My Cuenca Christmas
Nobody would expect Christmas here in Cuenca to be a "White Christmas"; we are too close to the equator for there to be any expectation of snow gently falling, making tree-tops glisten and children attentive to sleigh bells in the snow. Not gonna happen! Did I miss it? Nope.
A soft blanket of white snow on the 25th of December is not the only bit of Christmas nostalgia missing from my own Christmas this year; a lot of the accouterments that seem so important to maintaining "the Christmas spirit" back home were nowhere to be seen. Here in my little house on the Calle de las Retamas, I have had no strings of garlands or twinkling lights, no wreaths hung above the fireplace (no fireplace), not even an artificial tree set up in the living room to remind me of the feast. The best I could manage in having the "Christmas spirit" infiltrate my house were music playlists downloaded from the internet. I tried the jazzy Christmas one; pretty good, but almost all of it the mid-20th century cheery stuff absent any spiritual content, so it didn't play too long. I tried the easy-listening versions of mostly the same "sleigh bells ring, are you listenin" type, but they were worse...so saccharine. Mostly, I listened to the classical Christmas channel and found solace there as most of the songs were not just songs, but hymns, the lovely ones that we sing in church to this day and many from former times. They did the heavy lifting for me in "getting into the Christmas spirit", at least while I was at home.
In town, it was easier to find signs of the "reason for the season"; every church has its lovely and realistic Nativity scenes; some diminutive like that in our church, San Francisco, and others offering huge displays like that in the Catedral a few blocks away, filling an entire side-chapel with a vast diorama of sheep, cattle, shepherds, camels, angels, magi, and of course at the center of it the stable in Bethlehem.
But when Christmas Day was all said and done, it had been our Christmas Mass that made Christmas Christmas for me. Though we celebrated on Christmas morning, we used the deeply touching readings of the Midnight Mass for our liturgy. Isaiah 9: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.... For a child is born to us.... They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace." That is just so beautiful especially in our own times as so many of us walk in the darkness of a society on the brink of disaster, where hope is so easily extinguished by a great wave of self centeredness mixed with meanness, and where darkness yet abounds, there it is: a great light from God for us to see.
Following on Isaiah, Luke's version of the Nativity story is so familiar in its details, we can almost recite it from memory; we've been retelling it for our whole lives. As I read it to myself in the days before Christmas hoping to find a homily somewhere in all those lovely details, I settled into the first words of the angel to the shepherds that so often find their way into these old stories of God and Humanity at play: "Do not be afraid!" How many times we hear the various voices of God calming us with this most simple of injunctions: do not be afraid. If there is anything that sickens us and our society in these times, it is fear: fear of the stranger, fear of the alien, fear that the future is only going to be worse than the present, which, of course, is plenty bad enough. Fear I might be harmed, robbed, shot. Fear that the earth as we know it is a goner. Fear of what our grandchildren will have to endure in that climate-cratered world. Some of these fears are unjustified and others more than justified, but all the "do not fears" in the Scriptures remind us that even when we do our best to do the worst, beneath it all is a sighing, caring, weeping, compassionate, new-creating, human-loving God. Whose hands hold ours. Whose heart beats with ours. God made flesh. Dwelling among us. Do not be afraid.
For my Christmas homily, after a few days more of living in this nativity scene provided by Luke, I settled on something weird that I notice in Luke's story: why would the angel(s) proclaim the birth of the savior to a bunch of worthless shepherds and not the priests and teachers of the law just a few miles up the road in Jerusalem? I have my suspicions as to what Luke has in mind, that the poor see what the grand and pious cannot, which makes me wonder: if I had been there as a priest, a student of the Scriptures, a professional holy person, the angel probably would not have bothered with me either and I would have missed seeing the Great Light myself. Just not poor enough to get it. Would I have believed the angel even if it had come to me with plenty of "Gloria in excelsis Deo's" streaming from its angelic lips? God? Flesh and blood? A mewling baby? Pretty crazy stuff. Happily, I have 2000 years of believers behind me who have made it easier to get my head and heart wrapped around that, so here I am, proclaiming this story yet again on Christmas morning and taking solace that God touches us with a human hand.
Having had Christmas stripped of its cheery non-essentials here, it has been easier to see it and believe it and know it. To know that God does not hold on to his divinity, but empties himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, (Philippians 2:6-7), BECOMES US, that is a great light for me in this snowless, wreathless, treeless Christmas and, hopefully, for many of us yet living in way too much darkness.
(Audio of my Christmas homily is available here: CHRISTMAS