Five Golden Rings
Christmas is a time of great joy. At the heart of it all is the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Yet often, we let lesser things get in the way of the worship we owe to Him in this privileged season of grace. I don’t believe it would be too much to call these distractions “idols.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Idolatry etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” Many of us unknowingly allow a number of idols into our lives during the holiday season. All of them are good things in themselves, but taken out of proportion, they distort our sense of the feast’s true message as well as our connection with the Living God. I’d like to examine five of these idols, “five golden rings” that often form the chain of our seasonal bondage.
Of all the idols, this one is perhaps the most readily apparent. It seems like each year, we hear new complaints of the commercialization of Christmas—only to watch the process get worse with every passing holiday. Advent washes upon us as a season of cluttered ads rather than prayerful penance. Sacred carols have been reduced to shopping mall muzak. Charlie Brown’s 1965 complaint rings just as true today as it did in the years of the Johnson Administration. For many, Christmas seems to be a time to show off their wealth to the neighbors, to cook and consume lavish amounts of food, or to receive a whole panoply of toys and gifts—and little else.
After all, isn’t this what most children look forward to each Christmas? Santa isn’t popular because he’s a jolly old man who likes milk, cookies, and Coca-Cola. He brings gifts! Of course kids love Christmas. The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is extremely hard to break, even for those well advanced in age. Nor does the culture help. After all, Christmas is a nearly half-trillion dollar industry. There’s no reason to think that commercialism in all its forms will go away any time soon.
Beneath the idol of material goods—whether that means gifts, food, or all the decorations that beautify our houses—hides another idol. Perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere, at other times and places.
I was blessed enough to go to Disney World a few times as a child. When I later went back as a teenager, though, I noticed something. A kind of frantic, urgent energy pervaded the place. Everyone smiles a bit too widely. Everyone rushes from one amusement to another. And here and there, a tantrum erupts like a tiny pool of scalding water. Why? Because everyone who comes to Disney comes to have a good time—or else. If you don’t enjoy yourself, then something is wrong with you. You must have fun.
The regime of forced fun becomes universal at Christmas time. How many of us come away from the holidays in a state of utter exhaustion? How often have we stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, we’re trying too hard? The Christmas narrative is blissful. But we have substituted the quietly abiding “comfort and joy” of Christ for the plastic and fleeting pleasures of our own culture.
Our fruitless pursuit of happiness is one of the reasons that holiday depression is so rampant. The endless pageants and parades and parties, not to mention all of the work that goes into them, can be such a drain that it leaves us with little energy left for the spiritual life of the holiday. And that’s just when our plans succeed! We’re even more distraught and distracted when things don’t work out as we hoped. How greatly we differ from Mary and Joseph, who dealt with the disappointment of being turned away at the inn with a calm trust in Providence.
One thing that bolsters the idol of forced happiness is the idol of tradition. Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Christmas is about the way traditions bring us together. But too often, those traditions can become unbalanced and rigid. Surely we all have one or two thoughts like this upon occasion. If the tree is not up and decorated by a certain day, all is lost! If we don’t make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, all is lost! If we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf this year, all is lost! And so on. Instead of a time of refreshment, Christmas becomes a daunting list of tasks and chores. Our freedom and ease vanish.
As Catholics, we need to remember that the only really necessary thing is Mass. That is the still point at the base of our lives and holiday. Taking a step back and detaching from our seasonal traditions can be a salutary reminder that we are not in control. God is. And if our traditions don’t serve His glory, then we should rework them and reclaim our freedom. Chances are, we’ll be saner (and happier) if we do so.
Perhaps the easiest idol to miss is the one that often generates all the others: family. Surely, we may think, there can be nothing wrong with putting our families at the center of the holiday? Isn’t being with family one of the greatest and purest joys known to man? And isn’t the meaning of Christmas bound up with God entering into a human family?
