There certainly is much that’s wonderful about this time of year: visits with family and friends, holiday parties, gift-giving, special foods and traditions. But it should be said that Williams’ song takes a pretty optimistic view. Many people struggle to endure this time of year, whether it’s handling all of the hustle and bustle, or because of personal experiences and memories that are difficult for them. Even for those of us who enjoy Christmas generally may find ourselves struggling to be merry. Our lives are still complex and challenging, and while we value the chance to celebrate with loved ones, the problems that we face don’t simply disappear.
Even in our religious context, there is much about Christmas that is difficult to bear. The Nativity scene that we see in our churches and on our mantles seems peaceful… only if we forget that it is a depiction of a young couple forced to give birth to a son in squalid conditions and out amid the elements. The angels praise and the Magi come to pay respect to the newborn King… whose authority will be rejected by his own people and whose person will be tortured and executed by the worldly powers of the day. The feast of Christmas is quickly followed by those of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents… reminders that the birth of Jesus led directly to the deaths of many others.
The Nativity (1892) by Gari Melchers
So what is the Good News of this day? If there is so much in ruins in the world in general and in our personal lives, where is the cause for joy that the Church tells us should be in our hearts this season? It’s not the consumerism and schmaltz that makes up so much of the modern “Christmas” mentality. It’s not the holiday parties and merrymaking and gift-giving that occupy our time. It’s not even the fact that we usually spend this time visiting with or at least communicating with the people important to us. Rather our Christmas joy is rooted in a sense in a recognition of our own faults and failings, in our brokenness and messiness as human beings, and that despite all of that, God entered into our reality – he desired to share it, despite our flaws, that he might transform us from within.
Vigil Mass: The Gospel story we heard this evening is seemingly a strange one for the celebration of Christmas. We hear this long genealogy, with difficult names and even more obscure identities. But it is the testimony of the evangelist St. Matthew of how God’s covenant with his people – beginning with Abraham and continuing through the generations – is fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Despite the faithlessness of Israel, and the wickedness of many of the people whose names we heard, God did not rescind his promises. No, indeed, knowing well our need for salvation, he desired instead to become one with us, to reveal himself as God-with-us.
Mass During the Day: That plan, the scope of that divine design, is recounted in the beautiful words of the Gospel according to St. John. It is in many ways a summation of our entire faith – that the Word, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, in and through whom God created all things, in the fullness of time took Flesh, not losing his divinity, but becoming fully man, so that he might be one with us, to reveal himself as God-with-us.
This is indeed Good News. Creation has been changed by the coming of Christ, and while the world often still seems dark and broken, we who believe can always point to this reality, the birth of Jesus, as a sign of God’s faithfulness, of his presence, of his continued love. If you find yourself happy this day, let it be for that reason, not for anything more superficial. If you find yourself unhappy, then let your heart find some comfort and hope in the love of a God who desires to enter into your unhappiness, to assure you of his love, and to deliver you from your sins and save you from all distress.
Friends, I propose that what Andy Williams first sang more than fifty years ago is true – it is the most wonderful time of the year, though not for the reasons he enumerated. Christmas is “wonder-full” – full of wonder – because it is a time when we recall again the deep love and abiding presence of a God who has come, and will come again, and who is with us at every moment in between. There is nothing in this life that is not made new by the birth of Jesus and through him, and with him, and in him, we are made new as well.
May God grant you every grace in this season of joy!