In C.S. Lewis’ classic novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a scene in which five of the characters meet Father Christmas (known to us Americans as Santa Claus). As Father Christmas tells them the evil power that kept him out of the land of Narnia is being defeated, “… Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.”
Rereading this book recently to prepare for teaching it to my students, I was struck by this line, which I had never before really noticed. What a profound statement about true joy!
So often we think that we can realize our desire to bring happiness to those we love ourselves. This can be particularly tempting during this time of year. If we just give the perfect presents, find the perfect tree, cook the perfect meal, organize the perfect parties and quality time together, then we can somehow make our loved ones feel happy. But then the presents are soon discarded, the tree is not quite right, someone is not happy with the meal, family members argue during our gatherings – and we find that our own happiness is lost in the face of our perceived failures.
As we struggle with the messiness of our own human condition this Christmas season, let us take time to remember just how messy that first Christmas was. After all, we are contemplating God Himself lying in an animal feeding trough!
Think of Mary and Joseph looking down at Him in the manger. It is hard to imagine more messy circumstances from our human point of view. Surely, the situation of “no room in the inn” was not the way they had imagined they would welcome their Son – their God – into the world. And yet, can you imagine them being sad at this moment? Can you imagine them, as they gazed at Him, experiencing anything other than the “gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still”?
When I reread Lucy’s encounter with Father Christmas, I asked myself when I have felt “that deep shiver of gladness” from “being solemn and still” in my own life. And the best example I could think of is the way I feel at Christmas Midnight Mass at the convent. It is in awe of the mystery of the Incarnation – of the profound love of our God-made-man – that I experience the solemnity and stillness that cause deep gladness.
So this Christmas, spend some time in quiet prayer before the crèche in your home or parish. And instead of looking for happiness for yourself and your loved ones in the circumstances you create, seek true and deep gladness in solemn and still contemplation of the circumstances He chose: the messiness of our human nature in order to raise us to the sublimity of the divine! It is then that we will begin to understand the true meaning of Christmas.
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.