Here’s a Christmas picture:
It’s Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting – you’ve seen it a million times: On mugs, posters, parodies, and t-shirts. Maybe you’ve even seen it in Chicago at the Art Institute.
But there’s no Santa, no tree or tinsel, no Nativity scene, nothing Christmasy – no snow even! It’s not even winter! Nonetheless, I insist: This is a Christmas picture.
It’s a Christmas picture, I think, because even Hopper’s bleak urban vision of isolation and loneliness had to make room for light. It might be artificial light – fluorescent and cold – but it’s still light, and all light is from God. “The light shines in the darkness,” St. John tells us in the Christmas liturgy, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Hopper’s masterwork is like a Christmas icon: It’s an image of light conquering the oppressive night of not only the scene, but also the characters’ lives – almost a snapshot depicting Bruce Cockburn’s memorable line, “Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” The light in Nighthawks is tenuous and seemingly caged, but hope is present nonetheless. The cafe’s rough, glaring light is a sign that God won’t give up on the lonely, crouching figures, even if they’ve given up on Him – and He won’t give up on us either. He’ll find a way to save us somehow, despite ourselves.
And that’s what the Incarnation is all about, isn’t it?
But why another Christmas picture now? I mean, it’s been over for days, right? The 24/7 Christmas music on the radio was bumped by classic rock on December 26, and they’re giving away poinsettias at Kroger for zips. Christmas 2013 is now the business of the Ghost of Christmas Past as far as popular culture is concerned. Valentines Day displays are up already – time to move on, according to the engines of commerce.
Not for you and me, though – we know better. Christmas is not even half over,and it’s a celebration that supposed to take us well into the new year and beyond. The Feast of the Holy Family today, then the Solemnity of Mary (and Jesus’ circumcision) on January 1, followed by Epiphany and the visit of the Magi five days later, and stretching even as far as Candlemas and the Presentation on February 2.
Defy the darkness and cold of winter – party on!
To be sure, it can be a challenge to do that in a culture that ceases celebrating the Lord’s birthday the very moment that Catholics start. Discarded Christmas trees are lining the streets; we keep telling people “Merry Christmas!” and they keep staring at us. Even our kids think we’re weird.
No matter. Christmas it is, and Christmas celebrating we will continue, regardless of how odd it might appear. It’s essential, I believe, and not just for liturgically purist motives. In fact, it’s a rudimentary lesson in keeping alive what everyone calls the “Christmas spirit” all year long.
And that’s the real point Charles Dickens is making in A Christmas Carol – not just Scrooge’s conversion on Christmas eve, but his daily conversions the rest of his life. Dickens writes of the reformed Scrooge that “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Yet “keeping Christmas well” clearly meant more to Dickens than merely doling out alms and being jolly in December:
Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.
To be credible, Dickens’ Scrooge could only have become a good friend, master, and man if he lived out his newly discovered Christmas spirit throughout the year – and so it is with us real Scrooges. Joy and generosity and kindness around Christmas is all to the good, but don’t we really want them to extend on into February and April and the fall?
There’s a poignant scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that gets at this very idea. Francie and her brother procure a free Christmas tree for their family celebration, and they lug it up to their top-floor apartment as a host of well-wishers in neighboring flats urge them on. Later, after the festivities die down, Francie speaks her mind:
Papa, the people in the hall when we brought up the tree, the look on their faces all friendly and nice. Why can’t people be like that all the time? Not just on Christmas?
Just so, and the liturgy fosters that very perspective by stringing Christmas along for weeks. “The Church never tires of singing the glory of this night,” as the Catechism puts it. “Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us.”
“May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Dickens wrote. Amen. God bless us, every one – and all year long.