“Hey, son, when do you get off of work?”
“Closing time on Friday.”
“Oh. So how long will you spend at your house before coming home? A couple of days?”
“Oh no! A couple of hours, if that. I want to be with y’all by Friday night. I’m gonna lock my place up, hit the road and not look back ’till New Years.”
“Ok. Glad to hear it.”
This conversation played out between my father and I recently. I know he was testing the waters, trying to see what my schedule was like for the break. Yet, his assumption that I might spend the days leading up to Christmas alone at my small house in the city seemed odd to me. Did he not know how much I longed to be home this time of year? Can he have forgotten what it’s like to sit in an empty house, knowing that your family is only an hour’s drive away? What would Advent & Christmastime be without family?
Twenty years ago, the kid who was me experienced Christmas as two holidays wrapped in one. The first was the jovial gift-giving holiday promoted by commercials but truly fueled by that playful child-like spirit of games, toys and fun. The other was an equally compelling but strictly religious celebration at church when the adults, with a totally serious (and occasionally stern) face, reminded us kids to be quiet because the God-baby was asleep in his manger. And, deep down inside, I sensed that somehow these two holidays were linked through the living reality of family. Yet, with all the happy serendipity of a child, I merely accepted the mystery at face value.
Having put aside childish things, I now know that those two holidays were, of course, the same one. Chesterton once compared falling down the chimney to what happens when a mother gives birth: a gift is dropped down a shoot into a room full of strangers. Christmas is merely the celebration of the greatest present to fall down the chimney: Christ, and his great act of giving us back to each other. Likewise, a wise priest a know has called Christmas the greatest joke ever. Humor, he argues, is the coming together of opposite ideas. What could be more opposite than the heavenly court literally engulfing the countryside at the birth of a human family on the plains of Bethlehem.
The human family was the key to all this. A man, a woman and a child, illuminated by a star, surrounded by angels, shepherds and sages: this is the strange icon the Christmas has etched in our hearts. It is as if all the powers of heaven and earth are bent in humility around this most fundamental institution: the family. The Psalmist tells us the God has made heaven his throne and earth his footstool: but we get the sense at Christmas that the family is His royal entourage! For laying at the center of the picture, to weak to even speak, is the Word of God. Perhaps that is why they call it silent night: not simply because angels, humans and animals are all adoring the Christ-child, but because God Himself was silent in the presence of the mystery of ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’
So, yes, I am going home for Christmas. I cannot wait to arrive, though I cannot say why. Like the rest of us, I can only look at those two parents bent over the manger and wonder what in heaven and on earth God was thinking when he gave us to each other.