By DONALD DeMARCO
Christmas is a joyful time. Indeed, “‘tis the season to be jolly.” It is the time, as Charles Dickens, has rightly remarked, for “many merry Christmases, friendships, great accumulation of cheerful recollections, affection on earth, and Heaven at last for all of us.” Surely, without Christmas, December would be the bleakest and most colorless month of the year, and the year itself would be deprived of an essential Light. No one in his right mind wants to diminish the joy that goes with the merriment of Christmas.
But there is another side to Christmas that can easily escape notice. Christmas is about a birth, and births are difficult and are preceded by considerable travail. The first Christmas required Mary and Joseph to undertake a long and difficult journey. It required the same of the Magi. We often imagine the Three Wise Men in somewhat sentimental terms, as they are often depicted on Christmas cards. T.S. Eliot, in his poem, The Journey of the Magi, describes their peregrination in more realistic and therefore, less sentimental terms:
“A cold coming we had of it /Just the worst time of the year /For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, /The very dead of winter.”
The family car makes it easy for most of us to get to Christmas Mass, the only inconvenience along the way being one or two possible red lights. Donkeys and camels transported the Holy Family and the Magi to the first Christmas. There must be something of significance associated with the hardships this fact connotes. Perhaps it is this: We best prepare ourselves for a joyful occasion by allowing ourselves to experience some degree of hardship. Advent is both a time of waiting and a time of journeying.
T.S. Eliot’s disturbing picture of the Magi’s journey includes reference to the mutinous bickering of their retainers, the recalcitrance of the camels, their discomfort in sleeping at night, and towns that were less than friendly: “And the villages dirty and charging high prices:/ A hard time we had of it.” Nonetheless, the many difficulties they encountered well prepared them for the joy of seeing the Newborn King. They had experienced a kind of death, but one that prefigured both life and Resurrection. They experienced what another poet has eloquently described as “the tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.”
I recall embarking on a 32-mile journey homeward from college. I did not expect to cover the entire distance on foot, but it was a moment when I had abandoned myself to God’s will and just kept walking. A motorist noticed me and offered a ride. My Godsend has arrived. He was a Portuguese priest. During the course of our trip told me that when he was a boy growing up in the Azores, his nearest church was 13 miles away. Sunday, without fail, his family would walk the 13-mile journey to Mass. It seemed to me that these early pilgrimages had their salutary effect on this Good Samaritan priest.
T.S. Eliot’s description of the Magi’s journey helps us to appreciate the importance of self-denial and the voluntary acceptance of difficulty as a way of better appreciating the true value of Christmas, as well of any other feast. Someone has paid for the gladness we experience at Christmas. We should not be less merry for recognizing this, but perhaps more grateful.
We make our own journeys in various ways, some through shopping in crowded department stores, some in preparing sumptuous meals, some in taking part-time jobs to earn a little extra money, some spending more time in church praying for their loved ones. We can be assured that all such journeys, taken in the right spirit, will bring about a joyful heart at the side of the crib.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)