Christmas is a yearly reality check. The lessons of Christmas are so counterintuitive that even after we have celebrated Christmas in society for centuries, and in our homes our whole lives, when each Christmas comes it’s like we are learning its lessons for the first time.
Here are 12 Christmas virtues our culture tends to forget. Call them the 12 ways of Christmas.
1. God loves a good story. Far from being opposed or alien to human nature, God shares our love of a good story. He could have become a man any way he wanted. He chose to be born in a stable, to a couple far from their home, surrounded by animals, shepherds and Magi, pursued by a wicked king.
2. God loses battles but wins wars. In his day, Herod was Christmas’s formidable enemy. He lied to the Magi and ordered a massacre of innocents, becoming an angel of death in Bethlehem as he killed all newborn boys to try to eliminate Jesus. In our day Christmas is still under attack, though in America the attacks aren’t violent, thank God. Christmas will win in the end, because God wins even through apparent defeats.
3. God identifies himself with infants. Each year, we retell the stories about the great fuss made by God and man over babies, born and unborn, at Christmas: Mary is herself conceived without sin, an angel makes a pregnancy announcement to Mary, Elizabeth’s unborn baby recognizes Mary’s, and so does a star in the sky; Herod and the Magi go to great lengths to oppose and pay homage to the baby. When Catholics try to say that respect for unborn life isn’t part of our religion, they’re wildly wrong. Not only is it part of our religion, it’s the central focus of several of our biggest feasts each year.
4. God puts the family at the center. In days when the definition of marriage itself is under attack, the Christmas story reminds us that it’s not the individual but the family that is at the center of human society. When God the Son became human, he didn’t become a powerful man, as he certainly could have. He chose a mother and a dad and became a baby.
5. God puts politics in its place. Especially in an election year, many concerned Catholics invest great effort and high hopes in politics. That’s good; we’re supposed to. But we need to guard against considering political victories total victories, or political defeats total disasters. Yes, the stakes are high when the right to life is the central political issue of our time. But our attitude should be the same as the angels who sang “Hosanna” and “Peace on earth,” in complete confidence in Christ, even though, in their day, Herod was in charge and he was gearing up for the massacre of the innocents.
6. God is patient. In America, we tend to expect everything now. God isn’t like that. He exists apart from time: A thousand years is like a day to him, and vice versa. He promised a savior, and took thousands of years to deliver. The Messiah came as an embryo for nine months, then was born but would take decades to mature. Then he inaugurated his Kingdom with a band of 12 relatively unremarkable men. Two millennia later, much progress has been made but much more must come before we have peace on earth.
7. God chose poverty. Funny. More people are afraid of the economic crisis of 2008 than were of the moral crises that we have seen for decades. When you have plenty, it’s easy to become a de facto materialist and start relying on your plenty for happiness. In his manger at Bethlehem, God himself points another way.
8. God is modest. We like things loud and bombastic. We like big special effects in movies. We like our heroes to stand tall and tell us the struggle is over, now that they have come. If we wrote the story, Joseph would have denounced and defeated Herod, and Mary would have had the baby in his palace. God isn’t like that. He works through the humble, in quiet ways we hardly notice. For his heroes, just enough — a manger — will do.
9. God makes himself clear. But there’s a paradox here. At the same time that God acts quietly and subtly, he doesn’t leave us in darkness and confusion. For those willing to see them, all the signs were there: The star, the angels, the virgin with child. He still shows himself to us, if we take the time to look.
10. Love means sacrifice. God is love, and at Christmas, God tells us what love is. It’s sacrifice. God didn’t become a poet on Christmas; he didn’t become a troubadour; he didn’t become a voice of admiration for mankind. The all-powerful God became a helpless baby and began a life of struggle on our behalf. No wonder gift-giving and hospitality are our chief ways to imitate him at this time of year.
11. Only the humble know God. The shepherds were society’s outcasts. The Virgin Mary was no queen, by human standards. Joseph was a carpenter who had to offer the poor man’s sacrifice at the Temple. If we’re having trouble in our relationship with God, the first thing to do is to remember how unutterably great he is, and how infinitesimally small we are.
12. God’s presence is enough. When God became man, he attracted the wise men, the king’s wrath, the shepherds, and, through the centuries, attracted throngs to the crèche. He can offer no words in his manger, but only his presence. In our own time, he still offers just his presence, and little else, in each church’s tabernacle. We should go to him there, spend time with him, and see how his bare presence is still quite enough. And then become his voices in the world.