raises a couple of questions. Who really owns Christmas? The pagans? The Christians? Toys-R-Us? The ACLU? Why are we supposed to be happy this month? And what exactly are we celebrating?
Let me answer the questions this way.
The Louvre Museum in Paris holds about 35,000 pieces of art from the 14th to the 20th centuries. And one of the most beautiful collections in the Louvre is the paintings of the Middle Ages.
Medieval art is Christian art. One reason for that is obvious. The Church had the influence and the resources to pay for great art. Another reason is that the political leaders of that age shared that same Christian faith. So did the people. And so did the artists. As a result, paintings from the Middle Ages combine beauty, simplicity and faith in a very powerful way.
Most Medieval art tried to do two things: touch the heart with its beauty and teach the mind with its story. It opened a window on the Bible to people who couldn't read. The recurring scenes in Medieval art are events like the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Birth of Christ, the Gift of the Magi, the Baptism in the Jordan, the Temptation in the Desert, Judas' Kiss, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The paintings had power not just because they were ways of teaching the faith. They had power because they connected the human condition with Christian hope and Christian purpose.
We're born, we grow, we suffer, we die. So do the people we love. Do our lives mean anything? And if they do, what do they mean? These are the questions that really matter to all of us. They mattered even more urgently to people with shorter life spans 700 years ago. Medieval art is about birth, growth, suffering, death and the hope of new life, all viewed through the person of Jesus Christ. It's about God. But it's also about us as human beings because Jesus Christ is not only God; he's also human.
When a Medieval artist painted Pilate showing a beaten and bloody Christ to the mob with the words ecce homo "behold the man" he spoke to the suffering of every man and woman who viewed the painting. That's the genius of the Gospel and the art it inspires. Christian art is about the dignity of the human person loved and redeemed by God. It's about meaning.
Some of you may be thinking, if Medieval art was such a big deal, how come nobody does it anymore? That's a fair question. I have a one-word answer: perspective. It's an interesting word, "perspective." It comes from the Latin verb perspicere, which means, "to see clearly."
In art, perspective is the technique of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. Medieval painters didn't know how to do this.
Starting in the 14th century, painters began figuring out how to put depth of field in their work. They learned how to create the illusion of a round apple on a flat piece of canvas. It's basically a math problem with horizon lines and vanishing points.
Within a hundred years, every painter used the new perspective techniques in his work. Nobody painted the old way. And very soon nobody looked at or experienced a painting the same way. There was a different perspective.
Seven hundred years ago, a painter might take months or years to finish a scene like the Nativity. Seven hundred years later, a teen-ager of our time can do a three-dimensional, photo-realistic image of the same scene in a few hours with a free piece of software called Blender 3D. But their perspectives are not at all the same.
The word "perspective" has two different meanings. It's not just a technique in art. It also means our frame of reference. It's our basic way of looking at people, ideas and events. Our perspective not only shapes how we understand the world; it also reveals a lot about what we believe and who we choose to be.
Here's the point. As we finish 2006, we know a lot more than we did 700 years ago. We eat better. We live longer. We have nicer clothes. We own more stuff. But are we happier? Are we wiser? Do our lives have more beauty and harmony and meaning? Are we more humane with each other?
Our perspective on the world has changed in fundamental ways. But is the soul of modern life any deeper or holier? Given the wars and injustices of the last century, we'd better think very carefully before we answer.
I believe that Americans are a blessed people. Most of us believe in God. We go to church at higher rates than any other developed country. We still work hard. We still have a deep love of family and personal integrity. And most of the good things we have, we've labored honestly to earn.
Americans enjoy more freedom, more mobility, better education, better career choices and better medical care than any other country in history. We have more personal wealth. We have more leisure time. We have a society genuinely based on law that at least tries to ensure justice for everybody. And in science, technology, commerce and military power, the United States has no equal.
But Americans also have a growing inequality of wealth, education and opportunity. We face a decline of ideas and public service; growing moral ambiguity; a spirit of entitlement with rights exalted over responsibilities; a cult of personal consumption; and a civic vocabulary that seems to get more brutish and more confused every year.
