When I was still a teenager, my older brother married a Jew, and for her first Christmas at our house, I hung ribbons from the living room ceiling near the Christmas tree. Attached to each was a card with some fact about the holiday: some of them sensible (I’d been to the town library) and some sappy. On one I wrote: “Christmas is the birthday of the Son of God.” My Presbyterian grandparents were very happy about that. “Charming,” my Methodist father told me, but warned there’d better not be any marks on the ceiling when I pulled off the tape.
About eight years later I was living in Hermosa Beach, California and frequenting a bookstore there called Either/Or. Among the books I found in the Eastern Religions section were several by Thomas Merton. A priest? Curious, I bought a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain, which propelled me into the Church.
Both in the books I read and the catechesis I received, I began to notice something never spoken of in the Protestant milieu in which I was raised. To be sure – as in that note for my sister-in-law – the words “Son of God” were front and center, but never had I encountered the word “Incarnation.”
Odd in a way, since Methodists are Trinitarians who believe in the “consubstantial humanity and divinity” of Jesus. Still, as Catholics know only too well, there is often a gap between doctrine and practice. My Protestant experience very much followed the “He was one of us” approach, and – given the absence of Mary from the life of the church – that meant it was the humanity of Jesus that dominated our sensibilities, to the point that I never heard anybody utter the words “Jesus is God,” let alone speak of the “Mother of God.”
In my mind, then, the Father was Zeus, Mary was Danaë, and Jesus was Perseus. I shared this insight with my dad, a college professor, and his inapt reply was, “When did you get interested in philosophy?” Well, his field was marketing.
Thus was I stunned by what I began reading about Catholicism – and hearing at Mass.
When a dogmatic statement was made in the church of my boyhood, it was via the Apostle’s Creed, although (if memory serves) the harrowing of hell was left out, and, regarding the Second Coming, included a phrase I still like: Catholics say Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead,” whereas Methodists say “the quick and the dead.”
There was a cross but no corpus. It was, so it seemed to me later, very much a case of the kind of denatured Christianity that H. Richard Niebuhr described: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
So I converted. But I only really became a Catholic that first Christmas after I’d made my profession of faith. Back home in Ohio for the holidays, I walked uptown and then south on High Street, past the Methodist church, and another half mile or so to the neighborhood Catholic church into which I set foot that night for the first time ever. Midnight Mass was beginning.
The choir was no better than back at United Methodist, and the carols were the same. But in the plain and pared-down church of my youth I’d always had a sense – standing among the people (and not a lot of people at that) – of being quite alone. Now at standing-room-only St. Michael’s, among images of the brooding archangel and the statuary (most especially of Our Lady), I had a sense of coming home to a foreign family of faith, although one that still seemed to a few old friends a dangerous, warlike body with no place in America, its loyalties being elsewhere: a cult precisely because of our cultus.
The power of coming to Christmas as a Catholic, of witnessing and worshiping the mystery of the Incarnation, of God made man, made it impossible to suppress tears. All the hopes that slept in my heart for the first twenty-five years of my life were now fulfilled in manifest mysteries: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creation; Incarnation. Yes, God became one of us, and the only things left to darken the horizon were sin and death. And in that regard, things get worse before suddenly getting better. So good, in fact, that the joy of His coming becomes ecstasy in his Resurrection. But that’s for Easter.
Now it’s Christmas coming.
Whoever you are: step out of doors tonight,out of the room that lets you feel secure.
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
from viewing things already too well-known,
lift up into the dark a huge, black tree
and put it in the heavens: tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripens like the words still in your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
then close your eyes and gently set it free.
– Entrance by Ranier Maria Rilke (translated by Dana Gioia)