These are all natural notions. But the truth is, we often have a disordered affection for our families. This disorder is frequently expressed in counter-intuitive manifestations. The holiday is poisoned by all the evident ways our own families don’t live up to our (possibly quite unrealistic) standards. So many of us use Christmas to penalize those in our families who are different from us, and who thus shatter our little ideal of what family should be. We make Christmas the occasion of settling scores or sniping about our petty differences. Or, on the other hand, we altogether ignore issues that might be very important. A kind of artificial peace may prevail, even though deep cracks open below the surface. But this is not the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.
Families are always sites of intense friction and drama, as even the most cursory review of Western literature shows (not to mention our satires). Making family the center of Christmas merely injects that propensity for drama into a holy day where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, our ideological insistence on making Christmas all about family has been particularly hard on single people. Those with no family are left out in the proverbial, and sometimes literal, cold. One poisonous fruit of humanizing the divine holiday in this way is the terrible loneliness we have needlessly exacerbated for thousands.
Family is a high good, but not the highest good. When we forget that, we do an injustice to God. And we cannot love our families (or our lonely neighbors) properly if we don’t love God first.
I suspect that most of us idolize family at some level. It’s become such a dominant cultural value that even non-Christians who celebrate Christmas are susceptible to its malignant influence. But one idol may only occur to those who see Christmas as a time of potential spiritual gain.
Every Christian runs the risk of valuing God only insofar as he grants us His gifts. Sometimes, this takes fairly low forms. The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, is essentially a quasi-Christian materialism that equates the love of God with his financial blessings. They turn God into a sugar daddy. More subtly, some of us act like God’s fair-weather friends. We’re perfectly happy offering Him our heart as long as we feel we’re receiving some kind of spiritual consolation. It’s almost as if we think that God owes us something if we keep praying through the season, and we’re unnerved when nothing comes. No one likes aridity in prayer. That feeling can be even harder, and an even greater temptation, when it comes to us at Christmas time.
As Catholics, we shouldn’t worry if Christmas isn’t a time of tremendous spiritual growth. Just because at Christmas you’re not experiencing profound graces or consolations, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing anything wrong. Even a well-kept Advent may not produce discernible feelings of anticipation or contrition. Too much of a focus on the interior life can distract us from the objective glory of the feast.
God has come down to earth in the Incarnation. He has seen fit to take up human nature for our salvation, transfiguring all by the light of His face. And we who were born so many centuries after Him can nevertheless meet that same Incarnate God at the altar. But none of this depends on us. It doesn’t matter what we feel; the marvelous truth of it all is that God has done this work in an entirely gratuitous way.
That is why Christmas Mass is so important. It grounds our devotions in Christ. And as He did at His first coming, He still sweeps away all of our idols from His new home on the altar.
The Eucharistic Alternative
Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. All of the “idols” I have listed above are good in themselves. It is only our inordinate attachment to them that has twisted them into ugly perversions and distractions from the Incarnate God.
True, our culture has pressed many of these idols onto us, or at least exacerbated them. But we are complicit. We go along with the whole rigmarole. We have made these five golden rings into five golden calves. It follows that in our own small ways as Catholics, we can and should resist.
Instead of focusing on material gain, let us contemplate the poverty of the babe at Bethlehem; instead of mindlessly pursuing happiness at all costs, let us seek a healthy and realistic equilibrium; instead of rigidly clinging to our traditions, let us run in the freedom and flexibility of the Gospel; instead of taking a disordered view of our families, let us love them as creatures of the Most High; and instead of pining for a flood of sensible graces, let us be content to dwell adoringly at the side of the Infant God asleep.
It may all be more easily said than done. But the spiritual life is always a challenge for those who truly seek God. And what aid does Our Lord offer us in the Sacraments! If we avail ourselves of confession and the Eucharist, we will have made a very powerful start. Only then, to paraphrase Dickens, may we honor Christmas in our hearts, and keep it all the year.