This last point about our civic vocabulary is important. The language we use in public discourse matters. Words are like a paintbrush. They're a very powerful tool. They can form or deform the human conscience.
Words like "tolerance" and "consensus" are important democratic working principles. But they aren't Christian virtues, and they should never take priority over other words like charity, justice, faith and truth, either in our personal lives or in our public choices.
Here's another word: choice. Choice is usually a good thing. But it's never an end in itself. Choice is worthless in fact, it's a form of idolatry if all the choices are meaningless or bad.
Here's another word: pluralism. These days pluralism usually serves as a codeword for getting Christians to shut up in the public square out of some misguided sense of courtesy. But pluralism is just a demographic fact. It's not an ideology. And it's never a valid excuse for being quiet about our key moral convictions.
Here's another word: community. Community is more than a collection of persons. Community requires mutual respect, a shared future, and submission to each other's needs based on common beliefs and principles. It's not just an elegant name for an interest group. Talking about the "abortion-rights community" makes as much sense as talking about the "big tobacco community."
Here's another couple of words: the common good. The common good does not mean the sum of what most people want right now. The common good is that which constitutes the best source of justice and happiness for a community and its members in the light of truth. The common good is never served by killing the weakest members of a community. It's also not served when the appetites and behaviors of individual members get a license to undermine the life of the wider community.
Finally, let's take one more word: democracy. Democracy does not mean putting aside our religious and moral beliefs for the sake of public policy. In fact, it demands exactly the opposite. Democracy depends on people of character fighting for their beliefs in the public square legally, ethically and non-violently, but forcefully and without apology. Democracy is not God. Only God is God. Even democracy stands under the judgment of God and God's truths about human purpose and dignity. The passengers in a car can democratically elect to go in the wrong direction. But they're still just as dead with or without a majority opinion when they go over a cliff.
The fallout from this confusion in the language of American life can be summed up in five trends: first, the rise of an unhealthy individualism among citizens; second, growing tribal warfare among interest groups; third, more and more cynicism toward public life and service; fourth, a decline in democratic involvement; and fifth, image over substance in public debate, which results in politics as a kind of cynical sound-bite management.
In recent years, some people in both political parties would like to blame the conflicts in American public life on religious believers. The argument goes like this. Religion is so powerful and so personal that whenever it enters public life in an organized way, it divides people. It repels. It polarizes. It oversimplifies complex issues. It creates bitterness. It invites extremism. And finally it violates the spirit of the Constitution by muddling up the separation of Church and state that keeps Americans from sliding into intolerance.
The same argument goes on to claim that, once they're free from the burden of religious interference, mature citizens and leaders can engage in reasoned discourse, putting aside superstition and private obsessions to choose the best course for the widest public. Because the state is above moral and religious tribalism, it can best guarantee the rights of everyone. Therefore a fully secularized public square would be the adulthood of the American Experiment.
That's the hype. Here's the reality.
First of all, key differences exist between public institutions which are simply nonsectarian, and today's secularist ideology. Everybody can live with the former. No Christian in his or her right mind should want to live with the latter. Whenever you hear loud fretting sparked by an irrational fear of an Established Church, somebody's trying to force religious believers and communities out of the public discussion of issues.
Second, the American Experiment more than any other modern state is the product of religiously shaped concepts and tradition. It can't survive for long without respecting the source of that tradition. A fully secularized public life would mean policy by the powerful for the powerful because no permanent principles can exist in a morally neutral vacuum.
Finally, secularism isn't really morally neutral. It's actively destructive. It undermines community. It attacks the heart of what it means to be human. It rejects the sacred while posturing itself as neutral to the sacred. It ignores the most basic questions of social purpose and personal meaning by writing them off as private idiosyncrasies. It also just doesn't work in fact, by its nature it can't work as a life-giving principle for society. And despite its own propaganda, it's never been a natural, evolutionary, historical result of human progress.
