Growing up, our Christmas ornaments were kept in tall, round, tins with covered with what scenes of old-fashioned winter villages- the kind you imagine would illustrate an old copy of The Christmas Carol. I have many vivid memories of wrapping my fingertips around the tin lids and yanking them off to reveal what looked like a crumpled pile of old newspapers. But they were our ornaments- each one wrapped in newspaper or tissue, to be opened one by one at the start of the Christmas season. These were the first family members to come home for the holidays, the first familiar faces that brought laughter and bright exclamations of “I remember that one!” Each ornament carried with it a memory, a perfect way to start a season that is all about remembering. Remembering while also re-living, remembering something that is happening in this very moment.
The past couple years I haven’t had a Christmas tree, and it’s only now that I’m realizing how much this affected my spiritual preparation. The past few Christmases felt disconnected. They came and went without me really feeling “in the spirit.” I felt almost surprised on Christmas day, and a bit disappointed when it was over. People talk a lot about how the ritual of the Christmas tree is drawn from the ancient feast of Saturnalia. Well before the arrival of Christ, human beings were striving for a connection with the mystical realm. There is an ancient, primal, knowledge that transcends formal religion- the language of ritual- that understands what it is to prepare, what it is to open ourselves, what it is make room for God. There is no rational explanation for why the Christmas tree works- it just does. Without it, the season is incomplete.
But of course, the absence of a Christmas tree cannot fully explain my disconnection from the Christmas seaon. The root of the problem was I wasn’t feeling close to Jesus. It’s sounds a bit trite, when I lay it out like that, but it’s the simple truth. It’s hard to feel the joy of Christmas when you’re removed from the underlying source of the feast. I’m reminded of a comment a friend of mine, a former Christian, made- “Believing in God is one thing. It’s the Jesus stuff that’s hard.” And he was one hundred percent right. God is abstract, undefinable. He or She can be anything you imagine, and his rules- or lack thereof- can be a ridged or flexible as is convenient. Jesus is a literal historical person that claimed to be God. (Or didn’t, depending on who you ask.) There are things that actually happened or actually did not happen. If Jeus is God, then there are things God must necessarily be. There are things about love and morality and our destiny as human beings that also must be. (Destiny is a big word, but that is what we’re talking about here.) It’s not a theoretical concept anymore- it’s much more real and concrete, and therefore much more difficult. But it’s also much more beautiful.
So this Advent, I set a goal for myself to reconnect with Christ. Advent is the perfect time to do this, because the season is all about preparing ourselves for his arrival. We prepare in a literal sense by decorating our home with lights, to guide his way to us, and we prepare internally, by clearing a path to our own hearts. But where would I start? My natural go-to when wanting to revive religious practice is the rosary. Like the tree, it has ancient, eternal roots. It always feels right. But my relationship with Mary was fine. (Yes, it’s ironic that I have an easier time believing in God’s mother than God himself, but that’s a logical conundrum that I have long since given up on.) But I realized that I’ve been nurturing this relationship with Mary without really tapping into the best part of what it has to offer. I’ve never really asked Mary to introduce me to her son. So I did. In a simple prayer, I asked Mary to reintroduce me to Jesus. And, little by little, she has. It’s still happening. Not to say I’ve returned to faith-like-a-little-child, but I’m a lot closer than I was last year. And I don’t have to lean so hard on Mary as an intercessor. And that’s a really good thing.
My favorite ornament growing up was given to my parents when I was a newborn. It’s a glass ornament that depicts an angel in the form of a lovely young woman with long brown hair walking on a cloud. She’s holding an infant her in her arms. The infant, by the logic of Christmas ornaments, is me. I loved the ornament, because it was beautiful, but also because it made me feel safe. It reminded me that someone out there was loving me. It really solidified an early image of God in my mind. Every year, when I found the ornament, I felt a rush of excitement and joy before hanging it on the tree- always on the best spot I could find, a place of honor.
Every year, it was like rediscovering Jesus.