My sons tell me that one of their happiest memories of Christmas past is the custom we had of gathering around the tree on Christmas morning to re-read Robert Benchley’s delightful essay, “Editha’s Christmas Burglar.”
All too briefly summarized, this happy little story tells about Editha, a darling child, who wakes on a Christmas Eve upon hearing noises downstairs and, concluding that it must be a burglar, determined to go downstairs and convert him. But the burglar proves resistant to her innocent sweetness and ends up taking a rope out of his bag and tying her up good and tight, with a nice bright bandana handkerchief around her mouth, and trussing her up on the chandelier. “Then, filling his bag with the silverware and Daddy’s imitation sherry, Editha’s burglar tiptoed out by the door. As he left, he turned and smiled. ‘A Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night,’ he whispered and was gone.”
There was never any doubt where the boys’ sympathies lay. Childhood may be any of a number of the sweet things sentimentalists say it is, but the one thing it is not is innocent. The old, now unhappily abandoned Order of Holy Baptism had it right when it instructed the minister to inform the people that children are conceived and born in sin and so are under the wrath of God. The cheerful conclusion to those otherwise forbidding words is that, however one’s life may unfold, it can’t get a whole lot worse than it began. For parents, there is the equally happy thought that any small progress they may make toward civilizing and Christianizing the child is to be accounted a major accomplishment worthy to be set over against their all too many manifest failures.
Anyway, justified by Baptismal grace but not yet far advanced toward sanctification, our boys cheered the burglar on and rejoiced at the thought of Editha pendant from the chandelier, “sore as a crab. “It seemed to them only right and proper that, in a universe governed by justice, the little con artist got her comeuppance while her intended quarry tiptoed out with the silver and the imitation sherry. For even at their tender age, they had an instinct that a straightforward burglar is better than a sanctimonious little manipulator.
It is an instinct which needs to be cultivated, especially as each happy Christmas dawns on earth again. For there is in the very air of a modern sentimentalized, commercialized Christmas the fetid odor of manipulation. Every heartstring gets tugged by somebody, every surge of warm sentiment gets enlisted in the service of some cause, good, bad, or indifferent. We are tempted to buy more than we can afford, or even want, to assuage guilt-feelings that we cannot fully explain. We are invited to revel in a nostalgia which becomes the subject of slick jokes on the comedy shows of the day after Christmas.
Pope Liberius, in 354 AD, fixed 25 December as the date of Christmas, apparently in the pious hope that the celebration of the Nativity would provide Christians with a wholesome alternative to the wild festival of the Saturnalia, which was celebrated at the winter solstice. Alas! It hasn’t turned out that way. Saturnalia has triumphed—the chief difference being that our Christian excesses are more commonly those of the spirit than of the flesh. And so the question becomes one of whether we should not simply write of the good Pope’s noble experiment and follow the Puritans in eschewing the celebration of Christmas. My tentative answer is No. I still think that Christmas may be salvageable. But I am sure that it will take some doing.
What the world will finally do about Christmas I do not know or greatly care. But Christian people, I suspect, will learn someday that they cannot make anything more of Christmas than they make of Advent. And what we presently make of Advent is very little. Advent is chiefly the season of X number of shopping days until Christmas. It is a time of foot-sore shopping, of baking and decorating and making lists. For some, it is even a season of irritation with the church, for it is a time when “liturgical nuts” insist on Wednesday evening services and austere, undecorated chancels, and penitential hymns that contrast bleakly with the carols pouring forth from the downtown PA systems.
How, then, to get across to the faithful that there is nothing like a proper Advent to get one ready for a proper
Christmas? How to invest the idea of Coming (which is what Advent means) with hope and joy and expectation?
I do not know. But I do know that the birth of this Child can mean little or nothing if we are unaware of how desperately we need the love and salvation which He brings. And I do know that this awareness will not come from the manipulation of our emotions, but the searing of our hearts and consciences. Until Israel knows that she is captive, she will not cry out for Emmanuel to come. And until she cries out, He will not come. But when He does come in response to her cries there will be such rejoicing as you never heard before in your life.
So—a blessed and penitential Advent!