That Little Moment of Magic
The stage is filled with singing children. It's the annual Christmas pageant at my son's school. Last year was his first pageant performance, and it was an eye-brimming tearfest to watch my five-year-old belt out holiday tunes. This year, I'm not quite as moved. Oh, it's pretty hilarious: you should see the elementary-aged kids wiggle their bodies in a Herculean effort to hit the Fa-la-la high notes in "Deck the Halls." If they undulate vigorously enough, they just might manage the ballast to spurt out the appropriate notes. They fail, but not for lack of trying. It's ennobling, too, to see them simply survive an entire rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." There should be a support group for people who reach the conclusion of that song. I notice the tight web of surveillance in the auditorium. Dozens of parents are staring through the cycloptic eye of their recording devices, immortalizing the evening. I left my Cyclops at home, opting for raw, naked reality.But it's hard to feel anything -- I mean anything deeply. I feel ambushed by Christmas again, just as I do each year, and so my resentment and cynicism take root. What with all the hyperbolic hoopla associated with Christmas, you'd think it came around about as often as, say, Halley's Comet. But, no, it's merely an annual event, a yearly brush with madness. Of course, you know what I mean. You struggle with this too.Or perhaps you don't. My mother, for example, belongs to a mysterious cult called "The Christmas Club," and for some reason she never seems to be terribly stressed out by the holidays. She has her presents together by the time the leaves change color. By Christmas, her baking is completed, her house is ship-shape, her countenance calm. Not so for me. I'm stupid about presents, procrastinating until late in the buying season, shuffling through stores like a somnambulist. My eyes go buggy after awhile; I can't even see what's on the shelf, let alone make a studied decision. Once again, I'm engulfed in the commercialism of Christmas.I think back to the Days of Yore, the era of Jesus' birth. What would have happened had there been room at the Inn? You know, the inn where Joseph and Mary encountered the flashing "No Vacancy" sign. Ponder it. Had there been room, there would have been no need for a manger, and so the system of symbols surrounding the birth of Jesus would be wholly transformed.We would be celebrating a very different holiday, one without farm animals surrounding the event. Sequestered in their cozy little bed-and-breakfast, Joseph and Mary might have missed the super nova in the sky altogether. The Three Wise Men bearing their heaping frankensteins of myrrh might have been a casualty as well. Perhaps the innkeeper wouldn't have allowed them entrance; perhaps the Wise Guys would have split in a huff.Our creches would be dioramas of comfy beds, end tables with candles, perhaps a Gideon Bible, room service attendants, a brandspanking new crib for the lad, and paintings of bucolic landscapes hanging on the wall. In short, the symbols of Christmas would have a distinctly commercial character.It strikes me that the story of Jesus Christ has always been about this combat with commercialism. That's the whole point of the manger thing. Jesus was born outside of the commercial sphere. And in his day, the war between the spiritual and material was being waged -- in politics, in society, in the hearts of men and women. That's in part why they needed the idea -- and reality -- of Jesus.Christmas is both medium and message. This struggle with the commercial aspect of Christmas is not just a pesty adjunct to the holiday, after all -- it's the very heart of the process. How can we, as consumers, see through the lunacy?Each year, the Christmas theophany awaits like a snake in the grass. You don't experience the magic while shopping at the megastore or opening a present. If you're lucky, you catch it in the smile of a child, an ember in the fire, a blinking light on a Christmas tree. The Christmas pageant children are singing "Away in a Manger," and I catch the phrase, no crib for a bed. These are the angel-voices and bright eyes of children who believe in the Santa thing, the Jesus myth. They sing their hearts out for goodness, light and, yes, that coveted toy. Here they are, I'm thinking, more foot soldiers in culture's material army.Then I look and listen more closely. Suddenly, perhaps by accident, the singers have fallen into the same key. Concentrating on their director, the children's faces reflect the multi-colored stage lights. The parents are peering around their cyclops, beaming at the innocence before them. "Away in a Manger" has never sounded so sweet.The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. That creeping feeling approacheth, the Christmas theophany, that little moment of magic.