Certain beliefs have always held Americans together as a people. Christianity and its Jewish roots have always provided the grounding for our most important national principles, like inalienable rights and equality under the law. But as a country, we're losing the Founders' perspective on the meaning of our shared public life. We have wealth and power and free time and choices and toys but we no longer see clearly who we are. Material things don't give us meaning. We're in danger of becoming the "men without chests" that C.S. Lewis talked about in The Abolition of Man people sapped of their heart, energy, courage and convictions by the machinery they helped to create. And if we can't find a way to heal that interior emptiness, then as an experiment in the best ideals of human freedom, America will fail.
I began by talking about Christmas. Who owns it? Why are we supposed to be happy? What are we really celebrating?
Good will, joy, peace, harmony, the giving of gifts these are beautiful and holy things deeply linked to Christmas. But not to Santa Claus. And especially not to a politically correct, secular Santa Claus. Joy is not generic. Good will needs a reason. We don't suddenly become generous because the radio plays Jingle Bells.
Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is the messiah of Israel, the only Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. We believe that He was born in poverty in Bethlehem in order to grow and preach God's kingdom, and suffer, die and rise from the dead all for the sake of our redemption, because God loves us. Christmas is a feast of love, but it's God's love first that makes it possible. Christmas begins our deliverance from sin and death. That's why St. Leo the Great called it the "birthday of joy." What begins in the stable ends in our salvation. That's why we celebrate Christmas, and it's the best and only reason the human heart needs.
Catholics observe these last few weeks every year before Christmas as the season of Advent. It's a time when the Church asks us to prepare our lives to receive Jesus the child at Christmas, and Jesus the king at the end of time. How can we best do that? The tradition of the Church tells us by vigil and by prayer.
The season of Advent is a vigil. The word "vigil" means to keep watch during normal sleeping hours, to pay attention when others are sleeping. It comes from a very old Indo-European word "weg ", which means "be lively or active." So to keep vigil or to be vigilant does not mean passive waiting but active, restless waiting, expectant waiting for the Lord. It means paying attention to what is going on in the world around us, and not being asleep. It means acting, living out our mission to be God's agents in the world.
Every truly Christian life is a kind of martyrdom, because what martyr means is witness. That's our task a life of conscious, deliberate witness for Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith, in our families, our friendships, our business dealings and our public actions. When Jesus said, "make disciples of all nations," and "you will be my witnesses," He didn't mean the guy down the road. He was speaking to you and to me.
The Advent tradition of the Church is vigil and prayer.
There are two places in the New Testament 1st Corinthians and Revelation where we find a prayer in the Aramaic language, the Semitic dialect spoken by Jesus. Since this prayer is in Aramaic it must come from the very earliest days of the Church. The prayer is "Marana tha" and means "Lord, come!"
St. Augustine tells us that God is indebted to us, not because of anything we have done, but because of His promises. God always keeps His promises. So we call on Him to come again.
Our Advent prayer is "Lord, come!" Lord, come into our world!
Lord, come into our lives!
Lord, come and purify our longings!
Lord, come to free us from our compulsions and sins! Lord, come into our relationships! Lord, come into our work!
Lord, come into our sufferings!
And into the darkness of our troubled world.
We speak these words "Marana-tha " with a real and confident urgency, not only for ourselves and our personal lives, but also for our Church and our nation.
Earlier I mentioned the power of perspective in painting, and the power of perspective in our lives. I hope the meaning of that word stays with you in the coming days of Advent perspicere, "to see clearly."
Twelve months ago, on Christmas Day, Pope Benedict XVI published his first encyclical. He called it Deus Caritas Est "God is love." Here's a line from it that I want to share with you as I close: "The Christian program the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus is `a heart which sees.' This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly" (31, b).
Being faithful to your spouse and family; defending the unborn child; helping the poor; visiting the sick; respecting the immigrant; protecting the dignity and meaning of marriage; working for justice; leading with character this is the Christian program, the result of hearts which see.
What I ask God to give to you and to me, to our nation and to our Church this Christmas, is the one gift that really does matter: hearts that see, and see clearly.
God grant all of us a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas.
This item 7324 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org