If you have young children (I don’t), or were once a young child yourself (I wasn’t), you’re probably familiar with children’s Christmas frenzy. It’s all about the presents. (Well, maybe a little about the decorations.) The religious aspects of the holiday are virtually impossible to communicate to them. The origin of the gift-giving tradition is of no interest to them. Worse, many parents contribute to the malady by asking the kids “What would you like for Christmas?”
In this respect, the whole season has gone off the rails. But then, it was to be expected once mass media turned the holiday into little more than an opportunity for marketing.
I’m not trying to be a Grinch here. But I would like to see American Christians “Put Christ back in Christmas,” as the once-ubiquitous bumper stickers said. And while we’re paused here, there’s another facet of our current disease: cars with pro-Christian bumper stickers, rosaries hanging from the rear-view mirror, or statuettes of Jesus on the dashboard, get vandalized with appalling frequency…sometimes while bystanders watch as if paralyzed. Yes, it happens here on heavily Catholic Long Island.
There are serious difficulties involved in giving kids a religious education or a Christian upbringing. The juvenile mind is short-range, largely unconcerned with anything beyond immediate gratification, and uninterested in hearing a long explanation for anything. Today, considering that most kids are perfectly safe from deprivation of the necessities of life and largely safe from other threats to their existence, suffering is an abstraction to most of them. You’re going to explain the mission of Jesus of Nazareth to your six-year-old? The ultimate reason why the Son of God took on human flesh? Good luck.
It’s worse if Junior’s parents are “lapsed” Christians, or are insincere about their faith. Cosmetic faith is the very worst sort, for reasons I’ll explore some other time. It’s particularly pernicious for the children exposed to it. Imagine the lesson they derive from it, and shudder.
One of the motifs in The Discovery Phase, my latest novel, is about an outsider’s first “up close and personal” recognition of sincere faith in someone very close to her. Co-protagonist Sylvie is in love with co-protagonist Loren, and Loren wants to marry her – in a church wedding. At Our Lady of the Pines Roman Catholic Church, of course; this is an Onteora County romance. Sylvie, therefore, must convert. But early on, though she knows that Loren is Catholic, it takes a while for her to grasp her spouse-to-be’s sincerity…and the implications of her youthful indiscretions:
They were seated before filled mugs when Sylvie spoke again. Her eyes were fixed on her mug.
“I… might not be able to convert.”
He said nothing.
“Father Ray is making an appointment for me to talk to his bishop.”
Loren’s alarms all rang at once.
There’s only one reason she could need to see him.
“When did it happen?” he murmured.
She did not look at him. “High school.”
“Your party-girl phase.”
He fixed silence upon himself and sipped his coffee.
Her hand crept toward his and took it.
“Loren, I’m afraid.”
He nodded. “Bishop Sawicki has a reputation. He might not absolve you.”
“Not that,” she replied. “I’m afraid of losing you.”
He took a moment to choose his words.
“Well, if he doesn’t let you off, I won’t be able to marry you in the Church.”
She clutched his hand with surprising strength.
“But would I lose you?”
It shocked the breath out of him.
“Does that,” he said slowly, “matter more to you than your fate in the next life?”
“I don’t know!” she wailed. “I only know that I mustn’t lose you. I was barely alive before you. Being with you, loving you, has made me whole, and I don’t know whether I can hold on to that without you!”
Her eyes had filled with tears. He drew a long, shaky breath and let it out slowly.
“Syl,” he said, “I love you with all my heart. You won’t lose me. I don’t think you could, because I don’t think I can do without you any more. But we’d have to go on as we are today… and I’d be in the worst kind of fear for you, every instant of our lives, from here to the grave.”
He squeezed her hand gently. “Let’s not borrow trouble from a future that might not arrive. The bishop might absolve you, if you can convince him that you’re truly sorry for what you did. But convincing him won’t be easy. He won’t let it be.”
“You’ve met him?”
He nodded. “Three years ago, just after Bishop Wilton retired. He made the rounds of the diocese, introducing himself to all the parishes.”
“Father Ray called him a hard-liner.”
“I think that was his way of saying the bishop doesn’t compromise on things that really matter,” he said. “Like life. The Polish clergy are all that way.”
“You know a lot of them?”
“A couple. I had a Polish chaplain in Afghanistan.”
She spent an interval in silence. He forced himself to respect it.
I have to believe in her. That she is truly sorry for what she did. That the bishop will see that… and that the penance he’ll impose won’t be beyond her strength of will.
I have to believe in me, too. That I can love her and live with her no matter what the bishop says. That I can stand by her despite my fears. And that God will forgive her.
“Do you know anyone else,” she said, “who’s gone to him over… something like this?”
He shook his head. “That’s confessional stuff. As private as private gets.”
She grinned faintly. “Like attorney-client privilege, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said. “About like that.”
“So we don’t have a track record for the bishop, then,” she said.
It forced a laugh out of him. “No, the touts can’t handicap him on the basis of his past races. All they can do is follow the money as it comes in.” He was seized by impulse. “Would you do something for me, Syl?”
He rose. “Come with me.”
She followed him up the stairs to the bedroom. He knelt beside the bed they shared, looked up at her, and smiled.
She lowered herself carefully to her knees beside him. He made the Sign of the Cross, folded his hands, and bowed his head. She did likewise.
“Lord of all,” he murmured, “you have said that you want mercy and not sacrifice. You sent your Son to be a ransom for the souls of all men. If my love is truly repentant, I beseech you: let your mercy embrace her, so that she can join your flock… and me, in matrimony before you, till death do us part. I ask it humbly, through Christ Our Lord, amen.”
“Amen,” she echoed. She looked up at him. “Do you think he heard us?”
He smiled. “He notes each sparrow that falls, remember?”
She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face against his chest. They stayed that way for a long time.
I debated with myself for quite a while before writing that scene. Most romance writers don’t go anywhere near religion; they regard it as toxic to the dreamy hearts-and-flowers mood they want to set and sustain. Well, damn it all, I do — and I want my readers to know it means something more than Mass at Christmas and Easter.
Hypocrisy can be deadly. It reaches a catastrophic level when you’re trying to convey something of maximum importance to your kids. If they know from your observed behavior that you’re not sincere, they’ll give your preachments the same sort of token, cosmetic acceptance as you give your faith. The consequences are for you to imagine.
How to rescue Christmas from the merchandisers and the other secularizers? I can’t prescribe a sure-shot method. But don’t imagine you can delegate it to a “Sunday school.” It must begin in the home, with the parents – and note the BLEEP!ing plural. Mother and father must both take part; they must both be sincere believers; and they must both follow through. Christianity isn’t about faith alone, but about doing as He commanded us:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Remember that Second Great Commandment, and see to it that your kids appreciate it as fully as you do. Especially the critical word neighbor: “one who is near.” True charity must be, as far as possible, personal and difficult to misuse. Never give cash. Forget donations to the United Way; get involved with your parish charity pantry. Got any clothes you no longer wear – that aren’t terminally stained or “holey?”
That’s enough of a rant for the Fourth and last Sunday of Advent. Enjoy the Christmas season; He wouldn’t have it otherwise, even knowing the fate that was in store for Him. But do remember to mention Him over the turkey and cranberry sauce. Perhaps little Johnny and Jane will have a few questions for you afterward.
May God bless and keep you all.