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There is a pervasive sense of nostalgia that suffuses this season. This was so even for a nine-year-old who hadn’t yet lived long enough to lay any claim on nostalgia if it is defined as a bittersweet longing for some pleasant remembrance of one’s past: How much of a past can a nine-year-old have?
Yet, there I found myself, one Christmas night, with an intense feeling of nostalgia once all the guests had departed and my mother had stored the last morsels of the feast, straightened up the house, and finally gotten off her feet. At the time, I was unsure what I was experiencing, but it was palpable. Lonely, yet beautiful; sad, yet full of comfort.
There is something about Christmas that invites us to reflect back to a younger version of ourselves: to the sights and the sounds and the smells of our mothers’ kitchens, or the excitement and anticipation of opening gifts for Christmas.
At this point in my life, I have come to think of Bethlehem as that common home for which we each long.
At nine, I was hardly surveying the previous years of so short a life. The human mind, I think, can go back much further, to a home, indeed an origin that we discern as if by nature, even if our vocabulary fails us. For the Christian it is that first Christmas – a home for which we each yearn. What occurred in Bethlehem is itself the restoration of God’s original intention in creating his world which involved a young maiden in whose womb that was to be found the erasure of Adam’s primordial legacy – the scar of Original Sin.
Here is where the ineffable God, who is outside time, condescends into the material world at a particular moment and to a particular place, subsuming our mortal nature into his divine nature, uniting us to himself by the incarnation of his Son. The experience of nostalgia is made all the more real by this particularity, uncovering for us our very selves at our origin.
Such cherished recollections of, say, the sweet thickness of the under-crust of your aunt’s cinnamon roll, that place where all the brown sugar has coagulated and almost hardened; or the simple yet evocative smell of percolated coffee in one of those old tin coffee pots; the smell of my father’s Old Spice (his Christmas gift every year). A grandmother’s well-worn apron.
All these can evoke nostalgia, but in each is some particular connection to a tangible memory of something or someone we recall which touches a deep sense of the bond between the physical and the transcendent. Christmas has everything to do with this connection to the material world, or more precisely, to the divine breaking out of our material world, and in this action, throws back meaning upon the whole of the human endeavor.
The incarnation of God’s Son, we are taught, by the scriptures and reinforced in the art and music of this season, tells us of a world that was broken but has been restored. A world, “in sin and error pinning,” as the old hymn says, that reveals to the soul its worth. This is not just some abstraction; it is particular and concrete, because sin effects not only our souls, but our whole world and all of its substantial parts.
And this is what redemption does as well, so that the physicality of the baby who comes from Mary might become the vehicle of salvation. It is also seen in the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of Communion, or the act of physical love in marriage; God works his love through all of these and more. The entirety of our world may become sanctified, indeed sacramentalized.
So too our family feasts, our gift giving and even our work, if these are offered to God for his glory. This God, this Emmanuel, is “with us” in the whole of it: from the baby’s cry in the manger to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.