Sometime in June, a COVID puppy took up residence in our house. So this year, to prevent the Holy Family from becoming chew toys, the nativity scene has migrated from under the Christmas tree, to just above the fireplace. When my three children were puppies, there were no elves on shelves. Instead, there were nativity characters that migrated around our house, and popped up, not only on shelves, but on stairwells, the living room floor, the kitchen table, bedrooms, and bathrooms too. In my own early childhood, these figurines became army men in my tiny hands. It would take a year or two for me to learn their surnames: Christ, as in Mrs. Mary Christ, and Mr. Joseph Christ, and their boy. Some years later, I was to experience a common fear known among many generations of young Catholics: the fear of a spooky vision of Mary or Jesus coming to life! My cousins, siblings and I would suspiciously watch the eyes of a portrait of Mary and Jesus at grandma and grandpa’s house. “Look, their eyes follow you everywhere!” So creepy!
I suspect that this is what happens in any household where religious rituals are practiced. There is the explicit tradition, as handed down by clerics, parents, and religious. Then there are the homegrown traditions that spring up from those other traditions, that, in themselves, have a kind of holiness all their own.
My family has tended to procure our Christmas tree later than most, because we tend to leave it up later than most. This year, as we travelled from sold-out lot to sold-out lot, we discovered that the pandemic led to more than panicked toilet paper buying. Finally, Lizzie and I stumbled upon a road-side lot with exactly four remaining trees. We selected a more-diminutive-than-usual white pine that caused our Keanu Reaves-like salesman to admiringly observe, “Oh, you picked the Hawaiian looking one! Awesome!” A knowing look was fleetingly exchanged between Lizzie and me as we politely stifled the urge to laugh.
As I have a look around my neighborhood, and those neighborhoods around my neighborhood, I keep noticing something that causes my inner Keanu Reaves to exclaim, “Awesome!” During the darkest days of the year, smack in the middle of a pandemic that has taken so much from so many, a collective creative impulse is causing a million lights to bloom and light up the night!
It seems to me that, unlike the panic-buying of the early pandemic, something else is going on that has a kind of holiness to it. The urgency this year for a tree to decorate may have something to do with a longing to connect with those rituals that signify meaning, and connection. Despite economic cut backs, there is a desire to connect to something transcendent and to make something beautiful especially in the darkness of this moment. COVID is shuddering many of our churches, temples, and
ssynagogues, but the innate, inborn holiness that is part and parcel of the human spirit cannot be shuddered. It shows up in unconscious, homegrown ways.
In the next week, as you walk or drive around the various displays in your neighborhood, can you allow yourself to see the light that is behind the lights? In each of us, there is a resilient, transcendent light that darkness cannot quench (John 1:5).